My parents sought to bring my sister and me up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord. While I despised the discipline of my father as a child, I came to look back on it with enormous gratitude after I was converted. If you asked my dad about the way in which he disciplined us, he would be the first to tell you that he failed in many ways and at many times. As my wife and I are now seeking to bring our three sons up in the nurture and training of the Lord, I too recognize that I fail in many ways each and every day. I’m grateful that behind whatever attempts my father made to discipline and bring us up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, the loving hand of God the Father was at work; and, I am grateful that His loving hand of discipline is behind my feeble attempts to bring my sons to trust and know Him. More than anything, I need wisdom and discernment in bringing my sons up in a way that is pleasing to the Lord and spiritually beneficial to them. This is one of those places in life where we feel what we lack the most.
Most of us would admit, if we were honest, that we often wish that the Scriptures were a detailed handbook for what to do in each and every interaction with our children. While the Bible speaks both directly and indirectly to every aspect of parenting, it does not give us a detailed checklist that–if husbands and wives would simply consult in each and every interaction with their children–would guarantee a favorable outcome. On account of this, quite a number of parachurch ministries (e.g. NCFIC and the formerly influential Vision Forum) have, in my opinion, often unwisely sought to speak in much greater detail than the Scriptures as to how Christian parents are to educate, discipline and govern their children’s lives. Speaking in more binding detail than Scripture can give the sense that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting that–if followed–will guarantee a favorable outcome. This, in turn, often functionally cuts against the clear teaching of Scripture regarding God’s sovereignty in the regeneration of His people (Rom. 9); it then runs the risk of falling into the unbiblical ditch of behaviorism.
It is incumbent on us to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to disciplining our children because each of our children are different. Sinclair Ferguson has explained that it is one of the great wonders and mysteries of the world in which we live that several children can come from the same parents and be so different from one another. It takes great wisdom to know how to bring each of our children up in the training and admonition of the Lord. It takes great discernment to know how to best motivate them and to know what kind and what measure of discipline they need. The Scriptures speak to this extremely challenging aspect of parenting when, the writer of Hebrews–while dealing with how the heavenly Father disciplines those whom He loves–gives us a little phrase about the need that earthly fathers have to parent by wisdom and discernment. He writes:
We have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.
Reflecting on the phrase “as it seemed best to them,” John Owen explained:
“They used their judgment as unto the causes and measure of chastisement; they did it ‘as it seemed good unto them.’ It is not said that they did it for or according to their pleasure, without respect unto rule or equity; for it is the example of good parents that is intended: but they did it according to their best discretion; wherein yet they might fail, both as unto the causes and measure of chastisement.”1
Owen’s remarks are extremely instructive. Godly parents discipline their children according to “their best discretion.” The Lord gives us broad and general principles in the Scriptures (e.g. all of the Proverbs) that we are then to labor to apply to our parenting–no less than to every situation in life in a discerning and wise manner. This takes meditation, thoughtfulness and prayer. Note that Owen insists that even godly parents “might fail, both as unto the causes and measure of chastisement.” After all, there is a contrast drawn between the chastisement of an earthly father and the chastisement of the Heavenly Father.
This is in no way a license to ever abuse our children in any way whatsoever. Rather, the entire section on discipline in Hebrews 12 is placed under the rubric of the love of God the Father. The father who loves his children will, therefore, discipline them. The father who wants good for his children will seeks to discipline them “as it seems best to him.” It is the father who longs for his children to know Christ and to walk in paths of righteousness who lovingly seeks to raise and discipline his children “according to his best discretion.” Only a loving father does these things; and, he does them because he knows that the loving Father in Heaven disciplines His children in order to make them partakers of His righteousness.
As Owen noted, in our attempts we “might fail, both as unto the causes and measure of chastisement.” However, we acknowledge that the loving hand of our heavenly Father never fails. After all, we trust Him to bring our children to saving faith. We cast ourselves on the sovereign God who alone can remove our children’s hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). We pray in accord with His promises and seek to use all the means that He has appointed–all the while acknowledging that we do not have the ability either to bring them to saving faith or to spiritual maturity. We teach them and discipline them “as it seems best to us” while acknowledging that our Father in Heaven metes out exactly what we and they need with perfect wisdom and discretion.
1. John Owen The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862) vol. 24 pp. 268-269