Reformed Parenting

Many parents struggle with guilt and confusion over how to train their children. Old-school parenting books emphasized discipline derived from the exhortations in Proverbs. The book of wisdom was used to chastise the foolishness out of children. The next generation of parenting books suggested that parents should go beyond controlling their children’s wayward behavior and instead instruct their hearts. Most recently, books about grace- or gospel-focused parenting exhort parents to see that their primary mission is evangelism.

Given that we are celebrating the Reformation this week, I thought that it would be appropriate if we learn something from the Reformers. This may help us to maintain biblical balance in our parenting.

Reformed theologians have taught that there are three uses of God’s law:

  1. The Civil Use – God’s moral law, which is written on every human heart (Rom. 1:32 2:14-15), restrains sin in society by common grace as human government punishes wicked behavior such as stealing, perjury, assault and murder (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2: 13-14). We thank God for the civil order we enjoy because of the first use of God’s law.
  2. The Evangelical Use – God’s law functions as a mirror to show us our sinfulness and our inability to meet His perfect standard of righteousness, thus driving us to seek salvation and forgiveness through the gospel. The law is a tutor that leads to Christ so that we may be justified by faith (Galatians 3:19-24). This is the use of the law which Luther was known to emphasize.
  3. The Normative Use – God’s law serves to teach those who have been justified by faith how to show love to our God and Savior by doing those things that please Him (John 14:15 1 John 2:3-4). We obey, not in order to earn our justification, but out of love and gratitude to Him who saved us.

These three uses of God’s law, Civil, Evangelical, and Normative, provide useful categories for parents to consider as a framework for thinking through the dynamics of Christian parenting.

  1. The First use of God’s Law – Civil: Because children are born sinful and foolish, they need outward restraint through discipline. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. The rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (Prov 22:15). A child who is not yet a believer will not be motivated to stop lying or to cease from hurting his siblings by a true love for God. Instead, painful consequences restrain his sin and foolishness – in the same way that sinful people in society are restrained by the threats of punishment from government authorities. Until recently, most Christian parenting books emphasized this aspect of parental discipline. This type of discipline is primarily aimed at controlling outward behavior of children through consistent discipline – the establishment and enforcement of reasonable standards of behavior. Parents should not hesitate to use the means God has given to address the foolish and sinful misbehavior of their children.
  2. The Second use of God’s Law – Evangelical: A child’s sinful failures produce wonderful opportunities for parents to show the need for the gospel. Children, like adults, are prone to self-righteousness. An outward standard of goodness, such as decent grades or respectable manners, has the ability to make one feel good about themselves. However, children need to be shown that they are not truly good. No one is good (Luke 18:19), and children, just like adults, must come to realize their need for a Savior. When a child lies or loses his temper, his parents should take advantage of the opportunity to remind him that he is a sinner who needs the forgiveness and transformation that comes only through the gospel. Jesus came into the world so that needy sinners might have their guilt washed away (1 Pet 3:18 2 Cor 5:21). He died that we might receive a new nature that frees us from slavery to sin (Romans 6:1ff). The first time I was exposed to the idea of using our children’s failures evangelistically was in Tedd Tripp’s wonderful book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart. More recent books, including Give them Grace, by Fitzpatrick and Thompson, also strongly emphasize the second use of God’s law in parenting. Many parents who had been focused merely upon external discipline promoted by the first use of the law have greatly benefited from learning how to bring the gospel into their parenting.
  3. The Third use of God’s Law – Normative: Once children profess saving faith in Christ, they desire to grow in the knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word. Scripture teaches us that we express love for the Lord who saved us by doing the things that He commands (John 14:15). A child who is truly converted no longer needs to be motivated merely by fear of consequences (the first use of the law). Rather, they love God (and their parents) and are eager to do those things that please Him (Titus 2:14). Parents then come along side their believing children to encourage their progress in discipleship. This is the ultimate goal of Christian parenting, and a blessed work of the Lord in a child’s life.

Two words of caution:

  1. Popular instruction on parenting tends to focus almost exclusively on controlling outward behavior (the first use of the law) rather than adequately emphasizing evangelism (the second use of God’s law). Children can become little Pharisees who think that they are good because they follow the rules. A related problem is that children are often taught Scripture in a moralistic way which disregards the fact that the central theme of all Scripture is redemption in Christ (Luke 24:26-27). This approach often uses Bible characters merely as moral examples (“Dare to be a Daniel,” or, “Like David, you can fight the giants in your life”) while failing to recognize the redemptive themes in biblical history. The outcome of such instruction might be outwardly obedient moral kids who do not realize that they are wicked sinners desperately in need of a Savior.
  2. In recent days, there has been a refreshing emphasis on bringing the gospel into both our discipline (the second use of the law – our sin shows us our need for Christ) and our instruction (showing our children Jesus in all of Scripture). Some have also helpfully incorporated the third use of the law – when our children are converted they should obey out of love for Christ.

There is a danger, however, that some who joyfully embrace the second use of the law in parenting can swing too far in this direction and neglect the first use of the law (the need to control outward behavior through painful consequence). This error occurs when a parent’s sole response to his or her child’s sin is to point them to Christ without bringing the painful consequence that Scripture commands (Prov. 13:24). Just as civil laws are necessary in the unbelieving world so that sin will be restrained, discipline is necessary for children so that their foolishness will be restrained (the first use of God’s law).

Children need restraint because they are prone to foolishness and sin (Prov. 22:15). Even more, they need the gospel that cleanses them from sin and gives them a new nature that empowers them to joyfully keep God’s commands.

For more on parenting see: