The Discipline of Covenant Children
Rev. Bruinsma is eastern home missionary of the Protesant Reformed Churches, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
"And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord."
God's church receives a most reassuring promise from God: I will be a God unto you and to your children after you in your generations (Gen. 17:7). Since the beginning of this world, believing parents have clung to that promise of God as they have brought forth the next generation of the church. Despite their weaknesses as parents, God has been faithful to His covenant and its promises. God has by His grace alone saved unto Himself a people in Christ from one generation to the next. Our salvation and the salvation of our children is entirely dependent on the work of God's sovereign and free grace in salvation.
But God fulfills His promise to His people by the use of means. Although it is true that we and our children are saved by grace alone and never on the basis of our own efforts, nevertheless, God uses the means of godly homes to raise up unto Himself a people from one generation to the next. In such homes must be found the proper nurture of covenant children. Covenant parents are duty bound before God to instruct their children, give to their children a godly example, and discipline their children. It can happen, in the home where parents sorely neglect all these, that God will still save His children; but as a rule this is not true. God continues to gather in the generations of the church where fathers and mothers take their calling seriously to nurture carefully their children in the fear of God.
In this article we will begin our treatment of the discipline of children. What we mean by discipline is the particular work of parents that shapes, corrects, and therefore refines and perfects the moral/ spiritual character of their children. Very simply put, parents must train their children to lead a life of godly self-control. Discipline, first of all, includes positive reinforcement by means of encouragement, approval, and praise.
There is a poem, a couple of lines of which read like this: "If a child lives with encouragement he learns confidence. If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate. If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself." There is truth to that. If all that parents do is criticize, ridicule, or mock their children, their children generally lack self-confidence, and become bitter toward life and the church. Teaching children to live a disciplined spiritual life takes encouragement and praise. When our children learn to hold in check the desires of their sinful flesh and walk according to God's Word, they must be bolstered and praised. Our children will then learn to appreciate walking in a godly way. They will cheerfully go forth in the confidence that they please God.
Discipline of our children, therefore, is not all negative. It truly has also a positive side in which parents must diligently exercise themselves.
There is, however, also the negative aspect to discipline. The worst error that Christian parents can make is to think that their covenant children are "perfect little angels" who would never deliberately do anything wrong. Far too often this error translates itself into action in homes of the church. Such parents seldom if ever see a need to discipline their children, even when one of them is being an absolute terror! He can be screaming in a fit of anger or even openly rebelling against his parents and they seem to be oblivious to it. Everyone else is embarrassed or annoyed by his behavior but the parents act as if this is normal.
These same parents are also those whom the teacher in the Christian schools dread to speak to about their children at parent/teacher conferences. No matter how sinful and rebellious that child might be in class, the parent defends the child and argues with the teacher as if the teacher is all wrong and their sinning son or daughter is simply being a normal child. That type of an attitude is certainly contrary to the Word of God!
Our children are conceived and born in sin (Ps. 51:5). This means that from the moment they are born there is sin in them. This is why Solomon could write: "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child" (Prov. 22:15). Such sin, when it reveals itself, may never go unchecked or unpunished. The unbelieving world's psychology, which is based on the inherent goodness of every person, is this: when a child rebels, a parent must simply divert the attention of the child to something else or give him a "time out," but must never administer strict punishment of any kind. The Word of God, on the other hand, takes into account the reality of sin in a child's heart—even the heart of a child who is redeemed in the blood of Jesus Christ. Proper discipline of our children, therefore, not only rewards them with words of praise when they do well, but punishes (chastens) them when they sin. All the above, Scripture defines as the discipline of children of the covenant.
Neither ought young parents be uncertain about this aspect of their calling. It is their duty as covenant parents. They must administer discipline to their children as a part of their children's training. Discipline is not always something that comes naturally to a parent. But parents receive the calling from God that they, out of love for their children and their spiritual welfare, must administer discipline.
"For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons: for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?" (Heb. 12:6, 7). Just as the magistrate punishes those who disobey the laws of the land, and just as the employer has the right to discipline the employee, or the elders the member of the church who disobeys, so also in the home the parent must exercise his authority in discipline. At the time of baptism, parents take the solemn vow that they will to the utmost of their power nurture their children in the fear of God's name. This includes discipline.
Let it be noted, too, that the particular parent who must take the lead in such discipline is the father. Ephesians 6:4: "Ye fathers ... bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." Hebrews 12:7: "...for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?" This does not mean that mother is not involved in discipline. What it means is that the father, as head of his home, leads the way in discipline. There are homes where mother disciplines but father does not bother himself with it. Most often this is true because the father is of a weak character and is not comfortable with strict discipline. In these cases a father may reason to himself that it really does not matter if he is involved in the discipline of his children so long as his wife is handling it. That reasoning is faulty. God has placed the man to be head of the wife and of his children and he is responsible before God to fulfill this task. It is his duty therefore to lead his home in this important work. Besides, when children are punished by mother but they see that father is not bothered by their sin, they will rebel against mother too. This attitude on the part of the father will undermine even the discipline that mother administers. Fathers must know that they are held before God answerable for the discipline of the home.
One last question we answer yet in this article: Why discipline? What is the purpose of disciplining our children? Why ought father and mother take this calling so seriously? There are two reasons.
First, covenant parents discipline their children because in this way they lead their children to the cross of Jesus Christ. We do not deny that this must be done through instruction and example too. But discipline is of such a nature that it forces children to confront their sin and their need for the cross of Christ. It does so by teaching them, first of all, that they may not live according to what is right in their own eyes. They belong to God's church and covenant in this world. They are called therefore to be holy as God is holy. They must be consecrated and dedicated to serving God. How? By keeping His Word and commandments! And when they fail, then they sin.
Discipline forces our children to confront their sin and the punishment of sin too. They are made to experience that sin will not go unpunished by God. The wages or punishment of sin is death. Ah, how our punishment can smart—not just the backside, but the heart and soul of a child! But how minor is the chastisement of a father or mother compared to the eternal punishment in hell!
Discipline, therefore, humbles a child and teaches him repentance. When proper discipline is administered, and when our children show an attitude of sorrow over sin, then parents quickly forgive. In doing so, covenant parents also lead their children to the cross, where they can find forgiveness with God in the blood of Jesus Christ. Parents ought to consider this great benefit of discipline before shirking it as if it really makes little difference.
There is one other purpose to our discipline of children. It teaches our children to walk the life of the antithesis. Very simply put: it teaches them in a concrete way to say "no" to sin and this evil world and "yes" to God and to the way of righteousness.
Since the beginning of time, God has created enmity between His people in Christ and the wicked reprobate of this world. There is a huge spiritual gulf between them. The child of God is called to fight the fight of faith against the forces of darkness and unbelief around him. He must do this by keeping himself unspotted from the world and its lusts.
Covenant parents know well that the most difficult part of that battle is not against this world and Satan, but against their own sinful flesh. As adult believers mature in their faith, they struggle with what Paul writes in Romans 7:20, 22, "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.... I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me." This struggle is not true only of us, but of our children too. Their flesh as well as ours is tempted to walk in the ways of sin. A godly parent who is deeply conscious of his own battle within must teach his children to be conscious of the sinful flesh that they have within them. Discipline teaches our children this. And it teaches them the necessity, in their young lives too, of saying "no" to the sinful desires of the flesh.
That sinful flesh shows itself in small ways in our little children. A parent may tell a toddler not to touch an item on an end table, and the challenge is on! Where there is law there is transgression! Mom says no, but my flesh says I want to, despite what Mom has told me. With a gleam in his eye, as soon as Mom is preoccupied with something else, the child goes to play with that item on the table anyway. Disobedience! Such disobedience is taken care of when our children are that small by a slap on the hand or a whap on the butt. But if it goes unchecked, and the child grows older, then the sins of disobedience show themselves in much worse ways. Then those ways are not so easy to be dealt with through discipline. By disciplining a child immediately for the wrong he commits, parents train their children to say no to their own sinful flesh, to their own self-gratification, and to the proneness of their flesh to give in to temptation. Those children are taught to discern between good and evil and to follow after the good. Such is the purpose and function of discipline in a covenant home.
Next time we wish to consider the different forms of discipline fathers and mother have at their disposal. In close connection with that, we will also distinguish between what is true discipline as opposed to the abuse of children. It is our prayer, of course, that covenant parents, especially young parents, will take seriously the teaching of the Word of God concerning the discipline of their children. This world is becoming increasingly more lawless, with a blatant disregard for authority. Children are becoming violent, rebelling against parents and authority in general. More and more in the churches today children are spoiled by affluence, being given everything they desire, and by this being stripped of the will to say no to anything. Young parents who bring forth the children of the covenant must be warned to discipline those children, so that they might grow in the grace and admonition of the Lord. Then the generation coming will stand as Christian soldiers who will not entangle themselves in the affairs of this life, that they might please God who has chosen them to be soldiers (II Tim. 2:3, 4).