Four Plumblines to Parent with Grace
By Seth Stewart
What does it mean to be a Gospel-centered parent? As a youth minister who is also a parent, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I may have a bit of insight.
At our church, we often talk about four plumb lines – little phrases that, we believe, capture the heart of grace-centered parenting.
- “Parents are neither saviors nor sanctifiers”
- “Parents are pastors”
- “You parent best when you repent most”
- “Parent your kids to be sent, not to stay”
These are neither exhaustive nor the final word on what parenting is or isn’t, simply how our church community has chosen to encourage parents in their efforts to parent through the lens of the Gospel.
1. “Parents are neither saviors nor sanctifiers.”
Since Christian parents have been both saved and sanctified by God’s grace, Christ’s work, and the Holy Spirit’s power, we must recognize that it is impossible for us to be our child’s savior and sanctifier. We will never be the ultimate reason why our child is saved or their hearts are softened to delight in God since we were not the ultimate cause in our own salvation.
Faithful, Gospel-centered parenting is neither hurrying a “decision” from your child nor making sure their behavior is perfect. It’s pointing with your life, your sinfulness, and your repentance that there is a greater Parent in heaven.
As parents, it’s easy to believe that if we are intentional and skilled enough, we can bring our kids to love God, and love His commands. But this is not true; only God can accomplish these things. At the end of the day, our inability is actually good news. If it were possible for our efforts to save our children, we would never be certain their salvation was secure. We would wring our hands, punish them more severely, and anxiously count their Bible verses memorized – hoping these things would finally give us calm.
The best news parents can hear is that we cannot save our children – but God can. He has died to prove His love is greater than ours, and He has been raised to prove His power is greater than ours.
2. “Parents are pastors.”
Whenever I onboard new volunteers who happen to also be parents, I always ask them, “What is the difference between parenting and pastoring?” I ask that because I’m concerned with the parenting choices of my volunteers (dating age, movie selection, cell phone usage) may be imposed on the children of other parents. I want my volunteers to wrestle with the idea that pastoring students does not always mean parenting them.
While not all pastoring is parenting, all parenting is pastoring. Each family will have their own culture and rules that determine everything from bedtimes to college choices. But as parents saved by Christ, our first job is the same as a pastor’s – to continually place before our kids the greatness of God, the gravity of sin, and the grandeur of the grace found in Jesus Christ. The advantage parents have over pastors is that, as parents, we can do this daily (not just on Sundays). We have the opportunity to continually sow the seeds of the Gospel while grasping onto the promise of 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
3. “You parent best when you repent most.”
Early on in our marriage, my wife and I decided we wanted to repent frequently and often in front of our kids. We said that it was “shorthand” for the Gospel. In a single action, repentance highlights both our inability and God’s ability to forgive us and change our hearts. We are used to thinking that good parenting is proved when our kids are successful when they are well behaved in public, when they get good grades, or when they earn that scholarship (especially in comparison to other kids their age).
But the mark of good parenting is not success, it is faithfulness.
The Gospel-Centered Parent says this: “David says in Psalm 51 ‘Surely, I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me’ (v.5). This is true of all of us – parents and children alike. How can sinners live with sinners? It starts by acknowledging that not just children need to ‘say sorry’ but parents as well. Because we know we are forgiven, we don’t have to hide our sins. Instead, we can ask our children for forgiveness when we sin against them.”
4. “Parent your kids to be sent, not to stay.”
Many believe that parenting is about protecting your kids from all possible negative influences, allowing the good influences to take root. While that’s true as far as it goes, parenting isn’t fundamentally protection from the world. Parenting is a mission for the world. Matthew 28 applies to our children before it applies to anyone else. The primary task of parents is to make disciples who will go into all the world. And this is scary. Our world is scary. The sinfulness of others is scary.
John 17 is a graduation ceremony of sorts. The students of the master are graduating to life without their chief-discipler by their side. They are about to be on their own. And Jesus doesn’t pray what I would pray. He doesn’t ask to protect them from negative influences, and “those types of people.” He prays the opposite: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” This parallel isn’t perfect, but it is powerful for risk-averse people like me. One day, we will have that Last Supper with our kids. As parents who follow Jesus, may we train our children with that day in mind.
Perhaps paradoxically, grace transforms a parent’s relationship with their children because grace has transformed parents into children. We have been adopted by our Father (Rom 8:14-17, Gal 4:4-5, Eph 1:4-6). And as His children, we must recognize that before we are parents, we are children who have been saved, sanctified, shepherded, loved, and sent by a God who died for sins not His own. So now as children with children of our own, let us recognize God’s ultimate agency in our salvation, shepherd our own children to hear that truth often, repent when we fail to do so, and send them into the world as God has sent us.
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