Reflections on Parenting as Gospel Ministry

Recently, the church I pastor, Sycamore Baptist Church, began a small group specifically devoted to parenting. The group is designed to encourage and equip parents to parent from a gospel-centered perspective rather than a man-centered perspective. To that end, we are studying Christ-Centered Parenting. Before we began the Christ-Centered Parenting material, we watched a talk Paul Tripp gave at The Gospel Coalition Conference entitle Parenting as Gospel Ministry. Tripp does a good job convicting parents, as well advocating for a gospel-centered approach to parenting. After the talk, however, I had several parents ask me in not so many words to put some feet to the material he covered. Of course, I attempted to do that but in thinking about those conversations on the ride home, I felt I left them with more questions than answers. So here is my second attempt after further reflection.

The Points

Tripp makes three major points in his talk:

  1. We must be willing to confess our own inabilities and need for God’s grace.
  2. We must realize that we are God’s ambassadors.
  3. We must seek our identity in Jesus not our children.

In his talk, he fleshes these points out, while providing a healthy dose of conviction along the way. As I thought about these points in relation to how we are to parent our children, I realized they provide a good model for us to follow in the heat of the parenting moment. Here is what I mean. When you approach your child, you should not only do so as an ambassador for Christ, speaking the truth of God’s Word into their lives, but you should also be willing to confess to your child your own struggle with the sin they are exhibiting. So for instance, if your child is being unloving to their sibling, you may approach them and say something like:

  • I understand it is not natural for us to love one another (you acknowledge the sin with which they are struggling).
  • I don’t always want to love others (you confess your own struggle with that sin).
  • But God has called us to love (you provide God’s biblical teaching).
  • In John 13:34 Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as He has loved us (you ground God’s teaching in Scripture).
  • The love Jesus exhibited was a self-sacrificial love. He gave Himself for us so that we might have the opportunity to have a relationship with God (you preach the gospel).
  • Without Jesus changing our heart, so that we love God, we will never be able to love others as God has called us to (you continue to preach the gospel, showing their inability to keep God’s command without Jesus first changing their heart)
  • After exposing their heart and need for Jesus, you provide an appropriate punishment or means of discipline.

That’s the Ideal, but Life’s Not Ideal

At this point, some of you are reading the list above and thinking, “That’s great, that’s the ideal, but life doesn’t usually happen in the ideal. What do I do then?” Point taken. The ideal can’t happen every time, I get that. I also get that some of your children aren’t old enough to understand all the concepts I’ve listed above. In those times, I think it is appropriate to do what the situation or age of your child allows.

Stepping Stone Approach

So say your child is young. They can’t stay engaged through all of the above steps, or they might not even be able to understand what you are trying to communicate. At that point, I believe we need to take a stepping stone approach.

In our backyard, we have stepping stones from our back porch to the trampoline. In order for our kids to get to the trampoline they must walk that path, stepping on each stone along the way. Each stone they step on gets them closer to their goal of reaching the trampoline. We need to view our parenting as the same. Instead of leaping to the trampoline, we need to walk the path stepping on each stone along the way. When your kids are young, you may only step one or two stones in. As they grow in their understanding, you may take a few more steps. As they grow more and more, you keep going in the same manner until you have reached your goal of helping them fully understand their heart motives in a grace and love driven way.

So for example, if your child has a problem with sharing. You may tell them that God calls us to share with one another. When we don’t share, we are being unloving and unkind.

Or if they are hitting their brother or sister, you may tell them that God calls us to be kind and loving to one another. Hitting your brother or sister is not kind and loving.

Or when you tell your child to say they are sorry, yet you can tell they aren’t. You may say, “I see that you are not sorry. Let me pray that God would change your heart and help you to see the right way to treat others and when we don’t treat others rightly we should be sorry for our actions.”

I know it’s simplistic, but when our kids are young, they need something simple. As well as we have to remember that our ministry to our kids should take a stepping stone approach.

Parenting is an opportunity to help your children see why they are doing what they are doing.

Parenting is more than bending your child’s will and activity to your own will. Certainly, we all have house rules we want our children to follow. There is wisdom in that, especially rules that are based off Scripture. But those rules are not their for the rules sake, just as the Law is not there for the Law’s sake. The Law in the Bible exists to show us our inability to keep it, as well as to point out our sin. The same with the rules in your house. Not only do they serve to provide structure, but they are there to show your child their inability to keep the rules, as well as to teach them what is sin. So don’t take rule breaking as an offense, instead see it as an opportunity to help your child see why they are doing what they are doing.

Your child didn’t load the dishwasher, clean up their room, or take out the trash when told because they have an authority issue. So when that time comes, instead of yelling at them in a fit of rage because it’s the fifth time this week they haven’t done their chores on time, you need to take the opportunity to point out to your child their issue with authority. And not just your authority, but ultimately God’s authority.

Parenting is an opportunity to point your children to Jesus.

As parents, we are to point our children to Jesus. But before we can point them to Jesus, they, just like us, need to see their need for Jesus. They need to understand they are sinners who need a Savior. The only way they are going to understand they are sinners is if we point out their sin in a loving, kind, graceful, and consistent manner. Hence, the suggestion to consistently point them back to what God’s Word says, even when they are young. As we point out their sin, we point them to Jesus. We may or may not do that in the moment. Other times of discipleship occur throughout the day. Reading the Bible with your children is one such time. Regardless of when you do it, our job as parents is to point our children to Jesus. He is the only One who can ultimately produce change in them, because He is the only One who can change their heart (mind, will, emotions, feelings, desires).

Parents, Respond Appropriately

Along with driving your kids back to the Bible and Jesus, we, as parents, need to make sure we are responding appropriately in the moment. Instead of flying of the handle in a fit of rage, we need to lovingly, yet assertively address them and their behavior. As well as we need to dispense the appropriate discipline, not being too harsh or too easy. Before we discipline, we need to explain to them the reason they are being disciplined and how much discipline they are receiving.

So for instance, we often give our kids a pop on the bottom when they misbehave. Before you call CPS on me for child abuse, the pops we give are not meant to hurt. Instead they are meant to get their attention. Before we pop them, we make it a point to talk to them and tell them how many pops they will receive and why. Afterwards, we always make sure to give them a hug and tell them that we love them. In doing so, we are attempting to mirror our heavenly Father’s discipline of us. God never disciplines us in a fit of rage. He doesn’t stop loving us in the moment. Nor does He walk away so that we feel shunned, disowned, or that we have to win His favor back. No, He disciplines us out of His grace, mercy, and love for us (Heb. 12:6). We should discipline our children in the same way because we are God’s ambassador. As His ambassadors, it is our job to model to our kids our heavenly Father’s response to us when we sin against Him.

It is about your heart

I believe Tripp drives hard at the parent’s heart instead of providing a list of techniques because it’s important our heart be right before we can deal with the heart of our kids in a biblical way.

Salvation

As parent’s, we must believe that we are saved by Jesus’ righteousness instead of our own. In other words, we must believe we do nothing to attain or maintain our own salvation. If we don’t, we will expect our kids to live a righteous life. That expectation will always lead to disappointment and frustration, because our kids, just like us, do not have the ability to manufacture a righteous life in and of themselves. Along with frustrating ourselves and our kids, we will end up producing self-righteous Pharisees who ultimately don’t see their need for Jesus.

Change

Closely related to the last, as parent’s, we must see God as the One who has and is bringing about change in our life through the Work of the Holy Spirit. If we don’t recognize that is how change comes about, we will try to change our kids in the same way we are trying to change ourself – through behavior modification. That mentality will lead to any number of parenting methods that are not healthy. We may try to bring about change through fear based parenting, will breaking parenting, or materialistic motivational parenting. While each of these may bring about the desired effect in the moment, they don’t address the heart, nor do they bring about long-term change.

Identity

As parent’s, we must find our identity in Christ, recognizing that we are God’s children and ambassadors. If we don’t, we may try to find our identity in our kids, which ultimately places a  burden on them they are not meant to bear. Also, if we don’t find our identity in Christ, we won’t be able to point our kids away from their own identity struggles to Christ.

So, when approaching parenting from a gospel-centered perspective, we must realize that parenting is first about our own heart. We must deal with it first before dealing with our kid’s heart. I know that makes parenting more difficult and time-consuming than we might have first thought, but we have to be willing to do the hard work of learning and dealing with ourselves so that we can deal biblically and gracefully with our kids. Remember, we must take the plank out of our own eye before we can take the speck out of another’s (Matt. 7:5). A few resources you may find helpful in dealing with your own heart, and in turn your child’s is:

Questions for Reflection

  1. What am I missing? What questions do you still have?
  2. Are you practicing gospel-centered parenting or man-centered parenting?
  3. What do you see as your goal in parenting?
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