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In September of 2006 George Barna released a sobering study. Following interviews with more than 22,000 adults and 2,000 teenagers from across America, he revealed that the majority of twentysomethings who are raised as Christians subsequently abandon the faith. He found that:

…most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years—and often beyond that. In total, six out of ten twentysomethings were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.

Another survey by LifeWay found that “Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23.” Still another study (from Church Communication Networks) said that up to 94 percent of Christian teens leave the church within a few years of leaving high school.

This is alarming! Writing on these studies, local pastor and blogger Tim Challies says, “Each of these studies appears to show that Christians are doing a very poor job of reaching the children in their midst.” The most important thing we can do for our kids is to introduce them to Jesus Christ, and to his transforming power. It’s vastly more important than anything else we can do as parents. But the statistics say we’re doing a bad job of this.

So this morning I want to look at a familiar passage of Scripture. My intent this morning is not to tell you anything you don’t already know. I want to remind you of some things. More important than that, I want to encourage you who are parents to make this a priority in our lives.

So let’s read the passage, and then let me make some applications. The passage is Ephesians 6:1-4. Paul has been applying the amazing truths of what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ to families. The gospel, he says, changes our marriages and our families. And in chapter 6 he turns our attention to parenting. He says:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Three things this morning. First, an assumption. Second, a transformation. Third, an obligation.

An Assumption

It’s important to begin with an understanding of what Paul is assuming in this passage. Paul does not begin with practical parenting advice. We’re jumping in at the end of the book. Paul is now applying what he has said earlier about the gospel. He’s spent most of the book explaining what God is up to in this world. He’s explained God’s eternal plan to choose and adopt us, to exalt Jesus Christ, to take spiritually dead people and make them alive, to reconcile Jews and Greeks to become one people. You cannot apply chapters 4-6 of Ephesians until you understand chapters 1-3 of Ephesians. All that Paul is doing in this passage is unpacking what he’s said earlier about the gospel.

So here’s the assumption: before you can apply what he’s about to say about parenting, the assumption is that you have been changed by the gospel. In other words, you can’t pass on what you don’t have. Tim Challies, again, touches on this in his comments about the sobering statistics I just read to you:

Looking at the evangelical landscape in the United States (where these studies were performed) and in Canada, I see that the majority of children, and probably the vast majority of children, are raised in churches where what they hear is a false gospel or a gospel that has been emptied of all that makes it the power of God for salvation. We should not be at all surprised that children abandon this kind of a counterfeit gospel as soon as they are able to. I would do the same.

Shortly after my son was born a friend gave me this little bit of wisdom: “Kids are amazing bull–- detectors.” A bit crude, but the point was well-taken. Through 11 years and 3 children I’ve seen that this is exactly the case, though I do not express it in quite the same way. Children are amazing at unmasking hypocrisy; they are not easily fooled. You may fool them for a moment, but not for a lifetime. They will believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy and Jesus when they are young. Sooner or later, though, they need evidence that these characters truly exist.

This is so true. One of the reasons, humanly speaking I became convinced of the truth of the gospel is because I saw it clearly displayed in my family. Our kids have a powerful ability to know whether we’re dragging them to church because it’s something we think we should do, or whether it’s real in our lives. They know how our faith is real even by how we talk. Think of this example. C. John Miller writes in his book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church:

I once overheard a visitor to one of our services tell this story to a young father. He said, “This morning you brought your child to be given over to the Lord. I did that once too. But let me urge you from the bottom of my heart, don’t do to your child what I did to mine. As he grew up, he listened to me criticize the pastor year after year. As a consequence, I turned off my boy to the church and to ministers, and today he is far from God.”

It goes both ways too. The kids of pastors can tell by the way their parents talk if this is real or not.

So let me begin by saying that Paul is making an assumption here. The assumption is that parents must be transformed by the gospel themselves so that it’s real in their lives before they can pass it on to their children. I don’t want to make this assumption this morning. So let me ask you: is it real? Are you truly a Christian? Is your heart this morning warm towards God? Do you marvel that Jesus Christ has died for your sins? This is where it starts. Your kids will be able to tell whether it’s real in your life or not. The assumption is that you can only pass on to your kids what you yourself possess.

A Transformation

Secondly, in this passage we also see a transformation. In that day, the rights of fathers were staggering. Men in general had a lot of rights, but children could change all of that. They tied you down. They were considered a nuisance. They were expensive, inhibited sexual promiscuity, and made easy divorce a lot harder. As a result, many in that day did not want children. But even if you did have children, the father’s rights would be almost unlimited. A father could sell his children as slaves. He could make them work in the field, even in chains. He could punish them how he liked, and could even inflict the death penalty on them. And this power extended over the life of his children no matter how long they lived. A Roman son never came of age. His father had rights over him as long as the father lived.

When a child was born, the child would be placed before the father. If the father stooped and raised the child, the child was accepted and raised as his. But if he turned away, the child was rejected and literally discarded. Sometimes the baby would be picked up by those who trafficked in infants; and raised to be slaved or to work in brothels. Other times they were left to die. One Roman father wrote to his wife, “If – good luck to you! – you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out.”

And then Paul comes along and, like Jesus, elevates the value of children in an extraordinary way, so that fathers have a sacred responsibility to their children. Paul says in this passage that fathers have responsibilities to their children. This is so important today because fathers do still sometimes go AWOL on their children. Fathers can tend to be passive. But Paul lays on us dads here the obligations we have to our kids. He refuses just to talk about rights; he reminds us that there’s a transformation in our relationship that leaves us with very clear obligations.

But he also transforms things from the children’s perspective. Why should a child obey the father? Not because of the father’s rights, but because it is pleasing to the Lord. Paul brings God into the relationship.

This means that our parenting is no longer a private issue between us and our kids. Paul teaches us there that parenting is a spiritual obligation. We are responsible before God as fathers. We don’t have a whole bunch of rights; we have a spiritual obligation before God to do our part.

There’s an assumption that the faith we’re trying to pass on is real in ourselves. And there is also a transformation in our relationship so that we see ourselves as fathers before God. We’re no longer passive or able to parent as we please. Our kids are on loan, as it were.

So my second question is this: Do you see parenting – particularly fathering – as a sacred duty before God? The way that you father is an issue with which God is concerned. There’s a transformation in our parenting relationship because God is very concerned.

Remember the stats I quoted at the start of this sermon. If these are true, and if we aren’t doing our job as parents, we need to step up. We need to be doing our job. We are failing our kids and failing God if we don’t.

An Obligation

Finally, there’s an obligation here. Verse 4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Parents usually go wrong in one or two ways. Some parents are too strict. Paul addresses this in the first phrase: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” It’s significant, but the way, that he mentions fathers here. Don’t let anyone tell you that parenting is a mother’s job! But then Paul corrects a mistake that is common in parenting: that parenting can be so strict that children are exasperated and crushed by the demands. Paul doesn’t want this. He wants an atmosphere of grace in which our kids are allowed to flourish.

The distinguished painter Benjamin West tells the story of one day when his mother went out, leaving him in charge of his younger sister. While she was out, he discovered some ink and decided to paint his sister’s portrait. When his mother came back there was an awful mess. She walked in, said nothing about the ink stains all over. She picked up the paper on which he had drawn the portrait and said, “Why, it’s Sally!” and then she stooped and kissed him. Benjamin West said, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.”

Paul says, in essence, “Don’t err by being too strict and exasperating your children.” Once again, this comes back to the gospel. If you get that you are loved by God because of his sheer grace, that grace will begin to affect your parenting. There’s a great new book out called Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus. The author says that we sometimes give our kids the wrong impression that God is only pleased with us when we’re good. She writes:

Grace, or the free favor that has been lavished on us through Christ, ought to make our parenting radically different from what unbelievers do. That’s because the good news of God’s grace is meant to permeate and transform every relationship we have, including our relationship with our children. All the typical ways we construct to get things done and get others to do our bidding are simply obliterated by a gospel message that tells us that we are all (parents and children) both radically sinful and radically loved. At the deepest level of what we do as parents, we should hear the heartbeat of a loving, grace-giving Father who freely adopts rebels and transforms then into loving sons and daughters. If this is not the message that your children hear from you, if the message you send them on a daily basis is about begin good so that you won’t be disappointed, then the gospel needs to transforming your parenting too.

But then he confronts the other way that parents go wrong: by being too lenient. “Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

Training is a word that refers to discipline. Some parents err by not being disciplined appropriately. Paul has already said not to be too harsh, but here he says not to go to the other extreme and let your children do whatever they want either.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He also mentions the instruction of the Lord. What does this mean? A lot of us want our kids to learn about the Lord. That’s why we bring our kids to church and to Sunday school. But Paul here says that the primary responsibility for this belongs in the home. It is ultimately the parent’s job – ultimately, according to Paul, the father’s job – to instruct children in the way of the Lord.

A pastor – formerly a youth pastor – complained that parents would often call him in frustration, wanting him to do something to fix their teenagers. He grew increasingly frustrated, because for years these parents had been teaching them that church and the Lord come somewhere on the list after sports and school and everything else. For years, these parents had been teaching their kids that God is not a high priority. These parents had been instructing their children, but not in the way of the Lord.

Paul says that it’s our job to instruct them in the Lord. This means making the Lord a priority in our schedules, and also in our home lives. This means that your kids will know whether your faith is genuine or not. They’re more likely to be excited about the Lord if you are excited about the Lord.

It also means that we will learn family worship. Most parents today don’t take the time to read the Bible, pray, and worship with their children. In 1647, Christians were so concerned about this that they raised the alarm and said, “If we don’t start worshiping at home, we’re going to lose our kids!” And they were right. So they instructed pastors and elders to begin inquiring about family devotions. If they found out that a father was not leading his children in family worship, they would talk to him privately. If he didn’t respond, they would actually begin church discipline against him.

Were they fanatics? Maybe – or maybe they were just on to something. Maybe they knew that parents are responsible for disciplining children, and instructing them in the Lord, and that failure to do so is catastrophic. We should care about our children’s relationship with the Lord just as much as we care about any other area of their life. It’s more important than almost anything. It’s got to be a priority.

Listen: I can’t tell you how important this is. And the statistics say we’re not doing a good job of it. The most important thing we can do is to be transformed by the gospel, and then to introduce our kids to the gospel that has changed us so radically.

Three questions:

  • have you been transformed? is the gospel real in your life?
  • will you see your fathering and parenting as something that is a sacred responsibility, something with which God is very concerned?
  • what will you do to fulfill your obligation to parent in a way that is both dripping with grace, and that is taking deliberate action to train and instruct your kids in the ways of the Lord?

Let’s pray.

Father, may the gospel become real in our lives. I pray that we would be so transformed by your amazing grace that our kids can’t help but know that the gospel is real. I pray that we would take our responsibility seriously, as a sacred trust from you. I pray that our relationships would drip with grace because we’ve experienced your grace. And I pray that every parent here would take specific action to train and instruct our kids in the ways of the Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.