My wife and I met in college, started dating, and never looked back. We were engaged my senior year and got married immediately after college. The biggest struggle in our marriage was discipleship. You begin asking, what does family discipleship look like practically? How can this be accomplished within the framework of two sinners living together in covenant?
Add kids into the mix and the question seems more complicated, right?
Family Discipleship Nine Years Later
My own story was one of gradual change through the constant and loving work of the Spirit. He frequently used basic, overlooked things to change my life. It took me a long time to put my arms around this truth.
During my senior year of college, I experienced a renewed passion for God. I was reading the Bible and couldn’t get enough of Jesus. I was asking questions and hearing God speak through his word and also enjoying intimate times of prayer. I was also introduced to some great books, which completely shifted the way I thought about the gospel and how it applied to me. In short, I experienced a complete paradigm shift in my Christian life. I wanted my wife to experience the same and my big question was how?
Before getting married, I read a dozen or more books on marriage. I felt ready, but old habits die hard. For much of my early Christian life I was legalistic. That sucked the joy right out of fellowship with God in his word and in prayer.
So how did I disciple my new wife? With a spoonful of gospel to help the legalism go down. I tried to force her to enjoy the same things I did. I would move beyond encouraging her and would make her feel guilty if she didn’t cross her t’s and dot her i’s.
This was disastrous not only for her but for me. The Spirit doesn’t work through coercion but by the power of the gospel (Romans 1:16-17). I felt discouraged. She felt badgered.
Fast forward almost seven years and one almost ruined marriage. It finally hit me. The Spirit works through ordinary means.
I had a grasp on a half-truth earlier in my marriage. The word and prayer are means of change through the power of the Spirit, but they are used as balm for the hurting soul not weapons to torture the weary soul.
A Family Feast
Now, I not only have my wife to disciple, I have three beautiful daughters. I keep asking myself, How can I share the love, joy, and intimacy I experience with God with my family? The answer may seem too simple, but for me, it was revolutionary.
I had been having my own personal feast with God through his word. I kept inviting my family, “Come join me. There’s food without price!” But I had rarely nourished my family. After I recently finished my yearly Scripture reading program, I decided to focus on a passage to meditate on what God had taught me. I read through Ephesians multiple times over the next two weeks.
As I was finishing Ephesians, Paul’s admonition to husbands struck me. He commends husbands to love their wives as Christ loves his bride “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27).
I asked myself, How does Christ nurture, care for, and cleanse his bride? The answer was simple - the Word. Next I had a conversation with myself that went something like this: You idiot. You’ve been feasting with God and telling your family how great this food tastes and how wonderful the fellowship was but you have never committed to nourish them.
Husbands, it’s not enough to model a loving relationship with Jesus and a consistent gospel piety. You have to share the fruit of the Spirit’s labor with your family.
You must read the Scripture with your family. Demonstrate the passion you have for the gospel in the pages of Scripture as you read. Pray that the Spirit would make the gospel stick to their bones.
The Spirit will work in our families by the same power, which he raised Christ from the dead. It’s that power which is evident in Scripture, because the words are God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Christ's word equips our families to live on mission within our communities, churches, and families.
A Gospel Foundation
Now how do we accomplish family discipleship in the real world of work, children, marriage, and church?
Paul’s gospel-saturated admonition in Philippians 2:3-9 has transformed the way I lead and has helped create a gospel culture in our home. Read it through slowly.
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.
First, Paul contrasts self-ambition with gospel sacrifice (vv. 2-3). Before he hears the groans about the impossibility of living out the truth of the gospel, Paul cuts the legs out from underneath that argument. The same gospel power which compelled Christ to die on the cross is now ours (“which is yours in Christ” [v. 5]). He matter of factly states, “This mindset is yours in Christ.” We are a new creation.
The Spirit taught me two principles in this passage. First, as a father and husband, I must model humility, and as a sinner, that model is most aptly seen in the way I humbly repent of my sins in front of my family. Do I bristle if my wife or even kids tell me how my unkind words hurt them? Am I too proud to admit my parenting failures to my daughters?
Second, (and this goes hand in hand) how will I respond when people graciously ask for my forgiveness? Will I make them pay? Or will I graciously forgive even as Christ graciously forgave me?
It’s easy when interacting with other sinners in such close quarters to make someone wait a few hours before you forgive them, but is that the mind that’s ours in Christ? Is that his example demonstrated in the gospel? Thankfully, the answer is no.
From One Weary Sojourner to Another
With that gospel foundation in place, here are some practical suggestions on family discipleship from one weary sojourner to another.
My daughters are growing up. First and foremost, we keep it fun and try to engage them. We use My 1st Book of Questions and Answers as a launching pad for teaching our children basic gospel truths (Also check out The Westminster Shorter Catechism Songs: The Complete CD Set and Starr Meade’s Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.)
Catechisms are like a skeleton. They hold the grand narrative in place.
We ask a couple questions. We don’t sweat it when things get busy and we miss a couple nights. With just over a hundred questions you can easily complete it multiple times throughout the year even missing multiple days. We also use The Jesus Storybook Bible to flesh out the skeleton. Sally Lloyd-Jones has done an excellent job making Jesus the hero of the grand narrative.
But the heartbeat of all of these helps is the gospel as told in Scripture. We don’t sit down and read through half the Bible. May just be a few verses. We ask basic questions about the story and try to place it within the big picture of the gospel.
Not every night, and sometimes not scheduled, we sing with our kids. Make it fun. My daughters love Sovereign Grace’s Walking with the Wise. We pump up the volume. We sing. We dance. We praise God. Nothing fancy. Remember Moses’s command was to talk about the greatness of God during the course of everyday life.
My normal pattern is to read through the Bible once in the year, and I now share the journey with my wife. I intentionally disciple my wife by washing her with the Word. Discussion naturally occurs because of the difficulty of many texts. Our general rule is to read together at least five days a week. That flexibility leaves room for disaster to strike (and it normally does). She reads a chapter. I read one. We read together around 20 minutes. That’s the length of one sitcom.
We also spend time together praying. We pray from Valley of Vision and then incorporate personal prayer out of these. These prayers are fertile gospel soil and will encourage you to pray to God honestly in the name of Jesus.
The Bible also provides a natural and comfortable setting for families to talk about a variety of topics. If you have emerging youngsters who have questions about anything from sex to homosexuality to bad stuff happening in the world and you don’t know how to breach these topics with them, just sit down and start reading the Bible together. It's the best conversation starter and ender.
In Genesis alone you might get questions like, Why does Jacob have more than one wife? What does sex mean? And what is the proper context for it? Why are these men trying to break down Lot’s doors? The grand narrative with its Hero is the only context where these discussions will be meaningful.
I have shared a lot of information from nine years worth of my own failures and success. Our family is changing through the steady work of the gospel in our hearts. Do not walk away from this discouraged. The gospel frees us from shame, guilt, and accusations.
Live in light of the gospel, which has so transformed your life. Understand life happens, and in your home everything won’t always be tidy. Sometimes both kids will be cranky, the washer will flood, and you will be so exhausted you can barely move. Take heart. “A bruised reed he will not break” (Is. 42:3).
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!