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As Reformed Christians, we naturally think in terms of covenants. We do this when thinking about our salvation, and the covenant of grace, and we also do it when it comes to some of our horizontal relationships—we have a rich understanding, for example, of the covenant of marriage. And related to marriage, we also think of the family in covenantal terms. We are covenant families; our children are covenant children. This means that when our children are brought into the faith, they are introduced into the universal church. But they also individuals who, for the most part, grow up in a particular congregation (this one), and this has additional ramifications. They are not just brought to the faith. They are brought to a particular church, and they grow up to maturity within the church.
“And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Summary of the Text
This passage is one that is very familiar to us, having been appealed to regularly as we have urged and argued for the necessity of a Christian education for Christian kids. Fathers are here instructed not to provoke their children, which is something that fathers are prone to do (v. 4). In addition, as you have been told many times, the word translated nurture here is paideia. This paideia of the Lord is, of necessity, an all-encompassing reality. Our word education doesn’t begin to touch it. This word actually represents the profound experience of enculturation. The other word, admonition, could also be translated as instruction. Christian kids need a Christian education; the apostle requires that they be reared in an environment dominated by the Word of God.
That said, my interest today is with the verb rendered as “bring [them] up.” The word is used just two times in the New Testament. One of them is here, meaning rear, or bring up. The only other use is just a few verses earlier, when husbands are commanded to treat their wives as they treat their own bodies. No man ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes (same word) and cherishes it.
A husband is told to love his wife as Christ loved the church. That is the baseline. As if that were not enough, he is told to apply the Golden Rule to marriage, taking how he nourishes and cherishes his own body as a rule for how he treats his wife. He feeds and cares for his own body, and the word for cherish (thalpo) literally means “to keep warm.” He is to be, in other words, extremely solicitous for his wife’s welfare. Then just a few verses later, he uses the same word with regard to the children of this man. Bring them up, feeding, protecting, caring, watching. Fathers are given this central charge.
In This Together
Fathers, and then mothers together with them, are engaged in this vital task of bringing up children. But Christian fathers and mothers are not on their own with regard to this.
In our practice of baptizing children, we recognize the importance of our congregational unity in child rearing when we ask you this question: “Do you as a congregation undertake the responsibility of assisting these parents in the Christian nurture of this child? If so, signify it by saying amen.” But what does this mean exactly?
Let us say that you dutifully said amen at the baptism of little Herbert, and it is now three years later and little Herbert, cuteness diminishing by the year, is three rows ahead of your family at church every week, and is playing the role of a hellion ramped up on nitrous oxide.
The vow that we all take at baptisms requires (at a minimum) two things of us. The first is that if you are an observer of such things, and you have discounted for reasonable differences in family standards, then you need to inquire. But absolutely make sure you are observing a divergence from the Word, and not a divergence from your house rules. I would recommend that you do this dad-to-dad, and that you do it with questions, not accusations. Do it carefully, don’t rush into it, but do it. These are vows we take, and not decorations we put on.
I know that a number of you have done this sort of thing, and I know also that most of the time it goes well. Parents who are in over their heads are usually more eager for input than outsiders are to provide such input. This is not always the case, but it is usually the case. And when it isn’t the case, consider that the problem may have been an inept approach. So I said begin with questions, and not accusative questions. They should be questions like “How do you think Herbert is doing? Do you and your wife feel on top of things?”
The second thing these vows require is a particular attitude if you are the parent who is approached. This vow does not mean that any critic who comes to you is correct about what they see, or that their observations are even sensible. You are not obligated to agree, but you are obligated to not be defensive. The one thing you may not say is that “this is none of your business.” It is our business. We all took a vow.
Not only did we all take a vow, but in addition we practice child communion. We all come to the same Table week after week. This means that we are all being knit together into one body, and this includes your child and your child’s critic. That critic may be part of the problem, or may be part of the solution, but the one thing that is certain is that the critic is part of the body.
One last thing about this. You know your child up and down, inside and out. You are invested in your child. You love your child. The critic, observing from fifty feet away, may not know your child’s name, or his hopes, dreams, and aspirations. But because of the way communities work, that person that I have been (somewhat unkindly) calling a critic may know things about your child concerning which you have no idea. A three-year-old falls over at church, gets up, looks around, and then runs across the gym, bursting into a wail as soon as mom comes into sight. The observer, who doesn’t even know Herbert’s name, knows that Herbert is working his mom. And mom doesn’t know.
Or the parents of the kids who rode the bus to that basketball game know all about your teen-aged daughter’s boy-crazy conversation, and you don’t know. Factor this in as an ever present possibility (not a certainty), and simply refuse to be defensive. A rebuke from the righteous is excellent oil (Ps. 141:5), and so treat everyone who comes to you as being potentially one who brings that.
In the Lord
And now a few words to you children of the congregation. As you are growing up in the Lord, what sort of spiritual indicators should you be looking for? We are supposed to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10). We are supposed to examine ourselves to see if we are truly in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). This can be done without morbid introspection. But how? Keep in mind that in all that follows, it is not so much what you look to as the way you look to it.
We are not looking for dramatic conversion stories, like Saul on the road to Damascus. Those do happen in the world, but for kids whose parents have obeyed our text this morning, bringing you up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, such stories are not the norm. Some people can say that they “got saved” at thus and such a time. For others, while God knows the precise time, they do not. But remember that everyone here knows that the sun is up, but I dare say that not one person here knows the precise time the sun came up.
For you covenant kids, what are the assurances of salvation. Fortunately, they turn out to the same as they are for everyone else. Now I am directing these remarks to the 10 to 12-year-olds. But if you are younger, you are invited to listen. And if you are older, you are invited to listen.
- We see in 1 John 5:13 that we are to believe on the name of Jesus. We are to hold fast to Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:9). This is the foundation of everything else. Do you trust in Jesus? This is all about Jesus. So we begin with Him. What do you make of Jesus? What is your attitude toward Him? Love? Hostility? Indifference?
- “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13). The Spirit is given as a guarantee (Eph. 1:13-14; 2 Cor. 5:5-6). The Spirit is given to us as an assurance. And how do we know we have the Spirit? He grows things (Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 5:9), and He kills things (Rom. 8:13). Many of the passages we are looking at here tell us explicitly how we know that we belong to God. Notice how it goes with this one—hereby we know . . .
- “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death” (1 John 3:14). What is your attitude toward those that you know really love God? Do you want to be with them, or are you repelled by them? Now you don’t know if you are a real Christian, but you do know certain others who are real Christians. I am not talking about the goody-two-shoes, but rather the kids your age whom you know that really love God. What do you make of them? What is your attitude toward them? Respect? Admiration? Constant irritation? When one of them raises her hand in Bible class to answer a question, do you roll your eyes?
- “And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Jesus says that a mark of true conversion is humility of mind, becoming like a little child. When it comes to spiritual issues, are you humble? Or are you a know-it-all?
- “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious” (1 Pet. 2:2–3). A marked characteristic of life is hunger—in this case, hunger for the Word. I am not talking about whether you read your Bible because for many of you, it is assigned. I am asking here whether there is any hunger for it. Do you read your Bible, or listen to sermons, because you are hungry? Peter compares it to being a newborn. When you were first born, nobody had to give you hungry lessons.
- “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). There are two kinds of people in the world—those who are perishing and to whom the cross makes no sense, and those who are saved, to whom it does. So here is another indication. When the gospel is proclaimed, does it make any sense to you? Or is it all just yammer yammer Jesus yammer yammer yammer Bible yammer be good?
- “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). Here is another explicit statement of how we know. We know because we obey Him. We know that we are real Christians if we act like real Christians. We are following Jesus if we do what He says. But don’t despair too quickly here—this leads directly into an assurance that is connected to us not doing what He says.
- “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Heb. 12:6). But the previous mark should not be clutched in a false and unreasonable perfectionism. We do still sin. But what happens when we sin? What happens then is anothermark of true conversion. God doesn’t spank the neighbor kids.
And so it is that we—all of us, adult and child alike—must always return to the proclamation of Christ. “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13).