When Your Child Sins, Good News!
Too often, parents respond to their child's sin by focusing on how our child is letting them down. They make it clear that the child is failing to live up to the family standard of righteousness. Such an approach fails to clarify God's standard of righteousness and fails to pave the way for clarity about the good news of salvation. Uncovering a child's sin provides a strategic opportunity for the Christian parent to say something like, "You sinned. I am not surprised by your sin. The Bible calls your sin ________. I have sinned too, but I have been forgiven of my sins by faith in Jesus Christ, and I am praying that the discipline you receive will remind you that sin has consequences and that you need to seek forgiveness in Jesus Christ."
Framing discipline in an anti-gospel way places children on a performance treadmill. Their lives are based on meeting your expectations. And the only outcome of that approach is defeat and despair. Conviction of sin will bring no joy. It will only bring shame because they will reason, "I have failed my parents who thought I was a good person. Now, they know I am not a good person because I have these thoughts and act this way. I must be worthless." Constant accusation without the gospel is hellish, not holy.
As Christian parents, we need to make sure our words and actions match our doctrine when we discipline our children. Every instance of parental discipline is a strategic opportunity to expose our children's true identity (and ours too)--sinners who need a Savior. That is what is so powerful about gospel-focused discipline. When a parent clarifies the sin, points to the gospel, administers the discipline, and then embraces the child joyfully and forgivingly by declaring, "I love you no matter what!" the child gets a small taste of the glorious and absolute freedom offered in the gospel (Gal. 5:1).
Christian parents often fall into the trap of merely parroting the culture's expectations for our children's lives. We often raise our kids based on the same things non-Christian parents value rather than anything distinctively Christian. We are called to love God by loving our children, but too often we love the idea of raising (culturally) successful children. Seeing a child meet cultural expectations can easily become the way parents validate themselves.
Christian parents who base parenting decisions on other people's perception of them and their family's social standing are tragically treating their children like props in a public relations campaign. Faithful, cruciform, Christian parenting demands an intentional commitment to take every parenting thought captive to obey Christ and embrace distinctively Christian, gospel-focused aspirations.
In Ephesians, Paul declares that the triune God is at work in heaven and on earth summing up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). Like all things, Christian parenting is to be summed up in Christ. This means that there is a Christ-centered, gospel-saturated, and cruciform distinctness to faithful Christian parenting. Our parenting must create a culture in our home where the gospel is becoming more intelligible, or we will inevitably design a culture where the gospel is becoming unintelligible. Failure to cultivate a gospel-filled home will yield children who may speak the language of the Christian faith but are saturated in the wisdom of the world.
Worldliness is not a word that Christians use much anymore. According to Paul, worldliness is defining the world outside the lens of the gospel. It comes packaged in both conservative and liberal morality. While worldliness can sometimes come with bad manners, it can easily come with good manners too. Our goal must be to teach our children that the gospel redefines every category in their lives (2 Cor 10:5). It gives them a new lens through which to see the world.
The dividing line between the Christian and the world is not found in moral superiority, but a crucified Messiah. We are all guilty sinners in need of a Savior. Consequently, we cannot discuss our child's behavior on the world's terms and simply tack Christianity on as an addendum to the discussion. The Christian parent's goal is not good kids--it is gospel kids. The Christian parent's goal in discipline is not low-maintenance, well-mannered children, but gospel proclamation.
When the apostle Paul declared, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified," he was not suggesting that the cross of Christ was the only thought that ever entered his mind, nor was he saying that he tacked on some commentary about Jesus' death to every dialogue (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul was contending that the power and wisdom of God on display in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ served as the only proper frame of reference for every single thought.
So how should committed Christians think about and react to sin in the life of their children? The pattern begins with confronting the child about their sin. Following this, we must learn to explain to our children that they are praying that God will use the discipline to teach them that they need to ask forgiveness for their sin. Gospel-focused parents teach their children that sin is a heart problem and has consequences. They point to the gospel as the only ultimate answer and thank God for another strategic gospel opportunity. After all, that is a Christian parent most important job.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.