“Standing on the Promises” is not only a well-known hymn but is also the title of a lesser-known book on parenting by pastor and author Douglas Wilson. Next to the Bible, no other book has so informed and impacted my philosophy of childrearing.
In his book Wilson argues for what we have been hearing a lot about lately at BBC: Since we serve a covenant-keeping God, we need to be a promise-believing people. And this applies as much to raising our children as it does to any other issue of life. Such faith in God’s promises gives us hope, and, to use Wilson’s phrase, gives us “evangelical rest” that we are spurred to labour and to diligently seek God’s reward of a godly seed. In other words, because we are persuaded that God keeps covenant, we prove that we believe His promises by obeying His Word. We keep covenant knowing that God does.
One worldview that has wreaked much havoc in the church throughout history is a subtle form of pagan fatalism. One manifestation of this is hyper-Calvinism. This heresy is manifested in different ways, and sadly, it also rears its ugly, presumptuous head in the area of parenting. It looks something like the following.
Parents who are convinced from Scripture of God’s gracious unconditional election of people to salvation see no reason to fret about the salvation of their children. “After all,” they reason, “if they are elect then they will be saved; and if not, well, there is nothing that I can do about it. Does the Bible not clearly say, ‘Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated’ (Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:10-13)? That settles it. I sure hope that my children are elect.”
Sadly, that is not a caricature. I have actually heard such fatalistic statements from parents. Such an outlook reveals that these parents are merely hedging bets that their child is elect and, if not, then their eternal destiny is God’s responsibility. Such fatalism is often a pious façade for those who are preparing for failure. This outlook needs to be changed by Scripture.
The Bible in no uncertain terms makes it clear that God is sovereign and that He alone saves. At the same time, it also makes it abundantly clear that parents are responsible for the spiritual welfare of their children. Theologian R. L. Dabney wrote, “When in the providence of God a man and his wife conceive a child they kindle a soul that will live for ever,” and therefore their eternal destiny is of our utmost concern. Clearly their eternal destiny is determined by God, but that does not minimise at all the responsibility of the parents as a means to that end.
The question to be pondered is, which end will you be the means to?
It is my contention and conviction that, until parents intentionally accept their biblical responsibility to raise a saved seed, the church will have a dismal record of winning our children. And God will continue to be falsely blamed under the rubric of His sovereignty.
It should be noted that Ephesians 6:4 makes absolutely no distinction between “elect” and “non-elect” children. Instead, it simply mandates parents (specifically fathers) to raise all the children given to them in the training and admonition of the Lord. Irresponsible hyper-Calvinists looking for help in these verses will be disappointed—and, hopefully, convicted.
It is irresponsible to try to hide one’s slothfulness as a parent behind the sovereignty of God. It is also biblically indefensible to do so. It is indeed true that God is working out His immutable, everlasting covenant and that all will be saved whom He has chosen. God is a covenant-keeper. But the Bible also reveals that God uses means of grace towards His purposed and predestined salvific end.
Take, for example, God’s promise to Abraham with reference to his fathering a son (from whom a multitude would come and through whom the world would be blessed). When God promised this, and then reaffirmed it when Abraham was 99, He expected Abraham to be a promise-believer and to prove it by making love to his 89-year-old wife. If Abraham did not assume this responsibility then Isaac would never have been conceived (Genesis 18 and 21). In Genesis 20 Abraham behaved irresponsibly and, humanly speaking, almost derailed the promise. God then intervened and, by His sovereign grace, Sarah was delivered from the bedroom of Abimelech. But something had to take place in Abraham’s bedroom if the promised son would come into this world.
I am not trying to be crass; I am simply pointing out that God uses means to His end. His sovereignty does not mean that our actions do not matter. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are not mutually exclusive. Even a pagan such as Abimelech understood this (Genesis 20:10-18). So should believing parents.
Later, when Abraham was coming to the end of his life, he realised that, for God’s covenant to advance, Isaac would need a wife—and so Abraham did something: He sent his servant to Mesopotamia to find a wife for his son (Genesis 24). Several years after they were married, Isaac and Rebekah realised that she was barren. Isaac did not glibly chalk this up to the sovereignty of God, but prayed. God answered and Rebekah conceived (Genesis 25:19-21). The covenant of God was advancing by His sovereign grace through the means of human actions.
This pattern continues generation after generation. Those who believed God’s promises behaved as if they believed them. They did something. The same applies to parents who believe God’s promises concerning the salvation of their children.
But what about that pesky issue of God loving Jacob and hating Esau. Is that an exception? Not at all! In fact, it proves the rule. Isaac and Rebekah may be the poster children for a dysfunctional family. When you read the account in Genesis of their family life you read of a marriage where there was little trust. You encounter a conniving mother, parents who each showed favouritism, and brothers who despised each other.
Left to themselves, Isaac and Rebekah would have raised two spiritual failures. But God, in sovereign grace, intervened, and Jacob was eventually converted—in spite of his parents’ failures. It is marvellous how God kept covenant. Even though the parents were not faithful promise-believers, God sovereignly intervened. And if Esau died as an unbeliever, it is simply further testimony that God keeps covenant; for, after all, His covenant includes both blessings and curses.
It should be noted that, when the Bible speaks of God loving Jacob and hating Esau (Malachi 1:2-3), what is in view is not individuals but rather peoples or ethnic groups: Israel and Edom. When Paul quotes this in Romans 9, he uses this nationalistic election to illustrate individual election. His intention is not to make a final judgement on Esau’s eternal destiny.
In my opinion (along with many commentators), there is little evidence to conclude definitively that Esau died an unbeliever. It is true that the clan he headed was not generally characterised as following Yahweh, but it is also true that we have no clear indication from Scripture that Esau rejected the Lord until his death.
Some would point to Hebrews 12:15-17 as evidence that Esau was an unbeliever. These verses certainly describe Esau in his younger days. Clearly, when he sold his birthright, he had no faith in God’s promise. At that point he was not a covenant-keeper. But the question remains, do we have sufficient evidence to conclude definitively that he died in unbelief? The fact that he sought repentance with tears and was rejected refers to his seeking the blessing of the firstborn, not salvation. A later look at Esau in Genesis 33 gives the picture of a very much changed man. In fact, in 33:10 Jacob says of Esau, “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God.” Could that imply that Esau had been converted, as evidenced by his reconciling countenance? Possibly. We just don’t have enough Scriptural evidence one way or the other to make a statement about the eternal state of his soul.
Finally, note that even if Jacob was chosen by God for salvation and Esau was passed over, this merely proves the biblical teaching that parents need to raise their children from a paradigm of promise-believing. Failure to do so will normally result in raising covenant-breakers. Don’t miss the very important fact that Isaac clearly rejected God’s promise that the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). Because Isaac was not a promise-believer, he became a covenant-breaker and thus Esau followed in the footsteps of his father.
In the light of all of this, parents who seek to shirk their responsibility by hiding behind Esau have chosen a poor hiding place. Rather than seeking consolation in a covenant-breaker, seek the comfort that attends promise-believing. Be a covenant-keeper by standing on the promises—to the glory of God and for the eternal good of your children.