Discipline is no enemy of parental love for their children. Rather, love demands discipline, if this love for children reflects God’s love for His children. The experience of every believer convinces him of the truth of this, for the Heavenly Father disciplines every one of His children. Scripture teaches this emphatically. It is the powerful doctrine of Hebrews 12, not only that the God Who loves us also chastises us, but also that it is exactly His Fatherly love that chastises: “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. …” (vss. 6,7). God’s discipline is severe: rebuke, chastising, whipping. This is the figure; the reality is sickness, poverty, persecution, and death. It was not yet unto blood among the Hebrew Christians, but it might come to this. Because of the severity of the discipline, the chastised were discouraged, wearied, fainting, ready to throw in the towel and quit—their hands hung down and their knees were feeble.
The purpose of God with this discipline is our profit, “that we might be partakers of his holiness” (v. 10). For the rearing of us, instruction alone is not enough, not even when the Teacher is God and the teaching, His Word. Our depravity is so great, that chastisement is needed, in addition.
Earthly parents must learn from this aspect of Divine Fatherhood. A love for our children that is lax, that withholds discipline, is not the love of God for them; in fact, the wisdom of Proverbs says that it is not love at all: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (13:24). It is not an imaginary danger in our permissive age, that there are, in the church, children and young people who have everything they desire; who may do as they please; and who are unrestrained, except by some Eli-like pleading that has no teeth in it.
Parents must start early, showing that disobedience to God’s Law, including disrespect for parental authority, is sin and chastising willful disobedience to that Law in appropriate ways—a rebuke, a slap on the hand of the very young, a spanking on the rear of the older child with a stick. If nothing else motivates parents, let this move them, that without the holiness produced by discipline also the covenant children shall not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
It is necessary that our love discipline; it is equally necessary that our discipline be administered out of love. In the very passage in which He stresses the urgency of discipline, the Lord points out, and warns against, an all too common failure of us parents in the discipline of our children. Referring to the earthly fathers who corrected us and to whom we gave reverence, the apostle says, “For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure. …” (Hebrews 12:10). This is contrasted with God’s chastising us for our profit. This rings painfully true to the experience of us parents. How often are not our screams of rebuke and our blows of chastisement, personal rage and displeasure, with no purpose in the child’s welfare whatever.
We are inclined to overlook that, in those places where the New Testament expressly addresses the duty of parents in child-raising, e.g., Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21, Scripture warns fathers against provoking their children to wrath. Colossians 3:21 adds, “lest they become discouraged,” i.e., broken in spirit. This evil is the abuse of parental authority—the exercise of authority cut loose from love; a harsh, selfish exercise of discipline. Many children are ruined by laxity; I wonder whether as many are not ruined by this tyrannical, love-less rule. Every disciplinary act must be done by us parents (and by the Christian schoolteacher!), consciously, out of love for the child as covenant child of God. Every disciplinary act must be done, consciously, with the purpose that the child be turned from sin unto holiness. Every time the parent raises his hand in discipline, he must remember that his hand is the hand of God (cf. the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 104).
Concerning this discipline, parents must be patient. Patience is a marvelous perfection of God in His dealing with us sinners; and it must characterize us. Our children are sinners; they are bad sinners—no one knows this like a Reformed believer; we also know whence they came by their sinfulness. Without becoming tolerant of sin, we must be patient with our sinful children. Thus, also, we will have hope, when, at times, we do not see the fruit that we desire in them.
Parents ought never to lose control of themselves in discipline, not even when the children have sinned grossly. It is possible for us virtually to destroy our children with rage, with condemnation, with ridicule, and with beating. We should call to mind our own plea of the Heavenly Father, in Psalm 38:1: “O LORD, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.”
Rebuke must be wisely, mixed with praise of the children when they do well. Some parents refuse to praise, or reward, their children, as a matter of principle. This is a mistake. Let God, once again, be our example: He praises and rewards His children, for doing that which is their duty and for doing that which He Himself works in them. We all know that this is a strong incentive to obedience, glad obedience. So it is with our children. Praise encourages them. How discouraging, if all they ever hear from us is criticism. God is the best Pedagogue: not for nothing is the Fifth Commandment the first commandment with promise (cf. Ephesians 6:2).
If we are willing to discipline, we are ready and eager to forgive, when, by the discipline, the Holy Spirit has worked repentance in the child. We must express forgiveness to the child, “God forgives you; and I forgive you.” Then, we must forget about the fault.
Finally, if one of our children, when he grows up, shows himself an ungodly young man, or herself, an ungodly young woman, who despises and rebels against our admonition, we must follow the “way of Deuteronomy 21:18-21” with him, or her: ”… Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders . . . and they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” The Israelite parent brought his wicked child to the elders, to be stoned to death. Today, in the church, parents are to bring their unruly child to the elders, to be excommunicated out of the church and to be cut off from the fellowship of the saints, if he does not repent. Never are Reformed parents in the position that they wring their hands helplessly; never may they allow the church to be corrupted by unbelieving, lawless young people.
We love our children as covenant children, for God’s sake, not at the expense of God’s glory. Our friendship with them is in the Lord Jesus, not regardless of Him. Not every one of the children of believers is a covenant child of promise (Romans 9:8). When one’s own child, by unbelief and unrighteousness, denies Christ, the parent faces the choice: my Christ or my child; and he chooses Christ. Then, Christ sends the sword into our very family “to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother . . . and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Whoever, then, “loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:34-39). Of course, the resort to church discipline may have as its happy outcome the child’s repentance and salvation; and for this the parent never ceases to hope and to pray.
This is Reformed, Biblical child-rearing: love them; live with them in friendship; and discipline them, taking the Fatherhood of God as pattern.
If God’s Fatherhood of us cost Him His own Son, we cannot expect our child-rearing to be easy, painless, and cheap.
But it is possible. Good rearing and a good family-life are possible, still today. It is required of all parents who name the Name of Christ. The possibility is not ourselves, not at all. The possibility is the blessing of God—sovereign, covenant grace—besought fervently in prayer, for “except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1).