With the commencement of the new school year, I have been thinking about the many children in our faith community. Oh, how blessed we are with a multitude of young children who are being raised under the influence of the gospel! As I often say when giving children’s talks (one of the most challenging things, and yet one of my most favourite privileges), I pray weekly for the children of BBC. I pray for their salvation and for their faithful discipleship in the years ahead. I join you parents in desiring their salvation from the penalty, power and pollution of sin.
Having said that, let me ask what might seem like a provocative question: Are you raising your children to be saved, or merely to be safe? That may sound like a strange question, but it needs to be seriously considered. If we are not careful, we may be guilty of raising our children to be morally safe rather than to be miraculously saved. Let me explain.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton are credited with introducing into our evangelical vocabulary the term “moralistic therapeutic deism.” In their bestselling 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, these sociologists coined the term (abbreviated MTD) to describe what they consider to be the common religious beliefs among American youth. After interviewing some three thousand American teenagers, they concluded that their common religious worldview is belief in some kind of a benign god and that we should therefore be nice to one another. If we succeed in living a “good life,” we will go to heaven. The following is one author’s summary of their overall conclusion and the rationale for their new term “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
The authors say this religious worldview is “moralistic” because it “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.” The authors describe the system as being “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherent” as opposed to being about things like “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering.” Concerning God, they believe “in one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs—especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.” This is what is known historically as “Deism.” It views God as “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”
With apology for the long quote, if you read that carefully you will note the absence of the most important truth of Christianity: the gospel. Granted, if one raises their children with the above worldview, they will most likely grow up sheltered from a lot of destructive behaviour, and probably the world would be far better off (after all, a neighbour espousing MTD would be far more attractive than one embracing ISIS). Nevertheless, such a worldview is eternally the most destructive. Such a gospelless approach to life fosters self-righteousness of the worst kind. Once a child buys into it, it is very difficult to show him his need for the Saviour.
As I read that synopsis, I was reminded of the very real danger of raising our children in the shadow of BBC while missing the point: We need to raise them to be saved, not merely safe. That is, we must beware of the danger of merely assuming the gospel. If we assume that they understand the gospel, they most likely will miss the gospel. In the end, if the church and the family assume the gospel, we will eventually lose the gospel.
Most of those three thousand teenagers were churchgoing students, yet it would appear that they were not properly indoctrinated with the gospel. Rather, they were perhaps being inoculated to the gospel through a less than intentional and less than intense emphasis on what God has done for sinners in Christ Jesus.
The point that I want to emphasise—again—is that parents need to be deliberate in keeping the gospel central as we address the behaviour of our children. This, in the words of Ted Tripp, means that we must shepherd their hearts.
So, is there hope for us to avoid MTD? Absolutely. Parents need to continually preach the gospel to themselves. As we do so, we will be humbled to cast ourselves on the Lord, seeking His grace and mercy for the task of raising a godly seed.
Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labour in vain who build it.” In other words, the task we have is much bigger than we are, but God’s grace is more than sufficient. In reflecting on this truth, Scotty Smith, in his book, Everyday Prayers: 365 Days to a Gospel-Centred Faith, shares the following prayer for what he calls “gospel parenting.” You would be hard pressed to find a better one. So read, be encouraged, and pray to the end that your children will not only be safe but, most importantly, that they will be saved.
Heavenly Father, it’s a joy to address you today as the architect and builder of your own house—including the household of faith and my children’s place in your family. As I look back over the years of my pragmatic parenting, I’m saddened, but I am also gladdened, for you’ve always been faithful to your covenant love, even when I was overbearing and underbelieving. The move from parenting by grit to parenting by grace has been a fitful but fruitful journey. Take me deeper; take me further. You’ve rescued me from parental “laboring in vain”—assuming a burden you never intended parents to bear. Father, only you can reveal the glory and grace of Jesus to our children. Only you can give anyone a new heart. You’ve called us to parent as an act of worship—to parent “as unto you,” not as a way of saving face, making a name for ourselves, or proving our worthiness of your love. Oh, the arrogant pride of thinking that by my “good parenting” I can take credit for what you alone have graciously done in the lives of my children. Oh, the arrogant unbelief of assuming that by my “bad parenting” I’ve forever limited what you will be able to accomplish in the future. Oh, the undue pressure our children must feel when we parent more out of our fear and pride than by your love and grace.
Since our children and grandchildren are your inheritance, Father, teach us—teach me—how to care for them as humble stewards, not as anxious owners. More than anything else, show us how to parent and grandparent in a way that best reveals the unsearchable riches of Jesus in the gospel. Give us quick repentances and observable kindnesses. Convict me quickly and surely when I do not relate to your covenant children “in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14 NIV). I pray in Jesus’ faithful name. Amen.
And all believing parents said …