Raising Children for God
Reflections from over the Hill
After we had been married for several years, God gave Sandy
and me our first child, a precious little girl whom we named Lydia; she
was named after the biblical character “whose heart the Lord opened to
pay attention to the things being spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). In
deciding to name her Lydia, we were setting about to remind her and
ourselves that she needed a sovereign work of grace in order to believe
We had come to see in the confession of David, himself a child born within the covenant, a fitting confession for such children: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Furthermore, simply because Lydia was born of Christian parents, we did not see that she was exempt from David’s sobering words: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psalm 58:3).
We understood Saint Paul to be addressing people who had been born into heathen families, “strangers to the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12), when he wrote the first two verses of Ephesians two: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” But we also understood that he did not mean to exclude others, who, like himself, were born to believing parents within God’s covenant, because he added in verse three: “Among them we, too, all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
Whatever extraordinary thing God might be pleased to work within certain children in the womb, as he did in the case of John the Baptist (Luke 1:15, 41, 44), we saw that our little girl would still need personally to appropriate the promises of the gospel for herself, and we regularly prayed for her to this end, even while she was in her mother’s womb. Back in February of 1971, within a few days of her birth, we presented her to the Lord during the worship service on the Lord’s Day; both the congregation and we made vows before God on her behalf when she was baptized. Lydia was raised in Church, dandled on our knees during the worship services to keep her from disturbing others. She participated in family worship, too, and early on was taught the Catechism for Young Children and attended Sunday school.
One Sunday afternoon, as we were waking up from our naps, she came and told her mother: “I asked Jesus in my heart.” Since she was three years old, we thought that perhaps her Sunday school teacher had put words in her mouth, and after the evening service, my wife chatted with her teacher about this. Such was not the case. This seemed to be something that Lydia had put together on her own. As she grew, she exhibited traits of being a true believer: she tried to live so as to please the Lord, and when she did wrong, she was remorseful; but having confessed her sins, she believed that God forgave her sins, and she didn’t walk in condemnation.
As with most children, Lydia had her ups and downs as she navigated the sometimes blustery seas of American adolescence; however, she always remained loyal to the Lord Jesus. In college she was always with the Lord’s people in Church on the Lord’s Day, and she also became involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, where on a summer project in Santa Cruz, California, she met her future husband. They married the week after Lydia graduated from college, and five years later her husband John was ordained as a teaching elder by the Palmetto Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. We very much enjoy the spiritual fellowship we have with both John and Lydia, often telephoning each other with prayer needs and talking things out. They now have three sons and a daughter and live a little over an hour away in Opelousas, where John is the pastor of Hope Presbyterian, a congregation of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
When was Lydia regenerated? I don’t know, but I’m sure that she has been. The big question isn’t when but that a person is born again. The new birth isn’t something that we can discern except by the fruit it bears in repentance and faith. Lydia’s whole life for the past almost thirty-seven years is evidence that her wicked little heart was subdued by sovereign grace prior to that confession of faith when she was three. God gave us four more children after Lydia—two more daughters and two sons; all are active members of Christian congregations today.
Each child’s spiritual journey was unique, even as each child is unique. As we watched them grow up in the same church and home, we could see that even though each one came from the same genetic pool, each was quite different. What was a besetting sin for one, posed no temptation for another. Some were into sports, others into music and drama, and some were avid readers. One has a degree in sociology; another is an attorney; yet another has finished college and plans to go to seminary, and one is working on her master’s degree at Tulane. Each one reacted differently to the adolescent eddies, where the river of childhood flows into the sea of adulthood; each took on some of the water of this world, but now all are anchored in the safe harbor of the Church of God.
When children are very young, we can all be impressed by what appears to be spiritual aptitude. I remember how impressed other people always were with the structure of our home and with our very polite, obedient children so many years ago. But I also remember meeting with my session in January 1989 and offering to request that presbytery dissolve the pastoral relationship because I needed help to regain control of one of my children. This was less than four months after Sandy had come out of her coma, having been run over by a log truck on October 10, 1988; she was still using a wheelchair, recovering from her hip having been broken in three places. My mother was living with us, too, but touched with a measure of senile dementia, and one child was a toddler. It was a very sad and lonely time. But God was good, and his Church was good. The session paid for us to go once a week for counseling to Jackson, Mississippi. Seven to eight hours a week traveling together in a car helped to rebuild the somewhat fractured relationship between the two of us and our child, and I could once again read 1 Timothy 3:4, 5 and Titus 1:6 without feeling the need to resign from the ministry.
Back in the sixties when I had taken all those psychology courses, I was so sure that I would be a great father; better than my own had been. Now, I am convinced that I don’t hold a candle to the man. I wish that he could hear me when I visit his grave; I’d like to tell him that, because I’m sure he picked up on my naďve pride when his grandchildren were young. New parents are often quite sure that if they will carefully follow Bill Gothard, James Dobson, Jay Adams or Larry Crabb, they’ll never know real anguish with their children; they imagine: if I do X, Y will be the result. But when I think about parenting, I am reminded of the King of Israel’s words to King Ben-hadad, “Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off” (1 Kings 20:11). In part, that’s because even if our child is elect, we are not guaranteed that effectual calling will be experienced the same way it was with our Lydia.
Bringing children into the world is serious business, especially as we reflect on Acts 2:39: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” We have covenant promises given before and after Mount Sinai, confirmed to Gentiles under the New Covenant:
“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7).
“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31).
But we also have the decree of election, a decree that extends both to strangers and in the line of our descendants, but a decree that does not promise us that every child born to believing parents is elect. God commanded Abraham to circumcise both Ishmael and Isaac in Genesis 17, yet Ishmael remained a lost man; it was with Isaac alone that God established his covenant (Genesis 17:19). Isaac in turn had two sons, Jacob and Esau; both received the sign of God’s favor, and yet God’s favor was on Jacob alone.
This brings us back to Acts 2:39, where we see something of both the continuity and discontinuity between the two Testaments. There is a difference, because God’s grace now richly extends far beyond the borders of Israel: “The promise is for . . . all who are far off.” There is also continuity, because “The promise is for you and your children.” But neither of these precepts is absolute; both are conditioned by God’s eternal, immutable decree: unconditional election that is followed by the call to come to Christ. But that call, while effectual for God’s elect, is not effectual for all who are far off or for all our children. Peter makes this clear, when he qualifies at the end of Acts 2:39, “For all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Putting Acts 2:39 within the larger context of what the Bible teaches about salvation, I can say, if I know that my child has put her trust in the Lord Jesus Christ (Number 4 below), then I also know:
The difficulty that the Christian
parent faces is how we view our children before we see evidence of
Number 4 above. This is a difficulty with which true Christians have
wrestled over the past two millennia.
The most striking illustration of this comes from a comparison of what
Jesus says in Matthew 12:30 with what he says in Mark 9:40. In Matthew
12:22-37 Jesus encounters strong opposition: the Pharisees accuse him of
being in league with the devil. After answering their charges Jesus goes
on to warn them of the great danger they are in: “He who is not with me
is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I
tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the
blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:30, 31).
After further warning Jesus tells them about the necessity of Spiritual
fruit. Notice the focus on self judgment—“He who is not with me is
against me” (Matthew 12:30). If I see no positive evidence that I am for
Christ, I must conclude that I am against him.