Thursday, November 13, 2008

Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go

"Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it."
-Proverbs 22:6

This is a famous text that parents cling to when they are struggling with a child's disobedience and rebellion--and even when children are blatantly hostile to the gospel. I think that we might misunderstand what is really being said in this verse, however. Each individual proverb is a wise saying, a statement about what is typically true in reality. But proverbs are not universally true. For example, in the same chapter (v. 16) a proverb suggests that anyone who oppresses the poor to profit himself will eventually wind up in poverty. That might typically be true, but certainly there are examples of people who have oppressed the poor and been rich because of it, never sinking into poverty.

So when we read proverbs, we are only to trust that they are generally true. That doesn't mean they are not reliable or trustworthy sayings. It only means that we can not claim proverbs as promises made specifically to us without exception.

When we read this proverb about raising children, we must be sure to remember this. Because the proverb is only saying that it is typically true. Typically, from our experience, when parents raise their children with an eye toward God-fearing behavior their children will ultimately share their same desire to honor God and be obedient to Christ. Typically God will change their heart and give them faith in Christ for salvation. BUT, this is not always the case. We all know of parents, maybe even you yourself, who tried to teach their child the gospel and raise them to be godly young men or women only to have their child rebel and reject the very gospel that their parents taught them. Some cling to this verse to assure them that eventually their child will turn around, repent, and trust in Christ. I wish that were true. But that would be reading the proverb as a universal promise, which it is not.

There is probably no greater agony than a parent knowing their children are in unrepentant sin and destined for hell. The fear that should strike in a parent is unspeakable. But the reality is that it is up to God to soften hearts. It is not within a parent's capacity to give their child faith, to give them a repentant heart, and to save them from sin. God alone is capable of that. Parents' role is to diligently teach their children the gospel, to "train them up in the way they should go." Oftentimes God will use this training to bring the child to salvation, but sometimes He will not. And when children do not share their parents' faith, it is not the parents' fault; the reality is simply that God has not chosen to change the heart of the child.

So where does that leave parents who have unbelieving children? They should not be frustrated with themselves for somehow having failed. Rather they should be begging God to change their child's heart, and they should be seeking ongoing opportunities to teach their child the gospel while there is still time.

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