The Radical Child (Colossians 3:20-21)

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“Parenting is a spiritual discipline.” So says Bryan Chapell. And rightly so, for to parent according to God’s standard requires much hard, disciplined, intentional, deliberate and thus committed work. Effective parenting is not the product of passivity. It requires active engagement in the lives of one’s children. It also requires active self-regulation under the Lordship of Christ.

As we continue to look at the issue of the radical family, we have come down to the result of a radical husband and a radical wife: radical children. The primary reason that they are so radical is the radical parenting that they have received by fathers who are a part of a radical church. This is radical indeed!

In this study, we will first examine the radical child and then we will turn our attention to one of the major means to producing a radical child: a radical father.

The Radical Child

Verse 20 introduces us to the radical child. From this verse, and by close comparison with Ephesians 6:1-3, we learn several important principles about the radical child.

The Radical Child is Covenantally Connected

Paul addresses in this verse “children.” The Greek work is tekna, which John MacArthur defines as “a general term for children,” which “is not limited to a specific age group. It refers to any child still living in the home and under parental guidance.” We must therefore note that Paul was addressing children of all ages who attended and were members of this local church. This is significant.

As I trust I will be able to show from the Scriptures, believing parents are to raise their children with the assumption that they will be saved while at the same time avoiding (in fact, actively resisting) the presumption that they will be saved. Believing parents are those who assume that God’s Word is truth, and thus they lay hold of biblical promises, such as that found in Psalm 128:1-4.

Blessed is every one who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways. When you eat the labour of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.

(Psalm 128:1-4)

The promise here is to those who fear the Lord. Their children, says God through this psalm, will be “like olive plants all around your table.” That is, they will be fruitful, a description befitting only believing children.

Or consider the promise of God in Exodus 20:5-6. To those who worship God as He commands (the Second Commandment), Scripture says, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

Again, notice that the promise is to those “who love Me and keep My commandments.” To those, God promises to show mercy to thousands of generations of their children. In other words, the promise is that parents who worship God correctly will (by God’s grace) raise children who worship God correctly. And this assumes salvation.

We are presumptuous when we expect God to do things for us but do not take advantage of His appointed means to do so. But if we worship God correctly and faithfully take advantage of His appointed means of grace, we can confidently expect Him to bless as He has promised. The local church is a major means of grace in God’s economy, and thus parents who faithfully raise their children within the covenant community can trust God to fulfil all His good promises to them concerning their children.

There is no place for slothful assumptions about the salvation of our children, but there is every reason to have a Scriptural assumption that God will honour His Word and save our children by the means which He has ordained. As we will see below, one of those means is godly parents—primarily godly fathers.

It is important to note that, when Paul wrote this letter, he addressed children directly. In much the same way as he directly addressed wives and directly addressed husbands, so he directly addressed children. This highlights the fact that he saw these children as in some way connected to God’s covenantal people, His church.

It might be helpful to contemplate the first audience of this epistle. When Epaphras returned from Rome with this letter he would have gathered the church and read it to them. Obviously, because they lacked printing presses, the early church did not have copies readily available. The public reading of Scripture played an important role in that day.

Imagine the scene as Epaphras read this letter to the believers in Colossae. He would have read Paul’s word to wives, and church member wives would have listened carefully to understand their covenantal responsibilities. Next, he would have read Pauls word to husbands, and church member husbands would have listened to their covenantal responsibilities. He then would have moved onto Paul’s word to children. Children would have been present in the audience, and just as husbands and wives did, they would be expected to listen carefully to God’s expectations of them as children. Just as husbands and wives did, believing children (church members) had covenantal responsibilities.

The responsibility set forth here is essentially obedience to the law of God. These children (and all children since) were responsible to obey the Fifth Commandment. The apostle laid upon them covenantal expectations and because he assumed covenantal obligations of those who were covenantally connected in the body of Christ.

Of course, we do not deny that every child everywhere is expected by God to obey their parents (for all children everywhere are under obligation to obey the law of the Lord). But, at the same time, we must not lose sight of the overall scene of this letter: Just as Paul addressed wives and husbands who were covenantally connected to each other in the local church of Colossae, the same held true for these children.

I want to be careful here, but it does appear that this verse (along with Ephesians 6:1-4) implies that Paul had great expectations for the children of believing parents. He thus confronted them with the law of God. The result was that unbelieving children were confronted and convicted by the law of God (with a view to conversion), and believing children were driven to conform their behaviour to the law of God (see Romans 8:1-4). Either way, Paul was addressing children who were connected to the local church (presumably the offspring of church members). And he did so, no doubt, by faith. The Word of God was being proclaimed to children by faith.

Paul expected by faith that these children would be enabled by saving grace to obey this Word. He expected (under divine inspiration) that the children would take God’s Word seriously. I will return to this point later, but for now here I simply want to highlight the importance of doing all that you can to outwardly (initially) connect your children to God’s covenantal people.

We should raise our children with the expectation that they will gather when the church gathers. There should be no question in their mind about whether or not they will be at church on a certain Lord’s Day. They should have the expectation that when the church gathers, they will be present. The Israelites of Nehemiah’s day exposed their children to the corporate ministry of the Word (Nehemiah 8:1-3) and we must do the same.

At the same time, we must do all we can to foster friendships between our children and the children of other faithful church members. They must understand the need to build, maintain and (when necessary) restore relationships within the local church. Solomon warned, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed” (Proverbs 13:20). Our children’s closest companions ought to be those in the same covenant community as them.

Furthermore, parents must guard their tongue so as to promote rather than to demote the eldership in the eyes of their children. We must guard our tongue so as to promote rather than to demote the value of all those who are covenantally connected to the local church. It does little good to bring our children to church if we immediately begin backbiting on the drive home, or around the lunch table that afternoon. They must see and hear that we love the church if they will likewise grow to love it.

Do all you can as a parent to help your children to realise the gracious privilege of being covenantally connected.

Right now, your children may not be saved. Unbelieving children are not in reality covenantally connected to the local church. But parents who believe God’s promises will behave as though their children are covenantally connected because they will have the faith-filled conviction that, by God’s grace, their children will one day be connected in reality to the body of Christ.

It is a sad indictment that many professing Christian parents are far more concerned about their children’s commitment to education or recreation than they are about their commitment to the local church. We have great plans for our children’s future, and so we ensure that they regularly attend school, do their homework, and study hard to ensure good grades. We want to see them succeed at sports, and so we ensure that they regularly attend practice and are at match venues on time. Sadly, this commitment does not always flow into church life, which should in reality be far more important to us than education or recreation!

The Radical Child is Commanded

Paul addressed these children with the command that they were to obey commands. His exhortation to children was, “Obey your parents.” What precisely does this mean?

The word for “obey” here means “to answer a knock.” Obviously, it carries with it the idea of paying attention. MacArthur notes that it is in the present tense and thus “demands a continuous obedience.” An interesting illustration is found in Acts 12:13.

After God had miraculously delivered Peter from a Roman prison, he went to John Mark’s house, where he knew the church would be gathered to pray. “And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate,” the text reads, “a girl named Rhoda came to answer.” Rhoda was a servant girl whose assignment (at least in part) was evidently to answer the door. She was required to listen for a knock at the door and to respond appropriately. In the same way, children have been given the assignment by God to listen to the instructions of their parents and then to gladly obey.

Children are given commands in Scripture, and the instrument through which those commands are related to them is the parents that God has given them. Under God’s ultimately authority, parents are to exercise authority over their children.

Sadly, many parents seem to follow the purported advice of Harry S. Truman: “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.” Christian parents are called to instruct their children in God’s commands, not according to their children’s whims. And children are expected to obey their parents whether they want to or not!

The radical child is the one who lives under the authority of the Word of God—constantly. Such children gladly and submissively obey God’s Word when it tells them to obey their parents.

Parents, we must understand that it is not only allowable for us to command our children, but in fact God holds us responsible and accountable to do so. Chapell has said it well: “This is the essence of biblical parenting: not acquiescing to children’s wills but equipping them to live according to God’s will.”

William Hendriksen captures an important point when he notes, “Godly parents do not inflict upon their children the cruelty of telling them that they should do ‘just as they please.’ According to both Scripture and experience children are not only immature but sinful by nature, wholly incapable by nature to choose the good.”

There is much that could be said at this point, but suffice it for now to point out that, in our day of increasing cynicism towards authority, we as believing parents must not cave in to egalitarian autonomy. Children are to be ruled, and they are to be ruled by God’s appointed rulers who will command according to His rules. This is why Paul can say to these covenantally connected children, “Obey your parents in all things.”

Note carefully that Paul says, “in all things.” No doubt, many will want to jump to the exception clauses. “Surely children should not obey their parents when their parents instruct them to disobey God’s Word!” But again, Paul is writing to a covenant community. And in a covenant community it can be assumed that parents will be committed to the supremacy of Christ and will not therefore command their children contrary to God’s Word. As J. B. Lightfoot notes, “The rule is stated absolutely, because the exceptions are so few that they may be disregarded.”

If we do not teach our children authority in the home then they will fail in self-government, which will be reflected by their rebellion against every other sphere of government. Remember that salvation—the redemption of the soul—is an issue of authority. Thus, if we do not bend a child’s will towards ours then it will be more difficult to bend them towards the will of Christ!

I have dealt with this in greater detail elsewhere, but note briefly that one major means of bending a child’s will is the biblical rod. Corporal punishment is increasingly under attack in our postmodern world, and sadly even many Christians have bought into a worldly anti-rod philosophy. But Scripture commands parents—and particularly fathers—to make consistent use of the rod as God’s means of grace for shaping a child’s will (Proverbs 13:24; 23:13-14; etc.).

The Radical Child is Consistent

Regarding the commandment to “obey in all things,” we should note that the children’s agreement with what is being commanded is irrelevant. Listen to Calvin at this point who writes, “But for what purpose does he employ a term of universality? I answer again, that it is to show, that obedience must be rendered not merely to just commands, but also to such as are unreasonable. For many make themselves compliant with the wishes of their parents only where the command is not grievous or inconvenient.”

I love an illustration of this from the life of Christ. After He had calmed the storm with the mere power of His Word, the disciples cried in astonishment, “Who can this be, that even the winds and sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:23-27). When Jesus spoke, even nature submitted to Him.

I suppose that there is a sense in which the world should look at our children and be amazed at the calm obedience that they display towards us. The reason that this is so amazing is not that the surrounding culture is characterised by disobedience, but rather that (according to biblical revelation) children are sinners and thus by nature they are rebellious. Our children are not born good, and thus for them to display obedience towards us is evidence of grace.

The child who is biblically oriented is holistic in his obedience. He does not pick and choose the areas in which he will obey, for he has learned what it means to submit to the legitimate authority in his life—legitimate, as defined by God. He thus answers the knock—whether it is loud or soft. Obedience is just what he does.

The child who obeys in this way manifests both who he is by creation (biblical hierarchy) as well who he is by the new creation (a regenerate individual who proves it by obeying his Lord’s command—one aspect of which is obedience to his parents).

The Radical Child is Confident and Contented

Children are to respond to their parents in obedience because “this is well pleasing to the Lord.” The child who obeys this Word from God behaves in a way that is, literally, “agreeable” or “acceptable’ to God. (The same word is used in Rom 12:1-2; Philippians 4:18; and Hebrews 13:21.) And as Scripture consistently affirms, to live in conformity with God’s Word is to be in a position of blessing.

Obedience does not produce righteousness, but it is a safe way to live. Understanding and respecting the law of gravity does not supernaturally empower you to fly, but it does empower you with knowledge that may protect you from needlessly falling! Curtis Vaughan captures this well when he writes,

The obedience of children is not, therefore, based on accidental factors, nor does it depend essentially on the parents’ character. It is an obligation grounded in the very nature of the relationships between parents and children. It is, as the parallel passage in Ephesians (6:1-3) clearly states, a thing that is right in itself. It is therefore especially pleasing to God when believing children are careful to fulfill this duty.

When a child obeys God’s family-law, much needless heartache is avoided. God’s law is safe, and children who obey it are blessed by Him.

The Radical Child is Christ-Centred

The radical child is concerned about his behaviour being “well pleasing to the Lord.” Again, this last phrase points us to the reality that a truly radical child is a regenerate child. Though in many ways children may be able externally to obey this commandment (which is rooted in the Fifth Commandment), Christ must change the heart of children if they will prove “well pleasing to the Lord.” There must be an exchange. Children need new hearts. And when they receive this then the motivation to obey moves beyond the “natural” inclination to a supernatural inclination. That is, regenerate children desire to obey because they longs to be “well pleasing to the Lord.”

MacArthur, an experienced parent, grandparent and pastor, writes, “As He was well-pleased with His own Son (Matt. 3:17), so He deserves to be with other children. Many young people struggle with knowing God’s will for their lives. Obeying their parents is the right place to start.”

The Radical Father

I will only introduce this matter here, and we will pick it up in a later study, but note that as we move to v. 21 we are not moving to a different subject. Both verses (vv. 20-21) deal in fact with the radical child. The principle is that the radical child is the product—and the responsibility—of the radical parent (with specific reference to the radical father). If our children will obey v. 20 from a Christ-centred motivation, then fathers must also be radical in Christ-centred parenting. Let’s look at what this verse teaches us about the radical father or parent.

The Radical Father is Covenantally Connected

Let us begin by dealing with a brief matter of interpretation. The word “fathers” is treated by some commentators as a general word for “parents.” Though I have no qualms with making a wider application to parents (fathers and mothers) from this text, I believe that the biblical emphasis is indeed upon fathers. I say this for at least four simple reasons.

First, the word clearly refers to fathers in the vast majority of instances where it is used in the New Testament. Second, since Paul mentions “parents” in v. 20, it would seem that here he is being more specific in his choice of words in v. 21. Third, this exhortation is seemingly gender specific in that dads are more frequently guilty of this sinful tendency (to provoke their children) than are moms! Fourth, and most importantly, the responsibility for raising godly children biblically rest firmly upon the shoulders of fathers (see Deuteronomy 6, etc.).

As we noted above, this letter was originally read aloud to the local church in Colossae. Some fathers may have squirmed as Epaphras first read these words. (Perhaps a visiting father from the church in Ephesus wondered if he could ever get away from this painful reminder!) But as uncomfortable as it may have made them feel—and as uncomfortable as it makes Christian fathers feel today—the simple fact is that raising radical children is the covenantal expectation and obligation of church members. If we fail to do this, then we have failed in some way regarding God’s covenant.

Fathers, you are to raise radical children in the context of a radical relationship with a radical local church—a local church like Colossae, which takes seriously the supremacy and the sufficiency of the Christ.

Sadly, not all have had this legacy. But today’s young families have no excuse. I read quite extensively about church history, and try to stay familiar with what is happening in the church at large in our own day. I think it can be shown that, over the last two decades or so, much progress has been made in the church at large to returning to a biblical view of Christian family life.

Many parents in preceding generations were exposed to consistent failures regarding biblical parenting. The prevailing worldview just two generations ago was that all God required from parents was to take their children to church. But things have reformed over the last twenty years or so to the point where we have no excuse. We have been exposed to enough biblical exposition to understand our responsibility for God.

I can certainly speak for young parents in our church. I believe that today, more than ever before, young parents at BBC have a wonderful opportunity to raise a godly seed, to raise radical children who will obey their parents because it is well-pleasing to the Lord. But they will only do so as they remain faithful to Christ, which begins with a proper commitment to the body.

My heart grieves when parents stand before the church and make a commitment to raise their children—with the help of the church—for the glory of God, and yet very soon afterwards they stop bringing their children to Family Bible Hour and to the services of the church. There are a host of opportunities in our church—as there are in other churches—for parents to expose their children to truth about God, but it is the responsibility of the parent—and particularly of the father—to commit to taking advantage of these opportunities.

Church members should similarly understand that they have a responsibility to help young parents raise a godly seed. You may not have young children, or may not have children at all. But understand that the church is a covenant community. Your ministry within the church may go much further than you realise in helping young parents to raise a godly generation.

Fathers, are you committed to carrying out your covenant? Are you properly connected to Christ? Are you properly connected to the local church?

Church member, are you committed to coming alongside young families—even when some hard things need to be said—in order to assist them in raising a godly seed?

I recently had a rather strange dream, in which I found myself in a swimming pool with one of the toddlers in our church, holding her head above water. I swam with her to the edge of the pool, where her mother took her from me and dried her off (without offering me a towel, I might add!).

I have no idea where such a strange dream came from, but I thought upon reflection that that is a good illustration of how the church assists parents. It is the task of parents—and fathers in particular—to raise a godly seed, but the church can play an important role in holding children’s head above the water while parents fulfil their God-given assignment.

Parents and children often feel like they are drowning, and it is precisely at such times that the church ought to come alongside them and encourage them to continue swimming. It is not an easy task, but God has given us all the assistance we need in the person of the Holy Spirit and the community of the local church. Parents, are you taking advantage of God-ordained aids?

Parents—and the local church—must be committed to this endeavour over the long haul. I am quite serious when I say that I pray for my grandchildren. I don’t have any grandchildren yet, but my vision extends beyond my own generation and that of my children. It is my prayer to God that BBC would be producing a godly seed for generations after my own death.

As we raise a godly seed, which knows how to govern itself biblically, we will continue to grow a godly church, which will in turn have a great impact for a godly society.

May God grant radical fathers (and radical mothers) the grace to raise a generation (and generations) of radical children for the glory of God and the furtherance of His gospel.