If parents are going to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), then they should understand the role of both the law and the gospel in that task. The former reveals to us God’s all-encompassing will and the latter reveals to us His all-sufficient provision for sinners who violate that will.
The Law Reveals God’s Will
The first verse that Donna and I taught each of our six children is Ephesians 6:1, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” By doing this we were teaching them God’s law—their and our Creator’s revealed will for their lives. He calls them to live in obedience to their parents. He calls us not to “provoke” them “to anger” but to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). We are both, together with all people, accountable to obey God.
That accountability stems from the most fundamental truth in the world—that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). As the Creator of all things He has the right to rule over and require whatever He deems right of His creatures. He has summarized His requirements of us in the Ten Commandments. Jesus further summarized them in the greatest commandment and the second that is like it. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39).
Children need to learn early about their creature-Creator relationship to God. They are under authority and owe God complete obedience to His commandments. Of course, like their parents, they do not render to God the obedience that He requires and, like their parents, fail at many specific points.
They need to be helped to think theologically about their failures to obey—that is, they need to learn to see their sin in relation to God. So being dishonest is not only an unkindness to others, it is also a violation of the ninth commandment. Taking something that belongs to another child is not simply carelessness or selfishness, it is breaking the eighth commandment. A child’s disobedience to his parent is not simply hurtful or disrespectful, it is disobeying God’s fifth commandment.
By pointing out these connections to children we can help them see their actions in the light of God’s law. This is how they will learn to think theologically about their actions, specifically about their sin.
The Gospel Reveals God’s Salvation
The gospel is only good news to those who understand the bad news about sin. That is just as true for children as it is for adults. When a child has been taught to see his attitudes, words and actions in the light of God’s commandments, he will soon realize that he is a lawbreaker and in need of forgiveness.
The good news is that God has provided forgiveness in the person and work of Jesus. By His life and death, Jesus has accomplished everything that God’s law requires of us—perfect obedience in order to attain righteousness and full payment for disobedience. And He did this for sinners—real sinners who know that they have broken God’s law and now are liable to His just condemnation as a result. Every sinner who turns away from sin and trusts Jesus will be saved from sin. We must encourage our children to believe this and to repent and trust Jesus to save them.
So every time that a child needs correction becomes an occasion to give him both the law and the gospel. His sin is against God and is a violation of His commandments. That is precisely why children (and their parents) need a Savior. That is also why God, in love, sent His only Son to be our Savior. Our sins do not disqualify us from ever being accepted by God. Rather, they destroy any hope of us finding such acceptance outside of Jesus Christ.
Children Need Both Law and Gospel
So we teach God’s law to our children so that they will learn that they are sinners in need of a Savior. And we teach God’s gospel to them so that they will learn that Jesus is a loving, complete Savior of sinners who kept the whole law for His people and then suffered the punishment due to their sin.
Every failure, every sin, every expression of disobedience in our children becomes an opportunity to evangelize and disciple them. God requires complete obedience. Jesus provides complete salvation for the disobedient who confess their sin, repent of their rebellion, and trust Him as Lord.
What God requires in His law, He provides in His gospel. That is the message of the Bible and it is what everyone needs to hear and believe. The earlier children are taught this the better off they will be. God’s truth is a powerful instrument in the hands of His Spirit. By it the Spirit brings conviction through God’s commandments and salvation through His Son.
So, parents, give children law and gospel, and pray for the Spirit to bless your efforts to reveal Christ to them and to establish them in His way.
Note: I put together the 3 volume Truth and Grace Memory Books to help parents teach children this way.