Bringing the gospel to your kids without being a Grace Nazi

My wife and I have been reading different parenting books. I just finished Our Covenant with Kids while Amy and a number of women at Redeemer are working their way through Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick. The former focuses on theology and application of that covenant theology within the family and church. The latter focuses on teaching kids grace, instructing parents specifically how to craft phrases and take full advantage of gospel speaking opportunities. It doesn’t deal with how grace plays itself out within the covenant structure simply because her theology isn’t covenantal. Can’t blame her for ignoring that part!

While not having read Give Them Grace, other than snippets and reviews, I can see Fitzpatrick does a great job of challenging parents to begin to saturate the kids with the gospel at a very young age. And of course, to think gospel-centered, is to think counter-cultural and counter-instinctual. Thus it can seem awkward at the start.
I’m thankful for parents willing to re-think parenting in light of the gospel. Because grace is more of a salmon than a tuna (swimming against the current as opposed to going with it-thanks Jerry Seinfeld), we need to intentionally recapture the gospel and apply it to parenting. And if the gospel doesn’t take center-stage in our parenting, being involved in the results or lack thereof, we’ll go neurotic. 

Here’s how the gospel has helped me in my short time as a parent. I have a feeling I’ll only cherish it and need it more and more as the kids grow.

1.) Our ultimate goal is not the behavior of the child. I pray often that my kid will be nice to his friends, not bite, hit or spit. But my main goal as a parent and as a pastor overseeing children is that the kids would know the gospel, cherish Jesus, and connect with a church when they leave the home. 

In the past several days, a few well meaning folks have told me, “I’m glad I got to spend time with your kids because it makes me feel better as a parent.” Now that could be offensive if I didn’t believe the gospel for them. My ultimate goal is not good behavior-though I do want that-but for them to believe the gospel: that will produce behavior consistent with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). And when my kids disappoint me, I have to believe the gospel for myself. My kids’ behavior is not my righteousness. Their behavior, successes, or lack thereof are not the solid rock on which I stand. My kids’ performance does not give/take away any meaning to my existence. Jesus and all that he did for me is my righteousness, and that is something which never ebbs or wanes. Now believing that is of course much harder than writing or communicating it to others. But that’s why grace is so important in parenting. Both for you and for your kids.

2.) I try to be a good parent. I pray. I read books. But I think I stink sometimes. Now I love my kids, and because I do, I pray for protection not just from the world, but from themselves and from their parents. I’m certain God can protect them from my failures. I’ve seen God do it before with absentee parents, so I trust him to do it with flawed “presentee” parents. We need the gospel.

3.) The question is then how to do it. That’s one thing Give Them Grace really seeks to accomplish. But that is never an easy, thoughtless, or confession-less thing to do. When the gospel becomes a part of who you are, how then do you instruct and train your kids in such a way that it becomes part of who they are? Here’s what Amy and I have been doing. It may be helpful, or it may not. Still, it always helps me apply the gospel to whatever I’m doing when I see how others apply it to what they are doing. From one flawed parent to another.

  • Speak often in terms that reinforce the gospel. We don’t ask Connar, “Were you a good boy or bad boy?” That seems to indicate a change in standing based upon behavior. We like to say, “Did you listen or not listen?” We tell him that only Jesus makes him good, and that God still loves Him when he does “bad sins.” His position isn’t based upon performance. Sins are still bad, but he knows that God still loves him just as much when he fails to listen.
  • If you speak often enough in terms that reinforce the gospel, you don’t have to analyze every single thing you said or did and wonder, “Did I reinforce the gospel?” That can become draining. Did I teach grace there or only teach the law (of course I realize you have to teach law in order to get to grace)?  To borrow another Seinfeld term, you don’t need to be a “grace Nazi” to yourself or others. If you can’t ever encourage your child in a good behavior, there is probably something wrong. You like encouragement when you have done something well. If my kid listens at school I encourage him and celebrate it! Most of the time we say, “Jesus helped you to listen. Yay!” Or we could say, “Jesus loves you just as much regardless, but we are excited because that shows love to your teachers.” But sometimes we don’t, or sometimes we forget. Yet because we couch most things in the gospel we don’t have to be “grace Nazi’s.” If I tell him, “Good job,” he knows who empowers “good jobs,” and that he, like his Mommy and Daddy, are in need of grace how no matter how good of a job it was. If all you do is celebrate behavior, you will teach moralism. If you saturate your kids with grace in the morning, afternoon, and evening, then what they are going to hear is grace, even if you don’t say it every, single time.
  • The only way to know your kid is getting the gospel and not simply behavioralism is to ask questions and listen to them pray. We can speak about grace until it is coming out of their noses, or ours, but until we hear them speak grace back to us, we don’t know what they really think. If they open up in prayer, “Jesus, only you can change my heart…” or  “I know Jesus that you’ve already obeyed for me so I can relax and follow you….,” then that’s probably a good indication that the gospel is at work.

It is only by grace that anything good comes out of us and out of our kids. Even at 4 years old, my little boy understands and prays for other people’s hearts. When he recognizes that he needs the gospel as much as his friends and parents do, watch out. Good things will happen.

Please share any things you do as a parent to make the gospel part of your parenting in the comment section.

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