God’s gift of parenting

The arrival of a first-born child into a family is one of the greatest moments in all human experience. It rates with marriage as one of the big milestones in a person’s life. As such, it is particularly important that the Christian believer should understand it from a spiritual viewpoint, setting it in the context of his or her faith, and therefore relating it to God through Jesus.

Parenting and perspective

First, we need to keep the whole thing in perspective. The birth of our baby is not actually the most significant human event since Bethlehem, and we need to learn not to act as if it was. When we become inevitably obsessed with the new arrival, we need to remember that we are surrounded by those who will show a polite interest in our baby, but who don’t necessarily want to listen for hours about him or her. There will be those who would love to be there and do that, but who cannot—either because they are not married, or because they are unable to conceive their own child. For them our obsession will be painfully insensitive. There will be others who have been there and done that years ago, and for whom our obsession is a tad boring. This means we are fairly safe with close relatives, and with our peer group who are also having their own babies. But we need to remember that even the latter are much keener to tell us about their baby than they are to hear about ours!

No—the wise Christian will give God the glory when their first child is born, and not let their own life be taken over in an unhealthily obsessive manner by the newborn.

Parenting and Christian service

“We need to remember that a child is an awesome gift from God, given by him—like all his other gifts—to reinforce our relationship with him.”

Childbirth is not the moment to go light on ministry. Our culture tells us to do that: to focus all our energies within the home, on the threesome of mum, dad and junior. But there is no encouragement in the Bible to focus our energies inward at childbirth. There are hints in Scripture that marriage is a moment for focussing our energy on the marriage relationship for a period, so that we build it on a firm foundation for the future (Deut 24:5). But there are no similar scriptural injunctions about parenting. We need to remember that a child is an awesome gift from God, given by him—like all his other gifts—to reinforce our relationship with him.  Parenting will remind us of our spiritual weakness and sin, our need of God’s grace and forgiveness every day, and our need of the fellowship of other believers in the church. Just as marriage is all about our relationship to Jesus (and our sanctification: Eph 5:18‑33), so is parenting. Paul wrote “For this reason I bow my knees before the father, from whom every family on heaven and one earth is named” (Eph 3:14-15), which reminds us to look upward in our parenting and not downward (cf. Eph 6:1-4; Col 3:20-21). Every horizontal relationship in human life is ultimately about the vertical relationship we can have with God through Jesus. I need to understand my parenting in terms of God’s relationship with me, and also in terms of my relationship with the rest of Christ’s body, my local church.

As a parent I will want to be more effective in the service of God than I was before becoming a parent. It is not a time to give up on Bible reading and prayer. (The wise Christian husband will make sure that the devil does not get into his family at this point and strangle his wife’s devotional life.) It will mean that we need to bring ministry within the home before the birth of the first child, or the mother will inevitably feel cut off from ministry at childbirth. She will, of course, have a new and vital ministry in the spiritual charge of her child, but that can only rightly be exercised in the wider context of mission and ministry within the body of Christ. Using our homes for the gospel—to host activities such as Bible studies, youth groups, social events, or dialogue evangelism suppers—will be a vital preparation for a spiritually healthy family life. Our children need to become part of our ministry to the wider world right from the outset. How sad it is to see, in local church life, how many young families drop out of effective Christian service at the birth of the first child!

Parenting is about maturing as a Christian and serving the glory of God. It is not just about producing a new generation of believers.

Parenting in light of God’s grace

So we are not to be product-orientated in our parenting. Parenting is not about producing an end result in the life of the child, whether good behaviour or a saved soul. Parenting is about bringing honour and glory to God through our obedience in the tasks he has given us, which is only possible because of what God has first done for and in us. It is because God loves me unconditionally that I love my child. It is not primarily because I am the parent and they are the child.

God allowed the first human beings to rebel against him. He did not prevent (as he undoubtedly could have) Adam and Eve from eating the fruit in the garden. Nor, when they did, did he erase the tape and start at the beginning again. He allowed the human race freedom and dignity.

That is the model for our parenting. What we have brought into the world we cannot control, and we need to prepare ourselves from the outset with that thought. Our children belong to God; they do not belong to us. And we are not to act as though we own them or can ultimately control them. We are to parent them as God would have us and not as a sort of social experiment in behaviour modification—adjusting our treatment of them in order to achieve certain desirable outcomes in their lives. Those outcomes lie in the hands of God alone.

It is possible to recognize the grace of God in our own experience, but then to revert to the will of man in our parenting. We know that we were saved by grace, and grace alone. No merit in us was being rewarded when God saved us. But when it comes to our children, we start to think as though their faith is something that can be achieved by human effort: “I may have been saved by the grace of God, but my child is going to be saved by my good parenting”. We should never think that our child’s belief in Jesus will be God’s reward to us for how well we have parented them. Nor should we think that our child’s failure to believe should be primarily attributed to our failure as parents. We need to remember John’s words:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

Good parenting does not guarantee converted children and bad parenting does not necessarily result in unconverted children.

Some authors on parenting cannot quite cope with the total consequences of this great biblical truth: that the thing we want above all else for our children (that they should be saved) is something we cannot do for them. They cannot even do it for themselves. Only God can save. But our culture has such a ‘can do’ mentality that these writers find it impossible to start from a ‘no can do’ position. So, although they are technically ‘Calvinist’ in their theology (believing we are saved by the grace of God and not by human effort), when it comes to parenting, they become gradually more ‘Arminian’—the grace of God begins to fade away and human effort comes more and more to the fore. To put it starkly, we can imagine this conversation:

“Are you saying I can’t do a thing—that how good a parent I am won’t make any difference at all to whether my child gets saved or not?”

“Yes. Our children will be saved by God’s grace alone.”

“So why should I bother to be a good parent, if it isn’t going to make any difference at all?”

“Out of obedience to God—because he commands you to be a good parent, and not because of any possible outcome in the life of your child.”

Once we fully understand this, it is liberating. No longer is my parenting done in the context of either embarrassed guilt or self-righteous pride, as my children either match or fail to match my expectations of them. Now I can parent out of gratitude for the wonderful father God has been to me.

Parenting in terms of my own sin

Actually, I find I need all of my spiritual energy to cling by my fingertips onto God for myself. I know he holds me, but I also know that I try to slip from his grasp every day. I do not actually have spare spiritual energy to believe for my children and to save them by my spiritual effort on their behalf. My spiritual battle is with my own sin, and not with my children’s sin. I need to beware the self-righteousness that encourages me to forget my sin and to focus my spiritual energy instead onto the next generation. So all the spiritual care that I exercise for my child—praying for her and with her, reading the Bible with her, talking to her about God and to God about her, introducing her into the fellowship of other believers, and witnessing with her to those who don’t yet believe—it is all done in the context of the grace I am experiencing in the forgiveness of my own sin moment by moment every day. We are two sinners experiencing grace together.

The greatest enemy of my child’s spiritual health is my own hypocrisy and pharisaism. When I start to think that I am good, or that our family is better than other families, or when we find ourselves tut-tutting at the behaviour of our children’s peers at school, we need a fresh awareness of our own sin. We do not need a greater awareness of other people’s sin. There is a great danger of seeing spiritual threat out there, away from the home and outside the family, and not seeing the greatest spiritual threat as within the home itself. Satan loves us not to notice his presence. But he is the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2) and he is found everywhere and always invisible; so he is just as present in your home as he is in the local shopping centre.

Home-schooling, for an example of how this plays out, is spiritually neutral. It may be effective or risky, but it is neither a good nor bad thing spiritually per se. We will not necessarily impart a Christian world view to our children by it, because there can be an inherent spiritual distortion in home-schooling. If a spiritual or moral value is conferred upon home-schooling, that is dangerous—particularly if we are deceiving ourselves about the fact that we are really adopting it because of its educational value to our children (education being one of the great idolatries of the modern age). But the most sinister aspect of a misplaced emphasis on home-schooling is the wrong view of sin it betrays: that sin is ‘out there’, rather than ‘in here’.

Christians will home-school their children for all sorts of very good reasons, but protecting them from sin in the world out there will not be one of them. As one friend ironically remarked, “God so loved the world that he home-schooled his Son”.

We do not own our children, and God has blessed us with the fellowship of other believers in the church. In that fellowship our children will find alternative models of adult belief. So, for example, a teenage son, desperate to find an identity distinct from that of his vicar father, will realize that he can be different from his dad without having to reject his dad’s belief. There are other distinct adult models of Christian discipleship which he can adopt. So other adult Christians have an important role to play in my children’s lives. As a parent I must have the humility to accept that God may choose to use some other Christian to play a crucial part in my child’s spiritual development. It is his choice. While I can never wash my hands of my spiritual responsibility for my children, I can be grateful that God has provided other believers who are prepared to run youth and children’s groups, summer camps and many similar things, from which my children can benefit spiritually. They may have an enormous influence over my children’s faith, and I should be deeply thankful for that, and constantly prayerful that it may be so.

Trusting God with our children

So as our children grow up, we need to parent them as God parents us. During childhood and adolescence, it is not wise for parents to be constantly concerned over whether their child has leapt through some particular ‘hoop’ of conversion. A child needs a great deal of psychological space in which to develop, and wise parents will grant him or her that freedom. A child can be ‘converted’ one week and then a long way from ‘conversion’ another week—not, as we know, in the eyes of God, but as we view things from our human perspective. And so we need to trust that child to God, and not be pressuring him or her to conform to patterns that we would like to impose upon them. Our parenting is not for our own benefit… so that we can reassure ourselves we are doing a good job.

We cannot use infant or child baptism as a way of coercing the grace of God into a child’s life. God never hands the initiative in salvation over to human beings. It is always his. The wise parent acknowledges that and trusts his or her child to God’s grace, without trying to wrest the initiative away from God. Stories about little children in believing families at an early age praying prayers of commitment at their mother’s knee by the bedside are lovely, but they may not be particularly eternally significant. We walk by faith and not by sight, and we must learn to do that in our parenting. In the teenage years, it is far more profitable to ask ourselves which direction a child appears to be moving in than whether they have passed some humanly-visible boundary, like an outward profession of faith. Many parents need to be much more laid-back in their outward expression of their spiritual concern for their children, and perhaps rather less laid-back in their inward expression of it—praying intensely for their children’s spiritual welfare like Job (Job 1:5). We will need to exercise great maturity, wisdom and self-control in knowing when to speak and when just to be there, unshockable, supportive, open, honest and available.

Removing pretence

Our children must know the genuineness of our own spiritual lives, not because we parade our sanctity before them, but because they see the reality of grace. Some say that parents should never be seen to disagree in front of the children… which is an excellent thing if the parents never disagree. But if the marriage is like most marriages are, it is not the absence of conflict but the resolution of conflict which demonstrates grace. It is not hiding away our sin, as though a cross word or a selfish act never occurs within the relationship, but it is the working out of grace in the lives of two sinners. Our children know that we are sinners, and need to know that we know that we are sinners, and that we know that they know that we know we are sinners… and that nevertheless the grace of God has broken into our lives to save us. When we die, we do not want our children to say what a great mother or what a great father we were. We want them to know what great sinners we were, saved by the grace of a far greater God.

CJ Mahaney in Living the Cross Centered Life says about his son:

The most important thing I can teach him is that, even though he’s being raised in a Christian family and is leading a moral life, he’s a sinner who desperately needs the substitutionary death of Christ for God’s forgiveness.1

“Our children must see grace demonstrated in the marriage and in the family, not self-righteousness and hypocrisy.”

Our children must see grace demonstrated in the marriage and in the family, not self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Our parenting must never be a pretence in order to produce a product. It must rather be a public demonstration of the grace of God, battling with and forgiving my sin every day. We model to our children the normal Christian life—so, for example, they see us studying our own Bibles for ourselves day-by-day and they realize that that regular habit only comes at considerable personal cost and is a part of the daily battle we fight against sin and the devil. They need to hear us being honest about the Christian faith, so that they know we are unshockable—our awareness of the depth of our own sin making us entirely aware of the depth of depravity in others. Our children must never feel that they have to protect us from knowing the truth about their lives.

Every new parent hopes to be the perfect parent. But perfection is not the experience of human beings during this life. Woe betide us if we pretend it is! Our children are growing up as the children of forgiven sinners, in a sin-soiled world. Whether we want them to or not, they will sample all sorts of things that we would prefer them not to. It is very important to bring such things ‘within the firelight’, so that they can at least be freely discussed within the home. For example, we might prefer that our children did not drink alcohol. But it is very unlikely that they will grow up without drinking. Much better for them to experience alcohol sensibly within the home than for it to have the exciting allure of something lying out there ‘beyond the firelight’.

The home must not be a place of pretence, where parents or children ‘act’ in front of one another. It needs to be a place where the veils are down and artificial boundaries are not imposed. It is not a place for children (or parents) to have ‘secret lives’.

Our ultimate goal for our children is heaven (which God alone can achieve), not just good behaviour on the way there, and especially not just good behaviour which impresses others on the way there. The Bible has a lot to say about self-righteousness (none of it good!), but from time-to-time ideas about Christian parenting emerge which tend to produce judgemental and self-righteous parents who compete over how well their children know their Bibles, and at how young an age they can recite a Bible overview.

“The grace of God never tends towards competitiveness and self-righteousness. It puts us all on a level playing field, quite unable to look down on one another. Parenting is all about such grace.”

The grace of God never tends towards competitiveness and self-righteousness. It puts us all on a level playing field, quite unable to look down on one another. Parenting is all about such grace.


If we treat our children as God treats us, we will not go far wrong. They are not our possession. They are entrusted to us by God, and we have only been given them for a time. So the best thing I can do for my child is to walk as closely to Jesus Christ as I can. The closer I am to Christ, the better a parent I will be. I need to focus my parenting on the cross and on salvation, and pass every parenting puzzle through that lens, searching for wisdom and perspective in God’s word.

  1. CJ Mahaney, Living the Cross Centered Life, Multnomah, Colorado Springs, 2006, p. 29.

16 thoughts on “God’s gift of parenting

  1. Please note: comments are open for your reflections and discussion, but the author has already gone to glory and will not respond to questions this side of Jesus’ return.

  2. Really enjoyed this article. There’s much there to chew over and savour. However, I don’t agree that we shouldn’t consider reducing ministry responsibilities when the firstborn child arrives. Realistically, most first-time mothers will not be as active in Christian ministry outside the home as they were before their little children arrive on the scene. Some will be able to – because of the nature of their individual circumstances or the very settled style of their baby or their own personal capacity to multi-task and be calm. But others of us need to accept that God has for this season given us our own very intense ministry to small people which may require us to let go of some of our other ministry goals. The skills involved in hosting “activities such as Bible studies, youth groups, social events, or dialogue evangelism suppers” while at the same time caring for the feeding, disciplining and settling of young children are skills that most of us do not instantly acquire. Some women can do it well from day one. For some of us, however, it might seem that we’ve dropped off the ministry radar for a bit while we adjust to our new role. Of course, there are plenty of new ministry opportunities that arise with parenting young children and, in time and by God’s grace, new parents can grow into those roles as well. We are to keep a ministry mindset, but new parents don’t need to be feel guilty if their roles in the local church change for a season.

    • thanks for this, as a mother of a 3yo and a 1yo old with number 3 on the way, I was thinking very much along the same lines while reading this helpful article. Much food for thought… In my view, the ministry-question comes down to knowing my own heart: Do I lean towards activism and getting more involved than I can realistically handle while loving God and my family well at the same time? Or do I more lean towards the other end of the continuum and need to give myself a gentle nudge to continue taking on responsibility at church, be it formal or informal. So I guess it’s knowing my pet-idol and the prayerfully correcting it by consciously steering the other way, even if it’s counter-intuitive… at least this has been my observation so far.

    • Yes, I had some qualifications along the same lines. Although I do agree with his point that some kinds of ministry co-exist well with family life e.g. hospitality. And that ministry shouldn’t stop entirely, but be part of ongoing family life (even fronting up to church is ministry!). But definitely there will be times when you have to hit a very necessary “pause”, including, at times, ministries like hospitality.

  3. Thought-provoking article. I think it’s possible to underplay wisdom in parenting. Yes, God is the only one who changes kids’ hearts. However, parents can make decisions which maximise their children’s exposure to the Gospel.

    Also, check out Proverbs 22:6 which says ‘Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.’ This is not set-in-stone-formula, but it is a biblical principle. There are biblical principles that do show a sort of “do x and generally y will result”. I don’t think a parent needs to somehow stop reminding themselves that what they are trying to do is (to the best of their understanding) for the good and nourishment of their children in the Lord. Rather, I think it’s key to hold those two truths in both hands: God changes hearts and God honours parents who obey him.

  4. I remember many years ago when we had two young children (eventually we had five) a lady from the church visiting us for some reason told us a bit dramatically that we had a mission field right here at home. It seems obvious that having children will limit our outside activities to some extent, or at least the time spent on them, but of course we must ensure that we don’t focus too much on the family at the expense of other things and other people.

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  6. While I agree with some of the author’s comments concerning homeschooling, I think he does not understand the methodology well.

    I believe protecting your children from bullying, witchcraft, animism (which is rife in many schools, where children are encouraged to worship the creation not the creator) undue peer pressure, false doctrine, and poor role models prevalent in most state schools is not only wise but Biblical.

    If we are not to let false teachers into our own home 2 Jn 10, why would we send our little ones out into schools hostile to the gospel, on their own. That is what is dangerous!

    There is a time and a place to allow your children to be exposed to these things, but alone and away from a parents advice is a not a good idea.

    While homeschooling can lead people away from God and is not spiritual, of itself, the statistics show that children who have been homeschooled are far more likely to have an active faith when adults than those who have been sent to public schools. See NHERI for more details.

    Homeschooling can be done poorly and is not for everybody, but it has many benefits and in our hostile world is seriously worth considering.

    I have written an article on a Biblical rationale for Home Education and will post it on the media page of our website in the near future.

  7. Re-reading this article I notice it contains some opinions which may not based on solid Biblical arguments.

    He mocks parents when he says that “the birth of the child is not the greatest human event since Bethlehem”. No it is not, but it is a total game changer when a wife must give up a job, an income, a career to nurture and care for a totally dependent infant. No longer can a couple go out whenever they want. The arrival of the first baby is a massive change in lifestyle, availability and outlook on life.

    “Childbirth is not the time to go light on ministry” Whoa there. Isn’t looking after a baby a huge ministry? Does ministry only include things that involve people outside the home? And given our culture where many mothers do not have much support from the community or from their own mothers because of distance or estrangement, they have to do it on their own. To put pressure on young families at this time to be “doing ministry” can be quite harmful.

    “Those outcomes lie in the hand of God alone” This sounds like hyper Calvanistic teaching. On the one hand what happens to our children is totally up to God, and yet the author does not really believe this. He gives lots of tips to us as parents to be better parents. In other words, it wont make any difference but at least we have been obedient to God. The argument must be balanced with Scriptures such as: Prov 23:14; 2 Tim 1:5; Prov 22:6
    The argument is certainly not true statistically.

    Yes I believe in election, but I know that evangelism makes a difference. Yes, I know that walking with God, will not always mean that your children will walk with God, but often it does.

    “It is very unlikely that they will grow up without drinking alcohol” In our culture that may be so. In other cultures that is not the case. If we have a no alcohol stance in our house, that is our position. For the author to say we would be wise parents to adopt a different position is an opinion, which I respectfully disagree.

    When you have a close relative whose life has been ruined by alcohol addiction, you may have a different attitude to it. Yes there is an underlying spiritual problem, which is more important than the addiction but it is a powerful drug.

    One in 10 people get addicted to alcohol. You don’t necessarily know who will fall into that category.

    I believe he has made some good points on our relationship with God, and how that should be our primary focus.

    However I believe he could have developed more the theme of discipleship. The importance of the parent child dynamic cannot be overestimated. Our goal should be to disciple our children in the way that Jesus did with His disciples and the way Paul did with Timothy. May we be able to say like Paul was able to say “Imitate me” 1 Cor 4:16

    Training up our children is a 24/7 role, Deut :6-7 It can not be delegated to anyone else, such as the minister or the youth worker or Sunday School teacher. The responsibility falls on the parents.

    May we support and encourage parents in this role. It does have a huge impact on our children. It also has a huge impact on the church. We must look at the reasons why in some churches, 80% of children leave, and have no further interest in the things of God, while in others only 20% leave.

  8. I would also like to introduce the qualifications for eldership in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 as part of this discussion. At the very least the children of such men should be well behaved and not rebellious. In the Titus passage it could also be interpreted to mean that the children have a real faith.

    So if God requires such “outcomes” for Biblical leadership in the church, is it not true to say that we are also responsible for some of the outcomes in our children?

    The refrain “It’s all about Jesus” to me is not the whole deal. God has given us some very practical matters as well as the wonderful truths of salvation by grace. That is not living under the law, but simply following his commandments. If you love me, keep my commandments. John 14:15

  9. Most Christian parenting books are indeed Arminian in practice, and I’m glad to see this put so forthrightly. I have a number of problems, however, with other aspects of the article.

    Firstly, I dislike the idea that God gives us children “to reinforce our relationship with him”. They will certainly be used by God for our spiritual benefit, but we should not view the people that God places in our lives principally as tools for our self-improvement. They are not tools, but people, made in God’s image. We should concentrate not on what we will get, but on what we can give: the Gospel. And we bring people the Gospel in the context of a grace-filled relationship with them.

    Secondly, the advice that “Childbirth is not the moment to go light on ministry” is extraordinary. Motherhood, for all women, is a time of profound change. Should we really expect the woman who had a baby last week to come to church and minister as if nothing had happened? Or worse, make extra efforts in ministry so as to prove to others that nothing has happened?

    We live in a society where women are expected to have it all and do it all–without assistance. The fulfilling full-time job, the spotless house, True Love of The Princess Bride variety, and then overachieving children to boast about in the family’s Christmas newsletter. To this picture, Christian women generally add: the hospitable home, the regular attendance at Bible study, church, their rostered duties, the women’s events, the Daily Quiet Time, and so on. It’s all do–do–do. No wonder most of us have a thinly-disguised hatred of the Proverbs 31 woman, and think that Martha should have left Jesus out of it and just whacked Mary on the head with the soup-ladle.

    To suggest that we need to avoid going “light on ministry” is yet another external pressure that a new mother can live without. More importantly: why are we expecting this of her without speaking of ministry *to* her?

    New fields open up to women with children: new mothers’ groups, the Australian Breastfeeding Association (though half my group were Christians!), the preschool, the new friends you make at the school gate, the soccer club, etc. But it takes time to adjust to the new lifestyle and build the relationships, and the author might have misperceived this slowdown as a diminution of ministry.

    Thirdly, the overuse of “obsession” grates. This world is not as thankful for children as it ought to be. Why should we not glory in God’s awesome gift of a child, we who believe in the intrinsic worth of all human beings? That is not to say we should be insensitive. It is most sobering to have the gift of a healthy, living child when you have friends that have not been so blessed. Our thankfulness should be the more profound, and our exuberance tempered–but a natural pride and joy in one’s offspring is not an unhealthy obsession, and we do not move from mothering to smothering all in a moment. (There might be cause for concern if all you think of is your children, if you are fearful of letting them out of your sight, if you entrust them to no-one’s care, and insist on disinfecting your visitors!)

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  11. Ah yes! The family Christmas newsletter! Sometimes they can be useful in keeping us up to date about children’s ages etc, but so often they read as chronicles of the best-achieving families that ever lived. The best way to deal with those letters which seem designed to make us feel inferior is to ask ourelves if we are really trying to bring up our children in a godly way. If we are we don’t have to worry about the great achievements of our friend’s children who are all appartently heading for a PhD before they reach 20.

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