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Teaching Your Children to Live in God's Covenant

Adominant part of family life is teaching one's children. The imperatives of Scripture make it so; the promises are to us and our children. The demands of teaching our children are too important for our children not to dominate family life.

  • Walter Lindsay,
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Adominant part of family life is teaching one's children. The imperatives of Scripture make it so; the promises are to us and our children. The demands of teaching our children are too important for our children not to dominate family life. And the Lord tells us so:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Dt. 6:4-9)

In this passage, God gives us parents very specific and concrete directions about how we are to train our children to love Him. He does not tell us to teach them to "know" Him through detailed systematic theology, or to "love" Him through warm fuzzy feelings and mushy "Jesus Loves Me" songs. Rather, throughout Deuteronomy He tells us that we are to teach our children to observe His commands so that they will teach their children to do the same. To love God, to know Him, depends on knowing and doing what He requires. Loving and knowing God is fundamentally covenantal (e.g., Dt. 5:10; 7:9; Dan. 9:4; Jn. 17:3, 26), and we are to teach our children how to live according to that magnificent covenant.

Unfortunately, it has become too easy for parents to forget the meaning of this command, thanks to the vestiges of Enlightenment rationalism and Romanticism that prevail in modern thought. Rationalism and Romanticism during the 18th century sought to separate in man what God has not separated, namely his intellect, emotion, and will, and then to redefine what God has already defined. Knowledge and love, both of God and of man, were separated into two separate categories, the one rational and the other emotional, and were redefined, giving the power of God to man.

False Categories and Redefinitions
Whenever man attempts to redefine what God has already defined, the result is very, very messy. God tells us how intimately connected love is with knowing and serving Him, that they derive from Him and His love for His creation. Yet both the Enlightenment and Romantic movements sought to eradicate God from the Creation, and so the world became impersonal and purposeless. Enlightenment rationalism defined knowledge as an act of contemplation, a purely rational exercise of man's infallible intellect to govern a mechanistic creation. And Romanticism defined love as an emotion, manipulated by man's will and experienced without any reference to value or meaning.

These have had malignant effects on man's daily life. A parent who taught his children romantic love would, therefore, teach them that love was meaningless. And a parent who taught his children rationalistic knowledge would only teach them that knowledge was impossible, and that life was meaningless.

While both Romanticism and Enlightenment rationalism borrowed from Greek thought, each also had its peculiar influence on modern Western thought. Enlightenment thought had been built on the legacy of the 17th century scientific revolution, in which rational science, and man's ability to comprehend and control the creation through it, was elevated as the key to knowing the natural world. By the 18th century, the Enlightenment had given flesh to the bones of this idea, and had created a culture out of the transformation.

According to rationalism, man's ability to know the truth lay completely within his mind, and it was his responsibility to categorize life with his mind, as well as to assign it meaning. These acclaimed responsibilities, of course, greatly affected his daily life. How husbands loved their wives; how mothers disciplined their children; how men made laws and governments administered justice; how ministers preached the Word — the impersonal laws of nature and man's power to manipulate those laws governed them all. Man, and his mechanized universe, needed no Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to create and uphold him by the power and counsel of His will. Without a purpose or goal for continued existence, man's world became a desperate, ugly place.

It did not take long for some of the grotesque consequences of rationalism to become apparent. The Enlightenment culture had reduced man and the creation to phenomena completely devoid of beauty and nobility, without personality or purpose. Yet humanism would not give up so easily, and rationality was given a new face.

According to Romanticism, man's intellect was still able to comprehend truths about the physical universe, but it was his will that enabled him to break free from its constraints. Man's experiences gave meaning to reality, and they legitimized his emotions, his creative abilities, and his soul. He was his own God, and the creation only found purpose in his subjective divinations. And while he sought to free society from oppression, families, churches, and governments disintegrated in the meaninglessness of his program. Romantic thought sought to break man free from the chains of intellectual rationalism, but bound him instead by chaos. Neither Enlightenment rationalism nor Romanticism could give purpose or meaning to life, and thus parents who rejected God's order inevitably found themselves teaching their children the same.

Wary Teaching
Enlightenment rationalism and Romanticism have certainly perverted man's understanding of and commitment to teaching our children, and unfortunately this is true even within the Christian family. A parent who teaches his child to love the Lord with an Enlightenment bias will emphasize "head religion," education in doctrine or theology, as the primary way to grow in knowledge of God. And a parent with a Romantic bias will instead emphasize "heart religion," emotion and experiencing Christ. Some parents even emphasize both, as if the goal of the Christian life was a balancing act between the two. But Scripture does not tolerate any views that put man in the place of God.

So how then do parents reorient their thinking so that they may teach their children faithfully? Paul describes that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, and that as our lives are transformed we will prove that God's commands are perfect (Rom. 12:2). We parents first learn God's ways and laws. As Deuteronomy 6:1 indicates, Moses was to lamad, or teach, the Israelites the Lord's commands so that they would obey them throughout the generations. The Hebrew word lamad literally means "to exercise in, learn," and this illustrates the essential connection between teaching, learning, and obeying. Matthew Henry describes the process of teaching our children as "frequently repeat[ing] these things to them, try[ing] all ways of instilling them into their minds, and making them pierce into their hearts; as, in whetting a knife, it is turned first on this side and that."

The promises for faithfulness are great, but our problems are also great. An enemy has sown weeds amongst the field we have cultivated (Mt. 13:24-30), and it is difficult to avoid the rationalistic and Romantic spirits of our age. Jesus commanded, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves" (Mt. 10:16). Parents must continually be on guard to teach their children that while Christians may share similar goals with some humanists (for example, secular conservatives), their commitments are never the same. Abortion arguments are a good example.

The secular pro-life argument — that all life is inherently valuable, and the pain that a fetus feels is evidence of that value — is a modern stepchild of Romanticism. Christian parents must teach their children that not all life is equally valuable; otherwise we could not uphold the death penalty. And while we may weep for the unborn child, experiences do not give value to existence. Christian parents must be wise to easy sounding arguments to help their children grow in love for the Lord.

As we learn God's laws and ways, we should expect not only that the content of our teaching will change, but also that we will see and think in new ways (Rom. 12:2; 2 Tim 3:16, 17), and even in the ways we think about our children. For example, some parents, upon seeing their child's first steps, build themselves up with the knowledge that his DNA contained the code that caused his body to build the skeletal, muscular, and neurological systems that enabled him to walk — all mechanisms described by man's knowledge, impersonal and purposeless.

The Romantic reaction is just as bad: A child's innocence is thought to be so precious that watching his first steps becomes a nearly divine experience. As innocence departs into adulthood, parents mourn their "little baby's growing up." Christians should be on guard against these tempting tendencies. We should stand in awe that the same God who is preparing all of creation to receive Him fully in glory, is preparing their children, bodies included, for that same purpose. And at each new milestone, their children reveal the image of God with greater fullness for His glory.

Strong Teaching
We parents must teach our children when we sit at home, when we walk about town, when we go to bed, and when we get up in the morning. Instruction literally takes on every form possible, from the monumental to the mundane. And yet some opportunities for teaching our young ones are so essential that to miss those opportunities would leave our children to the wolves of the world. Catechizing is one of those opportunities. No catechism is infallible, or completely comprehends the Word of God (Rom. 11:33). Yet the Reformed catechisms are excellent tools for inscribing in our children's hearts the doctrines of Scripture.

Both Westminster catechisms, and the Heidelberg Catechism, begin with questions that not only establish the child's purpose and meaning, but also remind him of the glorious blessings of his identity in Christ. If we treat doctrine as a synonym of faith, then Enlightenment rationalism has become a welcome guest in our households. However, if we teach our children right doctrine as a necessary ingredient for loving obedience, then catechizing them will nourish our children's love for the Lord.

Family worship is another important way for parents to teach their children. Even a small child can tell if Scripture is read with delight, and reading to them in that manner lays a foundation of knowledge that works against worldly ideas. Frequent prayer teaches children that theirs is the living God, who works every moment in love for the good of His loved ones and His glory. And as we bring the events of the day and of the world to the foot of the cross, we help our children to examine them in the light of Scripture and God's purposes. Singing psalms and hymns in worship teaches children that truth is never dry or cranky, but full of joy and beauty, and is designed to enlighten our minds and delight our senses. Through family worship we seek to fill our children's minds and hearts with truth, and to show them that obedience to God's commands is the only way to know and love that truth.

Similarly, the covenant community we choose for our families deeply forms the ideas our children have about loving the Lord. A church whose worship bears more resemblance to a funeral than a marriage ceremony, whose sermons are dead orthodoxy and theological systems, will do little to protect the flock from strains of Enlightenment rationalism or from a Romantic backlash. And a church that emphasizes the warmth of being "slain in the Spirit," whose sermons merely warm the heart, will only encourage Romanticism in the hearts of God's people.

However, if our children belong to a church where beauty and glory are manifest in the liturgy (Ex. 28:2, 40), the Word is preached faithfully to transform the lives of the community (Heb. 4:1-3), and godly tradition serves as a reminder of God's work in history, past, present, and future (Josh. 4), they will be nourished in a faith that truly seeks to love the Lord in obedience. The church is Christ's bride, and we must reflect her glory. At the same time, she is our mother (Gal. 4:26; Rev. 21:9, 10), and we cannot train our children apart from the glory of His bride or the nurture of our mother.

And These Too Shall Pass
Training our children faithfully to think their thoughts after God, to love His definitions and His commands, will always be a daunting task as long as sin is in the world. Thankfully, we know that this struggle will not last forever. The Lord of the harvest knows that we and our age are infested with weeds (Mt. 13:24-30), and today we walk among the very tall and gnarly weeds of Enlightenment rationalism and Romanticism.

Although we must be wise to the world in order to protect our children from its dangers, at the same time God does not require that each of us spend weary nights studying Enlightenment rationalism and Romanticism in order to root them out of our children's lives. Our calling is to pursue Him so that, in the natural course of events, He will so weaken false ideologies that even learned scholars will barely remember them. If we strive to teach our children to know and love the Lord through obeying Him, and how to teach the same to their children, then in the providence of God, Enlightenment rationalism, Romanticism, and all other false gods will be crushed under the footfall of faithful obedience (Ps. 110:1). Praise be to the Lord!

  • Walter Lindsay

In addition to Walter's software engineering career and Megan's housewifing career, the Lindsays are assistant editors for the Chalcedon Report. They recently moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and are members of Emmanuel Covenant Church. They so far have been blessed with one daughter, Maggie, and another due to come in May.

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