My oldest daughter is made in her father’s image. She has my personality — good and bad. Maybe that’s why I get frustrated so easily with her. My knee jerk reaction is to respond swiftly and often in anger. So much of what frustrates me is more about my own hurt pride than anything else. We’ve all been in the store where the child is screaming - whether it’s your child or not. It’s easy as a parent to grit your teeth and smile and say something like “When we get home, you’re gonna get it!” and rush out of the store.
However, it’s much harder but much more beneficial for parents and children to patiently and loving discipline while using that as opportunity to share the gospel with our children. What’s even more important is what we do in the days and weeks and months leading up to these incidents. Those moments will impact our response and the discipline we give out.
I don’t have all the answers for disciplining children, but the gospel empowers us to patiently and loving use those moments and informs how we must disciple our children.
Foundational: The Gospel for All of Life
The gospel must inform all of our family life. Being Christian in name only must not be tolerated in our churches, families, and communities. We must not compartmentalize our lives. The death and resurrection of Christ is a dramatic climax in the one Story and that singular event should reverberate through out our own story. Moses understood something about this. God had just dramatically displayed his power and glory by delivering his people out of their slavery in Egypt. He then commanded them:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. - Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Your knee jerk reaction may be that’s Old Testament. But the story of Israel’s redemption out of Egypt is meant as a type of our own redemption (for more development on this theme read Mike Wilkerson’s Redemption or Tom Holland’s Contours of Pauline Theology). More importantly Deuteronomy is a packed full of gospel truth. Darrel Bock in his Deuteronomy NIVAC calls the book "the gospel according to Moses." Through Moses, God commands parents to rehearse his covenant faithfulness in redeeming his people from Egypt to their children. Likewise, we must rehearse the covenant faithfulness of God in redeeming the church by the blood of Christ.
This habit must be foundational for our family. The gospel story should saturate our family’s interactions - when we’re walking, hiking, eating, driving, helping with homework, and disciplining. It’s this foundational gospeling which allows us to weave our children’s story - both before their salvation and after - into the one Story.
Before their salvation we speak of the covenant faithfulness of God in Christ. We share our stories and give testimony of the power of God to save. We speak boldly about our former condition as those dead in our sins and the new life and power we have in Christ. We share that we are united with him - adopted as sons and daughter. We do not strive for peace and right-standing with God. He has justified us. We now live out of gratitude and joy by the power of the Spirit pursuing the holiness, which is ours in Christ.
We can also echo the one Story in the way we interact with our children in other ways. For instance, my older daughter’s birthday just passed, and we promised her we would go to the aquarium. She asked us many times in the days leading up to our trip if we were really going to the aquarium.
I'd ask her, “Did daddy promise we would go to the aquarium?”
“Yes,” she'd reply.
I then explained that when I promise her something I work as hard as I can to keep that promise. But guess who never breaks a promise? God. Even when daddy tries his best sometimes unexpected things happen. But nothing catches God off guard. He’s planned everything out in advance and is in control. And he’s promised that anyone who comes to him in the name of Jesus will not be turned away. He’s also promised that if you ask him to forgive your sins and place your trust in Christ that you will be adopted into his family.
We share these gospel truths and confidently tell our children these promises are their promises if they place their trust in Christ.
After their salvation, we remind them of the mind of Christ, which is theirs already (Philippians 2). We rehearse the promise of God in Christ and encourage them to lay hold of those promises in faith daily for encouragement as they struggle to walk worthy of their calling in Christ. Especially with children who may profess Christ early this is important. We do not point them back to a moment of time or the sincerity of their profession. We point them back to the promises of God. “God has said he would do this. Do you believe that promise? It’s yours then.”
What about Discipline?
At this point you may be asking. OK that’s well and good but what does this have to do with discipline? Paul admonishes the Ephesians:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. - Ephesians 6:1-4
First, Paul tells the children to obey the parents. This command is not a bare command. He’s not just saying kids obey because I said so. These household codes are connected with the gospel foundation he’s laid at the beginning of the book (Ephesians 1-3). Second, Paul tells the parents not to provoke the children to anger. Both commands are rooted in the gospel.
The instruction is what I’ve already laid out. It’s the daily gospeling. It’s the faithful living in light of that truth. Christian parenting should look like the faithful stewarding of our Lord’s children. We sacrificially serve him by disciplining them. They are first and foremost people created in his image, and if they are saved they are especially his bride. We should not lose sight of either of these truths.
What’s more. We do this particularly by not provoking them to anger. If the gospel doesn’t inform our parenting, it will be hard to love our children and discipline them with out expressing our frustration and anger. The gospel reminds us that our sins were serious enough to send Christ to the cross - preventing our anger from seeping out. But it also reminds us that our children’s sins are serious enough to require a Savior which informs the way we discipline.
If you do not rehearse the gospel story faithfully like Moses in Deuteronomy commands then when these volatile situations arise, sinner(s) (parents) plus sinner (children) will equal anger and frustration for both parties. However, if the gospel informs all of our family life then those truths will inevitably transform the way in which we discipline our children. It will prevent us from provoking them to anger and on the occasions where we do let our anger and frustration out, it allows us to ask for forgiveness admitting humbly it was a sin against God and them.
Practically, you might say something like “The way you treated your sister was very unkind. This is the type of sinfulness that Jesus died to save us from.” Insert appropriate discipline. “Now come sit with daddy and let me give you a hug and a kiss. I want to tell you that I love you even when you disobey and if you’ll place all your trust in Jesus he will take your dirty heart and give you a new heart so you no longer have to sin.”
Or for children who are saved, “The way you acted in the store was sinful. You acted selfishly. Jesus covered your sins on the cross and put your old dirty heart to death and gave you new life. Let’s pray that the Spirit would continue to transform your heart making you more like Christ.”
By God's grace, we can make discipline less about us and more about God. We must create an atmosphere in our homes where the gospel informs all of life - allowing the covenant love and faithfulness of God to impact the way we love our children. When that moment comes when our children disobey, the gospel is in the forefront of our mind and our children’s. We’ve already established our love for them which empowers us to approach them calmly and places our discipline in the context of all the gospeling we’ve already done.
It turns a potential powder keg for resentment and anger into a discipleship opportunity. An opportunity to share the gospel with our children instructing them through the discipline. And hopefully as they grow older, mature, and place their faith in Christ (if they haven’t already). These times will be a positive experience--which provides you leverage to speak the gospel into their lives as they have more difficult circumstances and life choices to make.
If we fail to disciple our children through gospel-centered discipline. If we do provoke them to anger, they will look back at these times of discipline with resentment and anger. They will distrust us and we may not have the opportunity or leverage to speak into their lives later. Don’t lose hope - it’s never too late. You can start discipling them now by asking for their forgiveness and then demonstrating how the gospel has and will impact your relationship with them moving forward. Don’t miss out on the joy of sharing the gospel with your children. The great commission starts in our homes.
Mathew B. Sims is the Editor-in-Chief at Exercise.com and has authored, edited, and contributed to several books including A Household Gospel, We Believe: Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms for Worship, A Guide for Advent, Make, Mature, Multiply, and A Guide for Holy Week. Mathew, LeAnn (his wife), and his daughters Claire, Maddy, and Adele live in Taylors, SC at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains with their Airdale Terrier. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA). Visit MathewBryanSims.com!