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Topics: Fatherhood, Manhood

(Law and) Gospel-centered Parenting

July 31, 2013


By M. Hopson Boutot

As a happy product of the grace-loving evangelical tradition, I am exceedingly grateful for the deluge of gospel conversation among many Christians today. But, as a sometimes-crotchety old professor once reminded me, people are prone to extremes. What began as a needed corrective to the moralistic Christianity of our forebears could easily turn into an overcorrection of Antinomian proportions.

Martin Luther faced the same problem. He began his reforms by speaking against the grace-less error of the Roman Catholic Church, but before long, he was challenging the grace-loving errors of his lawless would-be followers. Could it be that in our righteous zeal for the gospel we have swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction?

I know what some would say. We’re talking about the gospel. How could one possibly consider the gospel too much? Perhaps a better way to look at our current state is not an error of considering the gospel too often, but considering it too narrowly. Luther famously said that in Scripture, God spoke in two languages –law and gospel. Sometimes I wonder if we have, in effect, clamped one side of God’s mouth shut while holding up a megaphone to the other.

What does all this have to do with parenting? In the midst of our pleas for gospel-centered everything, we have urged Christian parents to raise their children in light of the gospel. Certainly this is a worthy goal, but I wonder if it misses half of the point. Is it even possible to raise your children in light of the gospel without a healthy dose of law? Yet you won’t find any books or seminars on law-centered parenting.

Perhaps we need to change our terminology. What we’re after, more than an idea of gospel-centered parenting, is biblical faithfulness. And that may not be gospel-centered parenting, but (law and) gospel-centered parenting. So what does it mean to bring the law into view as we parent?

1.     Build a Gospel Foundation

Teach your children the gospel. Teach it to them over and over and over again until they have a solid gospel foundation in their minds. Swing the hammer of the gospel continually until your children have a healthy framework for understanding the law. When you do teach your children law, they should know that in themselves they are powerless to obey it, their obedience does not merit God’s favor, and their obedience should be in response to Christ’s obedience.

2.     Teach them Law

There was a time many years ago when teaching children the law of God was central to Christian education. Learning the 10 Commandments was as important as any other subject. How often do we teach our children God’s law today? Do our children know the Ten Commandments? They may know the faces and names of all their favorite Pixar movies, and they may know the lines by heart. But do they know God’s law? Do you? Law-and-gospel centered parenting means teaching your children the law.

But understanding God’s law is not enough. They must learn to love God’s law. Over and over again the Psalmist expresses his delight and love in God’s commandments. Our children must not only learn God’s law, but learn why God’s law is good.

3.     Plead Not Guilty

It’s amazing how quickly something that was meant to be liberating turns into legalism. The gospel-centered movement was meant to free us from the bonds of guilt-laden legalism, but sometimes it induces more guilt than it intended. How many well-meaning parents feel guilty if they don’t expound the gospel every time their child throws a temper tantrum or takes from his siblings? How many parents feel obligated to ground every command in the gospel, or feel guilty for all the times when they don’t? We may be able to suppress the guilt in the moment, but the next time we hear a sermon or read a devotional about parenting we crawl into a hole with our guilt and shame.

Law-and-gospel centered parenting can be a liberating force in your home. You have freedom to demand obedience from your children without waxing eloquently about how their obedience doesn’t merit grace. A man of God explained it to me in this way. He loves his children with his whole heart, and it’s important that his children know that he loves them. It’s also important that his children understand that everything he does for them is done out of love for them. But sometimes he needs to tell them to take out the trash. Not “I love you so much, now take out the trash,” or “because I have first loved you, respond to my love and take out the trash,” or “take out the trash, but remember, your response to this command does not change my love for you or your status as my child.” No, sometimes he just says, “Son, take out the trash.” All law, no gospel.

I am not advocating grace-less parenting. I am simply reminding parents that without the law, grace doesn’t make sense. Without the law, grace doesn’t have value. Perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon making a mountain out of a molehill. Perhaps I’ve constructed a straw man, addressing a problem that really isn’t there. Or, perhaps, in our exuberance for the gospel we have inadvertently swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, demonizing the law that Scripture calls perfect.

If we’re going to parent well, we must parent as God parents. And God speaks two languages in Scripture. As parents, we dare not stop pursuing fluency in the language of the gospel. But, perhaps, it’s time more of us learn to speak the language of law.

Hopson Boutot has been happily married to his wife, Holly, for over 7 years. They have two children, Jonah and Zoë, with another baby on the way. Hopson is a Ph.D. student in Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received his M.Div from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. In addition to working full-time and pursuing his Ph.D., Hopson is the pastor of Belmar Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

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