Is it Anti-gospel to Teach Kids Self-control Before Conversion?

Right now in conservative evangelicalism, there is an ongoing conversation about children, the gospel, and sanctification.  Kevin DeYoung’s book The Hole in our Holiness is the latest entry on this topic, and looks to be very helpful.

One side of the discussion emphasizes that no true transformation can happen without miraculous grace.  There is surely truth to this argument.  Without the gospel, we are slaves to sin.  We cannot conquer sin or master it; as long as we are unconverted, sin is in fact our master.  We need God-given faith in Christ to know true and lasting transformation.

But I am wondering if, in highlighting this ultimate truth, we might forget a penultimate (secondary) reality.  It is good and well to train children, pre-conversion, in obedience and self-control.  If you do this in a way that indicates that successfully resisting a given temptation equates with the highest form of pleasing God, then that’s problematic.  In other words, if you train kids that doing right actions saves them, that’s tragic.  But it’s also tragic to not raise children to discern right from wrong and to think that they have no ability whatsoever to follow commands.

If, though, you train children in good habits while always holding out the need for repentance and faith, I think you’re being a wise and godly parent.  The father who speaks repeatedly to his son in Proverbs clearly directs him to steer clear of sin.  The father is forming habits in his son, and those habits are not opposed to saving faith.  They are creating channels through which the life-giving water of the gospel will flow.

Christ is, of course, our ultimate motivation.  The gospel is, correspondingly, the ultimate force in sanctification.  But we should not make the mistake of thinking that obedience–even pre-conversion obedience–is antithetical to the gospel.  It most surely is not.  It seems to me that we are to follow the flow of Scripture in training our children.  They learn the need to obey, the requirements of God’s holy standards, and we train them to do so (working from the Old Testament on up).  But they quickly discover that they cannot ultimately fulfill the requirements upon them and must know Christ as savior if they are to be counted righteous before the holy judge (this is the miracle we discover in the New Testament).  After their faith and repentance takes root, they are now empowered in an unprecedented way to obey and give glory to God.  The Holy Spirit in us, through our union with Christ, provides a power and a motivation never before possible (this is what Paul and the apostles labored to help early Christians understand).

So: teach your young kids good habits.  Teach them good manners.  Train them in self-control.  Model what being a Christian is like, and encourage them to follow your behavior.  Instill in them that obedience is the cornerstone of being a child.  Discipline them when they fail on this point.  And consistently–though not mechanistically or fearfully–hold out their only true hope for life and faith, the message of free grace in Christ.

Your children will thank you after their conversion that you trained them in good habits, even as they will recognize that only the gospel truly sustains holy living.

(With thanks to the intrepid Matt Smethurst–and the Smethurst family–for copyediting services)

  • Samuel James

    One thought is simply that children (and adults) need instruction in righteousness to teach them what sin is. Without the imperative of obedience, we will learn to obey our natural impulses (and the secular world would have children believe that the only ‘sin’ is to disobey your individual inclinations). As Bob Dylan said, “you’re gonna serve somebody.” It is only after we realize that we can’t serve whom we should that the Gospel reaches out to us.

  • owenstrachan

    Well said, and very much in the spirit of this blog. The law is not evil. It does not save, but it is not evil. It is a “schoolmaster” in the language of the old KJV. Great word.

  • Michael R. Jones

    I am glad to hear sane voices are addressing this issue. This has to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I wonder where people come up with this stuff.

  • http://Monaghan Reid

    Thanks Owen – where is the ongoing conversation going on? Love to read. Also, children can certainly be taught obey their parents in the Lord – this is always right – conversion or not. Children are to follow their parents, and then the parents have the God given responsibility to teach the gospel to their kids and bring them up in the discipline, instruction of the Lord ;-)

    Will have a simple somethin-somethin on my site this week on fathering as a church planter. Its written but it is for a seminary students blog so I’m letting him run it first before I post it.

  • tom nickell

    This must be in reference to the christian religion as a folk religion -not a biblically-based concept. The Bible does not speak of child conversion. It does speak of adults converting and becoming as little children. The Bible actually speaks of children as full-fledged participants in the Kingdom of God. Parents are commanded to include their children in the covenant sacraments of the church, to view them as holy, to rejoice in that Christ pronounces the name of the covenant-keeping God over them, etc. I cringe every time I meet a parent who introduces their child as “Johnny/Susie/Whatever, they’re not a christian yet.”

  • Sandy Cahill

    I agree. Before the age when children really choose whom they will follow, it seems to be our responsibility as parents to raise them with the same standards we hold ourselves to. What kind of a parent would I be if I modeled self-control, but let my child be led by his/her “nature” because I “can’t impose my convictions” on him/her? I would be teaching my child to worship self, not God! It is not different from a parent who compulsively lies, then wonders why their child is so sneaky and dishonest.
    I agree that it’s also important to constantly remind our kids that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, an encourage them to make that choice. However, obedience is a natural outpouring of the love we have for God, and it also has its place.
    When children are taught the habits of godliness, it draws them to God when they become older (I know it certianly did in my own upbringing). If parents let their children persist in sinful behaviour, all that produces is a child who has fallen into the habit of sin, and probably enjoys it, with no incentive to stop. No one will follow in their parents’ footsteps if they think their parent is a hypocrite.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    I work with college students at my church, but in our student ministries meetings, the conversation about teaching God’s commandments in a non-legalistic fashion is constantly happening. Part of the picture has to do with teaching children to have a creational mindset–God has made the world has instructed us in the best way to live in that world. There is an important place for showing our kids the essential goodness of following God’s commands precisely because they are good and right. God is not arbitrary in his laws, but has given them to us as a gift, a guide for life in his good world that has its own rhythm which we violate to our great harm. It is part of how we learn to trust God’s wisdom and then our subsequent folly when we inevitably sin anyways. That’s when you hit ‘em with the Gospel.

  • Hannah Anderson

    Great observations! I just would add (with the other commenters) that we must have standards of conduct because law also reveals God’s nature. The amazing thing about the law is that It multi-tasks: showing us the standard of God’s perfections, showing us our impossibility to meet that standard and thus our need for Christ, AND showing us how to have a “good life” by living in accordance with ultimate reality. (God’s nature, after all, is the ultimate paradigm of human existence and that of the universe.)

  • Jessica Watson

    Good article. I would add that teaching our children good habits, manners, and so on is simply God’s common grace to them. Of course we pray and hope that the Holy Spirit will work in their hearts and save them, but until then, they need outward restraint. Believing in the doctrine of total depravity doesn’t mean that everyone is as depraved as they could be. If they were, society would not be able to function. Our children won’t be able to function if we are not God’s agent of common grace to them in teaching them self-restraint.

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  • Steve Martin

    Before, after, during conversion…self-control is always good to teach.

  • owenstrachan

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I agree, so it’s clear, about the third use of the law. My piece wasn’t specifically about the law, though it’s certainly a closely related idea. I was addressing the issue more generally. Yes, learning obedience is a form of common grace–good point, Jessica. Holiness, not sin, is after all pleasure. Purity is true delight, because it is the will of God, and the will of God is the happiest place to be of any, regardless of what our circumstances are.

    Evangelical parents should feel absolutely zero shame for training their children in obedience, self-control, discipline, virtue, and character. This is in fact what all of us should be teaching our children, even as we hold out the only ultimate hope for humanity, the gospel of Christ.

    If grace has swallowed obedience in your parenting, and your children do not respond to you obediently, something has gone awry not only practically but theologically.

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