What is the gospel? It is a familiar question, perhaps. But the importance of how we answer this question cannot be understated. The way we answer this question will pattern the why and how we shepherd our families. And I think we will all be humbled to find that the answer we give to this question in theory is not the answer we give in practice. There are two aspects of the gospel that will be critical for our shepherding our families.
First, the gospel is news. We heard it said before, but the gospel is not good advice. It is good news. It is not a theory. It is an announcement. And it is news not that we have conjured up or created, but news that has come to us from God, through God and about God, namely His Son Jesus. It is something that we receive, not create.
Second, the gospel is good and gracious news. This is good news, and not simply news because apart from God’s desiring and designing and declaring the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of His Son, we are in a helpless and hopeless state. It is gracious news because being dead in our sin, we remain under the wrath of God. But into the darkness of our state, there God graciously shines the light of salvation in Christ on sinners who repent and believe.
How does the gospel being news—good and gracious news—not advice, inform our shepherding? If the gospel is merely advice (or suggestions), it is something to do or demand. It is a task list to be completed like a guide book to better living or an entry door to pass through and leave behind like the “plan of salvation.” But this view of the gospel is nothing but religious moralism. It assumes there is some capacity in our children to simply conform to the demands we place before them as if their desires and affections are stuck in neutral waiting for our positive influence to direct them towards good behavior. This is anti-gospel! It rejects the biblical testimony that all who have not repented from sin and trusted Christ are enslaved to sin. And it is ultimately self-centered, reducing Christ to a supplement to our and our children’s own goodness. Therefore, viewing the gospel as either a guidebook to better living or as the “plan of salvation” will only modify behavior. It will not and cannot change dead, sinful hearts.
If the gospel is indeed good and gracious news from God announcing salvation for undeserving sinners then our charge is to herald this news, to make it clear constantly for our children. But it’s not simply for our children, we ourselves need much grace to shepherd our families in this gospel that is infinitely bigger than us and our children. Empowered and compelled by His grace, there are some good helps—some how to’s—to herald the good and gracious news from God to our children. We will divide these two helps into affirmative instruction and corrective instruction.
A CAUTION BEFORE PROCEEDING
But it’s worth cautioning again, while we want both affirmative and corrective instruction to not simply be informative, but ultimately transformative, only the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It will be very easy to reduce these helps to the end when they are simply to be means grace-filled means moving guiding and directing our children to Christ. We want to lay these helps like a trellis that gives help and support to gospel growth without being too restrictive. Ultimately, we want to bring clarity for our children to the reality of sin and the glory of the gospel. However, as Voddie Baucham addresses, it is easy to make one of two errors.
We can, as already stated, turn the means into the end. In other words, we will require of our children that which only the gospel produces. We will demand their good behavior detached from their glad embrace of the gospel. In this way, we are instructing them that they are capable of pleasing God on their own. Conversely, we can assume if the end is only God’s to produce, the means we employ to instruct our children are nominal and ineffectual. In other words, we will be passive in stirring our children towards the gospel. We will assume that God miraculously will intervene through direct means to save our children and we need simply to sit back and wait. In this way, we are wrongly assuming that God does not accomplish His work through human means—including our work as fathers and husbands. We want to walk in a more faithful way, a way that recognizes that the gospel alone produces the fruit of salvation and God desires to bring about that fruit in the hearts of children through the faithful toiling of fathers. That more faithful way involves formative and corrective instruction.
FORMATIVE GOSPEL INSTRUCTION
By formative gospel instruction, I mean those things that we can do proactively and positively to herald the gospel and demonstrate how all of life is reoriented by its announcement. The first help in affirmative gospel instruction is catechism. Theology, the way we think about God, informs everything. Theology informs practice. Therefore, it is crucial that we paint for our children a biblical portrait of God that they may, by the Spirit’s work, think rightly about God.
What is catechism? Catechism is the summary of Christian doctrine in the form of questions and answers. It is a bit of a lost art today. Its formality can seem rigid and cold in our culture. However, these is great benefit to catechism, particularly in light of the gospel being good news to be proclaimed and received and not good advice to follow. Because the gospel is good news to be proclaimed and received, catechism (e.g., Catechism for Girls and Boys) is simply a summary proclamation of the truth about God and his gospel. It is not a means to salvation as if correct answers to the questions evidences saving faith. Instead, it is a means to instruct our children in that which is true about God. In other words, it is simply a means of proclaiming the gospel.
The second help is family worship. We made mention of this in week one together, but how do we typically think of worship, even corporate worship on Sunday? What if, instead of viewing Sunday morning as this once a week, one-off, disconnected event, we viewed it as the culmination of family worship—the corporate crescendo of the worship of families that has been building throughout the week? This is far more the biblical view than the once-a-week view.
Yet we shouldn’t be so foolish to think that worship, even family worship, is contained to a time slot. We are always worshiping—either God or idols. Worship is our ascribing worth to something or someone in our words and actions and even our emotions and desires. Therefore, it is easy for our children to see what we worship. They can quickly tell to what we ascribe value—if we ascribe more compelled by college football than the proclamation of God’s gospel. Therefore, our duty to lead our families in worship extends to all of life as we live in all things making much of Jesus before our children.
But what should regular family worship look like? A simple model is: Read. Pray. Sing. For younger children, The Jesus Storybook Bible offers a great way to read the biblical story together in view of the gospel. But don’t shy away from the Word itself. Let your reading of the Word wash over your family. Bathe them in its truth. A simple model for prayer is: Family. Church. Neighbors/Neighborhood. Nations. A two year old can remember these categories. And don’t shy away from singing. Song is a powerful way to communicate truth in a memorable way.
CORRECTIVE GOSPEL INSTRUCTION
Now for the more difficult part: corrective gospel instruction. What is the point of discipline? Biblically, the discipline of the Lord is always restorative. It is always aimed at restoring His people to the care of His presence when His people have drifted into the danger of sin. Discipline restrains so that fellowship can transform.
Our exercising corrective discipline must ultimately point to the reality of the gospel. Discipline is an opportunity to explain sin and its consequences as well as proclaim the love of God in punishing Jesus for our sin that we might be forgiven if we repent of sin.
What are some ways in which our corrective discipline should reflect the gospel? It must be done in love. There is no place for self-serving in the disciplining of our children. We should never bear the rod because our pride has been harmed or our comfort has been interrupted. Further, it must be patient. The patience of God is meant to lead to repentance, and oh, how patient He is with sinners! We should bear with our children as God in Christ has with us. Doing so will require we remember the words of Augustine. We are, like Adam, not able not to sin. As mentioned, our role as shepherds is to restrain that sin, but we also must be patient with it. Also, it must be persistent. Where patience is more passive, persistence is more active. It is a constant tending to and pleading with. We must not grow weary for the sake of our children in restraining their sin. We must not in frustration throw up our hands and give them over to their sin.
Too much is at stake to be lazy or frustrated or thoughtless in the discipline of our children. We have been charged to create forms of the gospel for our children that the Spirit might grow them up into them. We have been charged to restrain the sin our children that they might be transformed by fellowship with God. We should be driven to our knees in prayer for our children. If we are not praying for our children, we are not taking seriously our responsibility to shepherd them in the gospel and proving rather apathetic about their salvation. Forbid such failure, Lord. Instead, may we be men who are so passionate about Christ and His gospel that it spills out of our mouths and overwhelms the whole of our lives with its mighty weight. May we be men who are so chiefly concerned with the glory of God in the salvation of sinners that we would labor persistently and passionately in the lives of those in our household for the sake of making clear the gospel that is the power of God for their salvation.