Children of Promise

Are you a fan of no-fault child-rearing? It seems to be getting more common, along with no-fault insurance and no-fault divorce. With no-fault insurance, the question of who caused an accident is ignored. With no-fault divorce, the question of who wrecked a marriage is ignored. And with no-fault child-rearing, the question of why a child goes bad is ignored. It’s assumed that parents have little control over how their kids turn out.

No-fault child-rearing has a strong appeal. It helps relieve guilt feelings about wayward children.  A no-fault mindset helps disappointed parents to avoid a sense of blame and shame.  Why shoulder blame for something that was out of your control? Why suffer shame for something that wasn’t your doing?

But no-fault child-rearing has a downside. It produces no-confidence child-rearing. Dad and Mom hope but don’t really expect the best. For them, rearing children is like going to a casino: parents want good luck, but bad luck seems just as likely, perhaps more likely. They have no solid ground for confidence that their children will turn out to be God-loving, Bible-believing, world-changing followers of Jesus Christ.

This no-fault, no-confidence approach to child-rearing is unhealthy and unbiblical. Child-rearing doesn’t have to be a desperate shot in the dark. In the Bible God promises his blessings to godly parents and their children for a thousand generations of those who love and obey him (Deuteronomy 7:9). This means that parents who trust God’s promises and obey his guidance can be confident that God will do great things in the lives of their children. By the same token, this means that if children are following a godless, ruinous path, parents need to examine themselves and their child-rearing practices very carefully to see if they have contributed to their children’s downfall.

When I challenge no-fault child-rearing, I’m not trying to heap another burden on parents whose hearts are already heavy over sons and daughters who are on the wrong path. The Bible says to weep with those who weep, not merely to tell them all the ways they blew it and make them feel even worse. If you have a son or daughter who is breaking your heart, I grieve with you and pray that God may yet work a miracle in your loved one’s life and put him or her on a new and better path.

Still, though it’s not up to me or anyone else to find fault with you, it’s important for you to examine yourself.  If there’s been something wrong with you and with your attitudes and actions in dealing with your children, then face the problem and deal with it. Don’t just take the no-fault approach. It’s vital for your own wellbeing to admit any sins and failings to God and seek his forgiveness. It may also change the way you relate to your children and help to rescue them from ruin. By examining whether you’re at fault, you may end up feeling more blame and shame than you would like. But you may also have growing confidence that the situation can be improved, that you can become more the parent God wants you to be, and that God may yet use you to transform your child’s life.

The opposite of no-fault child-rearing is high-expectation child-rearing. In high-expectation child-rearing, you have high expectations of God, high expectations for yourself as a dad or mom, and high expectations for your children. When I speak of high expectations, I don’t just mean high standards or objectives. I mean you truly expect and anticipate great things. You are confident that God is a great God. You are confident that God will make you a wise, godly parent. You are confident that God will make your children godly and mighty for him. How can you have such high expectations, such confidence? By hearing and believing God’s promises to you and your children, and by acting accordingly.

Believing Covenant Promises

The Bible reveals God as a covenant God. In a covenant, God makes promises based on his own character. He applies those promises to people who trust him and to their offspring. The Lord promised Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7). Once God establishes the covenant, people must respond by keeping his covenant. “As for you,” God told Abraham, “you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come” (Genesis 17:9). God said of Abraham, “I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Genesis 18:19). God wants a relationship not just with an individual for that person’s lifetime but with an entire household and line of offspring for many generations.

When Abraham’s descendants became a nation, God said through Moses, “You are the children of the Lord your God… Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2). “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10).

For a time God’s covenant included mainly the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But after the coming of Jesus, the covenant promises embraced not only Jews who trusted the Messiah but also people of many nations and backgrounds. God’s covenant is not just for Old Testament Israelites but for New Testament believers. In fact, “testament” means covenant; New Testament means “new covenant.” When Jesus gave the wine of the Lord’s Supper to his disciples, he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). It is “the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20). “Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22), “the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). This new and better covenant fulfills the earlier covenant with Abraham and brings many non-Israelites into Abraham’s family of faith. “If you belong to Christ,” says the Bible, “then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). You were “foreigners to the covenants of the promise… But now in Christ Jesus … you have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12). “It is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Romans 9:8).

The promises of the older covenant were not just for individuals but also for households and future generations, and so are the promises of the newer covenant. Jesus’ blessed mother Mary said, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). The apostle Peter preached of Christ and told people, “You are heirs of the covenant God made with your fathers” (Acts 3:25). On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came with power on Jesus’ followers, and Peter urged people to repent of their sins, be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “The promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39), he said.

As the good news of Jesus continued to spread, it didn’t just reach an individual here or there. The Bible reports entire households being saved and baptized (Acts 16:15; 1 Corinthians 1:16, 16:15). When someone asked, “What must I do to be saved?” he was told, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household.” Then “he and all his family were baptized” (Acts 16:31, 33). All through the Bible God makes promises to believers and their children.

That’s why God’s people can echo the confidence of the biblical writer who said, “The children of your servants will live in your presence; their descendants will be established before you” (Psalm 102:28). Mothers and fathers who rear children based only on their own wisdom and ability have little reason for confidence. “But,” says the Bible, “from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children–with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts” (Psalm 103:17-18).

God’s promises don’t apply to every name in the phone book or even to every name in the church directory, says Douglas Wilson in his book Standing on the Promises. God’s loving promises are for those who revere the Lord as their Savior and supreme authority, keep his covenant and live by his Word. If you ignore God, you come under curses instead of blessings. And even if you yourself know and love the Lord, your children may miss out if you don’t follow God’s commands for training covenant children.

But if you love the Lord and train your children in his covenant, they will indeed be children of promise. Be confident that God will bless you and them. The Bible says, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in his commands. His children will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed” (Psalm 112:1-2).

Why muddle along with no-confidence, no-fault child-rearing? The covenant promises of God provide confidence, and the covenant commands of God provide accountability and guidance for how those promises come true. If you have no idea how to train children and no expectation that your efforts will pay off, you might see no point in even trying. But if you have God’s guidance and promises, you have every reason to expect that godly child-rearing will pay off.

Establishing Covenant Homes

Training covenant children begins with living by God’s covenant yourself. Believe the good news of eternal life through faith in Jesus. Trust God’s promises, and commit yourself and your family to him. Say with the biblical hero Joshua, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). You can say those words even if you don’t yet have a family. Become a covenant keeper yourself, with determination that if God gives you a spouse and children in the future, your family will be God’s family.

Training covenant children involves partnership with God and also partnership with your spouse. According to the Bible, God wants a godly man to marry a godly woman and stay married for life because the Lord is “seeking godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15). If you’re a Christian but you choose to marry someone who doesn’t follow Christ, you violate God’s covenant and make it harder to raise godly offspring. If you end a marriage through divorce, you also make it harder to raise children of promise. Marriage is a sacred covenant. When parents break covenant with each other, it wounds children and increases the likelihood that they will break covenant with God. So make sure you marry a fellow follower of Jesus, and then stay married.

But what if you’re already married to a non-Christian? Or what if you’ve already split from your children’s other parent? Well, you can’t undo the past. But you can recognize that such failings have put your children at a huge disadvantage. Your home has strayed a long way from God’s ideal of a faithful covenant family that trains children in the way they should go. Confess this to God. Ask him to help you make the best of a bad situation, to bless your children despite their parents’ failings, and to make you as good a covenant parent as possible from now on.

Still, even though God often brings good even out of evil, it remains true that a home is most likely to produce godly offspring when both parents are committed to the Lord and committed to each other for life. Training children doesn’t begin with this or that technique from a book about raising superstar kids. The training begins before the children are even born, when a man and woman commit themselves to the Lord Jesus and to each other. A home built on God’s covenant and the marriage covenant is in a great position to train covenant children, confident that God will establish those children in faith and make them strong for him.

Cultivating Covenant Children

Confidence in God doesn’t mean, however, that faithful, strong children appear as if by magic. God seldom uses a sudden, sensational miracle to fulfill his promises to believers and their children. God works through godly parents. God’s promises are not meant to relieve parents of their responsibilities but to help them carry out their responsibilities gladly, believing that their efforts to cultivate faith and obedience in their children will bear splendid fruit. Our children are worth cultivating because they are marvelous blessings from God, and our work as parents is worth doing because it is an instrument in the hand of God.

If you are a father or mother, then your children are your top priority assignment from the Lord. The Bible commands fathers to bring up children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The father, as the head of the home, takes the lead in cultivating faith and character in his children. This can’t be done by a man so absorbed in his career or his golf game that he spends only brief snatches of time with his children. Children are too valuable to neglect, and God’s truths are too important to ignore or to squeeze into a few minutes of spare time. “Teach them to your children,” says the Bible, “talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 11:19). Covenant fathers make time for children and time for God’s Word.

Fathers aren’t meant to be alone in training children, of course. Mothers play a vital part. In a healthy covenant home, while a godly father takes the lead and sets the spiritual tone, a mother joins her husband in training the children, and she runs many everyday aspects of home life. The Bible advises young women “to marry, to have children, to manage their homes” (1 Timothy 5:14). It may sound old-fashioned, but it’s true: family matters more than career. A married woman must make her husband and children a higher priority than any other opportunity.

Meanwhile, older women who have successfully reared their own children should be ready to share what they’ve learned. “Then,” says the Bible, “they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:4-5). The real experts on being good mothers are not the so-called experts with degrees and diplomas in child psychology. The real experts are godly older women who know the Bible and know from experience how to deal with children at various ages and stages. If Grandma’s own kids grew up to be obedient, productive followers of Jesus, then let Grandma share her wisdom with her daughters and with other young mothers. A veteran mother usually knows more about child-rearing than a professor who spends more time in a clinic than in a kitchen.

There are a variety of settings for women to use their abilities, but no setting is more important than her own home. If you pursue a career just because you want to get out of the house and away from your kids, then don’t be shocked if your kids wander away from you. If young mothers are too busy to be with their children, and if older women are too busy to mentor young mothers, then they are neglecting God’s call and neglecting God’s children. But when a godly young mom joins forces with a godly grandma or another wise older women, then the womanly wisdom of past generations becomes God’s blessing on the next generation.

Now, before you say this emphasis on women in the home is old-fashioned and chauvinistic, don’t forget what we saw earlier from the Bible about fathers teaching and training children. Men must place kids before career. The old stereotype of men at work and women at home was wrong, not because women should get out of the home and into the workplace, but because men should be less obsessed with the workplace and more involved in the home. The radical feminists got it backward. Let’s not make women more job-oriented; let’s make men more family-oriented. God calls mothers and fathers to treasure their children and to place their instruction and training above any other task.

Even the high calling to lead a church and preach God’s Word cannot come before a man’s family. In fact, the Bible says that a man should not be a pastor or an elder at all if doesn’t train his own children well. A leader in the church, says the Bible, must be “a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient” (Titus 1:6). “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” (1 Timothy 3:4-5).

In an age of no-fault child-rearing, churches often look the other way if a leader’s children are unbelieving or rebellious. But churches built on God’s Word insist that a man should be a leader only if he is respected most by those who know him best. A man who throws himself totally into his work, even if it’s church work, is unfit to be a church leader.  A covenant father must be able to lead his own children to Christ and nurture them in godly obedience. If he can’t do that with his own family, he will not be a good example or an effective leader in God’s family.

Now, if it’s true that even the high calling of church leadership is no excuse for a man to neglect his children, how much less is any other job or career and excuse for fathers and mothers to neglect their children. When a man and woman have a baby, they have kindled a spark than cannot be put out, a soul that will last for eternity, either in joy or sorrow. Godly parents will therefore place the training of their children higher than any other obligation or any other pleasure.

High Expectations

Covenant parents should have high expectations for their children but not because their children are naturally wise or well-behaved. Babies may be cute, but every baby is born with a foolish, rebellious nature. Covenant parents have strong reason to expect that their children will become wise for salvation and obedient to God’s Word, but only because of God’s promises and through patient, loving instruction and discipline.

The Bible speaks of a young man named Timothy. His mother and grandmother were people of faith, and Timothy also had a living faith (2 Timothy 1:5). How did this faith take root in Timothy? He knew the character of those who taught him, and he knew the Holy Scriptures which they taught him ever since he was a baby. This constant, lifelong training in God’s Word made him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:16). God uses the godly life, the earnest prayers, and the biblical teaching of covenant parents to create faith in children of promise. In covenant families, the new birth into faith seldom happens in a sudden, striking experience. The parents and child may never be able to pinpoint the exact moment when the Holy Spirit took charge of the child’s heart, but the reality will be evident in the child’s faith, love, and desire to serve the Lord.

Godly training of children is not limited to example and instructions. It also includes discipline. The Bible says, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child [even a covenant child of promise], but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). I don’t know any dad or mom who would say, “I hate my kids. What can I do to destroy them and bring their souls to eternal death in hell?” But according to the Bible, failing to restrain and punish disobedient children is as damaging as if you hated and deliberately tried to destroy them. “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24). “Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death” (Proverbs 19:18). Godly discipline shows a child that sin is wrong and brings painful consequences. God uses such discipline to help them choose the path of life.

Parents must not be grouches who easily lose their temper and lash out at their children, but they must also not be permissive. Set biblical boundaries within which children can flourish. Be a joyful, self-controlled parent, even as you show enough backbone to punish disobedience and rebellion. And when the discipline is over, it’s over. The child is cleansed and forgiven. You can get back to enjoying each other’s company. A happy home is not one where parents draw no boundaries and impose no punishments. A happy home is where parents are firmly in charge, and children know they are being taught and disciplined to live in the Lord’s ways. The Bible says, “Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul” (Proverbs 29:17).

In every aspect of child-rearing, joyfully invest yourself in training children God’s way, and you have every reason to expect success. Those who don’t know the Lord may be confused and fear their efforts won’t make any difference in the lives of their children. But if you know God through Jesus Christ, you have promises to count on and a covenant to keep. Your main goal is not to raise a star athlete, a concert performer, an academic whiz, or the most popular kid in the class. Expect more. Expect your children to become God-loving, Bible-believing, world-changing dynamos who are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children for a thousand generations.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.