Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
Your children won’t get there themselves. You have to bring them up. Proverbs 29:15 says, “A child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”
Again, it is not what parents do to children, so much, that provokes them — although if they do things that are abusive and painful, it has serious effects. But it is primarily what parents do not do that exasperates children: the lack of discipline, the lack of love, the lack of care. You must bring them up. This is a call to focus on raising your children.
How do you do this? How do you bring your child up? I’m going to give you the key. This insight tells us what is wrong with all of your children and all of mine. It’s the same problem:
Guard your heart with all diligence,
For from it flow the springs of life. (Proverbs 4:23)
For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. (Mark 7:21-22)
The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil. For his mouth speaks from the abundance of his heart. (Luke 6:45)
What you need to understand is this: Your child has a heart problem. You’re not dealing with behavioral issues; you’re dealing with the heart.
Changing your child’s behavior is not the crucial issue. In fact, a change in behavior without a change in heart is nothing but hypocrisy. It is a sham, because the sin is still there. All behavior, all conduct is linked to some heart attitude.
Parenting is redemptive. It goes for the heart. And the first thing your child needs to know is he has a wicked, sinful heart that is alienated from God and is the fountainhead of every imaginable iniquity. Something has to happen to change that heart. That realization leads the child to salvation and sanctification.
The problem with your child is not a lack of maturity. The problem with your child is not a lack of experience or a lack of understanding. Those will exacerbate the problem. But the problem with your child is a wicked heart. And no one outgrows depravity.
So, the goal of parenting is to bring children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The goal of parenting is not control. It is not socially commendable behavior. It is not politeness. It is not outward morality. It is not obedience. It is not to give you, as a parent, something to be proud of.
The goal of parenting is salvation and sanctification. The goal of parenting is to see your child saved from sin and its eternal wages and following the path of sanctification. Any objective less than that is only behavior modification.
Don’t just train your child to be self-controlled. Train your child to understand temptation and resist it because the sins of greed and lust and selfishness and covetousness and indulgence dishonor God. Punish for the sin, but teach that the heart is the problem. Remind them that God, who has been offended by their sin, seeks reconciliation with them through trust in Jesus Christ.
This is the target of all parenting. This means reproof, rebuke, correction and the use of the rod lovingly and consistently. You never use the rod as payment for sin; you use the rod as correction to avoid payment at the hands of God.
Let me take you to a passage in the Old Testament that will further define this heart-centered instruction:
Hear, O Israel! Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one! You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)
Show your children that at all times in your life, on the tip of your tongue always, is the Word of the living God. Let them see that your life is dominated by divine truth. Let them see all of life as a classroom. Every occasion in life is an opportunity to teach. Every experience in life is an opportunity to point them to heaven. Everything that happens to them is a path back to Scripture.
Jesus was the absolute master at drawing spiritual reality from the world around Him. From water, to fig trees, to mustard seeds, to birds, to bread — everything around him opened up a window on divine reality. We must sensitize our children to see the hand of God and hear the voice of God in every flower, rock, mountain and puppy.
Obedience to Ephesians 6:4 means training your children. The command to “bring them up” can be summarized as “enforced conformity.” This is enforced conformity of the heart and the life to God and His truth.
Teach them they are sinful, and that self-will is a sinful expression that offends God. Teach them that they are called to obey the law of God and can’t do it apart from God’s grace working in their hearts. Show them their sin and show them that they can’t do anything about it — only God can change their hearts through their faith in Christ. And as they exercise simple faith in Christ when they’re young, accept each step they take. God only knows when true conversion takes place. Encourage every step toward Him.
The task is formidable, folks. And only God can change the heart. Your job is to lead your child to Christ and then to sanctification, by discipline and instruction.
The little nuances of behavior aren’t the issue. I don’t think whether your child stands still or runs around in a circle is the issue. The issue is whether that little life can be taught to love God and understand that only God can change his or her heart.
That’s the path of parenting. It’s a battlefield, and it takes not only great instruction and discipline, but an utterly consistent example.
You may look at your little one and say, “This is double depravity. I’m not sure I can cope with it.” You can’t, but God can. Stay on your knees and understand what it is that you’re doing: It’s heart work for salvation and sanctification. And the rest flows out of that.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1996, titled “God’s Pattern for Parents, Part 2.” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. You can learn more about TMU at masters.edu.
The Master’s University and Seminary admit students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.
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