Raising Children for God

Bible Studies

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 the gospel.

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:
  1. She has been unconditionally chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world;

  2. She has been effectually called;

  3. She has been born again;

  4. She has come to God in true repentance and true faith;

  5. She has been declared righteous by God based on the finished work of Christ, which she received by means of faith alone;

  6. She has been adopted into God’s own family;

  7. She has been sealed with the Holy Spirit; and, therefore is in the process of being sanctified;

  8. She will continue to hold onto Christ and persevere to the end;

  9. She will be glorified in both her soul and

  10. She will be glorified in her body and enjoy God for all eternity.

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.

In many theological quarters it isn’t really that big a difficulty. For example, many modern Evangelicals see an age of accountability in those years prior to children being able “to examine themselves” (cf. Larger Catechism 174). Such parents tend not to become particularly anxious until their children begin to reach the end of this imagined age. However, the Scripture knows nothing of such a this-worldly limbo. (As one born of Presbyterian parents who had bought into the age of accountability myth, somewhere around the age of ten, I began self-consciously not to worry about the sins I was getting into because I believed erroneously that I still had two years before I would have to answer for them.)

Within Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox circles, as long as children have been baptized, original sin has been washed away, and they have been introduced to God’s grace. In Tridentine theology, God’s grace is given ex opere operato (by the work having been performed).

In some traditional Protestant circles, a judgment of charity is stretched into a presumption of regeneration, and children are encouraged to believe that they are true Christians unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, such as their apostatizing from the Church.

I cannot reconcile any of the above views with what I read in the Bible. While in charity I accept all who are part of the visible Church as Christians, I would never encourage individual professing Christians so charitably to view themselves. There is a very different approach in how we are to assess our own Spiritual condition from how we form our assessment of others.* While we do not wait for positive evidence of faith in others before accepting their professions of faith as genuine, such presumption with regard to ourselves could prove eternally deadly. We must never encourage others presumptively to rest in the hope of salvation apart from self-examination, the kind that regularly takes place under strong, soul-searching preaching.

So how did Sandy and I deal with our children? As with our first child, we taught her siblings the great truths of the Christian message through a variety of means: reading Bible stories to them, interacting with them about everyday events through the lens of Scripture, catechizing them, putting them in Sunday school and the worship services of the Church. When they sinned, we corrected them and instructed them to seek not only the forgiveness of the humans they had wronged, but, above all, God’s forgiveness. And just as we always forgave them, so we encouraged them to believe that God does the same. We encouraged them to look to the Lord Jesus, to turn to him daily from their sins with godly sorrow, and to believe that their sins were forgiven for Jesus’ sake: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Yet we pressed them to self-examination and reminded them that it is only those who have the positive fruit of faith and repentance who should regard themselves as Christians. Just as circumcision did in the Old Testament, their baptism laid on them the obligation to make their “calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).

Above all, we prayed with and for them; we still do. When we knelt by the bed of each one individually to pray, we prayed for many things that were on their minds, but we always prayed that the Lord would give them hearts to love and trust Jesus with. We pressed them to believe that when Jesus died on the cross and rose again, he did this for them. We always prayed that God would pardon all their sins for Jesus’ sake. We explained the meaning of their baptism and of the holy Supper, and when they expressed a desire to commune, we prepared them for a public profession of faith, so they could participate with us in this wonderful pledge of God’s grace in Christ.

As our children grew older, our prayers for them took on a new tone, one little known earlier. There was a growing sense of our own failure as parents, that even when we had done all we had been commanded to do—which we could never bring ourselves to believe that we had done—we should still say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10). Less and less, did we reflect on what we were doing for our children; more and more, our prayers became a bare pleading of God’s most gracious, covenant mercy for our children, mercy that extends to a thousand generations.

We taught our children to believe that there is more to the true knowledge of God than anyone in this world knows, and so we pressed them to seek the Lord Jesus with all their hearts and never to stop seeking him, not only to know more about God, the Bible and theology, but to know God himself, experientially, even mystically, and to remember that there is always more.

As our children have moved into adulthood, we have taken great joy in seeing them active in true churches of Christ. We are greatly blessed when they talk with us about decisions they need to make, especially when they make decisions that manifest a willingness to take up the Cross and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Even in adulthood, our children sometimes call and confess sins. I deal with them as I do others: whenever people confess their sins, I always pray for them and speak God’s word of absolution, not sacerdotally, but as a herald of our all-merciful Sovereign who forgives all who confess their sins and trust in his grace in Christ.

As with my fellowship with others, I take great comfort in the Christian fellowship I enjoy with my wife and increasingly with our adult children. But even with all that, God has not called me to be sure of anyone’s election but my own (2 Peter 1:10). The thought that even one of my precious children or grandchildren would spend eternity in a Christ-less hell brings me nothing but anguish, but the God whom I serve is a God who in his self-disclosure tells me that he is “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6, 7). It is true that God does not leave the guilty unpunished and that he visits sin within the generations of the wicked, but he teaches us that the dominant motif in the song of his character is his mercy and love. In Christ, when I look at that “multitude that no one could number” of Revelation 7:9, I believe that I can trace the faces of all of my descendants there—not arrogantly or presumptively, but not with a naked wish, either. My hope is grounded in God’s gracious covenant, a covenant signed and sealed to believers and their children in baptism and the Supper.

Cordially in Christ,
Bob Vincent


*  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.

How different is this standard of self-judgment from that by which we measure others. In Mark 9:38 we read, ‘”Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”’

What is Jesus’ response? Jesus said, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward” (Mark 9:39-41). When we look at others, a different standard is to be used: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). If a person professes to be a follower of Christ, either with his lips or by wearing the mark of Christ’s ownership, baptism, we must accept him as such, unless we see positive evidence to the contrary.

This is what we may call a judgment of charity. Paul used the judgment of charity when he wrote to the church at Corinth. He addressed all of them as saints and brethren (1 Corinthians 1:2, 10). He regarded every one of them as fellow believers whom God had called, including, we may add, Stephanas’ children (1 Corinthians 1:9, 16). Did he mean that every person there was a true Christian? No, in fact he warns them to take a close look at themselves: “Examine your selves to see whether you are in the faith; test your selves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:6)