The desire to bring “grace” into parenting raises many questions. “Grace” has become something of a mantra to disparage duty and to equate obedience with legalism. If a moral judgment is made, the rejoinder will often be, “Well, you need to be gracious.” Yet, if grace is pitted against God’s law, it is a false grace. If grace is used to excuse sin, again, grace is being dangerously misused. Grace is not a license to find ways to get around God’s commands.
We need a clear and biblical definition of grace. Consider Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God that brings salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.”
This is a long, functional definition of grace. Grace is God’s undeserved kindness to sinners through our Savior, Jesus Christ. Grace is God’s power delivering us from sin’s slavery so that we can be godly in heart and life. Grace has a future component of hope – we shall not arrive at perfection in this life; God’s grace restores and recovers when we fall. Grace is inseparable from the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the gift of God’s grace, and through him, we are redeemed from all our sins and progressively renewed. Where God’s grace appears in a person’s life, there will be zeal for good works.
This places us in a good position to begin to apply his grace in our parenting. Grace-based parenting is not duty-trouble-confrontation avoidance parenting, so that the child (or the parent) is freed from having to bring himself under God’s authority. Grace never says, “Well, that is just the way my child is.” Ungracious parenting labels children with various psychoses and behavioral maladies and thus sets them up for a lifetime of frustration and potential self-excusing. “Because I have this or that weakness, then I get a free pass for my actions and attitudes.” This is the opposite of grace. It is a deceptive form of child abuse.
Gracious parenting patiently confronts sins and upholds the child as he struggles with his individual weaknesses toward adulthood. It neither gives him a free pass nor grinds him in the dirt. Inevitably, it points him to Jesus Christ. It points him to Jesus Christ with clarity and passion because it takes sin and holiness seriously. -Said another way, parenting that is effectual for God’s kingdom must present to each child a full-orbed Savior – cleansing through his stripes; righteousness through his obedience, strength through union with him. The power of parenting, as the Christian’s power everywhere else, is Christ in you, his grace powerfully transforming you so that you can then be an instrument of his grace in the lives of others.
With respect to sin, a grace-conscious parent comes before the cross with his child. The gospel is not a tool of manipulation but a consuming reality in a Christian parent’s life. He speaks freely of his own struggles, with age appropriateness, but never hiding that his parenting, as his life, is deserving of God’s displeasure. His only hope is a crucified Savior. This kind of gospel honesty is the truest form of gracious parenting. It does not pretend to have all the answers; it lives honestly before the face of Christ, feels its dependence upon the Savior, and comes alongside the child to walk him to the cross.
Respecting obedience, the other side of grace in Christ must also guide the Christian parent. Where is strength to be found to deny self? The child will early feel that there are many rules he needs to follow. Why? Love for Jesus Christ. How? The power of Jesus Christ. What happens when I fail? Do I need to earn my way back into his favor? No, and neither do you need to earn your way back into mine, says the Christian parent. All roads lead to Christ, including the path of obedience. The ultimate goal is the glory of God – do we not want to please him who has so loved us? Closely related is love for Christ as the motivation for obedience. Parents must sow obedience in the field of love for Jesus. We do not think we are better than others; we are not trying to impress others. We earnestly want to love him who loved and gave himself for us.
In the ruckus of life, especially early childhood training, it is difficult to keep this full-orbed grace at the center of home life. Children need discipline – but be carefully here that you do not set up pain as the ultimate incentive to obedience – or fear of reprisal or threats. Scream-pout-anger parenting is graceless parenting. There is certainly a place for a most hearty fear of the Lord, but speak early and often of God’s love and mercy in Christ. Tell the children the gospel story early and ardently – I hope you feel this way about it, for your passion for Christ is most promising for the godliness of your home down through generations. Not set of rules or rigor in enforcing them can ever replace the most serious, sincere, and rejoicing love for Christ. Ask him, parent, to show you the glory of his grace. As you see him more clearly and learn of him – both sides of his redeeming grace – you will be well fitted to deal with both sides of child’s need – cleansing and strength, forgiveness and obedience, favor and fellowship.
Something should also be said briefly about parental tone. Admittedly, no two sets of parents, no two parents, will have the same demeanor and attitudes. Personality differences are very real and must be taken more seriously than they are, not as an excuse for our sinful tendencies but as an incentive to seek the transforming power and grace of God exactly where we are individually weak.
Gracious parenting is joyful parenting. Joy is commanded for all believers, and there is no allowance made for “non-joyful personality types.” This may be a particular sin in your life, and if so, I urge you to spend time with the Lord confessing, repenting, and learning to walk the Bible’s path to joy – no glass is half-full thinking, Christ-focused affections, yielded to his providences and circumstances without complaining, walking in obedience to him and often where his means of grace are exercised so that his life may be formed in you. Christ Jesus will make you joyful, or more joyful, as you walk in fellowship with him.
Joy is the reflex of grace-consciousness. It sees Jesus, adores his person and trusts his work, and is in love with him. Those around us cannot help but know whether or not we really love Jesus. Do we speak of him as a real person, as the most important person in our lives? Do we relate blessings to his goodness? Do our sins – which our families know very well – lead us to Christ in private confession and public repentance? Grace is not fearful of being seen as less. It fears only presenting Christ as less than he is. Gracious parenting is obsessed with Christ. And this means that it is obsessed with Scripture, for he is the eternal Word and the Scriptures his living voice.
Consider the way God commended Abraham: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Gen. 18:19). The Lord clearly connects Abraham’s faithfulness in commanding his children in God’s law to the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Abraham. Thus, grace-conscious parents carefully instruct their children in God’s word. This is the normal and efficacious way that God confirms his saving covenant in the lives of our children – through careful, loving instruction in his word. This instruction is not pious advice or “I wish you would do this,” but the legitimate exercise of God-given authority that guides children into God’s truth.
The connection between covenant grace and the Word and Jesus may be seen in the apostle’s commendation of Timothy’s mother and grandmother, Lois and Eunice. “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). All the grace dynamics are present here – the word of God which teaches us grace, our Savior who is the mediator and living water of God’s grace, and careful parental (and grand-parental) instruction in those Jesus-focused, living Scriptures.
And fathers, especially, by all means smile when you talk of Jesus and his word. If you cannot, begin here – “Lord, why am I a miserable Christian?” This is a separate problem, and one that must be remedied before you can winsomely lead your children in the path of gospel grace. Learn of him, learn to rejoice in him again. Your family will notice. It will not be mastery of principles but Christ in you.