Editor's Note: Christian parents may faithfully take their children to church, teach them the gospel at home, and pray diligently for them and still some seem to leave Christianity as soon as they turn 18. Have the parents failed? Has God failed? How do we understand God's promises in light of children who seem to leave the faith? Michael Horton takes on this question in Episode 24 of Core Christianity Radio Show.
A lot of times Proverbs 22:6 is kind of used as a talisman, "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." Well, like all Proverbs, it's a general statement about the way things usually go. It's not a universal promise that if you do X, God will do Y. This isn't magic. We see this with Jacob and Esau. They were twins, raised in the same house, under the same covenant of grace, and yet Esau sold his birthright for a pot of stew.
Hebrews 4 warns us not to be like the generation in the wilderness that heard the gospel but didn't respond in faith. A little later in chapter six, he says, there are people who were baptized, take communion, even taste of the powers of the age to come, they regularly hear the Word of God, but they never embrace the promise for themselves. But we never know who will persevere to the end. God alone knows those who are his, Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:19.
We must also, remember, prodigals do return and discover the welcoming embrace of the Father who has never given up on them. Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. All of this just reminds us that faith is a gift and God's free to show mercy on whom he will show mercy.
As Paul reminds us in Romans 9:15, quoting Exodus. "Salvation is not in our hands. And I think Christian parents can feel guilty when a child strays: "but I guess we didn't do X enough." Or they could become angry with God, "I did do X, but hey, God, you didn't do Y." But this is a sort of works-righteousness as if we could save our kids by our works. Just invoke Proverbs 22:6 and God's obligated or we're obligated and we didn't do it. No, you’ve gotta leave the results to God, train them up in the way they should go. Leave the results to him.
Ordinarily raising our kids as children of the Lord in Christ, exposing them to the means of grace (preaching, baptism and the supper), will be the means God uses so that when they're old, they will not depart from it. But not always. We can't play God here. We can only trust in God's mercy, make use of the means of grace and pray that the Lord will lead his own sheep back to his sheepfold when they stray.
Adapted from an answer given in Episode 24 of Core Christianity.