Fatherhood can be challenging, especially when trying to find the right balance between administering discipline and extending grace. Where one child may become exasperated by correction, another may need diligent instruction. In this sermon, Alistair Begg encourages fathers to love their children unconditionally in the same way our heavenly Father loves us—even if the benefits aren’t seen until they are united with Christ in eternity.
Father, “what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us,” for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, once again, let’s go directly to our text, as we’ve done each evening. I’ve said that each evening ’cause I thought it would make me go a little faster; it hasn’t really worked. But perhaps tonight will be different.
I must say, some of you have been expressing a measure of surprise as well as appreciation for these studies—surprise in that some of you have said, “These have been a lot more serious than I thought they were going to be.” Well, I actually concur with that. They have actually turned out to be a lot more serious than I thought they were going to be as well. And I think the sense of gravitas that has emerged from them and has attached itself to them is directly related to our stage in the earthly pilgrimage, and also, I think, our increasing sense of dependence upon God in these areas that are of such striking and vital importance. And each one has built upon the last, and as I say, next week will give us an opportunity to step, as it were, outside of our front doors and into the framework of our workaday lives.
But our text for this evening is Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” Peterson paraphrases it, “Parents, don’t come down too hard on your children or you’ll crush their spirits.” Phillips paraphrases it, “Fathers, [do not] over-correct your children, or they will grow up feeling inferior and frustrated.”
Now, as in our previous three studies, we will make our cross-reference—our primary cross-reference—Paul’s statements in the same vein, which we find in Ephesians, and now in chapter 6. And the verse in chapter 6 reads, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” It’s essentially the same word of warning. And then it is not followed by an explanation: “Don’t do this, because if you do, this it will result.” But when he writes to the Ephesians, he follows his warning with a directive; he says, instead of exasperating them, you should “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” And I think you will agree with me that if you put those two verses together, there is a very obvious logical progression of thought. First of all, “Do not exasperate your children.” And then the explanatory statement in Colossians 3: “If you do, they will become discouraged. Instead”—going back to Ephesians chapter 6—“why don’t you bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord?”
Well, there we have it. That’s the context, and that’s the frame and orb of our study. Having called the children to obey their parents, as we saw last time in verse 20, he now urges the parents, and primarily here the fathers—although mothers will always be involved with fathers in these endeavors—but he identifies fathers in their primary responsibility as the spiritual leader within the home to ensure that they are paying attention to this matter.
And as I said this morning, if as children you think it’s tough being children, then wait till you have the responsibility of being a parent. And you may even remember these studies—you might not remember them in detail, but you might remember me saying that, when I’m old or gone, and you will say, “I remember he said that night, ‘If you think it’s tough being a kid, wait till you become an adult, or wait till you become a dad, if you think it’s hard being a son or a daughter.’” Because it is. It really is.
Now, the interesting thing is that the word that is given here to the fathers is a word for fathers to exercise restraint. “Make sure,” he says, “fathers, that you do not embitter your children.” Now, that ought to be immediately and obviously surprising to us. We might have thought that he would launch very quickly into the reinforcing of parental responsibility for giving direction, and so on, to the children. But he doesn’t do that. He begins by saying, “I want you to make sure that you don’t exercise your jurisdiction as a father in such a way so as to harm, so as to crush, so as to endanger and discourage and dispirit your child.”
Probably we will be helped in grappling with that by recognizing the fact that Paul is addressing this subject within the culture of Roman jurisdiction. And without belaboring this at all this evening—I’ll give you enough to go away and study it on your own—we discover the fact that Paul is writing in a context where the father had, in Roman jurisdiction, supreme power—the patria potestas, “father power.” And William Barclay, whose commentaries you ought to read with great caution, but who is usually very helpful historically and grammatically, comments as follows: “A Roman father had absolute power over his family.” He could “sell [them] into slavery,” make them work in the fields in chains; he could punish them as he liked, and even pronounce the death penalty on them. So that was the extent not simply of parental jurisdiction, but that was extent of a father’s power in the time frame in which Paul writes this particular letter.
So, what we find him doing is urging upon fathers, as he has urged upon children and husbands and wives, the living of their lives in such a way as to testify to the radical difference that is made by the gospel. I won’t keep going through this every night—in fact, I’m running out of nights to do it, in any case—but I have tried to point out on each occasion that he is writing to those who are in Christ, he is writing to those who are to be rooted in Christ, he is writing to those who are raised with Christ. And then he says, “The fact that you are in Christ and raised with Christ will dramatically affect what it means for you to be a wife, what it means for you to be a child, what it means for you to be a parent, and certainly what it means for you to be a father”—so that a Roman father who has come to trust in Jesus, when he spends time at the baths or at the exercise facility with his contemporaries, would inevitably stand out from the crowd because he was refusing to exercise this decisive and dynamic power and authority which was his. He was refusing to subordinate his children to his own crushing dictates.
And indeed, he was telling his friends, who had asked him, “What does it mean for you to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean for you to have Jesus as Lord of your life? You’ve got this thing you keep telling me about, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ What has it done?”
“Well,” he said, “it’s changed me as a husband.”
“What has it done to you?”
“Well,” he said, “it’s done this and this. I’m not the final product. You can check with my wife, she will confirm that. But at least I have a whole new desire in my heart.”
“And has it changed you in any other way?”
“Well, yes, it’s actually changed me as a boss, it’s changed me as an employee, and it’s also changed me as a dad.”
“Well, what has it done?”
“Well, for example, I haven’t sent any of my kids into the fields in chains lately.”
“Wow, you haven’t? I sent four of mine out there just last week. I don’t think any of them will be coming back. What’s happened to you? Have you gone soft in the head?”
“No, but I’ve gone soft in my heart. I’ve discovered love.”
“I’ve discovered grace.”
“I’ve discovered that God demands of me the same love and grace which he has displayed to me in the gift of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ , and that in the way that my heavenly Father deals with me, so I am to deal in turn with my children. So yes, I freely admit, I’m different; there is no question about that. I am different. By God’s doing, I am different. And I am seeking to follow the dictates of his Word.”
Now, what Paul does, then, in this is simply warn the fathers against rules without love—or, if you like, warns us of law without grace. Now, I’ll tease this out for you as you go along. But Paul in his letter is urging upon his readers the nature of the Father’s love for them. Now he turns and says, essentially, “As the Father has loved you and loves you, so I want you to love your children.” How does the Father love you? Well, in a quite remarkable way. And we are to love our children in that way. We are to love our children for who they are, not for who they ought to be. We are to love them not for what they should have been or for what they might become if they only try a little harder, but we are to love them as the very gifts of God entrusted into our care—that unless we get down to our children, sharing in their simplicity, sharing in their joys, sharing in their very childlikeness, and sometimes childishness, then we will never woo them with the nature of a father’s love, and we will never wow them with the implications of this gigantic person called Dad descending to who I am and to where I am because he tells me that he loves me with an abiding passion.
Now, it is in direct contrast to that that we may, as fathers, exercise such a control over our children so as to exasperate them rather than to encourage and delight them. And we could spend all evening talking about ways to exasperate your children. I’m sure there’s a book there, you know: Ten Ways to Exasperate Your Children—or Ten Ways Not To, maybe that’s the way it needs to be. There are no surprises in these, are there? If I had a board, I could write them up; you could call them out. There’s an almost limitless list.
Injustice—injustice—will exasperate our children. Why? Because our children are moral beings, and they have written into them a sense of fairness. Children know about fairness. Children say to one another, “That’s not fair!” They may be misguided at times, but they understand fairness. And they understand fairness when it comes to a father’s discipline. And when a father acts arbitrarily, or impulsively, and certainly unkindly, children identify that.
They are equally able to recognize inconsistency—a widening gap between dad’s mouth and dad’s life, a hypocrisy which becomes almost pervasive and all-embracing, that sends a boy or a girl into his bedroom, shutting the door and saying to himself, “I don’t ever want to be like that. Mr. So-and-so down the street thinks my father is so this, so that, and so the next thing. If he ever came in my house and saw what my dad is like, he wouldn’t even believe it.” And the child recognizes the radical impact of inconsistency.
Severity will exasperate a child. Severity—the kind of severity that was part of the father’s power in the Roman culture. It has no place within a Christian home. Well, we may think that we will accomplish more by driving our children, but the fact is, we will accomplish more by drawing our children. And some of us by nature are drivers, and we need the power of God’s Spirit and the dictate of God’s Word to teach us how to draw.
Fourthly, favoritism exasperates children—favoritism. “Why can’t you be like your brother? We just had a letter about your cousin. She seems to be doing so well.” The inference is—the parent never needs to say anything. The parent doesn’t need to finish the sentence and say, “And how come you’re not doing so well?” The child understands. The child is exasperated.
We exasperate them when we belittle their achievements—when they can never really achieve anything. Nothing is ever good enough. It’s always the next game, it’s always the next point, it’s always the next lap, it’s always the next report, it’s always the next B, or it’s the next A, or it’s the next triple-whatever-it-is. And eventually the children are thoroughly exasperated.
We exasperate them when we fail to treat them as individuals—when we fail to treat them as individuals. If you have any children at all, you know that children are individuals. One size does not fit all. That’s true in every decently made garment, and it is true in golf instruction, and it is true in the raising of children. This is a very complex thing, the fathering of children. And the book of Proverbs ought to be a reminder to us of the diversity of what’s involved. You don’t need to read every chapter of Proverbs to every child you have in the house, but you will need to read some of every chapter to every child you have in the house, and the skill in being a father is in making sure that you read the right chapter to the right child, because if you read the wrong chapter to the wrong child you’ll exasperate them: “Why are you telling me that, Dad?”
And right along with that goes nagging—nagging. And right along with nagging goes constant faultfinding. And right along with constant faultfinding goes a failure to appreciate their attempts to please and a failure to appreciate their simple kindnesses.
I said to somebody the other day, “God is very gracious if he grants us grandchildren. Because in one sense, vicariously, he gives us a second go at this. Because the video of my children’s lives cannot be rewound. It can be replayed, but it can’t be rewound.”
Now, let me just work this forward with you. In relationship to that, given those exasperating factors, we keep in mind that each of our children has their individual personalities. And it’s all too easy for us to either indulge and spoil them, or at the other end of the extreme, to humiliate and suppress them. The hard thing is getting it right, matching love to need and matching the punishment to the crime.
And the skill in fathering under God and enabled by the Spirit and helped by everybody that we can get help from at all—the skill in fathering is in learning quickly that children are little people in their own right . Yes, they are children. Yes, they are entrusted to our care. But they’re little people in their own right. And therefore, they will become the grown-up version of the little person that they are. And we may have accomplished very little in seeking to ensure that they become just like us—or worse still, just like the person we wish we were—so that we labor hard to make sure that these children become just as we are. And you create these little creatures that walk like you, talk like you, look like you, dress like you; they look like little sawn-off men, or funny little girls, and they become something that they aren’t even by their nature. Because they’re not you. They’re them! Fashioned intricately in their mother’s womb, entrusted for the journey of life for a wee while—but not for the whole journey! These little ones are individuals in their own right.
“Wise parents,” says John Stott, “recognize that not all the non-conforming responses of childhood deserve to be styled ‘rebellion.’” Let me say that to you again. That’s a great word. I wish I’d learned it earlier: “Wise parents recognize that not all the non-conforming responses of childhood deserve to be styled ‘rebellion.’” It is not necessarily rebellion when she appears with a yellow sock and a blue sock. I mean, it is if you told her, “I only want you to wear two red socks.” But if you gave her freedom to go up to her room and dress, and she came down like this, welcome to her little world! She’s going to be artistic. She’s going to be… interesting! But she’s her! The father says, “What are you doing with the ridiculous socks? What’s that, a style? Huh.” And the tiny spirit who thought about those socks before she put them on either acquiesces to my sarcasm and dresses more appropriately or suppresses a spirit of deep defiance and says, “If he thinks this is bad, wait till I show him what else I’m wearing.”
“It is by experiment”—this is still Stott—“it is by experiment that children discover both the limits of their liberty and the quality of their parents’ love.” “It is by experiment that [the] children discover both the limits of their liberty and the quality of their parents’ love.” Now, obviously Stott is not talking about the expressing of liberty beyond the bounds of moral propriety and biblical orthodoxy, if you like. He’s talking within the framework of what we’ve just been reading in Proverbs. But what he’s observing is that within that big framework there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for self-expression in the discovery of who this person is.
We can never teach our children to ride a bicycle as long as we hold the saddle. The only way they learn to ride a bicycle is when you let go of the saddle, and when you let go of the saddle, it’s a big risk. It’s a big risk for you as a parent, and it’s a big risk for them as a child. But if you want to spend the rest of your life running up and down SOM Center Road holding onto the saddle of your child, then go ahead and do it. Not only will you look dumb, but your daughter or your son will never thank you for it. And people will be coming out of their houses to stand in the front yards and see you as you come by: “I’ve never seen anything quite like this.” But do you know how many fathers are essentially running behind the saddle of their son or their daughter, either because they are unprepared to trust them, or because they are unprepared to allow them, or whatever it may be? And all under the guise—the disguise—of “the exercise of my fatherly intervention.” No, failure here may result in our children acquiescing to our rules while actually living in a sense of disobedience—or they may in turn overreact, and they become boastful and anxious in their self-assertion.
Now, let’s remind ourselves—’cause I’ve been using parents and fathers interchangeably—let’s just keep this in mind: the focus is on fathers. As grateful as we are to the part played by mothers in contemporary child-rearing—an inordinate amount of responsibility given to mothers in contemporary child-rearing—and as thankful as we are for it, it doesn’t let us as fathers off the hook. And in the Old Testament, the picture of the father is the picture of that man who takes both the Word and uses it to instruct and takes his life and uses it to train. And the Old Testament, in Proverbs, gives to us this great and perplexing verse, 22:6: “Train … a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Well, that brings us, essentially, to the positive side of the equation. We could spend a long time thinking negatively, but we can all involve ourselves in self-recrimination; it is really quite unprofitable. The positive side of the equation is there in Ephesians 6: “Don’t exasperate them, because that will only crush their spirits; instead, bring them up in the training … instruction of the Lord.” Or, as Peterson paraphrases it, “Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.” “Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.” I quite like that. I think you might too.
Now, the verb here for “bringing them up” is a verb which really means “to nourish them”—“to nourish them.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in one of his writings, makes a passing comment when he says, “If fathers spent as much time nourishing their children as they spend nourishing their roses, their families would be able to speak to the better of it.” If you think about how much time, as fathers, we give to the nourishment of our physical frame, to the nourishment of our career, to the nourishment of a whole host of things—not bad things, necessary things—but there’s only so much nourishing can be done, because there’s only so much strength in a body, and there’s only so much time in a week. Nourish them!
Now, the good news is the bad news, I think. Because the good news is that what we’re called to do here in “bring[ing] them up in the training and instruction of the Lord,” nourishing them in this way, is a long-term project. It’s a long-term project. That’s both the good news and the bad news. The bad news is, it’s a long-term project; the good news is, it’s a long-term project. And when it’s a long-term project, if it’s a long-term investment, then you don’t have to sweat it every day when you go on and look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Whoever’s looking after your money says to you, “Don’t worry about this, we’re in for the long haul. Therefore, don’t get tremendously excited if there’s a spike, and don’t get unduly alarmed if it plummets, because after all… the financial wizards tell us that over such and such a time… and so it’s okay.” Right? Of course, there are these phenomenal collapses, which makes a liar of everybody for a while, but nevertheless, by and large it’s true: an investment in real estate over the long haul will probably—barring some cataclysmic economic intervention—will in the long haul probably return a significant portion to you.
And in the same way, what is being called for here is not something that you can knock out in a weekend. I’m intrigued by how many “weekends” there are in America—I mean, weekends are good—and day conferences and, you know, “Twenty-four-hour conference to put yourself to rights,” you know. You can fix your marriage over day and a half at the Marriott with Mr. So-and-So; he comes in and fixes you, and if you come you can get your kids fixed, and you can get your “everything-under plan” and gone and everything else. And I look at all these conferences that generate millions and millions of dollars, and flushing people all over the place, and here I am, along with my colleagues, pastoring a little flock here, and we got all the flock here, and their marriages, what are they like? Woo! A challenge. And their children, what are they like? Woo! A challenge. “Hey, what’s up? Didn’t you go to the thing? The twenty-four-hour special? How was it?”
“Well, it was good.”
“What did it do?”
“Nothing.” That’s exactly right. Well, it did something; don’t let’s be unkind. You’ll learn something. But it’s the long haul! It’s the long haul!
Now, you see, remember this, because short-term gains can be deceiving. Don’t start to strut your stuff, dad, because your son is thirteen and he’s walking around with a giant Bible, and a navy blue jacket, and he thinks he’s me. That’s a bad role model to start with: “And so, and then, and I came, and so then, and, ah, so…” I’m not impressed with that, and you shouldn’t be either. You can be thankful for every gain, but don’t put that on your website. Don’t put a picture there. And, I suggest, don’t put it in your Christmas letter. Says Sinclair Ferguson—I was delighted to find a compatriot here just the other day—Sinclair writes, “The boasts of one Christmas … letter may [be] the griefs of later ones.” Don’t blow your horn too fast. This is a long-term project. Our sons are not raised, our daughters are not raised, the journey is not over, just because they graduated from somewhere—and in some cases, kindergarten! Believe me, kindergarten was a long time past.
And therefore our short-term losses and our disappointments, of which we know a great deal, need also to be viewed in light of eternity : “Yes, we’re in trouble. Yes, things are not going as I hoped with my child. Yes, this is like pushing a rock up a hard place. Yes, I don’t want to write about this. Yes, I don’t really want people inquiring about this. Only my closest friends and those who love me most may share in this with me.” And you stand back from it and you realize that the phraseology here is not something knocked out in a weekend, or banged out in a day conference, or figured out in weeks, even months, and sometimes years. It may take a lifetime to see this come to fruition. And it may be that some of us will die and never see the fruits of what we do, and that the joy of heaven will be to discover a daughter walking across the portals—a daughter that we thought was lost and gone for good, because we never saw what we expected to see when we expected to see it. God makes everything beautiful in his time. Trust him.
This is not day trading. This is long-term investment. This involves both negative and positive; you see that in the phraseology. It involves lip and it involves life. You need to “train” them. The word there is for examination and intervention. And you need to “instruct” them. In other words, you daren’t let them grow up without care, and you daren’t let them grow up without control. This involves instruction, discipline, encouragement, admonishment—and again, all within the framework of a loving home and a father’s loving heart.
Note well: the local church plays a part, but it cannot compensate for the absence of the father’s work. Some of you, as fathers—can I just speak to you straight up?—you will rue the day that you said to yourself, “Because she goes to youth group—because she goes to whatever—she is being brought up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” She’s receiving good instruction. We’re thrilled that she’s there. But that does not let you or me off the hook. The local church may have our children for, I would guess, a maximum of five hours out of a week. We have our children twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week times, on average, eighteen years. That’s a lot of time, and yet it goes through our fingers so quickly. And the video does not rewind.
Now, I have tried to keep before me a number of s’s, which I’ll share with you for your edification, I hope. And they are these. If we’re going to get serious about this, we have to remember that our children are all of this and more: they’re sensitive, special, silly, selfish, sinful, and they have souls that will inhabit eternity. Just all those s’s. Let me just hit them with you very, very quickly.
Our children are sinners. They’re born with a bias towards evil. From the womb they are wayward and they speak lies.
Our children are silly. That’s part of being children. If you’re a child here tonight, don’t take this in an unkind way. You’re supposed to be kinda silly. If your mother left you home for a week and said, “You can eat anything you want in the house,” how much time do you think you would spend eating broccoli, as opposed to eating chocolate or ice cream or drinking sodas? “I’ve left you a lot of water.” “Yeah, okay, fine.” Why do you do that? You’re a kid! You’re silly! And you’re silly, as well, when it comes to the way you ought to go. So the way that you should go is different from the way that you would go, because you don’t know what’s good for you, and you’re tempted to enjoy what’s bad for you.
But it is equally true that each child is special. I needn’t go back over this again, but Psalm 139 reminds us of the intricate nature of God, the establishing of DNA, and personality, and gifts, and so on.
And the same special child that is silly and selfish and sinful is also sensitive. And we’ve covered that.
And each of these children has a soul that will last forever. Now we’re at the real nub of things. The raising of children, the responsibility of fatherhood, the arrival of a child, confronts a mom and dad with an existence that is commenced for eternity —that when that child is delivered into the arms of the mother, and you as a father are there along with the mom, and you look at this little girl or this little boy, you have been entrusted not only with a journey through life, but you have been entrusted with a life that has a soul that will inhabit eternity and will either inhabit eternity in the presence of Jesus in heaven or will inhabit eternity absent Jesus in hell. And God has given that child to you and to me, and the instruction of his Word is not difficult to understand, although it is hard to apply and may only be discovered by grace and his power and goodness, but nevertheless it is there for us to deal with. And how difficult it is when you know this! And the only way we can know it is from the Bible.
But think of all of the people in greater Cleveland tonight that don’t know this, and if they were to hear it would say, “Utter nonsense!” Think about the fact that our society, our culture tonight, is growing up to a far lesser extent constrained by and influenced by Judeo-Christian values, which were pervasive fifty years ago in a way that isn’t true today. The church is marginalized, as I said this morning. We’re known for protests, we’re known for political punditry, we’re known for all kinds of things. But within the individual home, do we see the difference?
In that case, the child becomes the product of parental ignorance. And when parental ignorance reigns and confusion is abroad, as I humbly suggest to you that it is, then parental authority quickly loses out to the power of a rebellious heart . Can I just say that to you one more time? And it will come back to your mind very quickly; tomorrow you will be in a grocery store somewhere, and you will remember this phrase: “Parental authority quickly loses out to the power of a rebellious heart.”
Now, I was going to show a bit of a movie tonight. I bet I thought of fifty movies, and then I thought, “No, it’s just a big distraction—and forget it.” And I can never remember the name of this movie, and I didn’t go to check in any case, but I always quote it—and you’re fed up hearing with it, but I’ll do it one more time, because I have the scene so vividly in my mind. Cher is the mother, there’s a teenage daughter, they’re having an outrageous argument in the house, and eventually, through her tears and agony, Cher as the mother shouts, “What am I supposed to do?” she shouts at this girl, “You didn’t come with instructions, you know.” And that’s the word on the street.
So, the average father: “What am I supposed to do? You didn’t come with instructions.” My son sent me an exercise machine. I bought it, somebody sent it. A major mistake so far. It is tonight, as I speak, in my garage. For the life of me, I haven’t a clue what it is. He told me, “Dad, this will revolutionize your life.” I trusted him at considerable expense. He had somebody send it to me. I swear, it is sitting in a bay of the garage with the cardboard box broken open. It is a Schwinn, I know that. But I haven’t a clue what it does. There are no handles, there’s nothing. And there’s no book. So I just walk past it.
That’s how confused parents are tonight in suburban Cleveland: “There she sits, there she lies. I hear the sound coming from her bedroom, but she didn’t come with instructions. I don’t know what to do with her. I can’t get a handle on this thing at all.” You see the tremendous power and impact of Christian family life transformed by the power of the Spirit and lived out in obedience to God’s Word? Maybe we should go out and talk a little more about this—not in a boastful way.
Now, I can tell you’re finished, and I’m pretty well finished myself, so to stop this from becoming a series, let me just give these final points, and we’re done.
A word to parents of wee ones, tiny ones. To those of you who are in at the beginning here, this is a stock tip. You can get in on the front end on this one. This is Google at $15 a share, not $480, okay? Tiny children’s minds receive impressions the way moist clay receives impressions. Moist clay will take your hand very easily; you can fashion it right in. You cannot fashion your hand into granite, but into moist clay you can make an impression. Those tiny children that you have, being looked after tonight or at home with their mom, they believe what you tell them, they trust your word, they believe that you want the very best for them. They believe all that. You can never start too soon in forming an impression on the moist clay of their lives . Or, to change the picture, you can redirect an apple tree when it is early planted and very narrow in its radius, but once it gets girth and root structure and strength, it’s no longer possible to move it around without significant cost.
Now, when you think of that and you say, “Well, give me a couple of pointers to go home with,” here they are.
It is absolutely vital that we keep in mind that our children are prone to sin. In being a dad, you have to remember that your child wants to sin. You can probably be too cautious, but most of the time it would be better to be a wee bit more cautious. When people who don’t really know what they’re talking about tell you that your children are fantastic, that your daughters are exemplary, that they’re good, they’re wonderful, they’re mature, they’re kind, and they’re well-mannered, remember this: their hearts can be set on fire by sin in an instant. That very lovely daughter you have may very quickly lose all of the benefits of her female innocence because her heart is prone to sin. And it is a naive father who operates in a cavalier fashion, and it is a peculiar skill to learn how to deal with them on that journey.
Secondly, don’t cherish the notion that it’s possible to complete this task without correcting our children. I’m not going to belabor this at all, but we can’t allow our children to do wrong without punishment. And the reason we can’t is because God says we can’t. It is so politically incorrect to talk now about any form of punishment: “Spare the rod, and spoil the child” and so on. “The foolish son—the rod will drive it from him” brings up all these huge pictures of European courts and horrible, dreadful things that have been happening in recent days. That dreadful misappropriation of this procedure does not give the lie to the benefit of what God describes. And to fail to do this will be to know the misery of Eli. Remember, it says of Eli that his sons—who were they, Hophni and Phinehas?—they made a complete hash of things, and the judgment of God fell on Eli. Why? Because, it says, “he failed to restrain them.” “He failed to restrain them.” That was the one thing he could have done, and he didn’t do it.
Thirdly, remember how God treats his children: he chastens us, he withholds things from us, he leads us. We do the same.
Fourthly, train them in the Bible. You can’t make them love the Bible, but you can make them learn the Bible. You can make them at least acquainted with the Bible. But of course that demands that dads know the Bible. That demands dads reading the Bible. That demands that dads will take them where the dads have gone.
Lead them to God in your prayers. Pray with them, pray for them; long before they can read, they can still kneel down beside you at their bed, or wherever you like to kneel. And don’t assume that your teenagers are so disinterested that they won’t at least be prepared to allow you to lie on their bed, or at least on the bottom of the bed, and say, “I don’t know if you want to pray, I don’t know if you want to close your eyes, I don’t know what you want to do, but I want to pray with you before I leave your room tonight, because I love you—and because frankly I don’t know what to do with you.” And then pour your heart out to God in the hearing of your teenager. Don’t lecture them. Just tell God: “O God, you know I love this girl so much. God, you know this boy is the apple of my eye. God, you know I’d give my kidneys, both of them, for this kid. I long after them. I want the best for them.” See, when you can’t talk to your children about God, you can always talk to God about your children ; and sometimes you can talk to God about your children while your children are there.
And I know you’re going to say, oh, this is vested interest on my part, but no it’s not, and I will stop now. What I wrote in my notes here, I hope you won’t misunderstand me: show them that church matters. Show them that church matters. You say, “Well, this what nothing you would expect from a pastor, you know. He’s gotta get people out to the services, so he’s gonna throw this in at every available opportunity.” Well, I wasn’t planning on being a pastor; I know I am one. But you have to tell them that in the gathering of God’s people Jesus is there. You have to tell them that in the preaching of God’s Word he convicts of sin, and he converts people, and he sanctifies them.
And my advice to you is this: that as long as your children are in your home, until they leave for college or university, that you make it part and parcel of your lives together as a family that your children come to church with you, that you do not allow them to grow up with a habit of making excuses, that you do not accept the homework cop-out. And the reason that you don’t is because you can’t get it out of your mind that their eternity is the focus of your concern. Who cares if they are the best in the swim team, ultimately? Who cares if they become such a financial success, ultimately? Wasn’t it somebody who said, “What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lost his own soul?” Do you expect your children to care for their souls if you don’t? They won’t. Says [J. C. Ryle] in another era, “Set it before them as a high and holy and solemn duty to attend church, and believe me, the day will come, very likely, when they will bless you for the deed.”
I bless God for my parents in this respect. I was not in my teenage years getting up going, “Oh, I can’t wait to go to church. Oh, church, more church, give me a church, give me a Bible, love church, let’s go to church.” No, no, no, no, no, it’s like, “Alistair, where are you?” “Not telling you.” “Where are you? You know where we’re going, let’s go.” And I bless God for the memory of my father’s hand holding the Bible, even when I didn’t want to look at it. Didn’t stop him. Still turned it up, still held it. Because he believed that although he couldn’t make me like it, he could help me become acquainted with it. And he had a sneaking suspicion that in the exercise of the simple duty of it, it would have a restraining influence on my teenage sinful mind. And he was right, because the entry of God’s Word brings light. And “how will a young man keep his way pure but by paying heed according to your word?”
[Ryle] has a big screed where he says, “And I don’t like the young people’s corner, and I don’t like the young people sitting by themselves, ’cause they might be fiddling around, and writing notes to one another, and checking out the girls, and everything else.” I understand that, [Ryle], but you know what? I’ll take ’em even on that basis, just to have them within the sound of the gospel.
And you know what, dads? This is the most provocative thing I’m gonna say all night. My advice to you is that you make Sunday worship among the people of God an absolute fixed point. And here’s the most provocative statement I’m going to make: if you don’t do that, it’s either because you don’t believe it, or you’re chicken. You don’t have the guts to lead your kids. Your kids now lead you. Do you want them to lead you when you’re old? Do you want them to pray for you as you approach eternity? Do you want them to open the Bible and speak to you of the assurance of God’s love and truth when your mind has begun to go, when your faculties are no longer functioning? How will that ever happen?
You see, not only is the thinking of their souls first and often a very necessary thing for them, but it affects not only them, but it also affects our comfort and our peace. Because if you’re honest, if you’re a Christian mom or a Christian dad, our happiness in large part is dependent on whether our children walk with Christ or not. “Children,” says [Ryle], “have caused the saddest tears that man ever had to shed.”
But finally, when you take all of this and you lay it out—and believe me, it’s given me a sore head and a sore heart and much, much personal thought—ultimately, we cast ourselves on a covenant-keeping God. Ultimately, we go back to Proverbs 22:6. Yes, we know it is a proverbial statement; we know that it is not a categorical promise to an individual. But we know too that it is what it is: “Train up a child in the way [that he will] go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” It doesn’t say how old.
I give the last word to [J. C. Ryle]. This is a great thing; I wrote this out, and I’m gonna put it in my little black book. Says [Ryle], “Many children, I doubt not, shall rise up in the day of judgment and bless their parents for good training, [children] who never gave any [sign] of having profited by it during their parents’ lives.” The posthumous joys of heaven.
Father, I pray that out of all of these words you will help us—especially as dads, as fathers—to come before you and acknowledge how deep your love is for us, how vast. It’s beyond measure. You don’t love us conditionally, but you love us unconditionally in Jesus. “We’re far more sinful than we’re ever prepared to acknowledge, and yet in Jesus we’re far more loved and welcomed than we ever dared hope,” as C.S. Lewis pointed out.
And yet so often in dealing with our children, because we love them so much and because we want to ensure that certain things happen, we think not only to dig the furrows for them, but we want to put the curbs up and just drive them all the way home to heaven, and yet we can’t do it. We can’t make them love Jesus, we can’t make them love the Bible, but we can introduce them to the Bible, and we can endeavor to introduce them to Jesus.
And so I pray that you will pick up the chins of men who feel disheartened, they might go forward in faith, believing; that those of us who have been naive and silly may be reined in and encouraged to take seriously the principles of your Word; and that if it please you, Lord, that you will, in this time and in this generation, use the blessings and benefits of Christian family living in streets and in communities as a pointer to the love and grace of the fatherhood of God. We think of all the children that are around us on a weekly basis—all their little lives, all their tender excitements and hopes and dreams, all of the things that make them who they are—and how we love to see them, and how we long after them, that they may be in Christ and that they may be in heaven. Help us, then, to do all that we can and all that we should, by your grace, to this end. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 Quoted in William Barclay, A Barclay Prayer Book (London: SCM, 1990), 238.
 Colossians 3:21 (The Message).
 Ephesians 6:4 (NIV 1984).
 William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 208.
 Psalm 139:13 (paraphrased).
 John Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 247.
 Stott, Ephesians, 247.
 Proverbs 22:6 (KJV).
 Ephesians 6:4 (The Message).
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit: In Marriage, Home & Work (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 290. Paraphrased.
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 165.
 Ecclesiastes 3:11 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 58:3 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 53:6 (NIV 1984).
 Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969).
 J. C. Ryle, Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go: A Sermon for Parents (London: Seeley, 1846), 13.
 Samuel Butler, Hudibras (Dublin: S. Powell, 1732), 2.1.844.
 Proverbs 22:15 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 3:13 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 8:36, Matthew 16:26 (paraphrased).
 Ryle, Train Up a Child, 28–29. Paraphrased.
 Psalm 119:9 (paraphrased).
 Ryle, Train Up a Child, 26. Paraphrased.
 Ryle, Train Up a Child, 60–61.
 Ryle, Train Up a Child, 57.
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix. Paraphrased.