Children, God’s Special GiftErwin W. Lutzer | June 9, 2013
Selected highlights from this sermon
What should Christian parenting look like? What are our aims as parents, as we raise the children whom God has given to us?
Imparting basic morality is not enough. We must long for our children to be transformed by the gospel. Let's love them the right way, providing biblical boundaries and guidance.
I agree with George Barna who said that ministry to children is the most important strategic ministry in God’s Kingdom. It is so satisfying to me to know that Moody Church was birthed as a Sunday school and then morphed into a church, and still 150 years later children are a priority and our children’s ministry is growing and continuing and very effective. How wonderful that is in an age when the needs are so great.
But it’s hard to be a child today. It’s hard because the contemporary culture says that your value is dependent upon your appearance. If you are not attractive you are basically worthless. You know about these reality shows that emphasize beauty, and two people, not knowing each other, are still able in a few moments to figure out whether or not they really connect. That not only is trash; it is destructive trash to our children. (applause)
Then we live in an era where there are no values except that which you choose. In our school systems we have value clarification, which, as I studied, I discovered that where kids end up is already determined by the curriculum. And I want to say a word about the next message that I am going to preach in this series. I always thought that the destruction of the family was something that just happened because society fell apart. I didn’t know that it was strategically planned by a Marxist philosopher who so influenced what we call today the radical left, that all of the attacks against the family were part of his agenda.
I’ll tell you about him. For example, he believed that the families were so strong in Europe and the United States that the only way that Marxism could triumph was if the family was broken up. And so he plotted to destroy the family. One of the things he said is, “We have to get women (mothers) out of the home and we need to tell them that they are victims, and when that happens the children are going to be floundering, and this is very important because not until we destroy the family will the families finally be willing to accept big government that will take care of them.” I didn’t know that it was so meticulously planned, and I’ll share that with you next time.
Today’s message is largely for parents (though if you are single there are going to be some things in it also for you) and so I’m going to ask you as a Christian parent a question. What do you aim for in the lives of your children? You say, “Well, I want them to be able to do well in school, be honest and excel. I want them to stay out of drugs and sex and alcohol, and to become good honorable citizens so that they can be productive to society.”
Now if you end there, if that’s the end of your goal, you are not a Christian parent, because the aims that I just outlined can be the very aims of Buddhists, and Hindus and Muslims and even atheists who have a moral consciousness because God created them in His image. If you know that out of atheism no values whatever can arise (none), logically it can be proved. But nonetheless atheists, because they are created in God’s image, have a sense of rightness and wrongness, and they could achieve the very goals that I have outlined. That’s not Christian parenting.
Christian parenting has to take things a step further and say that we are aiming for children who have been redeemed by the Gospel, who love God with all of their hearts, and God has birthed within them the new life of Christ, and they love God, not just because they have to or because rules are good, but their very motivation has been changed by the Gospel. That’s what we are aiming for as Christian parents.
Well how do we get there? Very quickly, I want to share four or five principles that I think are going to be life changing, especially as we move ahead in the message. And the only passage of Scripture I’m going to ask you to turn to today is Mark 10. Jesus speaks about the importance of children in Matthew 18, but this is the only passage. I’m going to be using others but I’m just going to be quoting them and reminding you of what they say because we have much to cover.
In Mark 10:13 it says, “And they were bringing children to Him that He might touch them. And the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it He was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me and do not hinder them for to such belong the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like this child shall not enter it.’” Don’t you love this? “And He took them into His arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”
What was the problem with the disciples? “Jesus, they are just kids. Why are you bothering with kids? Look at all of the adults who would like to hear you teach. They might even be able to take notes, but children can’t.”
The first thing that we have to convey to our children is that we love them and value them, but I agree with Chip Ingram. I heard a snatch of a message he preached recently in which he said, “Children are always asking two questions. How much do you love me and where are the boundaries?” If you simply say that you love your child and there are no boundaries or the boundaries are unclear and you say, “I’m not going to get him mad at me,” and he can do whatever he likes, he will grow up hating you no matter how often you say, “I love you.” It will be meaningless.
Children say, “If you love me show me the boundaries.” And I’m putting the whole emphasis on love and boundaries and values together. Parent, you are the only one who can convey value to your child. In school, he or she may be ridiculed. Life is tough and the child is asking, “Who am I? Am I worthy? Am I significant?” and you alone have the ability to convey that to him or to her, and you do it by giving them attention, by listening carefully. I wish I had done that more as a father.
I remember when one of our teenage girls was going through problems like teenagers have with boyfriends. I remember her lying on her bed in the room and I went and lay on the floor and put a pillow under my head and listened for an hour. I just listened. She still refers to it. And I think to myself, “Why didn’t I do that more often?”
You connect with them. You remind them. You discuss with them what they are anticipating in school. You talk. You communicate and you convey value love, but you can’t do it without boundaries.
You know, as a parenthesis, do you realize what divorce does to children? Rebecca and I were in a restaurant one time and we overheard a conversation (We couldn’t help but overhear it in the next booth.) between a father who was dropping off a girl who was probably six years old and giving the child to the mother because the father had the child over the weekend. You know God puts it into the heart of every little child to have a mommy and a daddy, and that mommy and daddy should love each other. Now imagine what this little one goes through. She’s to love her mommy during the week. She’s supposed to love her daddy on the weekends, but mommy and daddy can’t stand each other. In fact they had an argument right there about money.
Now of course God is a redeeming God as we shall see, but do you understand what happens? There are values that you as a parent can convey to your child that cannot be adequately conveyed by teachers and babysitters however well they may do. There’s nothing like the power of a parent. And if you connect with that child and you value them, your influence will be greater than the influence that they have in school regarding drugs and all the other things that happen. It’s you, love and boundaries and values.
Secondly, children need someone whom they can emulate, a lifestyle that they can follow. It’s an old story but it is a true story, and by the way the passage is in 1 Corinthians where Paul says, “I’m your father. Follow me.” It’s an old story but it’s a true story about a man walking through the snow going to the bar. He had to go there regularly because of his addiction to alcohol. And as he was walking through the snow he looked back and there was his little son, perhaps four years old, trying to walk in his father’s steps as best he could. And the man said, “Hey, what are you doing?” He said, “Dad, I’m just trying to follow in your footsteps.” The man turned around and went home with tears in his eyes.
Let me ask you some questions. Do you want your children to honor God? Do they ever see you reading the Bible or praying? Do they ever see that? Do you want children who don’t drink? Do you drink? Do you want children who tell the truth? Do you tell you the truth or have the kids seen and heard you lie? Modeling is powerful!
There’s going to come a time in the life of your teenager when all that you say and all that you do will not be heard but it will be your life even in the midst of struggle that will impact them. It’s what they remember.
We had family devotions all the time without fail in my home. But interestingly, the thing that I remember is the time a hailstorm came and knocked out the crop. In those days my father didn’t have insurance, and when it was over (I hope I can get through this story okay.) our parents said, “Let’s get on our knees and thank God for all of His goodness.” That’s what kids remember – a model of godliness in the midst of trial.
Third, what kids really need is obedience to authority. The passage is Ephesians 6. It’s worthy of a sermon in itself. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother.” You say, “Well, I can’t honor my father and my mother because my father was abusive (and maybe the mother was too). By the way, in a future sermon I’m going to deal with the whole issue of abuse. So you be patient. We’ll talk about that. But for now, honor your father and your mother that it may go well with you. Children, obey your parents.
You know, let me give you a bit of advice. First of all, have few rules but be consistent with them – absolutely consistent. And just teach them obedience. You’ve seen it a thousand times. We’ve all done it. Let’s suppose little Peter is playing there with the blocks and you say, “Peter, it’s time to go.” He does nothing. He keeps on. “Peter, I said that we are to go. Do something with the blocks. Put them back in the box.” He plays with no need to go yet. “Peter Joseph Hendricks, would you please put those blocks back in the box.” Ah, when he hears his middle name (laughter) he knows it’s time to go. Why doesn’t that kind of obedience happen the first time you say it? It’s your fault and it’s mine.
When the Bible says, “Fathers, don’t exasperate your children (and that’s the rest of it),” how do we exasperate our children? Fathers, it’s by overcorrection by yelling at them, and always criticizing them, and always finding some reason to find fault. The Bible warns against that. It should be a separate sermon.
You say, “Well, should we ever use physical punishment?” I say, “Absolutely, when it’s necessary you apply the board of education to the seat of learning.” (laughter) My father had a razor strap. Now some of you don’t even know what that is but it was hanging at the back of the door. My older brother should have written over it, “I need thee every hour.” (laughter)
You know we’ve so reacted against the world because the world has said, “Oh, that’s child abuse.” Of course it can be child abuse if it’s done in anger, if you are hitting the child as such, but there’s probably nothing quite like a proper spanking at a proper time with a proper reason and a proper ending where there’s reconciliation afterwards to help the kid know where the boundaries are.
Well, we must hurry on and there’s a fourth principle, and that is that children must be taught both law and grace. And in this section I’ve been helped by a book I read this past week. It’s entitled Give them Grace and it’s written by a woman and her daughter. The names are Fitzpatrick and Thompson – Give Them Grace. Children need both.
Let me talk about, first of all, the law. We have to give them the law. The Bible says in the book of Deuteronomy we should teach them the law. So we teach them the Ten Commandments. We teach them the Sermon on the Mount. We teach them the book of Proverbs. We have good standards in the home. We say, “As long as you live here these are the standards, these are the rules.”
You have basically two responses with children at that point. One is the good child, perhaps the compliant child, seldom the firstborn. The first born oftentimes is competitive and there are some other things I could say about a firstborn. Being a last-born I can comment on a firstborn. I won’t tell you the faults of a last-born but I’ve pretty well got them all.
But you see, the compliant child says, “Okay, I’m going to do that. I am going to excel. I’m going to get good grades. I am going to study hard. I’m going to stay away from drugs and all the other things that the kids are doing. I’m going to be the good child. I am going to excel. I am going to have a good job. I’m the model child.” That’s one response.
But then there’s another kid in the home who says, “You know, I can’t live up to my older brothers and sisters and all of these high standards. I’ll put up with this home until I am old enough to leave home, and then what I’m going to do is I’m going to do my own thing and finally be away from my mother and father.” And especially if he hates his dad or his mother, he’s going to say in his mind, “I hate my dad and I hate his God, so I’m out of here.” These are two different responses to law. What is missing in that scenario? What’s missing is the Gospel and grace. It’s totally missing from the scenario.
Let’s talk about child number one for just a moment, the good child. He doesn’t understand grace. He doesn’t see any need for it really because look at how well he is doing. He brings his report card home and pretty well gets straight A’s, and he’s on his way and people are looking at him and saying, “He’s going to be successful.” He needs grace. Not really! Well, you know a church and God is nice if your desperate but he’s not desperate.
Child number two is an entirely different scenario. What does he need? He needs grace because you see the reason that he leaves home and does his own thing is because he figures he can’t live up to this high standard that his parents have set out for him. He can’t live up to this standard, and why should he even bother trying to live up to the standard when he can’t do it. And he can’t do it. What he needs is the Gospel. He needs grace because you see the Bible says that Jesus Christ came on a rescue mission, died for our sins, and was raised again for a number of reasons. And one is so that we could be forgiven and actually have the righteousness of Christ applied to us to make up for all of our deficits and all of our inabilities and all of our sins. And secondly it’s to change our hearts. “If any man be in Christ he is a new creation. Old things have passed away. Behold all things are becoming new.”
The first commandment says, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind and with all thy soul.” Can we wake up in the morning and keep that commandment? Of course not! How can we even begin to keep that commandment unless we’ve been born again and God births within us a supernatural love of God? It can’t be done. And what this boy says in his mind after he’s been in the far country is, “I’ve blown it so badly. God is probably so mad at me. There’s no use coming back to God and being reconciled because I can’t live up to it anyway.” Well what he needs to know is that that’s why Jesus came. Of course we can’t live up to it. Of course he can’t and neither can you and neither can I, but God receives sinners and gives them what they don’t have. He gives them the gift of righteousness and acceptance before God, and then He also gives them a motivation to live differently. There’s no telling how many failures he may do along life’s way, just like I’ve done and you’ve done, but this boy needs to know that he doesn’t have to come to God and promise that he’s going to live like his older brother. Uh-uh! He comes just as he is.
There’s a song we’ve sometime sung (Probably we haven’t sung it often enough.) that says, “The vilest of sinners who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” He can come as he is with his weaknesses and sins, and God will receive him because of grace.
Let me ask you a question. Which group of people did Jesus have the greatest problem with when He was here on earth? Well, you know he was criticized for hanging out with the drunkards and the prostitutes and the tax collectors and all those others. They said, “You know he’s hanging out with these people.” Well you know they (and not the “goody two shoes” that were keeping the law – oy yoy yoy) received Jesus!
If you haven’t read Matthew 23 for a while, you read Matthew 23. You know, I read it and I say, “You know I’ve never had the nerve to even preach on this. Is this the loving Jesus talking, excoriating these self-righteous people? He had a bigger problem with them. In fact, that’s why he once told the parable about a man who had two sons. The older brother stayed home and worked on the farm day and night and made it successful. And the other kid ran into the far country and then in desperation decided to come home. And what Jesus is saying about that older brother, you know, is that it’s possible to be in the father’s work and not share the father’s heart. He was working hard but he was disconnected. He didn’t have a personal relationship with his dad. The younger son – the prodigal – came home.
I’ve been thinking about this, this past week. I think that all of us would prefer to raise an elder brother than a prodigal who leaves home. But you know at the end of the day I do have to at least ask the question, “Which son pleased the father more?” And the answer is the prodigal because he came with nothing and the Father is a God of grace and says, “Hey, bring hither the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Let’s have a party.”
The older son didn’t care for a party with the father. The older son was into works – righteousness, and it was he who made that farm go. And he never entered into the father’s grace. That was the whole point of the parable. Both needed grace.
You say, “Well is there a problem with the law?” No, the problem with the law is that we keep it superficially. We think that the law was a matter of outward obedience, and we don’t understand that the first commandment, “Thou shall love the Lord our God with our heart,” and the law, as Paul says, should drive us to Jesus, because all of us know we don’t keep it, at least in our hearts. And the Pharisees thought that as long as they kept it outside, gave their tithe because everyone was watching, said their prayers on the street corner, and kept the law, they didn’t have to have a changed heart. So the law didn’t do the work it was supposed to do. And so Jesus says, “Both of these need grace.”
So that’s what children need. They need law; they need grace. When they transgress, as they will, you should not be surprised. Don’t ever underestimate the evil and the deception of the human heart. But at the same time you don’t jump on them just simply with law, law, law. What you say is, “You know, I understand what you did and I’m really not surprised.” That’s why Jesus came to die for us and to rescue us from ourselves and to give us the strength that we don’t have. And you keep pointing them to a gracious, loving, accepting Jesus.
There’s something else that the children need, and that is praying parents. This is so important that I hope to preach an entire message on it near the end of this series of messages – Praying Parents. Well why do they need praying parents? Why do children need parents who are following God? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because conversion is God’s work, and it’s not yours and it’s not mine.
We think to ourselves that as long as we teach ‘em, you know:
Cram it in, cram it in,
People’s heads are hollow.
Ram it in, cram it in,
Make sure there’s more to follow.
We think to ourselves that we put him in Sunday school, we put him in camp, he’s memorized a hundred verses, and so it’s time for him to believe on Jesus. “Don’t you think it’s time to believe on Jesus?” “Well, yeah, I guess so.” So parents say, “Pray this prayer because we want to make sure you are in the kingdom.” The child grows up and there’s no transformation of life at all. They live the way they’ve always lived. There’s no evidence of the work of God in their hearts and they begin to say, “I wonder if I was really saved back then.” And the parents unwisely say, “Oh yeah you were because remember you prayed this prayer when you were five years old. Do you remember where we were?” The kid says, “Okay, I guess so.”
Parents, never presume that your child has savingly believed on Jesus. Let the Holy Spirit and the Word of God grant them the assurance. And don’t try to get the chicken out of the egg. You share the Gospel with them lovingly. You share it from your own experience of weakness – how weak you are and how much you need the Gospel. You humble yourself. That’s what grace is all about. And then having humbled yourself and shown them the Gospel you trust God to do a miracle that you can’t do.
I don’t want to be misunderstood but parents, don’t overestimate your ability to bring up kids right so that they will follow the Lord with precision and make you proud. Don’t overestimate your ability.
You say, “Well, don’t we have a promise in Proverbs 22:6, ‘Bring up a child in the way in which he should go and afterwards he will not depart from it?’” Well, I have news for you. You can write this down. Do you know what the book of Proverbs is? It’s a book of proverbs. (laughter) That’s what it is. Did you get it? Proverbs are not universally true. They are maxims by which we live our life.
I could go through a whole list of Proverbs and show you that they always are not true. For example (just one example), “A soft answer turns away wrath.” Is it always true that every time you give a soft answer you get a soft answer and that wrath is turned away? No, no, no, sometimes you give a soft answer and you are swatted across the face and you might even be jailed. It’s not always true but generally it is? Bring up kids this way? Yup! It’s generally true.
But don’t overestimate your ability. You say, “Oh, what are we left with? I mean this is scary.” I’ll tell you what we are left with. We’re left with calling on God for grace in our children’s lives that only God can supply. That’s what we’re left with because though you, as a parent, can change a child’s behavior, what you cannot do is to change a child’s heart. That is God’s business, and all that we can do is to create an environment in which the Gospel is shared and lived, and trust God. And by the way, rules without relationship equal rebellion. I should have said that earlier.
So first of all grace means that only God is able to save children. Secondly, grace means that no disobedience is final or fatal, unless of course the child dies in disobedience. But you have no idea about God’s ability to rescue people even from the pit.
I was sharing with someone recently who was involved in moral failure, and I read to him from Psalm 40. “I waited patiently for the Lord. He heard my cry and He delivered me from the miry pit.” I think my translation says “from the miry bog.” In the deepest pit God has been able to reach down and deliver.
There is a woman at prayer meeting whose name I will not mention. She’s an elderly lady but she is there every single Wednesday to pray. So I asked her last week how many years she had been coming, and she said, “Ever since I came to the church 20 years ago.” And she has been praying for a son, and she has been praying consistently, not just 20 years but even before that time. God has given her the assurance that someday her son will believe the Gospel and be saved. No disobedience is fatal because grace works in unexpected ways.
Thirdly, the grace of God often makes up for all kinds of human failure and sins. None of us is a perfect parent. I look back and wish that I could relive some of my days as a parent. My parents prayed a lot, and I’ll tell you that story when I speak on prayer, but boy, if you judged them by certain standards, they were not the ideal parents. I’m not sure if anybody has the ideal parents, and God sometimes comes along and He saves people, and He transforms them despite their background.
Some of you may be adopted and you don’t know who your parents are. Some of you have perhaps been conceived out of wedlock and so you’ve wondered about your worth. I’m here today to tell you that there are all kinds of people like this that I have met throughout the years who are mighty warriors for God because God’s grace is greater than human failure and sin. Aren’t you glad for that? (applause)
Just think for a moment. Joseph is one man in the Old Testament about whom there is no sin recorded. If any kid was perfect it was Joseph. He was a little unwise in sharing his dream with his brothers. He should have known that that wasn’t going to go down very well. You know, “I had a dream and in the dream you guys bowed down to me.” “Oh yeah, we’re very happy to do that, Joseph.” (laughter)
But you know who his father was? His father played favorites with him all because the father loved that wife because she was more beautiful than the other wife that he married, and so he loved these kids more than the others. Boy is that ever sinful. That was the context, and by the way, this is a parenthesis. You’re getting it all free today as part of the program. I just was so amused when I discovered this.
You know it’s Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Okay? Did you know that the ancestors of Jesus go back not to Rachel but to Leah, the one who wasn’t pretty. I love God. (laughter) God just says, “Phooey with all this business of who looks best. I’m going to choose the unloved one and it is going to be to her that Judah will be born, and then eventually Jesus from that line. I can do whatever I like.” I’m speaking on behalf of God when I say that, by the way, (laughter) just so that you understand. I just marvel at God. I shake my head and I say, “Wow!” So here’s Joseph brought up in that context and he turned out pretty well actually though he was betrayed by his brothers.
I think for example of Moses who was really reared by a woman who was a sun worshipper. She wasn’t his mother, though his mother did have impact because his mother was kind of the nurse who took care of him in his early years. He turned out pretty well actually, considering the fact that he didn’t have a stable family that he could depend on.
And then there is that one in the Old Testament that I’ve often thought about – a man by the name Ahaz who was a wicked king. Not Ahab! He was wicked too but I’m thinking of Ahaz. And the Bible says that he put up idols and did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, and he has a son by the name of Hezekiah. Hezekiah is a righteous king. He tears down the idols. There were some mistakes in his life to be sure but basically Hezekiah followed the Lord all the days of his life, the Bible tells us. And then, shock of all shock, he has a son and the son’s name is Manasseh, and the Bible says that Manasseh did more evil in the sight of the Lord than all the others before him. How did that happen? Was it Hezekiah’s fault? To what extent was it his fault? I don’t know. It says that the grace of God sometimes comes along and converts and changes in the most unlikely places, and then in the middle of all of this grace you also see the power of sin.
I don’t know what your background was. I don’t know where you are coming from, but I do know that if you reach out to God, grace can fill your life – the grace of forgiveness, the grace of acceptance, the grace of transformation.
God changes our hearts. You see, when we are converted, born again, there’s actually something within us that wasn’t there at the beginning because there’s a new nature. There’s something created there that is supernatural, and that’s what gets to the very heart of our desires.
In this message I’ve played off of this whole thing about grace and law, so I conclude with a story from Jesus. Jesus loved stories. He said that two men went into a temple to pray. One said, “I thank you God that I am not like other people, adulterers and fornicators. I fast twice a week.” The other man, you remember, wouldn’t look up to God. He couldn’t look God in the eye, so to speak. He was a publican. He was a sinner. He was an outcast. The Bible says he smote his breast and just said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Greek says, “Be propitiated to me, a sinner.” Jesus said, “Which one do you think went home justified?”
You know, I can’t help but think that today I am speaking to two classes of people. In fact, I know I am in this large crowd and those who are listening by other means. I’m talking to the man who may be sitting there, arms folded, and saying, “You know, this business of church and God and Jesus is good for women and children. I like the idea of giving my children some kind of moral foundation. I don’t need redemption. I’ve had a hard life and I have done well. I have worked hard. I played by the rules.”
And then I can imagine somebody who is in the far country who would say to me, “Pastor, if you knew even what I did this past week you’d know that God could never accept me. He’s so mad at me.” And I say that if you are willing to pray the prayer of the publican, “God be propitiated to me the sinner; God, no matter how high your standard is, it doesn’t matter as long as you meet it for me. You set the standard and then in Jesus He meets it on my behalf so that I can freely be forgiven and to be received,” (applause) that is the Gospel.
Luther put it very clearly and simply when he said, “Oh Jesus, I am Thy sin and Thou art my righteousness.” Our great contribution to salvation is we bring our sin. His contribution is to take it from there and redeem us and forgive us and adopt rebels into His family and make them sons and daughters of the Almighty. That’s what God does. (applause) And He’ll do that for you if you believe on Him.
Would you find a child that you can pray for? I forgot to mention the assignment for this week, but it’s in the bulletin. If you will, let us pray.
Father, as this message has gone out, it’s fallen into many, many hearts, some open, some closed, some angry, some receptive. Oh Father, the work of salvation is Your work. At this point we just back off and say, “We have nothing more to say.” You have to bring conviction. You have to grant faith. You have to do everything from here on out.
Before I close this prayer, no matter where you are would you cry up to the Lord and say, “Jesus, I’m my sin, You’re my righteous. I receive You now. I receive Your grace.”
Father, we thank You that the work You have begun in us will be complete. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.