A while back, Judi and I had one of those “aha moments.” It was something we should have realized earlier but for some reason we had missed it. We suddenly recognized that we had been responding to our children’s sin in a way that rendered them Pharisees-in-training. We were reflexively parroting familiar language that was pushing our children in the opposite direction of where we said we wanted them to go.
It was very common for us to respond to their sin by saying, “We cannot believe that you would do that! We are not people who do those kinds of things.” While we have an evangelical understanding of sin and the universality of human depravity in a fallen world the language we were using was betraying our stated conviction. Our verbal training was communicating that we expected good kids and that we were stunned at any behavior that showed they were not good kids. The implication is that they are expected to be good kids because we were a good family.
We knew Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and quoted it often when sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. But functionally, the culture we were creating in our home by our words, proceeded as if we were exempt from depravity and the struggle with sin. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but Judi and I decided we needed to change our language so we could be faithful gospel witnesses in our own home.
We sought to banish the language, “We cannot believe you would do that! We are not people who do those kinds of things!” We replaced it with, “I am not at all surprised you would sin in this way. I have sinned in similar ways. This is a good opportunity to remember that you do not simply sin but that you are a sinner.” The first approach was gospel-less. The second approach is “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).
The way we had been responding to sin focused on how the child was letting us down and failing to live up to the family standard of righteousness. The new approach puts the focus on God and his standard of righteousness and paves the way for clarity about the good news of salvation. It presents the Christian parent a strategic opportunity to say something like, “I am a sinner too but I have been forgiven of my sins by faith in Jesus Christ and I am praying that the discipline you receive will remind you that sin has consequences and that you too will seek forgiveness in Jesus Christ.”
We now tell our children we do not want them to grow up to be a good man or woman according to our cultures arbitrary standards. We tell them we want them to be a gospel man or woman. It is dangerous thing for your children to think you as a parent are inherently morally superior and that they should attempt to become like you so they do not let down the family name. It places them on the performance treadmill of your expectations. When they frame the world in an anti-gospel performance way—the only outcome is defeat and despair. Conviction of sin will bring no joy. It will bring shame because they will reason, “I have failed my parents. If I were a good person I would have repented sooner. A godly person would never have these thoughts or act this way. The fact I struggle in this way shows that I am worthless.”
Christ-centered discipline provides a unique parental opportunity for gospel proclamation and clarity. It is liberating when parents stop trying to raise good kids by being good parents. We are not good, not one of us, and that is why we all desperately need Jesus and his gospel of the kingdom. Telling our children, “We cannot believe that you would do that,” trains them to create a good image and try to live up to it. But they cannot live up to it, because it is a mirage, so they live in fear of being exposed. Constant accusation without the gospel is hellish not holy.
Christian parents need to make sure our words match our doctrine when we discipline our children. Every parental discipline encounter is a strategic opportunity to expose our children’s true identity (and ours too)—sinners who need a Savior. That is what is so powerful about gospel-focused discipline. When a parent clarifies the sin, points to the gospel, administers the discipline, and the embraces the child joyfully and forgivingly by declaring, “I love you no matter what!” the child gets a small taste of the glorious and absolute freedom offered in the gospel (Gal. 5:1).
A previous version of this article was published here.