The Lord's Day Evening
September 24, 2006

Ephesians 6:4
“God's New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians (LV)
God's Household Rules: Marriage and Family (10):
The Nurture and Admonition of the Lord”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to the Book of Ephesians again, chapter six, as we continue through this section on household rules. Last week we were looking at Ephesians 6:1-3, a section in which the Apostle Paul gives God's commands to Christian children, and we said that Christian children, in order to live out the gospel in the home, in order to live out their personal embrace of the lordship of Christ, must obey their parents for three reasons…three motivations Paul gives them: Because it's right; because it's commanded; and because obedience to this command is connected to…it comes along with a gracious promise from God.

Now Paul continues to talk to parents and children in the passage we're going to look to tonight in Ephesians 6:4, but now his focus is on Christian parents; and, interestingly, having acknowledged the full parental authority that children are to obey and respond to with an obedience that is grounded in their understanding that that obedience is right, and it's God-commanded, and it's good, and it's gracious; having already asserted that kind of awesome parental authority that has been vested into mothers and fathers by God, Paul speaks to Christian parents, and especially to fathers, giving them a profound directive about their Christian parenting and asking them to exercise restraint in the way that they parent.

It's a very interesting passage. It begins with a negative command, and it proceeds to a positive command. That's a very typical Pauline way of talking about things. You remember in First Timothy when he's talking to Timothy about pastoring, the very first command that he gives to Timothy is negative, and then he moves to the positive command. It's a way that the Apostle Paul says ‘Don't do this; this is not a good thing to do, don't do that; but on the other hand, do this.’ It's a typical way that he teaches, and it's a good model for us.

Well, we come to Ephesians 6:4, then. Let's give attention to God's word. And before we do, let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, as we consider this privilege and responsibility of Christian parenting, we ask that You would encourage us. Just as Mark prayed tonight, there is indeed a broken heart in every pew, and how many of us have experienced broken hearts in relation to our children? How many of us question our parenting…the job that we're doing? We cry out to You, O God, and look for help. As we study Your word tonight, we pray, O God, that You would grant by Your Spirit much encouragement to faithful, earnest, Christian parents. We can always find things in which we have fallen short, O Lord, and tonight give us wisdom and give us encouragement, for we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word in Ephesians 6:4.

“And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

In this passage, the Apostle Paul gives a two-sided directive…or, if you will, a negative and a positive command to Christian parents. On the one hand, they are not to parent in such a way that exasperates their children. They are to exercise wisdom and restraint in their parenting so that, rather than being provoked to anger, their children are encouraged to righteousness. On the other hand, they are indeed to rear their children, to bring them up, in the discipline (notice again the negative and the instruction) of the Lord. There are to be constraints, and there is to be instruction. Let's give attention to the two sides of this directive tonight.

Let's begin in the first part of verse 4 where the Apostle Paul says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” Here, Christian parents are given the instruction by God through the Apostle Paul to take care not to provoke their children. It's a very interesting way to begin to address parents. And notice especially that this command is laid upon fathers, even though in the passage preceding children are called upon to obey their parents. This particular direction is pushed towards fathers. This may be for a number of reasons.

For one thing, in Paul's day, especially in the Roman world, a father had something akin to absolute authority in his home. His children were just another among all his possessions. You can imagine with that kind of a situation that there may have been a temptation to abuse that authority. We in fact know that that authority was abused very regularly in the Roman world by fathers. For instance, little boys were preferred over little girls, and very often when a little girl was born to a mother and father, that father with his absolute authority would decree that that little girl should be set out and exposed and left to die. It was a common practice in the Roman world. Christians bravely and prophetically challenged that particular practice in Roman family life, and in fact would very often go and rescue the children who were being exposed to death and bring them into a loving, nurturing Christian home. Perhaps for this reason, because of the power of the Roman father, perhaps for that reason the Apostle Paul especially gives this direction to fathers.

Of course, there may be other reasons as well. In our own culture, there can be a temptation for fathers to have a passive role in the parenting and nurturing and instruction of children, because the mother is with the children more, and the father less often with the children because the mother is involved in a regular regimen of discipline and instruction, and the father is popping in incrementally at specific points during the way. There may be a temptation for fathers to cede some of their responsibilities, to dump some of those responsibilities, on their wives…to let their wives take the ball and run with it, and leave their own responsibilities personally unfulfilled. This again is a good passage to correct that kind of tendency to passivity.

But whatever the case is, the Apostle Paul especially directs this to fathers, because fathers will give an account for this before God. They are, in the final analysis, the ones who are responsible for the spiritual well-being of their whole families, and they, like the elders of the church, will give account for the church of the living God, so also fathers will give an account before God for the nurture that has gone on (or has not) in their homes.

And in this passage the Apostle Paul is calling fathers (and parents) to a wise use of parental power. There's a parallel passage that you may already know of. I invite you to turn with me to it, to Colossians 3:21, which may help expand. These words are so brief, they’re so terse, they’re so packed with meaning it may be helpful to you to look at the parallel passage in Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart.”

You see again the negative command there given to Christian fathers, that in the rearing of their children they take care not to discourage, not to dishearten them, not to exasperate their children. Perhaps again this command is given in the context of a destructive kind of pattern of parenting, a kind of criticism or perhaps harshness which breaks the spirit of a child. And the Apostle Paul is concerned that Christian children not lose heart, so that he's encouraging fathers to exercise a kind of restraint in their parenting, so that punishment and correction is balanced with time spent with children, and positive nurture and nourishment, teaching and entertainment, and encouragement both by verbal instruction and example, pointing them to Christ. And this passage perhaps helps us to understand a little bit about what Paul is saying when he says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.”

This is not a passage, by the way, that is saying to Christian fathers and mothers that you must never ever for any reason make your children mad. That's not what this passage is saying…sorry, kids! This is not what this passage is saying. There will be times, dear young Christian children, when you want to do things that your parents will say “No” and it will make you mad, because you want to do it. Sorry. Paul's not telling your parents that they can't do that. They can do that any time they want to do that, OK? It's their job. It's their job to exercise their best discernment about your activities for your eternal well-being, and there will be times when they tell you that you cannot do certain things and it will make you mad; and other times, they will tell you that you must do certain things, and that will make you mad, and that is perfectly OK! That's not what the Apostle Paul is getting at.

No, the Apostle Paul is talking about a kind of care in the parenting of children that prevents a context being developed in which children are exasperated, or provoked to frustration and anger. Let me try and put some feet on this particular command by giving ten applications of this particular general principle (and I want to thank Dr. Wayne Mack and his wonderful book, Strengthening Your Marriage, for these ideas).

First of all, Christian parents, in obeying the command “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,” should take care not to expect more or less of their children than they are capable of giving and doing. Have you ever seen a parent that wants a child to do something because that something is very important to that parent, but it is beyond the present capacity (and maybe beyond the interests) of the child?

I was reading a story in one of the commentaries of a man who was a very, very accomplished horse rider. He had, in fact, told his wife, “I learned how to ride before I learned how to walk.” And when his son was three years old, he put him up on a horse, dressed him as a cowboy, and wanted him to ride like he had ridden when he was a very young child. And his son burst out crying and hated being on the horse and was upset–and the father was furious at his son. He wanted his son to be able to do what he had done when he was a little boy. His wife said to him, “Your son is not you.” It's a very important thing for parents to remember. So often parents want children to do things that are very, very important to them personally, but which are part of the unique gifting that God has given to the parent — the mother or the father — but may or may not be part of the unique gifting or abilities that the Lord has given to the child. Anybody have a father who's a great athlete, and a son who's not particularly good at athletics, but he's great at piano or art, or communication or some other aspect? And we want to make sure that we don't expect more than our children, or other than our children, are capable of doing and giving.

On the other hand, you don't want to expect less. How many parables of parenting have we seen in the last fifteen or twenty years in the popular media which drive home the point that parents shouldn't underestimate the abilities of their own children? That's a hugely significant thing. So often parents will underestimate the capacities of their children, either at some aspect of learning or of accomplishment, and this is one way that Christian parents can exasperate or provoke to anger, or frustrate the children: by expecting more of them than they are capable of doing or giving, or by expecting less of them than they are capable of doing or giving. The Apostle Paul is encouraging wisdom in a wise use of parental power in this regard.

Secondly, this passage means that Christian parents need to be careful about the way that they reprimand or correct their children. Christian parents need to be careful about the way that they reprimand or correct their children. This should be done so that it's very clear that the reprimanding (that the discipline, that the correction) first of all is for the best interest of the child. The child's best interest is always at heart. Secondly, and behind and under it all, is that the glory of God is behind this, not just parental frustration; not simply parental exasperation about something, but the child's best interest and the glory of God. And a failure to reprimand and correct with these kinds of godly interests in mind can promote the frustration and the exasperation of children.

Thirdly, and this may be the most important thing in this list, in order to not provoke our children to anger, as parents we must practice what we preach. Children seem to have built in “bunk detectors,” and when they see us telling them to do something that we don't do ourselves, they can smell that hypocrisy a mile away. And it works deeply into their hearts, and they do not forget it. And from time to time it will pop up and we will hear it. Perhaps we will have it presented back to us in the course of engaging with them; but practicing what we preach, avoiding double standards, avoiding hypocrisy is vitally significant in our nurture of Christian children.

By the way, this impacts even the way we minister to your children as a church in the context of the Youth Program. Let me just give you one example of this. If our youth workers have a tremendous impact on your child…and we have some wonderful people here…I wish I could introduce you to all the youth staff at First Presbyterian Church, so you can see the quality of people that are involved in our young people's lives on a regular basis. It's a privilege to work alongside these folks, these young men and women. But if they have a profound effect on a child who is in a home where the parents themselves are not taking the lead in the nurture and admonition of Christian children, they’re not taking the lead in setting an example for godliness and the priority of God in life, then one of two things will happen.

Either the young people, seeing that distinction — ‘I've got these youth workers that are saying it's all about God, it's all about God's glory…you know, live for Christ, going to serve Him; we're going to bear witness to Him, we're going to have His word impact every area of our life, our marriage, our vocation, our school, everything.’ And then, they look back home and Mom and Dad don't share those interests, don't share those priorities, don't share that worldview, that outlook…then one of two things is going to happen. Either that young person is going to say ‘You know what? This is all bunk, because Mom and Dad don't do this. Mom and Dad don't care about this. Even though this very intelligent, attractive young person that works in the Youth Department is telling me that this is the real thing, it must not be the real thing, because Mom and Dad don't care about it.’

Or, the other thing that can happen is that they look at Mom and Dad and they say ‘You know what? Mom and Dad are pagans. They’re hypocrites. They have me doing this, but they don't really care about God. They don't really care about the gospel. They don't really care about Christ.’

And look, folks, neither of those things is the scenario that we want as we come alongside of you with the Youth Program and with the nurture and help and assistance of the church. That's all we can offer you, is nurturing help and assistance. We can't replace the responsibility that parents bear in this regard. We come alongside to be a help and an encouragement, to provide a context of positive nurture and positive peer pressure, and to complement what you’re doing in the lives of your children; but if we're doing a good job and you’re not, then your children are going to analyze the situation in one of those two directions, and that's not what we want. We want to see whole families following after Christ, following after the gospel, growing in grace together, and we want to be complementing and augmenting and supplementing what is happening in your home. So practicing what we preach is vital.

And in connection with this there's a fourth thing, and that is simply this: the best way to not provoke our children to anger, to exasperate our children, is to impart the faith via prayer, personal example, and precept, in that order…to impart the faith via prayer, personal example, and precept, in that order.

Now I'm going to come back to this at the end when we get to the positive side of the Apostle Paul's direction, but don't forget those words: The main way we as parents advance the faith in the lives of our children is through prayer, our personal example, and through instructing them in the truth of the word.

Fifthly, we ought to aim to cultivate good times with our children. It ought to be an agenda on our part to create settings, situations, time and environments in which there can be positive nurture. I've often said to students in the past, “Have you ever noticed how Jesus related to the disciples? If Jesus had corrected the disciples every time they deserved correction and it had been recorded, do you know how the Gospels would have read? ‘Stop that, Peter! Don't do that, John! That was a stupid thing to do, Matthew!’ The whole interaction between Jesus and the apostles would have been one litany of criticisms. He could have legitimately criticized them at every point, every day, every hour, every week. But the Lord Jesus found numerous opportunities to cultivate positive encouragement with His disciples, and parents ought to, as well.

Sixthly, parents must freely communicate love and affection. That looks different in different homes. I don't want to build any particular stereotype. This was something that my Dad had a hard time knowing how to do, early on. But I saw Dad grow in this area. Dad was a Marine. He was from the Second World War. He was the child of an alcoholic father who would disappear for two or three days on a two or three day drunk. He’d go off fishing with his handyman, who worked with them at the house; and Dad and Mom and the rest of the children wouldn't see him, and then he’d show up again. He showed very little affection towards my Dad. He was very critical of him. Dad had no good example in the realm of showing affection to a son. And so when my Dad began to be able to say “I love you” to us, I can remember that. I can remember that impact. His hugs, his verbal expressions of love, meant an enormous amount to me. And the more I knew about his upbringing, the more they meant to me. But without making any particular stereotype about how we're going to freely communicate love and affection, it ought to be the agenda of every Christian parent to do so. It's one way that we keep from provoking our children to frustration.

Seventh, we need to allow our children to fail and to make mistakes, and to know that our love for them is not conditioned upon their perfection. We’re serious about their godliness; we're serious about their achieving everything that they’re able, because we want them to exercise the gifts that God has given to them. We expect them to be able to perform at the level of their own capabilities, but our love is not conditioned upon that perfection.

Eighth, as we make expectations and rules and regulations known to them, make sure that they’re reasonable. Make sure as we make expectations, rules, and regulations known to them, make sure that they’re reasonable.

Many of you know the story of Robert E. Lee's going to Washington College (now Washington and Lee). When he got there the honor code was about “that” thick. He announced to his staff and faculty that the honor code was out. Now, this was Robert E. Lee–announcing ‘The honor code is out, now that I'm president.’ You know what he replaced the honor code with? One sentence: “We will at all times act as Christian gentlemen.” Because Lee's philosophy was this: Don't make more rules than you can enforce. It is a very wise philosophy that at all times there's one rule: at all times we will conduct ourselves as Christian gentlemen. Well, that pretty much covers it all! But make sure as you make expectations, rules, and regulations known that they’re reasonable.

Ninth, one way that Christian parents can keep from exasperating their children, one very important way, is to admit our own mistakes, our own sins, and to ask forgiveness when we fail them. How are our children going to learn to ask forgiveness when they have really messed up, if they have never seen us ask forgiveness when we have really messed up?

And tenth, make it easy and desirable for them to approach you. Make it easy and desirable for them to approach you. The older they get, more and more the one thing that you have is your relationship with them. That's the one persuasive, disciplinary, instructive device that you have, that power of relationship. So make it easy and desirable for them to approach you. (I would encourage you, by the way, to pick up Wayne Mack's book, Strengthening Your Marriage, and look at the Scripture references and the study questions that he attaches to these particular ten points of application. I think they are very, very helpful.)

Now let's move to the positive side of the ledger.

Christian parents, especially fathers, are to take care not to provoke their children. On the other hand, the positive side, Christian parents are to bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Listen again to Paul's words:

“Fathers, bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Now, I know no better way of outlining what Paul is asking us to do there than to point to the third vow that every Christian parent in this congregation takes at baptism. And early on when I was here, I read a note from Dr. Baird to a Christian parent in which he said, “You know, if we would only fulfill the third baptismal vow, we could do nothing more significant in the lives of our children than that.” And that has stuck with me ever since. Every parent that has a child that is brought for baptism at First Presbyterian Church, I share that wisdom that I learned from Dr. Baird, and it's so true. I only remind you of that vow; you hear it said Sunday after Sunday, at least six times a year at the time that we bring covenant children for baptism, but it goes like this:

“Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise in humble reliance upon divine grace that you will endeavor to set before him a godly example; that you will pray with and for him; that you will teach him the doctrines of our holy religion; and that you will strive by all the means of God's appointment to bring him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”

And I want you to look at six parts of that brief question, and think through these as a part of your fulfillment of your responsibility as Christian parents.

First of all, notice that first phrase: “Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God…?” That particular part of the question has echoes of the dedication of the firstborn in the Old Testament, doesn't it? The firstborn was presented to God, and a sacrifice was offered in his place. Now, whatever that ceremony meant, one thing that it was meant to drive home was simply this: Our children do not belong to us; they belong to God. We have been given the enormous privilege and delight and duty and responsibility of being stewards for God of them, and that first phrase just reminds us to remind ourselves over and over: This child is a gift from God to me, whom I care for for such a short period of time–18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years–not very long. (It may feel like it's long, if you've got a 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 year old right now, but it's not very long.) For many of you, you’ll look back in just a couple of years and you’ll say, “Where did the time go?” When she's walking down the aisle with you, or when he's walking down the aisle towards you or from you–where did the time go? It's not that long. But we remember that these children belong to God, and it's our privilege, our joy, our duty, our delight to nurture them in the truth of the Lord.

Secondly: “Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise in humble reliance upon divine grace…?” Let me just stop right there. That's one of the most precious parts of that vow for Christian parents, because it reminds us that it all depends on the grace of God. Even our best efforts depend upon the grace of God in our young people, because we're being called to do something that's beyond our ability to do.

Wouldn't every Christian parent love to have a magic wand, where they could wave that magic wand and their children would always do right, and they’d marry the right person, and they’d make the right choices, and they wouldn't fall in with the wrong crowd, and they wouldn't mess up at school…and wouldn't you love to have that wand? And you know, I've never found it. I've been looking for it in a shop, all over the place. I've never found it. And so one of the things that the Lord teaches you in parenting is that you have to be utterly dependent upon Him. I've talked with so many folks whose kids are already out of the home, and they say, “You know, it's no different now. I still have to continue to trust in the Lord as I watch my children go through difficult things, even now that they’re off on their own, and I can't fix the situation, I can't change the situation.” We have to learn to depend upon the grace of the Lord.

Then here are the things that we promise to do:

(1) To set before him a godly example;

(2) To pray with and for him;

(3) To teach him the doctrines of our holy religion; and,

(4) By all the means of God's appointment, to bring him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

[I have a friend who, when he was giving his testimony before the Presbytery to become a gospel minister, he said, “I was reared in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, but mostly the admonition!”]

Well, in those four particular parts of the baptismal vow we see a beautiful outline of exactly what the Apostle Paul is asking Christian parents to do when he says that we're to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. And remembering that pattern of example, prayer, teaching, nurture and admonition is one of the vital keys of godly parenting.

A few weeks ago Matt Lucas, who I think works with RUF at the University of South Carolina…he's on staff at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, was commenting in the First Pres newsletter from First Pres/Columbia about a book that he's been reading by William Still, called The Work of the Pastor. William Still was the pastor of the Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen for many, many years…over 50 years. And Mr. Still, in the course of that book on the pastoral ministry, shares this comment, and I think it's very telling in light of what we've just said about the baptismal vow and about Paul's instructions in Ephesian 6:4. He says:

“Every autumn I have a spate of letters from fond parents, teachers, guardians, and monitors appealing to me to follow up on such-and-such a youngster who is away from home at college for the first time, and who needs to be hunted, followed, shadowed, intercepted and driven to Christian meetings. I have scarcely ever known this desperate technique to work. I understand the panic of parents and guardians, but it is too late then to try high-pressure tactics.” [Listen to what he says.] “Prayer, example, and precept, in that order, are the means of bringing up children and young folk in the faith; nor will high pressure tactics and brainwashing techniques avail when young folk have gone off on their own. Some young folk, alas, will have their fling. They will sow their wild oats, and come at last to heal, sadly, just like the prodigal son. It is where Christians pathetically put their trust in external techniques and artificial stratagems that young folk go astray. Nothing takes the place of the realism of holy living and secret wrestling before God in prayer for our young people.”

I think Mr. Still has a point there that all of us need to listen to, and it all goes back to the baptismal vow, which all goes back to Ephesians 6:4.

Prayer, example, and precept–the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This is what Paul asks of us as Christian parents as we bring ourselves up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, give us grace to desire above all to see our children love Christ and walk with Him, and know the gospel and love Your word, and live as Christians. And then with that desire in our hearts, grant that we would live those same priorities, those same desires, ourselves. Grant that we would be faithful in prayer for our young people, grant that we would be faithful in reading the word to them, in bringing them to worship, and taking care that they’re put into contexts where they’re encouraged in the faith, whether it's in school or youth group. But then, O God, help us to entrust our children to You, because in the end, they’re Yours anyway. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

Please stand for God's blessing.

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.