But Bring Them Up
I almost titled this post "gospel-centered baby spanking." That probably would have gotten more clicks. But that might have been self-defeating. Still, it would have reflected the valuable contrast I hope to present. You see, it is one thing to say that the gospel impacts every part of our lives. It is a completely other thing to see the impact and application. One of those interesting places that I think many overlook is child rearing.
There is an endless supply of articles suggesting ways to raise children. This endless number is magically multiplied by infinity when it comes to the subject of disciplining children. I am not an expert on children. Nor am I going to endorse a specific method of discipline. I do endorse corporeal punishment, but I do not think it is necessary. Instead, I have tried to spend a significant amount of time analyzing how the gospel impacts disciplining children. Or perhaps said another way, I have spent time thinking about how discipline can enforce reliance upon God and not self-help legalism.
Before getting to the children, I want to lay down briefly what the gospel is. Man was born sinless. Man sinned. In his sin, man was required to leave the presence of God. This judgment looms over all man. We are born into enmity with God. While future sins might have additional consequences, they all justify our separation from the presence of God. Christ then is the grace of God in the face of sin. He is first the grace of God in that in Him God and Man come together. This is God and Man in His very person. The initial stage of reconciliation is that the Son of God would humble himself to become man. God's grace here is that He draws near to us. The God-man would live a perfect life and become a sacrifice for sins. In this way, Christ fulfills the moral ("what you should do") and ceremonial ("how to be restored when you don't obey") law of Israel. God's grace here is that our punishment is absolved and that the God who draws near now draws near to us personally.
So how does the gospel impact disciplining our children?
Disobedience is Sin
Perhaps the most important thing in disciplining is that disobedience is sin. This singular point, may in fact, be the crucial link in understanding how the gospel affects the way we discipline our children. When our child disobeys they are sinning against God by not honoring the authority God has given to parents (Exo 20:12; Eph 6:1-3). Discipline should only occur when sin occurs. Parents need to bring this truth into our homes. Fundamentally, this needs to be believed if proper discipline is going to be administered. Parental commands are girded by the authority of God. The disobedience of parental commands is disobedience against God. Prepare yourself. It does not matter how foolish or trivial those parental commands may be.
Let this sink deep parents — whatever you command introduces the potential for sin (this concept is expressed by Paul concerning God's holy law e.g. Rom 7:7-11). So for instance, there is nothing sinful about a child jumping off a couch. But if a parent commands a child to stop, and they disobey then a sin has occurred. Recognizing that disobedience is sin should inform parents about house rules. It should push us to limit the number of rules and commands in our house. Let this sink deep parents — the laying down of commandment after commandment can become a stumbling block. Hence, Paul says,
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. - Eph 6:4
As parents, we can help reduce the number of times we discipline our kids by removing things that should rightfully be non-issues. This is Biblical ethics (Rom 14:13) that needs to find itself applied to our households. We do not want to be like the Pharisees laying a load of house rules that increase burdens and sin (Matt 23:4).
As important as this is for parents, it is equally important to impress upon our children. The gospel exists because there is first "bad news." This "bad news" is not due to socially unacceptable behavior. This "bad news" is not that mom and dad are embarrassed. This "bad news" is rightfully the result of sin. It is the separation of man from God. Our discipline of children must communicate this point. When our children sin we would be remiss to not start our discipline sessions with "it is this that separates us from God." It does not have to be said every time, but it should occur regularly. Discipline occurs because disobedience is sin against God. It should only occur when a command is disobeyed and God's Lordship is offended. The weight of this must be communicated to our children to have gospel-influenced discipline.
If we are going to have gospel-influenced discipline then everyone involved must be consumed with the reality of sin. Children are sinners. Parents are sinners. Mistakes will be mad. The truthfulness of sin must be affirmed loudly. In the shadow of this truth we must avoid the most familiar ditch I know of in child rearing — discipline cannot become a substitute sacrifice for our sin.
Restoration is Unmerited
On the basis of the gospel, parents must affirm sin in disciplining our children. On the basis of the gospel, parents must also affirm the incarnation and atonement. Once we become convinced concerning the sinfulness of disobedience, we will be convicted with the opportunity to impress grace. This is crucial if discipline is going to be gospel-centered. The goal of discipline must be the communication of restoration found in Christ. But this does not come through mere communication of words. Our actions in discipline must communicate it as well.
First, grace is unmerited. This is true despite all of our attempts to make ourselves worthy of grace. This must also be resisted when disciplining our children. When sin has occurred we must approach them with grace. A spanking does not suddenly make them worthy of grace. Saying "I am sorry" does not suddenly make them worthy of grace. Restoration in the gospel is not the sinner stepping towards God. It is God stepping towards man. Theologically, it is the Incarnation.
Examples with tiny children are easy because kids can sin before they speak. In these cases, it is on the parents to provide discipline and grace with little participation from the child. Parents are completely responsible for the restoration. The gospel is made manifest. How does this look as children grow older and can communicate? Not much different. The core of discipline must be unmerited grace. But this subsequently requires time for instruction. This is the role of spanking, confession, and forgiveness in discipline. They are not meritorious. They are post-merit. Spanking (and other forms of punishment) point to the necessity of death for sin. Confession reminds us that admission of sin is required to confess Christ as Lord. Our forgiveness is meant to reflect the forgiveness provided to us in Christ. The restoration of the parent-child relationship models the restoration to God found in Jesus Christ.
This is why multiple methods of discipline and instruction are perfectly valid. Methods that communicate how sin breaks relationships are essential not just corporeal punishment. Methods that communicate restoration of relationships are more important that behavior modification.
This is the time for horizontal restoration that is implied in the gospel (Matt 6:12). But it must be communicated that nothing we do in discipline actually absolves sin. It reflects our honest understanding of the truth. Neither parent or child is meriting anything in discipline. If disobedience is sin then the only thing that absolves it is the death of Christ. So what happens when a child refuses to admit to sin or does not want to forgive someone? There is no point in forcing them to go through the motions. It is time to point them back to the truthfulness of the gospel.
So parents, do we communicate the gospel? It should be obvious that we cannot discipline our children without a clear, and regular, articulation of the gospel. Restoration and not behavior modification must be the ultimate goal. This is both a restoration to God and restoration to each other. To communicate that we can be restored means that the truth of incarnation must be present. Christian doctrine is required Christian ethics. All of this will be unintelligible to children who are not taught Christian doctrine. The discipline of Christian children is almost impossible until they are familiar with the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (I say almost because these doctrinal truths do require some ability to think and reason that young kids do not possess equally).
We these questions answered let's tie a nice bow on the top and speak more broadly about discipline and the gospel.
Faith in Love
It should be clear at this point, but is worth repeating — discipline of children is not about changing behavior. Like the law of God, discipline is a "tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith" (Gal 3:24). We are not in the business of teaching people to obey the law but to love God and His law.
The gospel is not salvation by works. Nor is it salvation by participation. Protestants, in particular, cannot get lost here. The instructional elements of discipline communicate the proper behavior for someone washed in Christ's blood. But proper communication in times of discipline will also communicate that all of us are and remain sinners in need of grace.
The gospel communicates that faith works itself out in love. So also, when the core elements of discipline (admission of sin and reception of grace) take root in the heart of a child, the instruction provided will help children's obedience by faith. We cannot adopt a methodology of legalism completely counter the gospel. The instructional elements themselves can only ever produce legalism. They cannot be the goal of our discipline.
If we truly believe our children are sinners, we should expect them to act in defiance and sin. We should not be shocked. We should not internalize some level of disappointment with them or our parenting. And we certainly should not think that the mere process of discipline will make things better. Instead, we should ask ourselves if we are carrying them along in discipline towards the gospel or towards legalism. At the same time, if we believe that baptism (and the giving of the Holy Spirit) objectively do something, we should not be shocked when our children are abnormally obedient. We should not be shocked if faithful discipline manifests itself in more obedience. God does reward our faithful teaching when we teach reliance and not self-sufficiency. We must emphasize the grace aspect of discipline not the instructional. His word communicates promises to parents who impress the gospel, not legalism.
How this all looks will differ for each house, kid, and age range. But we are assured that the gospel is enough in each of those cases.