The Law, the Gospel, & Parenting

An interview with Elyse Fitzpatrick & Jessica Thompson

Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson were recently interviewed by the BCC (Biblical Counseling Coalition) for their new book, Give Them Grace (Full interview available here):

What role does the law and the Gospel play in parenting? How does this make Christian parenting unique?

“The law is important in parenting because it is the law that will drive our children to seek a Savior and will make them thankful for Christ’s perfect keeping of it in their place. But the law is powerless to transform anyone’s heart. In fact, all the law does is breed pride or despair. So, yes, we give the law to our children, but not to make them good. We give it to them to show them their need for a Savior. We also want to encourage parents to give their children the Gospel. This means that our Gospel-talk will be focused on the declarations of what Jesus has already done and that we won’t assume that they understand or even believe the Gospel just because they’ve heard it a couple of times. We want parents to learn to connect every facet of the Gospel to their kids’ daily lives..."

Why is it important to parent both rebellious kids and compliant kids with grace?

“Rules (or the law) really doesn’t accomplish what we’re hoping for in the lives of either rebels or compliant children. Rules will make the rebel despair and give up. He’ll say, ‘Christianity doesn’t work for me. I can’t be that good.’ On the other hand, rules will make the compliant kid proud. He’ll love the rules because he thinks he can obey. He needs the Gospel to crush his heart.”

What are the dangers of performance-based parenting?

“Anytime we look to transform outward behavior and reward it as though it meant an inner transformation had taken place, we’re inadvertently teaching our kids that God is impressed by hypocrisy. When we say things like, ‘Jesus smiles when you obey Mommy,’ we’re teaching our kids that outward compliance is all that matters. The Gospel says that if you’re a believer, God’s smile already rests on you. The Gospel also says that if you aren’t a believer your obedience is an affront to Him.”

What is the role of prayer in parenting?

“When you parent with the Gospel you become much more reliant upon the Holy Spirit and therefore more reliant upon prayer. When you don’t force your children to pray or to share or to say they’re sorry (unless they truly are), you have to rely on the Spirit to do His work and that forces you to your knees.”

Is it wrong to teach your kids obedience? Explain the relationship between Christian righteousness and human obedience.

“Absolutely not! It would be wrong not to teach them to obey. We are called to train our children in every facet of human obedience, whether initial, social, civic or even religious obedience. The problem that we see however is that many parents mistake outward compliance for true Christian righteousness. For instance, when a parent says, ‘When you obey Mommy you make Jesus happy,’ we’re forgetting that unless they’re regenerate, even their obedience heaps up God’s wrath upon them. We’re forgetting that all of our righteousness (outward compliance) is as ‘filthy rags’ to God unless they’ve been transformed by the righteousness of Christ. So, yes, of course, we’re to train our children to obey, but just as long as we understand what their obedience means: it doesn’t mean that they’re righteous or that they make Jesus smile. It may, in fact, just be a way of avoiding Jesus as Savior. Only the righteousness of Christ earns the ‘This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.’”

Discuss the danger of assuming the Gospel in parenting.

We can see two obvious dangers of assuming the Gospel. First, when we assume that our kids know how the Gospel intersects with their lives, we won’t speak it to them. Secondly, it means that we won’t warn them about God’s wrath like we should. Our message to them will be a weak ‘be nice,’ instead of the shocking, scandalous message of a crucified Savior. Only the truths of the Gospel can transform our hearts. Christianity is not moralistic, therapeutic deism. It’s a bloody cross and an empty tomb.”

As parents, how can confessing things like our anger, self-righteousness, and pride to our children actually help them understand grace?

“Our kids need to know that we’re just like them. It is good for them to see us sin so that they know that Mommy and Daddy are great sinners but that they have a great Savior. Many children think that Christianity doesn’t ‘work’ because they see Mom and Dad being nearly perfect and think that there’s something wrong with them that isn’t wrong with everyone else. Openness and confession of sin puts parents and children on the same side of the field: together fighting their own sin and resting in righteousness.”

“Why are we attracted to the law? Can you explain a few examples of how parents can slip into the trap of parenting with moralism and why is it so dangerous?

"We’re attracted to the law because of unbelief and pride. First, we’re very uncomfortable with the free-fall that grace demands. Grace tells us that we have nothing to hang onto except Christ and His great love and righteousness bestowed on sinners. We’d really rather have some nice rules to hold onto that will assure our hearts that we’re really okay. We don’t believe the message of grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone although we say we do. Secondly, we love law because in our pride we think that if we just try hard enough we really can get it together and merit some kudos. Grace strips us of all our props and humbles us: We bring nothing to the table and we can’t ever bring anything worthy of merit.”

How does parenting with grace relate to parenting with discipline and instruction? Are they compatible?

“Of course. Children need to be trained, disciplined and instructed…but this needs to happen within the context ‘of the Lord.’ Those three words, that we so often skip over or ignore make all the difference in our parenting. ‘Of the Lord,’ is shorthand for the Gospel message. The Gospel is to be the milieu of our parenting—what our parenting is soaked in.”

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