Grace for Parents of Prodigals

Anthony C. Phelps

“I will … be God to you and to your offspring.” (Gen. 17:7)
“The promise is for you and for your children.” (Acts 2:39)

As a father of a prodigal adult child, I often need to remind myself of the gospel I believe and the faith I confess.

1. God’s covenant promises are the only hope we have for our covenant children.

The gospel is for us and for our children. The covenant-keeping Lord has promised to be a God to us and to our children. That’s what Scripture says. He gave his Son for all our sins. Jesus alone lived a life of perfect obedience to all the law of God on our behalf. His righteousness alone guarantees our access to eternal life. God alone saves sinners. God alone saves our covenant children.

2. Christian parents and their covenant children are under the covenant of grace, not the covenant of works. If your child walks away from Christ, it is not because we didn’t “do it right” as covenant parents, thus invoking covenant curses!

This is easy to say but hard to believe, especially when your heart is breaking over your prodigal child. Our flesh is wired for the covenant of works—even though it’s a broken covenant in Adam. Even though the Last Adam has fulfilled it for us, and we are now under the covenant of grace. The covenant of works says, “Do and you will be blessed by God; fail to do and you are under his curse.” And so, our “old Adam” rears his head and either wants credit if our children are walking with the Lord, or despairs of God’s grace if they are not.

Every covenant parent feels like a failure because, in fact, we have all failed. There is only one perfect Father. He is perfectly wise, good, and righteous. He disciplines his children with loving compassion and for our good. He gave his Son even for our sinful failures as Christian parents. What we did wrong or what we failed to do does not forfeit our status as justified children of God.

If you think your parental faithfulness saves your children, you are still thinking according to the covenant of works. If you think your parental failures have caused your children to walk away from Christ, you have forgotten the covenant of grace. God works through the means of grace. But as we employ those means by faith in his promises, we let God be God. We entrust our children to his wise providence and abounding mercies.

3. God is sovereign, and sin is real. I hear good Reformed folks imply that the right apologetics or sufficient catechesis or regular family worship will somehow make our covenant children apostasy-proof.

God sovereignly saves sinners, ordinarily through the means of grace. So we preach the gospel to the lost, trusting God to draw his elect to his Son by his Spirit. We baptize our covenant children, as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace—teaching them that by faith in Jesus, he will wash away their sins and renew them by his Spirit. We take them to public worship and have family worship. We catechize them, pray with and for them, and plead God’s covenant promises on their behalf. We use the law and the gospel as we correct and teach them. We remember that the goal of discipline is not behavior modification, but rather repentance, forgiveness of sins, and growth in grace.

We believe the biblical doctrine of original sin and know that our children are not exempted from it. But then we hear those frightening statistics about Christian kids who walk away from the faith once they leave home. We don’t want that to happen. We hear well-meaning voices in the Reformed world tell us that if we don’t want our kids to apostatize, we need to make sure they know “what they believe and why they believe it.” We double down on the use of means: we catechize more rigorously, send our kids to a worldview camp, increase our family devotional times, have them memorize more Scripture. We read all the latest books on how to raise an apostasy-proof kid.

We forget his promises. We begin to superstitiously trust in the means. After all, we hear the implied promise: if we do it the right way, if we do enough, then our kids will not walk away from the faith. The covenant of works sneaks back in.

Isn’t God sovereign? Isn’t sin real? Isn’t the Bible honest about the reality of prodigals? Isn’t his grace in Christ still sufficient to save them? Yes, the answer is yes, to all of the above.

4. Christ died to save prodigals from the far country. He’s the only hope we have for them. We continue to pray for our prodigals, love them, and point them to Christ.

Here’s the good news about prodigals who come home. God grants them repentance and forgiveness, and he welcomes them. Jesus died for them. The Spirit alone can open their eyes to the absurdity of their rebellion against the goodness of God the Father. He teaches us to repent of our elder-brother ways: “I did the right thing; God owes me.” Jesus saves even pharisaical sinners like us—parents who are prone to revert to the covenant of works.

Instead, believing the gospel, we can tell our prodigals that:

  • We love them.
  • Our home and our hearts are always open to them.
  • We’re sorry for the ways we failed them as Christian parents.
  • Our only hope for them and us is Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

Christ died for my failures as a Christian parent, which are more than I even know. He is my only hope as the parent of a prodigal.

I can’t save myself. And I can’t save my covenant children. If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. This is what we believe and confess. God grant us all grace—parents and our prodigals—to believe the gospel is still God’s power to save them and us.

The author is pastor of Living Hope OPC in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Photograph of “Return of the Prodigal,” Rembrandt van Rijn, Hermitage Museum, public domain.


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