Parenting, Punishment, and the Gospel

Over the past several months, I have had the pleasure of having the gospel beaten into my thick skull over and over. Our assistant pastor is particularly persistent with exhortations to trust in the promises of God rather than ‘gutting it out’ as an act of self-reformation that we then offer to God. That’s probably a poor summary of a crucial teaching, but hopefully it hints at the emphasis to which my thoughts have drifted time and time again recently. The basic idea is that in repentance, we do not turn from sin, grit our teeth, and stop sinning. Rather, we turn from sin and look to Jesus, embracing his sufficiency and the assuredness of his promises on our behalf. It is here, not in our own determined efforts, that we find a respite from sin.

Now, some parents follow a basic parenting guideline that says you should offer your children choices and teach them to make good decisions. I’m all for that. With my daughter, Abigail (who will turn three in about a month), I’ll say something like, “Either do as I say now or come here to get spanked.” See? It’s all about choices…

But about two months ago I began to wrestle with the interaction between my discipline of Abigail and her discipleship. I do not mean to imply that discipline is contrary to discipleship. Rather, I began to worry that my pattern of discipline was perhaps open to alternative (and wrong) interpretations. That is, as Abigail grew and made conclusions about life and God, though my discipline was not contrary to the truth, I was concerned that it was too open to improper interpretations, interpretations that were perhaps contrary to the Gospel.

Then it hit me. The first command with a promise is the fifth (Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”), and the fact that it is the first that includes a promise is of theological significance. Now we know that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant built on faith, and if one follows up on the ten commandments, one quickly realizes they are the outworking of a lively faith. That is, the Israelites were not following an arbitrary law, they were entrusting themselves to the God who keeps his promises.

It is as if the other nine commands are adult, in that you have to read them knowing the full story of God’s deliverance (of which they are reminded in the prologue to the commands). But the fifth command, addressed to children, includes a promise. It is as though the fifth command is a training ground for covenantal faithfulness. The command is linked to a promise, which is linked to the Gospel (God will deliver them into, and in, the promised land). The command to children doesn’t simply give the command and assume the reader will rightly reckon it in light of the Gospel. Rather, a promise directly tied to the Gospel is included to teach such an approach to the children.

For the past couple months I’ve tried to embed the promise in times of instruction and discipline with Abigail. When asking for obedience or disciplining her for disobedience, I remind Abigail that she needs to trust God, the one who requires that she obey me, that He will take care of her every need for all eternity. That she needs to love God, and not her sin, and entrust herself fully to her savior. It’s not that I say a set thing each and every time I ever tell her to do something, but I try to include the promise with the command throughout the week, whether once every day or every few days. My hope is that her understanding, as it develops and matures, will be guided to the Gospel.

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