Sanctification—the way God works to resolve sin in the life of the believer—is evident in Scripture. Similarly, so is the utter pervasiveness of sin in the life of a nonbeliever.
But, for some reason, when we talk about childrearing—about discipline, about “good parenting,” and “good kids”—our theology often gets a little wobbly.
Per my parents’ stories, I was a well-disciplined, obedient child, and I fully expected that our children would immediately be equally so. I remember confidently telling a friend when I was a teenager, “well, my children are not going to smear poop on their crib!” And she—she with little siblings while I had none—laughed at me. She knew what was to come!
Reality was not what I had expected.
Then there was this little ball of fire that called itself daughter the first.
She didn’t smear any poop, but she stomped her feet, threw herself on the floor in mad fits, repeatedly did things I had sternly told her not to do, wouldn’t sleep by herself at night, and screamed at me when I tried to get through to her, “I WANT TO BE BAD!!!”
It was awful. We were doing everything we knew how to do in order to get her to be good, and yet… she was rotten! And I could just feel the judgment in the eyes of everyone with angelic children, or I certainly did a good job of imagining it. Surely, we weren’t being consistent enough. We weren’t being severe enough. She was ruling the roost, etc. I felt both the heavy weight of others’ eyes, and of my own feelings of failure at parenting.
We kept trying. We kept pushing the Gospel at her. We kept praying. We kept parenting.
One day, God worked. One day, she suddenly caught interest in pleasing Jesus, and following Him, and the child has never looked back. She still needed parents, but the change in her little heart was stark and immediate. Discipline changed from something she hated to something she reluctantly admitted was well-deserved and even helpful to her. Heart-to-heart conversations changed from laughably useless to very productive, often utterly effective. And even now—the little girl is a young lady of nine—she still struggles with misbehavior, but, oh, she struggles. She participates. She wants to improve herself; she no longer merely gives in with reluctance to our demands. She initiates her own self-improvement, even.
But the worst was yet to come.
Before he was even one, the differences were obvious: he was a climber, always on the move, and always eating things he shouldn’t. I had previously scoffed at various childproofing implements; suddenly, we were not only using them, but we were using them, he was circumventing them, and ending up in the ER for his trouble! I remember thinking clearly at that age that he was incredibly dexterous at getting to things and incredibly stupid at what he chose to get to. He ate rocks, stink bugs, vitamins, and a whole bottle of Tylenol, all in the space of about six months. (To this day, zero of our other children have done any of those things. Or even managed to get into any of those things in the first place, since we are vaguely sensible people who don’t leave them in reach of toddlers. This is the kid who figured out how to undo every childproofing method in existence.)
We prayed. We despaired. We prayed more. He did more than get into things; he was an endless fountain of foolishness, bad decisions, energy, and rebellion.
I’ve often remarked that I am so glad he wasn’t our first child, because at least we had seen our children grow and had the Gospel take root—we had hope. And not merely the theological abstract of hope, but real experience. I remember thinking that this boy had so much enthusiasm and personality and such a strong, clear speaking voice that God could use him like another Spurgeon—another little boy whose rebellion against God was complete in his early years.
In the meantime, though, we had a dark year. It’s all kind of a blur. We kept parenting hard and praying hard and nothing seemed to matter. Finally, one day, I was sitting on the couch with him rehearsing the Gospel, and at last, he didn’t tell me he didn’t care and run away. Finally, finally, he showed a glimmer of fear of God, and he wanted to pray and beg God to help him learn to be good.
I was so skeptical! I remember feeling the war within me between exhilaration—could this be it?—and disbelief—of course not. I very hesitantly told Seth of the exchange, and we waited to see how it would bear out.
He wasn’t an overnight miracle of behavior as his biggest sister had been. Not at all. He is still a very, very energetic boy with great tendencies to not think his actions through before he dashes off with them. Like his big siblings, he still has real sin issues in himself, and he still requires a ton of parenting, and many days, it feels like we are accomplishing nothing at all.
But he is sorry. He’ll do something really foolish, and when we talk to him about it later, he quirks his mouth up halfway and says ruefully, “I wasn’t thinking with my head. I know, I gotta think with my head.” After a particularly bad day, he’ll ask me, “Mommy, why isn’t God helping me be more gooder faster?” Other days—like today—he’ll realize that it has been an awfully long time since he was in trouble, and point out the fact proudly. He is slowly becoming vaguely reliable and more trustworthy. He’s very kind, personable, and good at sharing.
Sometimes I think he tries harder than any of his siblings—because he has to. His fight for holiness is one of the hardest.
The fight for holiness: the need of redemption.
”Your children have souls, and they must be born of God as well as of you, or they perish. And know also, that unless you be very circumspect in your behavior to and before them, they may perish through you: the thoughts of which should provoke you, both to instruct, and also to correct them.”
This is what I have learned from watching them—all of them: first, children are born sinners. David says in Psalm 51:5, “I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” Ephesians 2:3 is picturesque: “We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts.” That is where children live: in the flesh, doing whatever their flesh is inclined naturally to do. And they all have their own unique inclinations: utter lack of emotional control, pride, dishonesty, foolishness, fussiness, stubbornness… their individual bent may vary, but the sinfulness stays the same.
As parents, that’s what we are dealing with, and, who can change a sinner’s heart? The Holy Spirit alone. “The mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so” (Romans 8:7). There is no sanctification without repentance, and no repentance without the Spirit’s working. “No one can come to Me unless it is granted to him by the Father,” Jesus taught in John 6:65. As parents, all we can force our children to is outward conformity. For inward change, the Spirit has to work, and our duty is to pray and preach the Gospel to them, because faith comes from hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17).
All of our children have borne testimony to the Scriptural truth that foolish people hate discipline (Proverbs 13:1, Proverbs 12:1, Job 5:17). “Grief” from criticism leads to repentance in the godly, but death in the ungodly (2 Corinthians 7:8-11), and we have seen in their lives that change that happens when they turn to Christ and desire to follow Him—they become partners with us in pursuit of their holiness, rather than active saboteurs! That moment when they come to repentance and God replaces their heart of stone with a heart of flesh completely revolutionizes the parenting process.
“For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin,” Paul writes in Romans 6:6. This is the ultimate hope for parents as they train up their Christian children, and for those children themselves as they seek sanctification and maturity: they are no longer slaves of sin. The dominion of sin has been broken!
The fight for holiness: the blessing of sanctification.
Do not others expect from children more perfect conduct than they themselves exhibit? If a gracious child should lose his temper, or act wrongly in some trifling thing through forgetfulness, straightway he is condemned as a little hypocrite by those who are long way from being perfect themselves. Jesus says, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones.” Take heed that ye say not an unkind word against your younger brethren in Christ, your little sisters in the Lord. Jesus sets such great store by His dear lambs, that He carries them in His bosom; and I charge you who follow your Lord in all things to show a like tenderness to the little ones of the Divine family.
The most shocking revelation of parenting, to me, has been to realize my own wickedness. It is so easy for me to be distraught over their behavior, their failure to achieve perfection, even though I am just as bad myself, and I have had many more years to learn better! It is often helpful for me to take a step back from the immediacy of their sin and realize that just like their momma, God is sanctifying them. And just like their momma, sometimes it takes a long, long, long time and tiny baby steps of improvement for those old sins to die. (And even then, there are always more that need rooted out!)
Proverbs 13:24 tells us “the one who loves [his son] disciplines him diligently,” and Hebrews 12 helpfully compares parental discipline to God’s discipline: “He does it so we can share His holiness… it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” As God disciplines us, so we discipline our children—we teach them, give them guidance, helpful nudges, consequences, and so on. We try to facilitate their holiness. We teach them the Scripture, we train them diligently, and we try to be good models. But ultimately, sanctification is God’s work, and it is their own calling as believers to purify themselves from what is dishonorable (2 TImothy 2:21), to run from sin and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11).
It is a joy to watch children struggle to better themselves, and a greater joy still to see God reward that struggle. When they realize that the sin that so easily entangled them has, with time, become less likely to catch them up—they are delighted and so are we! I like few things better than hearing our famously-struggling son say with a sense of wonder before he goes to sleep, “Mommy, God is really helping me be good at ________ now!” It fills my heart to hear his earnest praise of God, as well as to realize that, yes, indeed, the child is improving. And that the child wants to improve. And that he knows God is the one who enables him to do so.
As parents, in obedience to God, we can live the truth of Proverbs 22:15: “Foolishness is tangled up in the heart of a youth; the rod of discipline will drive it away from him.” We see firsthand how immensely, hopelessly foolish and depraved little children can be. And we can see how discipline brings outward conformity, but to the Spirit-filled child, it brings much more than that—it brings life, peace, righteousness. Proverbs 29:15 says that “the rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” (Proverbs 29:15, ESV). Those are two separate words—rod and reproof—and as parents, we have both duties: to discipline and rule, and also to verbally teach and correct. And, by God’s grace, our duties bring wisdom to our children as the Spirit applies His truths to their little hearts. The promise of God that He has given us a Spirit of love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7) is for believing children, as well, and, He is conforming them to the image of the Son as surely as He is conforming us (Romans 8:29). We merely teach them that as they “live by the Spirit… keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). God is the one who “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Sanctification comes from Him.
“God knows the reality of our children’s hearts, sanctification, and diligence, while others know only the image. We want our children to be thought of as clean-cut and on the straight and narrow–which is rather a different thing from holiness, righteousness, godliness, and bearing much of the Fruit of the Spirit.”