Trained Up, but Going Wayward

When God made a covenant with Abram in Genesis 17, He emphasized covenant blessings and stipulations that extended to successive generations. The Hebrew prose style of repetition adds a poetic quality to this lovely and reassuring verse:

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (vs. 17)

Children are blessed when they have parents who teach and exemplify Scripture. In a confessional home, training with Scripture and catechisms (i.e. summaries of essential truths) provide children with files of doctrinal data so that when they mature, hopefully, their testimony will be they never have known a time without the Lord as their loving master. Proverbs 22:6 is the locus classicus for parents as they provide such education: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

But is this always the case? This proverb is part of God’s inerrant Word, but it’s still a proverb. By definition, it is a saying that is often but not always true. Proverbs 22:6 show us a principle, not a promise — and sadly, the lives of covenant children at times run contrary to this principle.

In recent years, I have heard of households with children that have gone astray. They live contrary to their Christian training and deny the precepts taught them over the years. Some of these children have stopped attending church and express no interest in the God that gave them life, provides food, and has blanketed the earth with the air they breathe. Others have compiled a bucket list of evils with the apparent intent of destroying themselves. Because of their wayward children, these parents weep, pound walls in frustration, and wonder,

“Why, God, why? We did all we could do, didn’t we? We took them to church. They were such good children, but then something happened. We don’t know what to do! Please, God bring them back!”

You may feel that the Lord has forgotten you and yours. You may think He does not care. But know that He still has every hair of your household’s heads numbered, and, in covenant faithfulness, He neither leaves nor forsakes the apple of his eye sheltered beneath his wings (Psalm 17:8). The sovereign God cares for His people. Does this mean they will alwaysbe happy with how he directs their lives? No, but through trials believers should take heart in the fact that God’s purpose is ultimately for their growth and His glory.

Of course, this is far easier said than done. Heartbreak is still heartbreak, and guilt, doubt, and second guessing by parents may make it difficult to glorify and enjoy the Lord.

Recently, I heard a minster give his personal testimony. He had grown up with Christian influences, but rebelled and went his own way as had the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable in Luke 13:11-32. The minister had committed a criminal offense for which the arresting officer informed him he could be sentenced to twenty years in prison. While sitting in the jail cell observing his only cellmate passed out on the floor from a drunken binge, he came to repentance and embraced the Gospel. No one came to the cell and talked to him about Christ or handed him a tract. Physically he was alone, and as he expressed it, “the Holy Spirit saved me.” It happened out of the blue.

What an outrageous claim! Had mysticism come suddenly upon him? No, the Bible and its Gospel message were there. When he was young he had been taught Scripture and catechized, but these lessons from the past were suppressed in unrighteousness, stashed away in a long-forgotten file in the recesses of his mind. It was his destitute situation, facing a dismal future, that the Holy Spirit used to open that drawer, pull out the file, and illumine his understanding to remember God’s covenant grace and bring him to Christ.

As the minister concluded his testimony, I thought, “That’s remarkable!” But is it really? Is it any more remarkable than any other conversion? All those who come to Christ do so through the supernatural ministry of the Spirit working through the Word. The Spirit works with Scripture to regenerate the heart to exercise faith.

The call of Scripture may come from a pulpit, from a Sunday School teacher, evangelist, or parent—but in any case, it is the Holy Spirit that transforms the life. In this minister’s case, the years of parental conscientiousness regarding their son’s spiritual life bore fruit; that long neglected file was opened by the Holy Spirit to expose his sorry condition and turn him to the covenant Lord.

To many of us, the days of late have seemed rather dark. We have had two years of a virulent virus, earthquakes, fires, and floods — along with growing instability in global economies and now worries about a war. It seems everyone is restless and dissatisfied about something. Strong influences have arisen against the family; echoing Eden, men, women, and children seek to become their own gods, transgressing the clear teaching of Scripture and defying fundamental, God-given creation ordinances such as marriage, work, and the Sabbath. And with the help of technology, the world of the younger generation is changing at a frantic pace, as digital devices draw their attention to the latest fad or fear.

Have you (or your family) ever said, “What’s the use!” But there is always hope for Christian parents, even in the darkest days. Even for parents who embraced Christ later and feel they have missed their chance, the same covenant hope remains. It is the Holy Spirit who brings even just a few words or a verse of the Bible to mind in the time of crisis. And do not forget your church, nor its elders and deacons; they want to know how to pray and help you.

When the Philippian jailor asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas responded, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Never forget those covenantal words: “…you and your household.”

Barry Waugh (PhD, WTS) is the editor of Presbyterians of the Past. He has written for various periodicals, such as the Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian. He has also contributed to Gary L. W. Johnson’s, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought (2007) and edited Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I (2012). 

Related Links

Podcast: "Retrieving Family Worship"

"The Common Work of Christian Parenting" by Jason Helopoulos

"Family Worship Is a Matter of Prudence" by Calvin Goligher

"The Radical Society" by Zack Groff

Family Worship by Donald Whitney

The God Who Hears: How the Story of the Bible Shapes Our Prayers by Sarah Ivill

P/C Geran de Klerk