All Christian parents desire the spiritual well-being of their children. We want our children to be Christians, to get saved, to know God; however we express it, we want our children to be part of the company of the redeemed. We yearn for the blessing of God's covenant grace to be on our children. This longing to see one generation follow another in knowing God motivates the training and instruction of our children. Psalm 78:3-7 (ESV) captures it:
Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and teach to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.
We declare God's mighty acts to the next generation (Ps. 145) because we long for our children to know the grace we have known. We teach God's ways so that our sons and our son's sons will follow God (Deut. 6).
Moved by this passion, Christian parents also long for assurance that their children will grow up Christian. I have been asked hundreds of times all over the globe, "If I do all the things you teach in Shepherding a Child's Heart, will my children grow up to be Christians? Doesn't the Bible teach that if we raise them right, our children will walk in God's ways? Doesn't God's covenant guarantee they will be saved?"
How can we think about these things? Why do some children raised in Christian homes grow up loving God, while others, sometimes from the same home, turn away? In answering this question, we must identify two issues that have an impact on the persons our children become: the shaping influences of their lives and the Godward orientation of their hearts.
Shaping influences are those events and circumstances in a child's developmental years that prove to be catalysts for making him the person he is. There is a clear biblical warrant for acknowledging the lifelong implications of early childhood experience. The major passages dealing with family (Deut. 6, Eph. 6, and Col. 3) presuppose the importance of shaping influences they include your faithfulness as a parent, the consistency of correction and discipline in your home, your nurture, your teaching of Christian truth, your family times in God's word, even the ways you demonstrate spiritual vitality before your children.
Your children interact with every shaping influence you provide on the basis of the Godward orientation of their hearts. Here is what I mean: your children are covenantal beings. Humanity is essentially religious; no one is truly neutral even our children worship either Jehovah or idols. All of us filter the experiences of life through a religious grid.
In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the truth of God revealed in creation leaves all mankind without excuse. All human beings respond to this revelation in creation; they either worship God or, in the words of Romans 1, they "exchange the truth for a lie and worship and serve created things." Fallen humans refuse to acknowledge and submit to the things God has made plain in the creation. Paul further observes that when people know God in the creation and do not glorify him, they fall into futile thinking that leads to idolatry.
The Godward orientation of the heart ultimately determines how your children will respond to the truth you teach them. If they bow before idols rather than God, they will reject your best efforts at training them in his ways.
Proverbs 9:7-10 shows us that there are two different ways children respond to correction, rebuke, instruction, and teaching. One is the response of the wise or righteous child. He loves his instructor; he grows wiser; he increases in his learning. The other fellow the mocker, the wicked child responds with hatred, insults, and abuse. What accounts for the difference? "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight." Wisdom determines how a child responds to correction. Your children are never neutral in response to your parenting but always active. Whatever they do with God, whatever they determine to worship and serve, will determine how they respond to your parenting efforts. Two children from the same home may respond in very different ways to the same parenting style. That's why it is not possible to provide a guarantee that if you get it right, children will respond with faith.
The desire for such assurances is easily understood. From the time your first child is born, you realize you will never have a happy day if your child is unhappy. The parents' love creates a longing for their child to thrive and flourish. That desire takes on eternal significance when we think of our children's immortality. The idea that they could go into eternity without God is unbearable for any believing parent. So we long for assurance that there is something we can do that will guarantee their everlasting joy and happiness in the presence of God.
I recall how sobering these thoughts were to me as a young father. I realized that as a fallen man I had passed on to my young children a nature that is fallen and corrupt, but I could not pass on to them the grace of forgiveness and new life in Christ. I remember thinking that each day as I taught my children the Scriptures I gave them the truth that would either be their salvation or increase their accountability before God, for to whom much is given much will be expected.
Child Salvation by (Parental) Works?
We cannot save our children. We don't like to face that. We long for some guarantee, some assurance that if we do the right things they will turn out all right. But in some ways, it is a relief to face that reality. If you think of it, the idea that we must save them through our good works is a pressure no parent can bear. It hinges our children's eternal destiny on our ability to perform.
We have to be able to represent God in all his glory, teach them adequately, be a vibrant example of true spirituality, and we have to do it all flawlessly or our children will be forever lost. The fact is that I failed as a parent. Too often my pride and self-righteousness got in the way. I personalized my children's sins as if they were sins against me and not against God. I was inconsistent, sometimes capricious, too busy, too concerned about me, too blind to the idols of my heart.
What Are We to Do?
Then why bother? If I cannot be assured that good biblical parenting will produce saved children, why bother? Why work so hard at the parenting task? Why read books on parenting, why work so hard on the ways we structure family life and the effort we put into things like family worship, faithfulness in church, and careful, timely, appropriate discipline?
We do these things because it is our calling as God's redeemed people. Ephesians 6:4 says we should bring up our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Deuteronomy 6 says that God's words are to be upon our hearts and impressed diligently upon our children. We do these things out of love for God. It is our delight to obey God and to teach his ways to our children. His grace makes us delight in him and his law in our inmost being (Rom. 7:22).
Parents often ask, "What hope then is there for my kids, if I cannot get them into the Kingdom by my faithful parenting? What's my hope?" Our hope is not our fidelity to the law of good parenting but to the power of the gospel. Our hope is the wonder of grace. Our hope is that God has placed our children in our home and has given us the one true answer for our kids' most profound needs.
God has put them in a family where they are confronted with their sin and the goodness of the One who came into the world to save sinners. Every day I am bringing grace to my children. I have the opportunity to model the grace of the gospel by honestly confessing my own failures and responding to their failures with gracious discipline and discipling. They daily hear the word of God. We know that faith comes by hearing.
Each week we gather where the church sings God's praises, and they hear God's people pray and listen to the word of God preached. They are confronted with the vibrant reality of the worshiping church, interpreting life through the lens of Scripture. Historically, God has used these means to bring people to faith, and so I pray week by week that God will, through these means, shine his light into their hearts, giving them the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
There was a mother whom I was privileged to serve in the church. She prayed for her son's salvation. She prayed for fifty-eight years without giving way to unbelief, but she died without seeing him come to faith. Within several years of her death, however, God brought her son to see his need for grace and to embrace Christ and his saving grace. Her prayers were answered even though she did not live to see the answer.
This hope will seem insufficient to the one who is looking for performance guarantees. But this is a realistic hope that keeps me on my knees before God, beseeching him to do in and for my children what I cannot do myself. It keeps me humble in prayer, asking God to use the means he has appointed. It keeps me casting myself on his grace and mercy. It makes me a humble supplicant before the sovereign God of grace. My encouragement is not that I can get it right but that God is a willing, able, powerful Savior of sinners.