John Piper: Raising Children Who Are Confident In God
Our Children Are Not Our Highest Value
Our own children are not our highest value. Christ is our highest value. And the call of Christ relativizes two great creation ordinances. One is marriage and the other is parenting. In creation God said, "It is not good for man to be alone . . . a man shall leave mother and father and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:18, 24). But the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians that he wished everyone were like him-namely, single-because it can bring such undistracted devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:7, 35). He concedes, each has his own gift (1 Corinthians 7:7). So it is good to be married. Yes, but for the sake of the in-breaking kingdom of God in these last days, it may be even better to be single.
So it is with parenting. Psalm 127:3 says that children are a precious "inheritance" and a "reward." Genesis 1:28 says that we are to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." Yes, but this too is not absolute. If marriage is not ultimate, parenting cannot be ultimate either. If the in-breaking kingdom of God relativizes the ideal of marriage and makes singleness a crucial, Christ-exalting strategy, so it is with parenting. There will be God-ordained, Christ-exalting, kingdom-advancing strategies for parents that are not built around the ideal comforts and securities and earthly possibilities and pedagogical excellence for children. There will be times, Jesus says (in Matthew 19:29), when "for my sake" you will leave children. And no doubt in leaving you will feel that the ideal home situation is being lost. And it is. But God is able to do more than we ever dreamed with the painful circumstances created by following his radical call. "One hundredfold" is the word he uses. "One hundredfold" (hekatontaplasiona)!
I mention this only to say again, Woe to us if we ever become so fixated on the welfare of our own children that we lose our passion for rescuing lost neighbors and reaching lost nations.
But having said that, let us hear what our God commands concerning our children in the New Covenant community called the church.
Children and the New Covenant Community
There are those who believe that children are members of the covenant community by virtue of being born into believing families. This is why Presbyterians and others in the Reformed community (with which we have so much in common) baptize their infants. We believe, on the other hand, that this is a misunderstanding of the nature of the New Covenant community. We believe that the New Covenant community is created by the second birth not the first birth. Therefore the sign of the covenant, baptism, is given to those who are born of the Spirit into a spiritual family, not to those who are born of the flesh into a physical family.
John the Baptist commanded those who had already been circumcised into the Old Covenant community to be baptized as a sign of entering a new spiritual community of repentant people. We believe this is what Jesus continued and commanded. This is why Peter stood up on Pentecost and said to 3,000 circumcised Jews, "Repent and be baptized." The New Covenant community (the church) is not something you can be born into according to the flesh. It is something you are born into by the Spirit. The evidence of this new birth is faith and repentance, and the sign placed upon it by the church in the name of God is baptism.
So how then do our children fit into the New Covenant community called the church, if they are not members by virtue of their physical birth? The way I would put it is like this: the children of Christians are beloved wards of the New Covenant community. They are kept by a spiritual guardianship awaiting the day of their awakening to faith in Christ. Their attachment to a Christian family at the natural level obliges a community foster care at the spiritual level. Very special, clear, biblical obligations bind us to our children not because they are covenant members before they have faith, but because God gives us a special mandate to lead them to faith.
To be born into a New Covenant family does not make a child a member of the New Covenant community; it makes the New Covenant community the spiritual guardian of the child.
What Is Our Calling as Parents and a Church?
Which sets the stage now for the mandate of that guardianship. What does God require of us? What is our calling as parents and as a community of Christians toward our children?
The reason we can go now to the book of psalms for the answer is that there is enough overlap between the Old and New Covenants that the same crucial things are required in both. So let's outline God's purpose for parents and church from Psalm 78:4-7.
There are six stages in our calling that I see in these verses.
1. The Preeminence and Centrality of God
First it begins with God.
Verse 4b: "We will tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wondrous works that He has done."
All Christian parenting and Christian education begins with God. There is One ultimate, unchanging Reality, namely, God. All else in parenting and education comes from him. All else is for him. He is the first and the last and the center of parenting and education. He is the main thing in how you rear children and teach children and discipline children. It all begins with God and it all is built on God and it all is to be shaped by God. If there is one memory that our children should have of our families and our church it is this; they should remember God. God was first. God was central. There was a passion for the supremacy of God in all things.
2. A Fixed Deposit of God's Truth
The second stage in our calling as parents and as a covenant community is that there is a fixed deposit of God's truth in the world.
Verse 5: "He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel."
God has testified and God has taught. The Hebrew word translated "law" (Torah) means "teaching." God has testified and God has taught. And we have that testimony and that teaching in a book, the Bible. The Bible is the way God, the ultimate and all-important Reality, reveals himself to us with clarity and authority today. If God is more important than anything, then the Bible is more important than anything but God. The implications of this for parenting and New Covenant guardianship are staggering.
- It means the Bible will be the sun in the solar system of all that we teach our children. It will not be one among many books. It will be the central book, the all-permeating book. The other books are dark planets; the Bible is the light-giving sun. All other books will be read in the light of this book. All books will be judged by this book. All books will find meaning in the worldview built by this book. Which means that this book must be known first and known better than all the other books.
- The second thing it means for us that God has testified and taught in a book is that there is a fixed deposit of truth to pass on to each generation. Paul tells Timothy to "guard the good deposit that has been entrusted" to him (2 Timothy 1:14). That is the task of parents as well the covenant community as a whole: guard the sacred deposit. Preserve it and transmit it to each generation.
The third stage in our calling as parents and community is teaching.
Verse 5: "He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should teach them to their children."
We are commanded to teach the testimony of God to our children. It is not enough to preserve the deposit of truth in a book, and tell them it is there. We are commanded to teach it. Ephesians 6:4 says, "Fathers, bring up [your children] in the discipline andinstruction of the Lord." Instruction! We are to instruct them in the testimony and teaching of God.
Here is a huge educational implication: Since the testimony and instruction of God is in a book, this means that we will labor to teach our children to read. In fact, among "readin', writin', and 'rithmetic" reading will be of supreme importance. And reading is no simple thing: it includes recognizing the ideas that attach to symbols. It includes understanding how those ideas fit together in an author's mind to make a message. It includes thinking about whether that message is true or not. Learning how to read never stops. There is always room for improvement in how we read. And the main incentive to grow and improve in our reading is that the infinitely glorious God who made all things and who loves us and plans our future has testified and taught in a book.
4. Children Learn and Know
The fourth stage in our calling as parents and church is that our children are to know the testimony and teaching of God-know it well enough to tell it to the next generation. Fromour teaching comes their knowing.
Verse 6: [We teach] "that the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children."
You might think that this point is virtually the same as the one before. But they aren't the same. Teaching is not the same as learning and knowing. And the distinction is important for at least two reasons.
One is that we cannot make our children learn. We can make ourselves teach. But we cannot make them know. Knowing is a precious thing. The kind of knowing God has in mind here is more than mere memory or raw mental awareness. Knowing is seeing into the real beauty of truth and embracing it for the treasure that it is. Parents and church cannot make that happen. We can do our best in putting God in the center and loving and praying and teaching. But in the end there is a chasm between teaching and knowing that only God can carry our children across.
The other reason for stressing the difference between our task of teaching and their responsibility of knowing is that the rest of God's purposes for our children grow out of this knowing. The final two stages of our calling are the fruit of this stage of knowing.
5. Children Put Their Confidence in God
So the fifth stage in our calling is that our children put their confidence in God.
Verse 7: "That they should put their confidence in God"
God has testified and taught that there might be a deposit of reliable truth that we might teach it to our children that they might know it and embrace it-why? So that they might put their confidence in God.
The aim of all true education is to deepen and broaden confidence in God. This is what keeps learning from leading to pride-or should keep learning from leading to pride. All true learning, all true knowledge reveals that we are dependent on God and must depend on him or perish. Knowledge that leads to self-sufficiency rather than dependence on God is not true knowledge but flawed knowledge. It is like an archeologist who finds a beautiful ancient painting, but hides it in a locked case and travels around giving lectures on how clever he was to discover it, but never bringing it out for all to admire, lest the beauty of the original treasure detract from his own achievement in finding it.
The aim of all knowledge is confidence in God. Hope in God. Trust in God. God is the beginning and the goal of all education. But there is one final stage in our calling as parents and church toward our children.
6. A Life of Obedience
Our confidence in God, rooted in knowledge of God's testimony and teaching, must lead to a life of obedience.
Verse 7: "That they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments."
When our children are confident in God, they will follow the commandments of God. Outward obedience will not be legalistic conformity to external pressures and expectations. It will be the fruit of internal confidence-not self-confidence, but God-confidence.
The reason outward obedience to God is the final goal of parenting is because it externalizes the glory of God-and that is why the universe was created. Internal states of mind, no matter how good, do not manifest or reveal or externalize the worth of God. But when we and our children are so confident in God that we gladly obey God's demands for love and justice, then the beauty and worth and wisdom and love and justice of God shine out in the world. And that is why the world was created-that the knowledge of the glory of God might fill the earth the way the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).
I close with one implication for our church. I believe that one implication of this six-fold calling is a new kind of partnership between church and parents. Parents are the primary agents of God in this calling. But no parents can do all this without the help of others. This is why schools exist and why all other educational efforts in the church exist.
- Parents need help in keeping a God-centered vision of parenting alive.
- Parents need a deep confidence in God.
- Parents need motivation to persevere year in and year out.
- Parents need encouragement when everything seems to go wrong.
- Parents need relief from time to time from the strain of parenting.
- Parents need help in boiling down the Book of God into essential, transferable, age-appropriate portions.
- Parents need help in teaching subjects and skills where they lack expertise and time.
- Parents need community reinforcement of truth and moral standards.
- Parents need solutions to tough problems raised by children.
- Parents need camaraderie for the sharing of accumulated wisdom.
- Parents need correction when others can see that something is wrong and they can't.
- Parents need prayer because in the end God is the great Teacher.
Parenting is the main thing for children under God; but God means for parenting to happen in a covenant community that helps provide what parents need. And he means, in turn, for parents-and single people-to sustain and shape the ministry of the covenant community toward the children.
- Parents and singles who teach,
- parents and singles who oversee,
- parents and singles who sing,
- parents and singles who plan and carry out activities for children,
- parents and singles who open their homes,
- parents and singles who model all that we are aiming at in educational mission.
I invite you to pray with me toward this new partnership at Bethlehem-that the next generation might put their confidence in God.
By John Piper. ©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org