There is a lot of talk, and much being written, these days about the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Rightly so. One of the lessons we learn from this work of God is that the church is to be always reforming. The church is to always be reformed in accordance to the Word of God.
One particular area where the church is to always be reforming is with reference to the family. There is always room for improvement. There is always need for constructive evaluation and helpful instruction. There is always need for encouragement. This is one reason that we are returning to this passage in his study.
This text is important for each of us, regardless of the age of our children—and regardless of whether or not we even have children. This is a matter, as we have seen, that Paul expected the church to address, and to take seriously—as a church. In fact, according to Malachi 4:1–6, there is an awful lot riding on this.
In this study, I want us as a congregation to see at least three things that are essential in the life a gospel-driven father, and therefore three essential for the reformed family.
It is important that we obey this as a congregation, for as it has been noted before, it really does take a church to raise a Christian. We want our children to become Christians. At BBC have covenanted together to do so. Our church covenant reads, in part, “We will endeavour to bring up such as may at any time be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and by a pure and loving example to seek the salvation of our family and friends.”
What Paul exhorted children in v. 1 is not something that he assumed they would have heard for the first time. Rather, they would have heard it first and foremost from their believing parents. But this undergirds the point that the church and the home work together, symbiotically, for the welfare of the children.
As a covenantal community, the church undergirds the godly efforts of godly parents as they seek to raise a godly seed.
Simon Austen writes, “Ephesians reminds us how the gospel creates a new community; we must be careful not to engage in a practice which divide it.” This is a very important observation, especially within the context in which Paul writes. How we parent, and therefore how children obey, will go a long way towards building and maintaining harmony in the church. We can say that whether parents obey the Lord will influence in a huge way whether children obey the Lord and this will impact the unity of the church. And as we will see, the welfare of the world depends upon it.
The Reformed Family is Intentionally Formed
Paul urges fathers, concerning their children, to “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.”
Fathers, Paul teaches us to deliberately do something towards the desired outcome. That is, fathers must raise their children so that they will find themselves one day “in the Lord,” and therefore under his training and instruction. Paul desires Christian fathers to so raise their children that they will become “beloved children of God” (5:1).
The ultimate goal of childrearing, which perhaps Christians can be too prone to forget, is for children to know and to love and to serve the Lord. In other words, the main goal is the salvation of the child – in every way. Foulkes notes, “The discipline and instruction of the Lord is that which the Lord is able to bring into the life of a child if parents do their work of teaching and training in the word of the Lord. This is the highest duty of Christian parents.” And as Stott puts it, “Certainly the overriding concern of Christian parents is not just that their children will submit to their authority, but that through this they will come to know and obey the Lord.” L
Here is the principle: A major reason why God formed marriage was to produce godly offspring (Genesis 1:26–28; Malachi 2:15).
Practically, the reformed family works at this. Ultimately, it is a gracious outcome, but God does use means.
Husbands and wives, intentionally obey God’s rules. Fathers and mothers, intentionally obey God’s rules. Children, intentionally obey God’s rules and therefore his parental rulers.
The Destructive Default
Paul urges fathers, “Do not provoke your children.” The goal is humility, for as Jesus said, unless we humble ourselves as little children, we will not inherit the kingdom of God. Fostering a spirit of dependence upon the Lord is the issue.
We must foster this disposition of humility; we must tenderly nourish it. Paul warns us elsewhere of the danger of discouraging our children. If we humiliate them, we harm them for we are in effect hardening them against us—and against the Lord.
Be careful how you discipline. Remember, the effective “rod” belongs to the Lord. When Moses employed God’s rod (Exodus 4:20; 17:9), things went well. When God’s rod became Moses’ rod, things fell apart (Numbers 20:10–12). As you discipline your children, watch your motive and your manner.
The Constructive Contrast
Rather than provoking your children, “bring them up.” The term means to rear up to maturity, to cherish or train. It carries the meaning of “to nourish” and “to rear to maturity.”
The same word is used in 5:29, where Paul uses it to show us how Christ cares for the church. He raises us to maturity (4:15–16). So, whatever it means there will probably relate to what it means here.
As God lovingly and patiently “brings up” as his children, so parents are to lovingly and patiently “bring up” their children. Since they are forbidden to speak falsehoods, they are forbidden obviously to do so in their homes. (Lying parents discourage their children from obedience.) They are prohibited from letting anything corrupt or destructive come out of their mouths (4:29–31). And this would include in their homes towards their children. As God has forgiven them in Christ, so they are to be tenderhearted, forgiving their children (4:32).
Calvin puts it well:
Kind and liberal treatment has rather a tendency to cherish reverence for their parents, and to increase the cheerfulness and activity of their obedience, while a harsh and unkind manner rouses them to obstinacy, and destroys the natural affections. But Paul goes on to say, “let them be fondly cherished;” for the Greek word, (ektrephete,) which is translated bring up, unquestionably conveys the idea of gentleness and forbearance. To guard them, however, against the opposite and frequent evil of excessive indulgence, he again draws the rein which he had slackened, and adds, in the instruction and reproof of the Lord.
Children are sinners who will sin. It is our responsibility to teach them about repentance and obedience. Make it easier for them by being forgiving. Parents are the adults. Therefore, don’t hold grudges—neither towards their children nor towards their wives.
The Reformed Family is Theologically Informed and therefore Theocentrically Conformed
Fathers must raise their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord.” The first part (“training”) has to do with structure whereas the second part (“admonition”) has to do more with speaking. But what God has joined together, let us not separate.
Too often, we Christians—and I am thinking with specific reference to Christian parents—miss the point completely. We are like the drunk that Martin Luther referred to as falling off the right side of his horse who gets back up on the horse only to fall off the left side! We miss the balance, because we move from one extreme to the other extreme. If we are not swinging to the far left of no discipline, we swing to the far right of too much discipline. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes we make is assuming that discipline means one thing: a good hiding.
Hence, when the discussion of parental discipline of children arises, we focus most of our attention on the issue of spanking. But there is so much more to discipline of our children than the use of the rod.
When Paul wrote these words in Ephesians 6:4, he meant far more than merely exhorting parents to give their children hidings when necessary. In fact, I would imagine that this was not very prominent in his thinking. Rather, Paul would have been concerned with the rich concept of the the “discipline” or “training” that dominated the Graeco-Roman world. Further, his concern would have been more about the discipline of the Lord than the discipline of dad and mom.
The word translated “training” means tutorage (education or training; by implication, disciplinary correction). The word is used elsewhere in the New Testament of “training” in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16) and of “discipline” or “chastening” (Hebrews 12:5,7–8, 11).
So what we have here is a worldview issue. Fathers are responsible for the discipline necessary for the disciplined development of the child. There is to be such a structure in the home that everything falls under this umbrella of God. We can say that the father is responsible to provide his children with a Christian—that is, Christ-centred, gospel-saturated “education” or “worldview.” Ferguson observes, “It should amount to Christian training, therefore, and this in its most comprehensive sense, certainly including giving the child a noble example of Christian life and conduct. The entire atmosphere in which the training is given must be such that the Lord can place the stamp of his approval upon it.” He adds, “Paul’s counsel is for the long haul. It cannot be accomplished in one day, one week, one month, one year, even one decade. Fathers must learn that their calling is to invest in the long term—and not to lose sight of that in the light of short-term gains.”
The word “training” implies this. It clearly points us to the needful realisation that parenting—biblical parenting—demands hard work. Shepherding children into the fold of Christ is not easy work; it is not for the faint of heart. Fathers, perhaps especially, need to make the necessary sacrifices to involve themselves in the lives of their children to lead them to Christ. Leading them to Christ—that is the assignment.
Fathers—parents—must understand that discipline involves both formal (formative) and corrective discipline. Spanking is for the purpose of shaping. But it is counterproductive if we are not instructing and training our children before, during and after this. As Ferguson says, “‘Discipline,’ accordingly, may be described as training by means of rules and regulations, rewards, and when necessary, punishments. It refers primarily to what is done to the child.”
So, what are you doing to your children?
The word translated “admonition” means to call attention to—by implication, to mildly rebuke or warn. It can be used of instructing. Related to this word is a Greek verb, which means to put in mind—by implication, to caution or reprove gently; to admonish or warn. Paul uses the word in 1 Corinthians 10:11 of the Old Testament stories that are “written down for our instruction” and instructs Titus to issue a “warning” to one who stirs up division in the church (Titus 3:10). He used the related word in Acts 20:31 when he reminded the Ephesian elders that, day and night, he had not ceased to “admonish” the believers there with tears. He was confident of the Roman believers’ ability to “instruct one another” (Romans 15:14) and wrote to “admonish” the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:14). He urged the Colossians to proclaim Christ “warning” their hearers to obey (Colossians 1:28) and later told the same church to be involved in “admonishing” one another (Colossians 3:16). He told the Thessalonians to respect the leaders who sought to “admonish” them and urged the Thessalonians themselves to “admonish” the idle (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 14). He later issued this instruction for dealing with a sinning brother in the church: “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
To obey this instruction, fathers must speak to their children. They must communicate with their children. Parents are to speak to and guide and direct and inform and correct their children with a view to the child being trained and instructed by the Lord.
But it also means that fathers must speak truth to their children. Fathers must be students of the Word in order to instruct their children in the Word (Deuteronomy 6:1–9). They must have the conviction that the Scriptures really are sufficient. I’ve said it before, but we need to be careful of parenting counsel that is big on advice but minimal on the authority of God’s Word.
It is a sad truth that men will often invest great effort, even expense, to improve their lot in life. They will study further and go on courses to improve their skills. But will they do the same when it comes to improving their children’s spiritual lot? That is, will they invest what is necessary to raise their children so that they can say, “The LORD is my portion” (Psalm 119:57). “Clear, forthright instruction is necessary for a proper upbringing! This takes time and thought—two elements so often neglected in today’s busy domestic world.” (Hughes)
Are you studying to be able to discipline and instruct your children? What do you read? Who do you spend time with? Fathers, take responsibility for the mind of your children!
The Reformed Family is Evangelically Transformed
The raising of children should be done in the training and admonition “of the Lord.” If we want vv. 1–3 for our children, we need to do v. 4. And this requires faith in God—faith in his gospel.
Behave Like You Believe God
The reformed family behaves like it believes God. We need to be careful about presumption in parenting, while not minimising the expected assumption that God desires to save our children. Recently, the father of a young girl in our church sent me a photo of her at prayer. He thanked me for a latter I had written to the young girl when she was born, assuring her that I would be praying for her salvation. I believe that God wants to save our church, and so I consistently pray for the salvation of the children represented in our church directory.
This passage (5:22–6:9), as I have said before, highlights the salvation of households (cf. Acts 2:39; 3:19; 10; 16). Though we need to be careful here, we must not ignore the significance of the Passover stipulation of one lamb per household. A single lamb was sufficient to save the entire household. Apparently God delights in “passing over” households rather than exercising his wrath upon them. Why do we find this so difficult to believe? It can only be because of our unbelief.
Parenting like Ephesians 6 calls for is faith-filled parenting. Those who train (discipline) and instruct (admonish) their children under the Lord’s authority, and for the Lord’s glory, do so because they believe God. Though this vacillates, nevertheless such parenting keeps at it because they believe the gospel and they believe the promises of God. Children are born sinners who need to be born again. As soon as they are born, the parents must do all they can to see that their child is born again—and the sooner, the better. Faithful parenting is informed by the gospel. It is exercised by parents who preach the gospel to themselves and who preach it to their children because they really do believe this gospel.
Believe God and Behave Like It
Parents who believe God behave like they believe him. The book of Malachi contains a significant prophecy in this regard:
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,” says the LORD of hosts, “that will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear my name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,” says the LORD of hosts. “Remember the Law of Moses, my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgements. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
This is a prophecy of what Jesus predicted in Matthew 24 about the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a warning. The day of the Lord was coming to those who were hypocritical and who defied the God of the covenant. John the Baptist was Elijah (see Matthew 11:1–19). As he pronounced the coming of the Lord, Malachi implied that father who repented would be drawn to the hearts of their children and the hearts of the children to the hearts of their fathers.
Who are the fathers? Who are the children? Most likely, the fathers are the patriarchs and the children are the descendants (cf. Isaiah 63:16). As the nation of Israel returned to the God of their fathers, the evidence would be love: love for God, love for a godly heritage, which would lead to a consequent love within the family.
Clearly fathers who were not covenantally faithful to God were at the same time failing to be covenantally faithful to their children and families. But those who repented and believed the gospel of the kingdom would return to such covenantal faithfulness. The gospel would make a difference in father/child relationships. It still does.
Children are drawn to fathers and parents who are faithful to God. This is precisely what the gospel does. It should be noted that if the home does not “come right,” if the family is not reformed, then judgement will come—upon the land. We are now right back to where we began in v. 1. As Foulkes observes, “When the bonds of family life break up, when respect for parents fails, the community becomes decadent and will not live long.”
So, what does Malachi 4 say to us today? Let me suggest a few things.
First, we need to remember our covenant relationship with God (vv. 1–4). It was because of a breakdown in their relationship to God, by their own disobedience, that the nation had been under judgement. And even though now they were back in the land (at least, a remnant of them), they were still in pretty poor spiritual shape. And this was revealed by their corporate worship, by a lack of personal godliness, and by a breakdown in their family. It is always like this.
We cannot compartmentalise our life as if other areas are not affected by our poor spiritual condition. If we will raise a godly seed, we need to pay attention to our own godliness. We must prioritise our relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. If we will raise children to be faithful to “the covenant of their father,” we need to be faithful to the covenant of our Father.
Second, we must realise the times in which we live (v. 5). These are days of mercy (see Matthew 11:8–15). Judgement was going to come on God’s covenant nation in a more ultimate way. But God was sending them a prophet then (Malachi), just as he had sent Elijah some four hundred years earlier. Further, the day was coming when another like Elijah would come. His name was John the Baptist.
The ultimate prophecy here pertains to the messenger of the Lord who would point to Messiah. And as people repented, families would be restored. Put another way, as households repented, so households would be restored. Though severe judgement was to come, the day of mercy was now. And it still is.
Let us make the most of our opportunities (Ephesians 5:15–16) to get right with God, to be right with God, and to help our children to be right with God. I recently met a man on a plane who was from India. As we engaged in discussion, he noted that, centuries ago, the apostle Thomas had gone to India with the gospel. I could not help but wonder what had happened to the stewardship of the gospel of the centuries.
Let us teach our children well. Parents, we only have our children for so many years—and those fly by. Sadly, the Israelites whom Malachi warned did not heed his prophecy. In the end, the “lest” of v. 6b came to pass.
Third, let is remember that we must reform according to the Word of God. As we have seen, the gospel informs us and transforms us and reforms us as it conforms us. And the family is a major sphere in which this takes place. The turning to God results in the turning towards one another. Though it is true that the gospel in many cases divides families (Matthew 10), at the same time it often unites them.
The family in our day quite obviously needs to be reformed according to God’s Word. Just look around! But the Christian family needs reformation as much as the “secular” family! There is an ongoing need for reformation of the family as well as the church. In fact, the latter will lead to the former.
Specifically, we need to value children. The church should promote married couples who value children, being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth with godly offspring (see Malachi 2:15). I recently visited a missionary family and was blessed to interact with some of the locals with whom they were working. One particular family was a great example of parents who were faithful in deliberately raising a godly seed. Even when I was there, they wanted to sit and talk about some practical counsel as their eldest daughter, now eighteen, enters the courtship phase of life. I was blessed by their intentionality and wisdom.
Obviously there are exceptions, but in some cases where Christian couples do not want to have children, important questions need to be considered: Why not? What is motivating the hesitation?
As the church returns to the centrality of the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 1–2), it will also return to the divine blueprint for the family. And according to Malachi, this is good news. Very good news. For the whole world. But we must begin with the gospel (see Ephesians 1). We must repent and believe the truth about Jesus Christ. We must constantly be reminded of and committed to relearning the gospel if we will be faithful in the task of raising a godly seed.
May God reform our families, and our church, in accordance with God’s Word.