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The Gospel: The Key to Parenting
September 30, 2009
Last week I reviewed Bill Farley’s new book Gospel-Powered Parenting. I recommended it highly, saying it had “just the right combination of affirmation (your struggles are universal struggles, your joys are universal joys) and exhortation to both encourage and challenge me in all the right ways.” After I reviewed it, I found there were a few things I wanted to ask the author. I went ahead and asked if he would be willing to do a brief interview about the book and he was kind enough to do so. I trust you’ll enjoy his answers as I did.
1. Why the gospel? Why is the gospel the key to empowering parenting? What is the connection between the words “gospel” and “powered?”
Paul tells us that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). We hear this verse and think the pulpit or witnessing, but parents should hear this and think family devotions. Parents convinced that God’s power is latent in the gospel center their families around the gospel. They are convinced that it provokes new birth, that it will knit their children’s hearts to God, and motivate godly behavior. Our children receive the “imperishable seed” of new birth through the message of the gospel (1 Pet. 1:23). Often parents don’t center their parenting in the gospel because either they don’t really understand the gospel, or they don’t believe that God’s power is latent in the gospel.
The gospel also protects parents from “moralism,” the idea that well-behaved children are the main thing. New Birth is the main thing. The morality of Christ imputed to your children is the main thing. It is not what our children do for Christ but what Christ has done for our children that is the main thing. Ironically, without aiming at it, gospel centered parents get godly behavior from their children.
In addition, the fear of God is the key to attracting God’s favor upon our parenting. Many think that the fear of God is an Old Testament concept. But the main place we get the fear of God is at the cross of Christ—the heart of the gospel.
2. Today we are hearing the word “gospel” everywhere (at least, those of us within a certain subset of the Christian world). Do you think there’s a danger that it could become cliche? Could gospel begin to lose its meaning when it’s applied to everything?
When the gospel becomes “cliché” Christianity has become irrelevant. The center has been displaced. That is because the gospel is the main thing. It is the center of the Bible. The Old Testament predicts it. The gospels recount it, and the epistles look back to explain and apply it. I think the recent surge of Gospel-centeredness is really just a resurgence of biblical Christianity.
This may sound strange to many Christians. To many the gospel is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” But the gospel is deep. It is a well with no bottom. The more we understand it the less apt we are to stray from it. It starts by assuming the bad news. We are in trouble. Our default condition is Hell. God owes us nothing but justice. We are all running pell mell toward damnation. We cannot solve this problem by being good. We are in profound trouble.
The gospel is the “good news” that solves this problem. It reconciles enemies—God and man—and makes them friends. It opens the gate of Heaven to all who believe. It infuses Christians with an indomitable hope. It motivates love, grace, and forgiveness.
In my view, this new Gospel-centeredness is a profound deepening of the faith. It is what really matters. I believe there will be tremendous long-term fruit from the recovery of this emphasis.
Those who understand the gospel never get tired of hearing it. I watched my son preach on penal substitution last Sunday, and even though I covered the same ground ten weeks ago, the congregation was transfixed. Despite the fact that this message is the ABC of the gospel, my congregation would listen to it every week and keep coming back for more. What I am trying to say is that the gospel is not something we start with so that we can pass on to the deeper truths. It is the deeper truth.
The thesis of my previous book, Outrageous Mercy, is that the gospel teaches us everything we need to know about God, man, eternity, Hell, Heaven, how to get into Heaven, what God loves, and what he hates. In addition, it teaches us everything we need to know about how to live. If all of this is true, it must also teach us about parenting. The point of Gospel Powered Parenting is that it does.
3. We want to affirm, of course, that it is well within the rights of any Christian parents to homeschool their children. We want to affirm that this is often a wise decision for parents. Yet in Gospel-Powered Parenting you explicitly mention that your five children, all of whom are believers, went to public schools and state colleges. You emphasize the importance of an offensive mind-set. Do you find that, at least for some Christian parents, homeschooling is really just one aspect of a larger defensive mind-set?
Many things motivate home-schooling—a desire for a better education, the longing to mingle the gospel with academic subjects, the desire to cast our children in a biblical mold, and a longing to protect them from evil influence. What I am saying is that if protection is the main thing, or the only thing, we might be in trouble.
Let me be clear. I am all for home-schooling and/or private Christian education. Although my children all graduated from public High School, my two oldest daughters went to a private Christian school for several years, and we home-schooled my youngest during his Junior High years. None of my fourteen grandchildren are in public education today. My oldest daughter taught in a classical Christian school for twelve years. I am not against home-schooling: I am against a fear-oriented, defensive mindset. Home schooling does not necessarily presume this mentality.
4. What are the potential dangers in this?
The potential dangers are primarily reactionary. You could take this idea to an extreme and fail to protect children when you should. That would not be helpful. I am not saying that you shouldn’t protect your children from some influences. I am just saying that “protection” should never be our primary strategy. Isolating them from worldly influence by itself is seldom productive.
5. What does an offensive mind-set look like in parenting?
An offensive mindset targets the child’s heart not the child’s external environment (friends, music, school, etc.). In order to reach their child’s heart effective parents focus on their relationship with the child. Rather than fearing the world’s negative influence, they focus on the gospel’s power to influence their child. This parent worries more about their example to their child rather than the world’s example. This parent waits patiently for New Birth rather than assuming it because a child was baptized, or made a confession of faith at a summer camp.
6. Why is it such a temptation to try to control, or over-control, our children’s’ environment? Why do parents need to guard against this?
I think it is a temptation because our default condition is independence from God. We think our influence is the deciding factor in our child’s character development. It isn’t. Ultimately, the influence of God trumps all of our efforts. God gives New Birth. We can’t give it to our children. Our children can’t take it. It is God’s gracious gift (Mt 13:11, Mt 16:17, Luke 19:42; 24:16, 24:31, 24:45; Jn 1:12,13; Jn 5:21; Jn 9:39; Jn 6:39, Rm 9:10-24; Eph 1:1-6; 1Pe 2:9). Therefore, and this is crucial, pleasing God is the most important thing a parent can do to move God to regenerate their child. This means that effective parents are God-centered not child-centered. Their focus is always on God, not their children. Fearing God is one crucial way that parents can please God. We learn this fear at the cross. That is why I call it gospel powered parenting.
7. Do you feel that some Christian parents allow fear to be a motivating factor in the education of their children?
Yes, this is sometimes true. I am a pastor. I have watched parents try to protect their children into God’s kingdom. Fear of worldly influence is often their motive. Sometimes they are home-schooling families, but not always. When a parent thinks “protecting” their child from the outside world is the main thing, they are saying something. They are saying that Christianity equals “moralism,” (pleasing God through outward behavior), that obedient children are the main thing, that the child’s problem is “out there” rather than within his own fallen nature. Sometimes they assume that their child is basically good. Negative influence will corrupt that goodness. Therefore, protecting their child will enable that goodness to flourish. This mentality also assumes that New Birth has little power to equip a child to conquer temptation.
8. How can a parent guard against moralism? Isn’t there huge temptation, perhaps especially when we are within view of other Christians, to judge parenting by the outward shows of immediate obedience and other potentially-moralistic standards?
Moralism is the assumption that we make ourselves acceptable to God with good behavior. It is the deadly enemy of Christianity. It is the one thing that all non-Christian religions share in common, and the rejection of moralism is one crucial doctrine that sets Christianity apart. The Bible says God accepts us because we believe, not because we perform.
Moral behavior is important, however it is not the ultimate goal of parenting. New Birth is the final goal. Morality matters because it glorifies God. Our children will never be moral in a pleasing way to God until their hearts are changed through the miracle of New Birth, and even then, their morality will never makes them ultimately acceptable to God.
So, to answer you question, the only way to guard against moralism is to understand the nature of New Birth, to understand justification by faith alone, and to aim all of your parenting efforts at these targets. Parents that center their families around the gospel tend to get these results.
9. Why did you and your wife make decisions about educating your children?
Our children were in public schools during the years 1980 to 2000. We put them in public school because of the convictions mentioned above. There was a Christian sub-culture at their High School. They made their friends there. Generally, they prospered spiritually.
However, I must make some caveats. First, public education has degenerated since our kids were in school. We might do differently today. Second, we made some mistakes. We were not flexible enough. Some of our children easily withstood peer pressure. Others struggled. Looking back, we probably should have put the children that struggled in private school or home-schooled them. In short, I am not making any rules about where your children should be educated. The Bible takes a different tack. It stresses the role of the father, the importance of parental example, and the fear of God taught by the gospel.
10. How will you know if this book has been a success? What do you hope for it?
I will not know if this book has been successful until I am with God in eternity. I will feel successful if I meet saints who came to New Birth because their parents read this book and changed their approach to parenting.