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Parenting With Law & Gospel

What is the secret to Christian parenting? Some families seem to have well-adjusted children and calm parents. Other families seem to have children who are out of control and a parent or two pulling out their few remaining hairs. What is the difference?

What is the secret?

There really is a secret to Christian parenting: the proper use of law and gospel.
You might have heard that law and gospel are the two main doctrines of the Bible. The law teaches us what we are supposed to do and what we are supposed to refrain from doing. The law shows our sin. The gospel teaches us what God has done for us. The gospel shows our Savior.
If you understand law and gospel correctly, everything in the Bible makes sense. The Bible’s long lists of laws demonstrate what Jesus did in our place when he lived a perfect life. The Bible’s vivid description of the gospel helps us to see Jesus’ love as he took the punishment for our sins.
But what does all of this have to do with parenting?
Let’s start with law. The law of God tells us what is right and what is wrong. The law of God as presented in the Bible is the basis of the rules we make for our homes. If God says that something is wrong, we do not call it right. If God says that something is right, we do not call it wrong. We can expect curses from God, not blessings, if we parents mess this up.

Children need structure

But there are many rules we have in our homes that go beyond the morality in the Bible, and that’s the way it should be. Children need more structure in their lives than adults, and it’s up to us parents to provide the structure. Bedtimes, boundaries on behaviors at mealtimes, and routine household chores are all part of that structure.
Keep in mind that real law is not what is spoken or even what is written down. Real law is what is enforced, and children quickly figure that out. If you are raising a child with a spouse, agree on the enforcement of the rules in your home. Don’t let your children see any daylight between you.
And actually enforce what the real law is. It’s okay to set a bedtime with some latitude. It’s also okay to have a strict bedtime. One major flaw in parenting is inconsistent enforcement of the law. If you say you are leaving at a certain time, actually leave at that time. Inconsistency in enforcement just leaves children confused, annoyed, or exasperated.
Real law has rewards and punishments. If you keep the law, you get rewarded. Praise, allowances, and extra privileges are all appropriate rewards. If you break the law, you get punished. Reprimanding, having time out, and withdrawing of privileges are all appropriate punishments.
If you are unsure what appropriate rewards and punishments are for children of certain ages, ask other Christian parents what they are doing. The actual rewards and punishments vary among different families and might not be quite what you experienced as a child.
The Bible warns us not to be too harsh or inconsistent, especially with the punishments of the law. “Do not exasperate your children” (Ephesians 6:4). If it turns out that our punishments have not been strict enough, our children will certainly give us another chance to get them right at a later time.

The goal of the law

One surprise in Christian parenting is that the main goal of using the law correctly is not to get better behavior from our children. That’s a secondary goal. The main goal of enforcing the law is to evoke repentance. In other words, it is more important for a Christian to learn how to say “I’m sorry” than it is to learn how to be good.
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” That’s the first of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. And it’s a simple truth. Daily repentance is the key to a Christian life. So it’s clearly something we need to teach our children.
Repentance has two parts: sorrow over sin and trust in forgiveness. The law when clearly and consistently enforced leads to sorrow over sin. One key way to express that sorrow is to say, “I’m sorry.”

How parents teach the gospel

When we hear our children say, “I’m sorry,” our immediate reaction as Christian parents is to say, “I forgive you.” As we have opportunity, we can also explain to our children that they are forgiven because of what Jesus has done for them and that God forgives them too. The most frequent way we will tell the gospel to our children is by saying, “I forgive you.”
But parental forgiveness should be unconditional with no strings attached. We do not say to our children, “I’ll forgive you if you promise never to do it again.” Our model is God, who forgives us unconditionally, even when he knows that we will sin again. “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).
If your child has made you mad by breaking the law, it is harder to say, “I forgive you.” But the forgiveness of sins that both you and your child have through faith in Jesus will give you the patience to say “I love you and I forgive you” anyway.
No matter how naughty your children are, remember that they are baptized children of God and members of his family, just like you. It will help you to be more patient with them.
Often “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” are enough. There doesn’t have to be a follow-up punishment every time a law or a rule is broken. The rules are still there to be consistently enforced. Structure remains.
Sometimes there are still consequences of breaking the law, even after you forgive your child. These are part of the structure to help children learn to control themselves. Those consequences are not adding conditions to the gospel. You still forgive your children unconditionally. But you explain to them that you love them enough that you will help them remember not to break the law again. That will help them learn that “I’m sorry” is a genuine expression of repentance, not magic words to keep anything bad from happening to them.
If a child is not willing to say, “I’m sorry,” it’s very appropriate to use time out as a way to give time to come to repentance. A very stubborn or defiant child will need some more structured consequences of the law to help lead to repentance.
If you don’t know whether to use law or gospel, use gospel. If you have made a mistake, your child will give you another chance to use the law.
Ideally, your love and the love of God, expressed in the gospel, become your child’s strongest motives to choose to do the right thing and to refrain from doing the wrong thing.
So now you know the secret to Christian parenting: the proper use of law and gospel. Does it guarantee well-adjusted children and calm parents? We ask that very blessing from God as we put his Word to use.

By Paul Prange, from Parents Crosslink © 2013 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: "A Cross Against Sky" by Suzy Dubot is licensed under CC0 1.0.

Paul Prange, the WELS administrator for ministerial education, and his wife, Leanne, have raised three children and presently live in Burlington, Wisconsin, where Leanne teaches kindergarten at St. John’s Lutheran Elementary School.

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