Raising Christ-like Children

It is a sobering thought: today’s little children will soon be grown. Before that they will develop patterns that will shape the rest of their lives. God’s people have a massive calling to nurture God’s children. But the reality of growing children should also excite us to the potential of little image bearers to glorify and enjoy God as they mature.

So how can parents and Christ’s broader body help children become Christ-like? We can start by understanding how Christ matured. The Holy Spirit gave this progress report on Jesus’ transition from childhood to adulthood: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Studying this picture helps us see both a pattern for the maturity of our children and an encouragement to trust God for the growth he desires.

A Picture of Spiritual Growth

As Jesus aged he grew in stature. He got taller. His voice deepened. He grew facial hair, like every boy, slow and struggling at first. His muscles toned; he could do harder work longer. His mind sharpened; he could wrestle with deeper thoughts. In his incarnation Jesus humbly embraced the total human experience including the need to grow and learn. His human nature was capable of growth even though his divine nature could not increase. And as he matured physically, he grew intellectually, spiritually, and socially.

Jesus grew in wisdom.

Jesus the man practiced more mature wisdom than Jesus the child. Jesus could have said with Paul, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 13:11). Jesus’ early intellectual childishness wasn’t beset by sin but it was capable of maturity.

Jesus grew in favor with God.

Luke previously reported that as the child grew “the favor of God was upon him” (2:40). So how did Jesus increase in God’s favor? God didn’t start to love his Son more. Instead, as the faculties of his human soul grew more capable Jesus became more able to know his Father’s love. At his baptism, the Father said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). These words meant more to Jesus in his thirties than when he was a child.

Jesus grew socially, in favor with people.

Those who weren’t blinded by jealousy admired Jesus. Great crowds “heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). They could see that he “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). Those who most treasured his righteousness, both women and men, became his closest friends (John 15:14–15).

Luke 2:52 is a flawless progress report of true maturity.

A Pattern of Spiritual Growth

Our maturity process is the recovery of the image of Christ, the ideal person. Our maturity should reflect his.

As with Jesus we want our children to grow in stature. We share pictures of their physical milestones: sitting up, walking, potty training, first day of school, driver license, first job. But physical growth should be matched with spiritual growth. We should be sensitive to phases of childhood maturity; we should not expect of little children what we expect of older children (and vice versa). But throughout their development we can emphasize three vital goals for the nurture of God’s children.

Help children develop wisdom.

Children need to learn wisdom because people are born with foolish hearts (Prov. 22:15). True wisdom begins with the fear of God. Children need to see God as the goal of their progress. Everything they learn makes sense only because of God. And because of God there is a wise way of doing everything.

Help children grow in favor with God.

The word for “favor” can be translated in a host of lovely ways: grace, joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, good will, loving-kindness. We should do everything in our power to help children sense God’s favor, the mercy he shows those who take refuge in Jesus. Our children will be most like Jesus when they can say with Jesus: my father loves me! (John 10:17).

Help children grow in favor with people.

Luke suggests no tension between the spiritual and the social; between loving God and loving our neighbor. Both are vital. And Jesus wasn’t the exception. Samuel too “continued to grow … in favor with the Lord and also with man” (1 Sam. 2:26). Children practice pure religion before God by the horizontal expressions of loving their neighbor and resisting the world’s temptations (James 1:27).

The Power for Spiritual Growth

Spiritual growth is hard work. Luke’s verb (“And Jesus increased”) is not placid. Jesus didn’t increase the way a river rolls through a meadow. Picture instead explorers hacking through a dense jungle. Jesus matured through strenuous effort. He learned obedience through suffering (Heb. 5:8). He battled trials with trust.

Jesus became an infant, then a child, then a youth, to champion the possibility of human godliness. The gospels invite us to watch Jesus mature. The helpless baby, born in poverty to a young mother, became a child eager to engage his Father’s business. The child matured in wisdom. He came to know his Father’s deep love for him. He invested in this world by giving and receiving love. He died sacrificially so that sinners could befriend God. He now beckons young children, teenagers, and adults to follow him (1 John 1:6) in the painful but rewarding pursuit of maturity.

God wants us to expect him to empower our maturity. God’s covenant people—that gathering of believers and their children—“are promised deliverance from sin through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit who works faith” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 74). To the church God pledges to work “in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ” (Heb. 13:21). And we know what that looks like; we’ve seen it in Jesus. We can expect the same Spirit that worked in Jesus to work also in his people (Rom. 8:11).

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