"I will obey good today, Mommy!" At first glance, this phrase is endearing and praise worthy. In response to this sentence I have told my child, "That's great, Honey!" I have even put my hope into this sentence as I am shuffling my three kids out the door, believing that it will be a little less chaotic because my kids are going to behave. But, at the heart of this phrase, is an incorrect theology. When my children say this, it is often after I have pleaded with them in times of correction: “Please, just try to be good! Try to behave! Try to have self-control.” There are two problems with this:
1. I should never plead with my children. God has established that children are to submit to their parents, not the other way around (Ephesians 6:1).
2. When I ask my kids to try harder and to be good, what I am actually communicating is a false gospel. I am telling them that if they try hard enough, they can earn favor with me and ultimately, I am saying that they can earn righteousness before God. I call this a false gospel because it is in direct conflict with what the Bible teaches about salvation.
What is the Gospel?
The Bible teaches that no one is good, not one (Romans 3:10). It says that we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). No one can perform well enough, work hard enough, or be good enough to be saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Bible is very clear on the condition of the human heart: we are sinners unable to save ourselves. But, Jesus can. He is the perfect One who died on the cross for our sins. He made it possible for us to be saved: “Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Salvation is by faith alone in the only One mighty enough to save. I believe this is true for me, yet I often teach my children something different. In Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s book, Give Them Grace, they state it this way:
Most of us are painfully aware that we’re not perfect parents. We’re also deeply grieved that we don’t have perfect kids. But the remedy to our mutual imperfections isn’t more law, even if it seems to produce tidy or polite children. Christian children (and their parents) don’t need to learn to be “nice.” They need death and resurrection and a Savior who has gone before them as a faithful high priest, who was a child himself, and who lived and died perfectly in their place. They need a Savior who extended the offer of complete forgiveness, total righteousness, and indissoluble adoption to all who believe. This is the message we need. We need the gospel of grace and the grace of the gospel. Children can’t use the law anymore than we can, because they will respond to it the same way we do. They’ll ignore it or bend it or obey it outwardly for selfish purposes, but this one thing is certain, they won’t obey it from the heart, because they can’t. That’s why Jesus had to die (17).
We can’t do it, we can’t save ourselves, but Jesus can. It is by faith in the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, that we are saved. He alone rescues, redeems, and restores us to God through his sin-crushing, life-producing death on the cross for our sins.
It’s Not About Morals
With the foundation of the gospel in mind, I would ask, what is the goal of Christian parenting? Is it to have the perfect family with children who are well-behaved, who remember to say please and thank you, and never make a mistake? This is where so many of us go wrong. Motivated by our own sinful hearts and idols, we focus on the outward behavior of our children rather than on their hearts. In fact, the Bible warns us to not “provoke our children to anger” (Ephesians 6:3), yet this is the very thing that will happen when we discipline our children wrongly. When our correction is motivated by anything other than the gospel, (i.e. when we are embarrassed, angry, hurt, disappointed, etc.,) we are not instructing our children in the Lord, rather we are punishing children for not meeting our expectations and for not making us look good. We are motivated by worship of self and not of God. If our goal is well-behaved children for the glory of self, this is sin, and parents, we must repent.
So, what is the goal of Christian parenting? The goal is not to have perfect children, but to have children who see their need for the Perfect One. God uses the law for this purpose:
We are commanded to give them the law so that they will be crushed by it and see their need for a Savior. The law won’t make them good. It will make them despair of ever being good enough, and in that way it makes them open to the love, sacrifice, and welcome of their Savior, Jesus Christ (Fitzpatrick/Thompson 36).
The law is meant to point us to Christ. Our hope should be that our children will hear the law and see that they are sinners, that they are not good enough, but that Jesus is. The answer is Jesus. That is what we want to give our kids. That is what our hope should be for them: that they will follow Jesus and treasure him.