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.
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)