Last Lord’s Day evening we began to consider Proverbs’ teaching regarding the raising of children in a believing home and the cultivation of faith and godliness in the rising generation. We said that fundamental to that sacred work was the recognition of the labor and perseverance it would require because there is a spirit of resistance and rebellion bound up in the heart of every Christian child, the remnants of the old nature, the sinful predilection in which we are conceived and which is not eradicated even by the new birth. Further we said that in so far as our children need our constant instruction and consistent discipline it is essential that they be raised in a home dominated by their parents’ love, a happy home in which such instruction and discipline take place in an atmosphere that commends them to a child’s heart. A silent, or unhappy, or, worse, a bitter home is no place to learn the joy of salvation or the blessing that the Lord bestows on them who fear him.
It is all the more important for Christian parents to think carefully about their calling and to embrace it with full seriousness because they live in a time in which many forces in society conspire to undermine precisely the sort of training of children commended to us in Proverbs. I suspect that many of us have had reason to think that we were better parents than our own parents were. And, in many case, perhaps we were. We were more self-conscious of our spiritual duties, we had more books to read, perhaps our pastors were preaching more about parenting, we were aware of our parents’ failures and determined not to repeat them, and so on.
But if there were, at least in certain circles of the population, a marked increase in parental competence from the generation of the parents of the baby boomers to that of their children, it didn’t last. In society today, and so in the church, parental ineptitude is reaching new heights and has reached them very quickly. Virtually all really significant social changes have happened very quickly over the last generation. The speed of social change has greatly accelerated in a media driven culture in which social currents are communicated in seconds to every home and every heart. In a single span of forty years an entire social fabric has been dismantled. No matter the many exceptions – and there are many to be sure – we now live in an age of incompetent parents. You may be surprised to learn this actually is not a particularly controversial observation. It is a widespread conviction in the culture at least among those who are observing the American family. There are, of course, many reasons for this.
- There are fewer parents nowadays to do the work. Some 40% of American children are now born out of wedlock and still more will eventually be raised by one parent not two, usually single mothers, who are themselves distracted by the circumstances of their lives and the need to attend to so many other responsibilities, are weary much of the time, and haven’t the luxury to share their child-rearing responsibilities with a husband and father. I had an interview in a conference call this past week for a potential faculty hire at Covenant College and was speaking with a remarkably gifted woman. She has a Ph.D in Applied Physics from Stanford University and has much to commend her to us as an instructor at the college. She left her position at a government laboratory in Virginia in order to homeschool and care for her children through the first seven years of their education. Do you have any idea how many women there are in the USA today who would absolutely love the opportunity of devoting themselves entirely to their children and to the cultivation and nurture of their hearts and minds but cannot because they have to earn a living for the family at the same time?
- The social environment for children is more toxic – in neighborhood, in school, and in the ever-present media – and so the forces that work against a happy childhood and productive parenting are more relentless, powerful, and insidious than they have ever been. We need more from parents today, not less; but it is less that we are getting. It is striking to me, for example, that so many people apparently think that the children who feature in the shows of contemporary American television are attractive or at least funny. A generation ago Americans in general would have been aghast to see such portrayals of childhood and children as are now commonplace in American television. They would not have thought it funny to see children portrayed as more worldly wise than their parents, to see them sexualized so young, talking knowingly about their gay elementary school classmates and the like. But modern American children are soaked in this deformed conception of childhood. America today is a hard place for children and virtually every observation confirms that fact. This will be the first generation in American history that is less well educated than its parents. People are broadly aware that things are not going well in the American home, but the elite culture, the entertainment culture is so self-assured and the academic culture is so philosophically committed to the changes that have been made that there is little serious engagement with what has gone wrong or what needs to change. If the relentless pursuit of personal or sexual fulfillment proves to be hard on children, well, too bad.
- Social theories are likewise at work to make parents less competent and less confident. The widespread denial of original sin and the skepticism about discipline – both of which are now the orthodoxy of so-called expert opinion in our culture – and the relentless encouragement given to parents to seek fulfillment for themselves all have been harmful to the prospects of children growing up to be happy, well-adjusted, and responsible adults because they have all been harmful to the prospects of a happy home where the hard work of the nurture of children is faithfully done.
- The sexual revolution has resulted in children being sexualized ever earlier in life which is uniformly deleterious to their welfare and confusing to their tender souls and creates a set of problems for personal and moral development that are often never overcome.
- The prevalence of divorce has created still more confusion and insecurity among our children as well as bitterness, states of mind and heart that their parents, broken-hearted and bitter themselves, are often incapable of addressing helpfully.
- I could go on. The declining influence of the Christian church, of church-going among American families, the depressing and dehumanizing effects of naturalism and materialism; the list of factors that are ruinous to the American family goes on and on.
Christian parents are not immune from these influences and there is nowadays far too much incompetent parenting in the church as well. I see it; you see it all the time. Everywhere we look we see parents who cannot seem to impose their will upon their children and hardly seem able even to see that their children rule the roost. Many Christian parents leave far too much of their children’s instruction and social formation to the world and to a media driven by hostility to the Christian faith and a Christian understanding of life. Many of the church’s children growing up become very savvy about life in the world, but seem to know comparatively little about life in the kingdom of God. The old disciplines of Sunday School, Bible and catechism memorization, family worship, prayers at bedtime have gone by the wayside in vast multitudes of Christian homes and in many cases there is no encouragement whatsoever to restore them in the Christian churches these parents attend. So while the cultural inputs are increasingly toxic, children are neither being protected from them nor carefully and patiently nurtured in faith and obedience. And the inputs are increasingly toxic. I grew up in a typical American suburb and was educated in a typical suburban public school system. I graduated from high school in 1968. I know that few of you here tonight are as old as I am, but I can assure you that the world has changed dramatically from that time to this. The disciplinary challenges facing the administration in my high school, 2,500 students or so, were generally such things as the “bad” boys and girls smoking in the restroom. Most of my thousands of classmates were living with their biological parents; not all but the vast majority of them. There was a solid wall of opposition to sexual promiscuity presented to high-schoolers in those days. TV shows were against it, teachers were against it, parents were against it, and parents were much more vigilant in respect to their children’s sexual life. Don’t mistake me, I’m hardly saying that high school students didn’t sin. Drug use was very uncommon but not unknown. I think of the 2,500 students in my high school there probably weren’t 100 who knew what marijuana smelled like. There was sexual promiscuity, but to a much less significant degree and without public acceptance. It was universally condemned. I’m simply saying that my unbelieving classmates would not have been able to recognize the world in which high school boys and girls live today. The widespread experience of drug use, pervasive promiscuity, broken homes as much or more the rule as the exception, marriage as an institution under widespread assault in the culture, co-habitation becoming as common as marriage itself, and a world in which people talk seriously about boys coming out as gay in the 5th grade!
But for Christian parents much more is at stake than simply that their children become happy, productive members of society, a task our society is managing as poorly if not more poorly than previous generations of parents. What is at stake is the eternal life of our children. In nothing so much as Christian parenthood do we see the horrible outcome of the foolish builder that is described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 3:
“…each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” [1 Cor. 3:13-15]
Remember, in that context, Paul is talking about the ministry of salvation and people as the fruit of it. So what is the loss that this poor builder suffers? Well, in many cases, as the Bible too often reminds us, it is our children’s souls!
It is this solemn and solemnizing consequence of biblical child rearing that makes the statements we find in Proverbs to the effect that faithful parenting saves the souls of our children so important. For example, we have in 23:13:
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”
And that leads us this evening to Prov. 22:6 and perhaps the best known of all the parenting proverbs , one of the most controversial, a proverb interpreted in the greatest variety of ways.
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Now my principal interest in the parable is not on the word translated “train up” in the proverb. But let me summarize what Proverbs has to say about that. We have already said and can see throughout Proverbs, as we can in all of the teaching of the Bible concerning the obligations of parenthood, that training consists primarily of three things: 1) instruction; 2) discipline; and 3) example. That is, the proper cultivation of our children’s faith and godliness requires that we teach them what to believe and how to live, that we correct them when they fail to meet those standards, and that we exemplify for them the life we want them to embrace for themselves. Virtually all of Proverbs is a specimen of the instruction children are to receive from their parents. We have in Proverbs as well a father who is setting an excellent example for his son, an example of spiritual concern, of practical wisdom, and of loving attention. David was a poor father, a great Christian man in many respects but a miserable father. David was a poor father and his example is strikingly imitated in the life of his son, Solomon, who began so well and finished so badly. David’s bad example is also presented in 2 Samuel as the reason for the disintegration of his family. His sons followed their father’s example. After 2 Samuel 12 we immediately have Amnon’s sexual sin with Tamar and then Absalom’s murder of his brother in vengeance for that crime. They had learned some very bad things by watching their father at work. In Proverbs examples tell:
“The righteous who walks in his integrity, blessed are his children after him!” [20:7]
The father does more than teach. In 4:10-13 he reminds his son that he has given him words of instruction, but he also reminds him that “I have led you in the paths of uprightness.”
The Unitarian leader of the 19th century, William Ellery Channing, was raised in a professing orthodox Christian family. In his autobiography He told of listening as a boy to a sermon on “The Terrors of the Lord.” He was deeply moved with a sense of the miseries of hell, but upon returning home he found that his father seemed totally unconcerned about the message of the sermon. In later years he said, “Why, my father’s cheerful unconcern impressed me exactly as if he had joked and laughed at a funeral.” [Cited in BOT 229 (Oct. 1982) 17] Channing lost his faith in some large part not because of what his father said to him, but because of what he watched his father do and not do. A parent’s example is telling every moment of every day as it is observed by his children. Remember that moms and dads! You are influencing your children profoundly when you say nothing at all, or in the manner in which you speak.
In the second place the training of children requires their discipline. It is true that corporal punishment is an emphasis in Proverbs, though its emphasis on instruction is much more thoroughgoing as is its emphasis on a parent’s love for his boys and girls. Some evangelical studies on child rearing have concentrated over much on discipline, leaving too much of an impression that discipline is the key ingredient in Christian child-rearing or even that Christian fathers ought to be some kind of martinet if they are doing their duty. Punishment is important enough, but it is hardly everything or even the most important thing. But we do have such proverbs as this one, which could hardly be clearer.
“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” [22:15]
Obviously “rod” is a metonymy for all forms of punishment, but it certainly doesn’t exclude the rod itself! (And notice, it says “rod” not “hand.” The wooden spoon is a better tool than a hand. It stings the bottom but it does not harm.) If you find yourself disinclined to spank your children because of the so-called expert opinion of our culture, think again. And hear me everyone. We are not talking about child abuse in any way, shape, or form. We will not tolerate that in the Christian church. We are not talking about martinet fathers, or angry fathers, or harsh fathers. We are talking about a way of discipline, of correction, of punishment, that is short, sharp, effective, clears the air, and teaches the lesson in a way that is particularly suited to the heart and mind of a child. There is a relatively short period in a person’s life when he or she is susceptible to spanking, but in those years it is far and away the best way to make the point clearly but without any harm. A wooden spoon to the backside is severe correction for a child, he knows it for what it is, but it leaves no harm and the lesson is taught in a way he understands and clears the air very quickly. How many times have we seen it: a child misbehaves, is spanked and then loved by his parents, and a moment later is as happy as a clam, the lesson learned, the point made, in a way that enables life to go on immediately and happily.
The fact is corporal punishment is recommended in Proverbs precisely because there is something to drive out of a child, something to kill in a child: that spirit of rebellion. Half-measures won’t do. What is needed is punishment and a form of punishment that a child understands. It requires the kind of pain a child fears. The punishment must fit the crime in a way a child can understand.
Long conversations – more often, in my experience whiny harangues by ineffective parents – and the so-called “time-outs” diffuse the lesson, make much less of an impression and, in my experience, do not immediately and successfully correct the bad behavior. Don’t believe what the so-called experts tell you. The propaganda against spanking, rooted in a fundamentally different view of the world and of human beings than that taught in the Bible, ignores the obvious fact – expert opinion always ignores some obvious fact – that most happy, well-adjusted, mature adults were raised with the wooden spoon or the switch and were the better for it. The experts are telling us to ignore the obvious: both that the best people have always been raised with corporal punishment and that we live in a day in which our young people suffer from a serious lack of impulse control. Again, the experts are telling you to follow their advice, the same advice that has made a wreck of our society! They told you no-fault divorce was going to be good for people, good for the family, wouldn’t lead to more divorces. They have been wrong about everything!
If the issue is said to be the prevention of child abuse, remind them that a distinction between proper punishment and improper punishment is precisely one of those distinctions between the proper use of something and its improper use that civilization absolutely requires. Spanking on the bottom with a wooden spoon stings and so is effective for little children, beating a child is an entirely different thing. Any culture that cannot tell the difference is dead already! A loving parent can easily and usefully employ the one and would never descend to the other. Spanking is not beating any more than the execution of a criminal is murder, or incarceration is kidnapping. It’s the difference between the proper use and the improper use of something.
And remember what we said last time. Discipline, like the other forms of parental nurture, is best served, perhaps only well served, in a family atmosphere dominated by parents’ love for their children. It works well when there is instruction and example together with it in a happy home. But in any case, remember what we said and what is confirmed in Proverbs on every page: the Christian parent has been given the authority by God himself to command his or her children’s faith and obedience. Or, as Alexander Whyte memorably put it:
“The divine throne, the divine scepter, the divine sword, are all as good as made over into every man’s hand into whose house a little child is born.”
Our children learn of God, for good or ill, from hearing and watching us, from the rewards and the punishments they receive from us, from the love and happiness they experience in our homes. God is a God of truth and that makes us teachers, if we would want our children to know God aright. God is a God of law and that makes us disciplinarians. God is a God of love and goodness and mercy and that makes us lovers of our children and exemplars of a good, noble, happy life in front of them.
Still, the burden of Prov. 22:6 is not the nature of the godly nurture of children but its lasting effect.
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
There is, of course, as with so much teaching in proverbs, an obvious truth here that anyone can see, believer or unbeliever alike. The child is the father of the man. What a person becomes in his or her early years usually profoundly shapes what sort of person he or she will be as an adult. “Give me a child until he is seven,” said Ignatius of Loyola, “and I will give you the man.” That is a truism of human life. Republicans are likely to have republican parents and so Democrats. Children raised in artistic homes are more likely to be interested in the arts. And so on. But we are not interested in truisms. We are concerned about our children’s salvation, their eternal souls.
The question forced upon us by this text is precisely this one: does the text promise too much? Can we say that parents who faithfully raise their children can expect them to embrace the faith for themselves and remain faithful to it in their adulthood? And, if so, are we then saying that when a covenant child rebels against the faith and takes his or her place with the world and lives and dies in unbelief we can argue backwards to a failure on the part of the parents to provide their child with the instruction, the discipline, the example, and the happy home life that faithful nurture consists of? Or as one commentator puts the question:
“Are parents who train their children in God’s way promised that they will be godly when they are older? And if so, may the behavior of adult children be used as a diagnostic tool to evaluate the efforts of their parents? [Longman, 85]
His answer is an emphatic “No!” Such training, he goes on to say, will very often lead to their godliness; he has to say that because the Bible says that so often. It is certainly true that bad parenting often leads to spiritual disaster; the Bible says that also and illustrates that often enough. No one can deny the general truth of the proverb. But that is what it is, he says: a general promise. It should be read with a concluding thought being assumed: “all things being equal.”
“But all things might not be equal. Perhaps the children will fall in with a bad crowd who persuade them to go a different direction. Or there may be a host of other reasons for why a child rejects God’s way. A single proverb does not intend to address all the nuances of a situation; it just gives a snapshot of life to motivate proper behavior.” [Longman, 85]
So he’s not denying that faithful nurture, instruction, discipline and example is the obligation of Christian parents; he’s not denying that it usually leads to faith and godliness in adulthood, he’s just denying that it always does. It is a generality not a law ; something that is often true, perhaps even usually true, but not always and inevitably true. That is one way to read the proverb.
Others have tried to solve the problem created by what is thought to be a promise that too often does not come true by taking the statement to mean something else. They understand “to train a child in the way he should go” to mean to “train a child in his own way, by which is meant that parents should let their children develop according to their own personalities or, perhaps rather, according to each child’s particular station of life and stage of development. [Delitzsch] Parents shouldn’t try to make shy kids outgoing or athletic kids studious and so on; and they shouldn’t try to teach a five year old quantum mechanics. This was a view popularized for a new generation by Dr. James Dobson. But this is a very unlikely interpretation of the word “way” in 22:6. In Proverbs surely there is but one right and wise way, not a great many different ones, one for each personality type. There is throughout the book one way in which all should walk and that is the way parents are to teach their children. In Proverbs “way” refers to the moral quality of one’s life, as in the previous verse, 22:5: “Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked; whoever guards his soul will keep from them.” 22:6 provides the contrast: not in this wicked way, but our children are to be raised in the right way, the wise way, the godly way. [Waltke, ii, 203] In Proverbs we read of God’s way, of the fool’s way, and of the wise’s way. In each case “way” describes the moral and spiritual condition of one’s life and its outcome.
So much is this the meaning of “way” in Proverbs that some have taken 22:6 in an ironic fashion. To train up a child in their way is to train up children in the way they want to go and if you do you can be sure that when they are older they will never leave that foolish and selfish way of life in which you trained them. According to this interpretation the sense of the proverb is that indulgent parents raise fools. [Clifford in Longman, 405; Waltke, ii, 205] But that is hardly a natural reading of the words themselves. The proverb, after all, teaches only what is taught elsewhere in the Bible.
Now it is important to note that commentators are usually explicit in the reason why they reject what might seem to be an obvious interpretation of 22:6, viz. that children given faithful nurture in their youth will grow up to live godly lives. As one of them puts it, such an interpretation would lay upon parents of children who grow up to be unbelievers a “sledgehammer of guilt” [Longman, 405] There is a reason, therefore, to prefer another interpretation of the verse, a very personal reason. But we should be very careful whenever we find that there are personal reasons that make us prefer that the Bible should speak in one way and not in another. We have to be very careful then that we are not reading into the passage what we want to be there rather than hearing the word that God has in fact given to us in that passage. Paul didn’t hesitate to speak of people’s work being burned up and they being saved but as through fire, even though that statement would condemn a good number of Christians as having failed at their calling.
It is, of course, true that proverbs are often just that, statements of proverbial truth, truth that is usually but not always true. In Proverbs we read that diligence will lead to wealth, but there are faithful Christians in Somalia for whom that has not been true. Nor is it invariably true that when a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Christ’s ways were perfectly pleasing to his heavenly Father but they didn’t make his ways pleasing to his enemies. We accept that.
The problem is that there are many proverbs which are not of this type: that is, statements describing a generality but not a universality. When we read, for example, in 16:4 that “the Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble,” we do not imagine that such is true for most things but that there are some things that the Lord didn’t make and for which he has no purpose. Or when we read in 16:33 that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord,” we don’t conclude that there are some throws of the dice that the Lord does not control because, after all, the statement is a proverb.
And, if you asked why we don’t take some proverbs in that generalizing way, actually quite a number of proverbs in the book, we would simply reply that we are taught elsewhere in the Bible to believe that everything comes from the hand of God and he is sovereign over all the affairs of men, even down to the most minute and seemingly unimportant matters, for example the number of hairs on our head at any given moment. The question thus for us at 22:6 is whether there is elsewhere in the Bible teaching to make us think that the statement of 22:6 is not a proverbial truth but a theological one, a divine promise of grace to those who are faithful to the Lord.
Remember, we have already argued, earlier in this series, that Proverbs is not to be taken as simply referring to the outcome of one’s temporal and earthly life. Greater issues are involved here: the issues of eternal life and salvation. The one way we cannot read 22:6 is as a statement to the effect that if you raise your kids to be hard-working and honest they’ll likely be that kind of people in their adulthood. There are a lot of hard-working, honest people who do not fear the Lord. We are talking about godliness, the life of faith, and eternal salvation. That is what Proverbs is about, that and nothing less.
And, of course, in many places in the Bible, OT and NT alike, the nurture of children is said to be just that, the divinely appointed instrument of their salvation. Shortly after making the great promise to Abraham to be his God and the God of Abraham’s seed, we read the Lord saying (Gen. 18:19) of Abraham:
“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
What the Lord promised Abraham was that he would be his children’s God, which is a short way of saying their heavenly Father and their Savior. This kind of speaking is found throughout the Bible. The problem with the heathen, Paul writes in Ephesians 2, is that they are “without God.” In Rev. 21 we read that heaven is the place where God will be our God and we will be his people. “For God to be our God” is the Bible’s shortest way of saying everything we mean by salvation. So, in Genesis 17 we have the promise; in Genesis 18 we are given the means by which that promise will be fulfilled for the children of believers. And so it is through the rest of the Bible. The connection between means and ends is taught and it is illustrated both positively and negatively. This same connection, by the way, is often stated in respect to other sacred relationships in the Bible such as that between ministers and their congregations. Timothy is to watch his example and his teaching closely, because, we read in 1 Tim. 4:16, by them he will save his hearers. No one thinks that Timothy was his congregation’s savior in the sense that Jesus Christ was their savior, but such statements that tie means and ends tightly together are commonplace in Holy Scripture. Well, so it is here and in so many other places in the Bible: the faithful parental nurture of children is the divinely appointed means by which the Lord communicates his salvation to them and g rows them up in that salvation. And that makes 22:6 not proverbial truth, but theological truth.
What other promise of salvation, what other connection between means and ends do we treat proverbially? Would we ever say, for example, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and most of the time you will be saved,” or “if you confess your sins, most of the time God will forgive them”? Would we ever think to say that those who call upon the Lord are likely to be saved but, of course, it isn’t invariably the case?
Remember now, however, the qualifications that must be remembered when talking about these things, qualifications that sophisticated readers of the Bible will be careful to make.
- We are not saying that any parent provides a perfect nurture for his or her children any more than we believe that our faith in Christ is perfect, or our repentance, or our obedience is perfect. The Lord counts our little for a lot, but the entire Bible teaches us to believe that we can be faithful without being perfect, even blameless – a term the Bible often uses of Christians – without being perfect or sinless.
- We are not saying that we, mere human beings, can judge the quality of a parent’s nurture of his or her children as God can and will. There are many things we cannot know, cannot measure, and cannot judge.
- We are not saying that all covenant children will have the same spiritual experience. Salvation, for reasons known only to God, comes for some later than for others. Some struggle greatly where others find only an easy way.
- We are not saying that a fussy child or a stubborn child is an unsaved child. Parents will come to me frequently and say, “I don’t think my child really is repentant for the sins that he commits. My response is usually, “Well you know I’m not terribly impressed by your repentance a good deal of the time.” It takes more than a lifetime for us to learn the grace of true repentance and to practice it consistently! We all stumble in many ways. We all have different personalities and the grace of God works more or less rapidly in different lives. In the same way, we are not saying that a young adult who passes through some period of spiritual struggle is unsaved.
- We are certainly not saying that parents have the power to save their children; their role is instrumental only. As we read in Proverbs 2:6:
“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
Still, no one reading that statement and the rest of Proverbs could conclude that parental nurture doesn’t matter because salvation is of the Lord. It is the way of our children’s salvation if it is not the cause of their salvation. And that salvation can be forfeit if parents are unfaithful. The Bible says that often and clearly enough for anyone to deny.
- We are definitely not saying that the responsibility belongs only to parents. As the Bible is careful to say and then to emphasize in some very memorable passages of God’s Word, it is the individual himself or herself as an adult who is fundamentally responsible for his or her relationship to God. He or she cannot blame his or her parents, or claim, in the famous words of responsibility-dodging Israelites, “our fathers’ ate sour grapes and we children’s teeth have been set on edge.” What is more, the responsibility of many parents for their children’s failure to believe and obey the Lord has, I’m sure, been significantly mitigated and in many cases perhaps completely eliminated by the failure of the church’s ministry to make that responsibility plain and to teach them how to fulfill it.
- Then we are not denying that there are many mysteries in God’s plans and purposes that we cannot fathom or explain. It is not up to us to explain why anything has happened as it has in the kingdom of God as it has.
But it is no part of our calling as Christians, I hope we all can agree about this, to look for ways to avoid responsibility or accountability or to prefer interpretations of texts that let us off the hook. The Bible places parents and keeps them firmly on the hook in regard to the spiritual outcome of the lives of their children.
However, all of that is far too negative and places the emphasis in the wrong place. The proverb is not about whom to blame if a child grows up an unbeliever as so many commentaries seem to think it is. It is rather about the confidence we may have as Christian parents that the Lord will ratify a faithful nurture in the hearts of our children. What do we want, above all, if we are serious Christian parents? We want to know that our children will follow us in the faith and be found with us forever in heaven. We don’t care for anything else in life as much as we care about that. Indeed, nothing would please us more than to know that they will surpass us in faith, in piety, in fruitful Christian living, and that their children will follow them as they followed us, believing in Jesus and loving and serving him with their lives. It happens all the time and it should be not only our commitment to make it so, but our expectation that it will be so.
But the proverb also puts us on our mettle to get to work at once; not to dally. The work can be done effectively when a person is young and is able to be commanded in heart, speech and behavior by his or her parents. If it is not done during childhood, all bets are off. [Waltke, ii, 204-205]
What we have here primarily is encouragement not warning, hope not judgment. There are fathers who care very deeply that their sons master some sport: football or basketball or baseball or soccer. But the day will come when one stops playing a sport. It isn’t really all that important. Later on in life, few will care whether you were a gifted athlete in high school or college, few will even know. But every Christian father should care that his son is mastering the godly life and becoming wise as a child of God ought to be. All his life, for many years after he has stopped playing basketball or football people will know, many will care, and his own family especially will care that he is a godly man, a good man, a loving, gentle, and caring man, a wise man, a responsible man, a useful man and fruitful man. He will do much good and bring much honor to his parents and to the Lord Christ and his church. But to make such a man requires parents who start right away when he is a baby and never quit their nurturing work until he is a man. And here is God’s promise for them:
”Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Parents, you have a great work to do, a great contribution to make to the church and to the world. You don’t need to go somewhere else to do it. It is right in front of you.
You need not bid, for cloistered cell,
Our neighbor and our work farewell,
Nor strive to wind ourselves too high
For sinful man beneath the sky;
The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we need to ask –
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
And what is that trivial round, that common task? To raise your children every hour of every day to love and to serve God in living faith and holiness of life.