It seems to me that when a person is converted to Christianity as an adult, and then becomes a parent, there is a common pitfall they fall into. It is not easy to recognize the real nature of our fallen state, and it is the most natural thing to love our children dearly and want the best for them. So it seems common that this adult convert to Christianity will believe, perhaps even only on an unconscious level, that his children can be spared all the pain and sorrow that he himself experienced from falling into sin, if only he raises their children right. He will simply put in place all the right rules, strict discipline, and thorough indoctrination in the Christian faith, and the result will be that his child will have a relatively trouble-free life, without falling into any of the gross and destructive sins which he himself experienced. Or even more simply, he will simply shelter his child from anything that might corrupt him, and expect him to turn out fine. Any parent can be tempted with this, of course, but it seems like it’s a particular temptation for the first generation Christian parent, who perhaps doesn’t realize that he would still have been a sinner, a bad sinner, even if he grew up in a Christian home.
It is often done with the best of intentions. But it fails. It fails because despite the very best education and the most attentive, loving parents, the sin nature remains. You cannot baptize it out of them, beat it out of them, or homeschool it out of them. You cannot protect them from sin by shutting out the world because sin comes from within each of us.
I hasten to add that if anyone infers from this that I am opposed to discipline, good education, religious indoctrination or, for goodness sake, baptism, that they are not reading very carefully. I have only said that these things cannot efface the sin nature within us. Only the blood of Christ applied by the power of the Holy Spirit can do that. This is not to say that therefore there is no point to these things. It is to say that the same gospel that saved you as an act of free grace must save your children as well.
So we raise our children in the faith, but we must raise our children in ALL of the faith. That includes raising them in the knowledge of the corruption of sin. I think it is tempting for us not to tell our children that they will be sinners and they will fall into sin, for perhaps we fear giving themselves an excuse. Perhaps we fear even more admitting it to ourselves, that our children are going to do dumb and destructive things just like we did. Perhaps our pride, our belief that we will do better and avoid all those problems, will not permit us to admit this fact.
It also means raising them with the knowledge of forgiveness of sins, and the basis of that knowledge, in the cross of Christ. I think we so often fear that our children cannot be trusted with the gospel, and instead raise them with the law, training them to think that good things will follow obedience and bad things will follow disobedience, thinking that by doing so we will cause them to avoid sin, when in fact when we do so we rob them of the gospel, the only thing that can save them from sin. If people can be saved from sin through good parenting, why did Christ need to die on the cross?
The child raised in the church, in a Christian home, gains many advantages, and these should not be despised. He has a head start on the accumulation of knowledge and good habits that the adult convert needs to learn fresh. But if we raise that child to believe that such an education will make them, of itself, largely immune to the lure of sin, then we have made things even harder on them. When that child inevitably falls into great sin, as we all do, then he is likely either to hide it, lying to himself and to the world about his true state, becoming a Pharisee, or to despair, believing that Christianity is impossible, and leave the faith entirely. Honestly, I’d prefer the second outcome to the first since that one at least knows he is not a Christian, but better yet is to teach our children the gospel from the outset, and not think that they can succeed in the power of the flesh any more than we can.
A full apprehension of the gospel requires an individual, internal struggle with the true nature of one’s own sin. To repent of sin requires an understanding of what sin is, and this happens existentially, in one’s own heart, not merely as an abstraction. A sound Christian education at its best will prepare a child for this crisis, for the moment when their sinful state comes crashing down on them so that, by the grace of God, they can respond in faith and repentance, instead of despair.
Proverbs 22:15 tells us, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him.” This shows us that our children do not start out as blank slates that we can simply write a godly image on, thus avoiding all serious sin problems. It tells us that our children start out as fools, but that godly discipline in the light of the gospel and combined with the Spirit of God will lead them to repentance. Hebrews 12:6 says that every son whom the Lord loves He chastens and scourges, showing us that the process of the believer falling into sin and suffering as a result is a necessary one for the perfection of the Christian.
So I’m hoping that we can learn to trust God with our children, and that means trusting them with the gospel. I hope I can trust God enough to expect my children to sin, even to sin grievously, and to tell them that when they do that, God will forgive them and heal them. Whether we come to faith as an adult or are raised in it as a child, there is no way to avoid the struggle we all must face if we are to be Christians, to face the sin inside our own hearts, to struggle painfully with its true nature, to realize our own inability to overcome it, and to throw ourselves on Christ as the only solution. I hope I can trust God enough to trust Him with the salvation of my own children just as He saved me. I hope I can trust Him enough not to fall to pieces when my child falls into real, adult sins, but instead can point them to the same Savior, the same cross, that saved me.