Parents don’t often think of the gospel and discipline in the same sentence. Typically, we tend to think that discipline is what you do now and the gospel is what you hope your children will embrace in the future. But Paul has a different understanding of the place of the gospel. For him, the gospel is the foundation, the hope of all of life for Christians, Col. 1:21-23.
This means that your parental discipline must be rooted and built upon the gospel. Just as you know that you can’t make yourself “good” enough for God to accept you, your children must know that they cannot make themselves “good” enough to earn your acceptance and approval. This is huge! You are not acceptable to God because you are a good person. You are acceptable because Jesus was good when you were not. That brings such immense comfort. You can’t earn your way to God!
This is exactly the comfort that you must offer to your children. If they believe that they must earn your acceptance, if they believe that they have to achieve some level of goodness before you will “approve” of them, your discipline will only serve to create a deep relational rift in your children. No child can bear the weight of “earning” approval – that is not the gospel!
A discipline that leads to approval focuses on your child’s performance. For example, if your goal is to have your children share toys based on each child having a toy for an equal amount of time you are engaging in a performance-based discipline. The focus is on attaining a measurable goal: how many minutes can I play with the toy and how many minutes before I can get it back again. Even if this approach produces some order it misses the mark of the gospel. Gospel-based discipline is focused on serving others instead of yourself.
So, instead of watching the timer to see when is the next time the toy is exchanged, a gospel-based approach would be zeroing in on how can each child learn to prefer his sibling’s pleasure over his own. This might mean that the children learn how to play together with the toy instead of individually. It might mean that children find delight in seeing others having fun rather than being miserable that they can’t have what they want. Or, it could mean learning how to show care by engaging in sacrificial love.
The “problem” with gospel-based discipline is that no child can willingly learn to do this in his own strength! Like each of us, our children are selfish by nature. Only the work of the Holy Spirit can bring about this change where children begin to genuinely prefer others before themselves. And, there is no way a parent can force this to happen! But what you can do is to model this selfless love in the way you live with your spouse, with your children and with those the Lord places in your path. You can pray with your children and teach them that this is what gospel-grace looks like. This focus on the gospel and discipline together requires more time than simply stating rules and setting a timer. It requires a deep relational commitment to your children and to Christ.
Only the work of the Holy Spirit can bring about this change where children begin to genuinely prefer others before themselves.
Most importantly, it means making Jesus Christ the center of your life and of your parenting. If you are consumed with knowing Christ and making him known to your children, discipline based on performance will give way to discipline that leads to the gospel!
Jay Younts is the author of Everyday Talk, Everyday Talk About Sex & Marriage, and he is the Shepherd Press blogger. He is a ruling elder at Redeemer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Moore, South Carolina. He and his late wife Ruth have five adult children.