What We Believe
i

“Robbie, I’m done!”

Some statements one never forgets. These words came from a friend, an elder of the church, but most importantly from a loving parent. He had made all the normal efforts, and had gone beyond the normal, all with the desire to bring his youngest son to submission and to the faith. He told me of that encounter when he said, “Robbie, I’m done.” But the full paragraph was the most important part. He went on to tell his son,

I have tried, I have taught, I have disciplined, but now I must tell you that I am putting you into the hands of God, and you will have to deal with him. But be assured that as you answer to him, you will not be able to say, “I didn’t know, no one told me.”

In my friend’s mind, these were loving words and provided him with the greatest hope for the life of his son.

Perhaps the greatest trial for any Christian parent lies right here. For it is with anguish of heart that a parent comes to a pastor and recounts how their adult child has departed from the path of the Christian faith. Parents bring up a child with a conscientious effort to establish and reinforce the faith in the home by faithful attendance and participation in a church, in corporate worship, Sabbath school, youth groups, camps, and even Christian school. This was truly one of those “good kids.” He, or she, made a credible profession of faith, participated in youth groups, helped out in Bible School, and was a counselor at summer camp. But now, sadly, without warning or maybe over time, at college, in the work force, with new friends, even in marriage, this “good kid” has rejected Christ and the Christian faith and practice.

The cry comes from countless parents, “What can I do now?”

This is a broad subject with countless variations in detail and circumstance. I cannot address every aspect of the problem in one article. My hope is to encourage the reader who identifies with the struggle by reminding us together how it is that God can work in the lives of our adult children.

I begin by addressing what I might call “the elephant in the room”—baptism.

I would submit that the starting point of the anguish of a Reformed Christian parent is that when we bring our children before the church to be baptized, we do so based on this fundamental covenant promise of God: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:7, emphasis added).

We have diligently considered those baptismal vows to affirm that our children are holy subjects of God’s covenant of grace. We have taught them, not perfectly, but truly, the principle of the holy Christian faith. We have prayed for them and with them and endeavored to rear them in the nurture and discipline of the Lord. These are the phrases used in the explanation of the sacrament. And in our hearts we took those vows, understanding they are attached to promises—not our promises, but the promises of God.

None of that was faulty or out of place. And, frankly, it is those vows and promises that form the firm foundation for everything from the beginning and going forward as parents. The seed of God’s Word is planted; they have been in the presence of God, worshipping with God’s people. The Lord Jesus of all salvation has been held up before them as the only hope for sinners. Still, they have wandered. Is this baptism deficient? No, the Lord’s sacrament is never at fault. Allow me to briefly think with the reader about baptism.

When the sign and seal of baptism is placed on a child, we do not believe that the sacrament bestows the saving grace of God to the child. To be certain, that bit of water does signify union with Christ and membership in his Body. It is the certification by God that salvation is never found outside of that union.

At the same time, for children or baptized adults, we may never divorce a trust in God’s covenant mercies from the discharge of the obligations of the covenant relationship. Professor John Murray wrote, “Covenant privilege always entails covenant responsibility.”[1] This is a necessary perspective for both the baptized child and the faithful parents. This is the very sobering reality that so troubles the parents’ hearts. The fear of the Lord, the submission to the commands of Christ, bowing the knee to the Redeemer are all means by which those who have received the promises of God’s faithfulness may have any confidence or comfort.

While the mere act of baptism does not ensure confidence in the covenant promises, it does secure the reality of those promises. The truth we hold before our child is of the never diminishing spring of God’s promise to save to the uttermost anyone who will return to that mercy, no matter how far away he may have wandered.

So it is that baptism is first God’s continuing visible pledge to his church that he will fulfil the promises of his covenant to those who place their faith in him. That promise, sealed in water baptism, is that God does reach down from heaven to embrace the parent and the child with the confident assurance of his grace, based upon his mercy, not the merit of either parent or child. In our moments of great pride in our children, or in those flashes of great shame for our own or the child’s failure, God’s pledge of merciful grace, so evident in baptism, is always ours by faith. We may claim it for ourselves, but our children must make the same claim.

Baptism has placed each of our children in a most privileged position. They have heard the truths of the gospel. The child has seen, though imperfectly, the example of parental devotion to the Lord. He has lived in a nurturing home and church environment. Each covenant child has been prayed for, that he might know the realities of God saving grace.

So, I return to the beginning. There comes a time when every parent, like my friend, must or should say, “Robbie, I am done. I am placing you in the hands of my merciful Father.” This is a loving and true warning to the disobedient or rebellious adult child.

Is that the end of it? Certainly not. Let me suggest six principles by which parents, using myself as an example, might now continue to rely on the work of God in the lives of their children. Remember how God continues work in the life of my adult child.[2]

1. God has not given an infallible promise of believing children to faithful parents. Even though we might read Proverbs 22:6 that way, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it,” there is a viable alternate translation which reflects the literal wording, “Bring up a child in his own way, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” “His own way” is often contrary to the right way, and so the proverb is as much a warning as it would be a promise. In either case, it is not presented as a guarantee.

Furthermore, the very first words of Isaiah’s prophesy declare the dismay of the LORD that children I have reared and brought up have rebelled against me. Is not our Father in heaven the perfect Father, yet he had a rebellious and adulterous child in Israel. If it were true that good parenting always brings perfect results, would it not be odd that Almighty God would say such a thing.

Jesus also speaks of the certainty of strained family relations in his kingdom.

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:51–53)

Based on these references it does not appear that the Bible gives us an absolute assurance that even faithful parenting will always bring us believing children. To be faithful is likely to give us believing children; we should always continue to hope and pray that it will.

2. I am not responsible for my adult child’s sinful choices. We would never have tried to teach our child how to sin. “Now Robbie, I want you to learn here how to lie, how to cheat at Chutes and Ladders (I often found that I had to figure how to cheat to lose at Chutes and Ladders), here is how you can use God’s name in vain.” Now, I certainly would admit to giving plenty of examples of harshness, being critical, having an uncontrolled temper, and he could tell you a multitude of his parent’s sins. But that is the exact point. He knows many of his parent’s actions were sinful, noting especially any sinful actions that affected him but were certainly an abomination before God. He knows sin as sin. So, when he sins, even if that choice is not recognized as offensive in today’s changing moral environment, my child still knows. It is God’s prophet who tells the parent, “the father will not bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity. … his wickedness will be upon himself” (Ezek. 18:19–24).

Parents should remember that one of the ways the enemy of their own souls operates is as an accuser. He will constantly remind every parent of a wandering child of multiple general, or even specific failures to assault a sensitive conscience. Does that mean I am absolved of my own parental errors? Not at all. I stand before my Father in heaven convicted of my own sins, from which I need to repent and seek forgiveness from God and my child. However, as a parent I know that my child is solely responsible for the immoral choices he has made.

3. I must not protect him or her from all the consequences of his or her sin, because I might be interfering with the work God is doing in his or her life. Protection is one of the innate responses of most animal and human parents. It is noble and often necessary. I ran myself to exhaustion running up and down the street, holding the seat of my daughter’s new bicycle so that she would not crash and be injured. But when that same daughter steals, or lies, cheats on her school exams, or becomes pregnant out of wedlock, I dare not protect her from just or hard consequences. One of the very fundamental characteristics of the naïve in the book of Proverbs is that she is warned, but goes ahead against all wisdom, warning, and exhortation. The simple never seem to see the danger approaching, and so they must pay the penalty for their choice (Prov. 27:12). In addition, often it is the observation of justice or consequence that has the greatest benefit to the foolish one (Prov. 19:25; 21:11).

4. All my failures as a parent cannot negate the work of God in my child’s life, or my life. Notice the premise here: I, as a parent, have failures. Because I recall some of those failures, I can be very sad that God has not ordained that, as a parent, I will be the Lord’s servant who “reaps the harvest.” First, that does not mean that God does not use my planting, watering, and cultivating work in the heart of my child. God uses the wise and often amazing spectrum of his providence to bring his children home. So, realize that part of praying for your child acknowledges that God would use whatever events necessary to turn his heart to the truth of grace in Christ.

5. I am just one of many means that God may use and is using in the life of my child. This is a true principle in all the work of God in his Kingdom. Our prayer is that God will use us as parents to lead our children to the Christian faith. But, perhaps, I am just the sower of the seed. That seed bears fruit in the heart of the child as God the Spirit uses other means to expose his sin and shine light on his spiritual need. And the only solution to his need is the person and work of the Lord Jesus. Hopefully, it could be that even the errors and failures we transparently admit and confess in our parenting could be one of the instruments the Spirit uses.

6. It is within God’s power to save my child; however, I cannot save him or her. One of the prevailing questions hanging in the air in times of reflection, or even in our prayer, is whether it is too late. Perhaps, we are prone to think, the child has gone too far and has committed such grievous sin that there is no hope.

Christian parents must reaffirm the conviction of the truth we know, that “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Think again—which character in the biblical history was worthy of God’s redemption? Which of our church fathers merited saving grace? Which of us? Yet God, in his own time and in his own way, reaches to the depths of man’s sin and brings light and grace, faith and sanctification, the redemption of lives to undeserving men and women, young and old. This is called grace.

I conclude with a reference to Jesus’s parable of the Kingdom which describes the man who cast his seed upon the ground in Mark 4:26ff. When he had finished, he went to bed. He did not get up in the middle of the night, or even the next day, to dig up the small seed and check for a developing tap root or for signs of fruit. He knows the “earth produces crops by itself” – slowly by slowly. But “when the crop is ripe, he knows the time of the harvest has come.” Believing parents do not need to constantly be asking, checking, commenting on the spiritual condition of their children. They know where you stand, they know where they stand, and God is dealing with them in his own way and time.

If it comes to it, and you have to say, “Robbie, I’m done,” leave it indeed in your Father’s hands. Keep loving that child; continue to pray for him, even when you feel that your prayers have become rote or mere repetition. Pray against the footholds of the enemy; speak works of truth when it is appropriate, and do not apologize for the truths of your faith. Remember the covenant promises of God in your child’s baptism. 

By the way, in the case of Robbie (the name has been changed), it has been a delight to know that the Lord did bring that son to himself, and he is now a godly man, married and rearing his own family to know and love the Lord, his God.

Endnotes

[1] John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962), 90.

[2] I believe that the ideas for these principles came from a discussion leader’s handout my wife brought home from a Presbytery of New York and New England women’s retreat.

Gerald P. Malkus is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, recently retired as pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Syracuse, New York, and presently living in Mount Sidney, Virginia. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2021.

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Ordained Servant: August 2021

Our Adult Children

Also in this issue

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 3, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation” (1976)

A Study in the Structure of the Revelation of John, Part 1

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 21

How to Fight Racism by Jemar Tisby

The Race Card in a Marked Deck: A Review Article

The Great Tradition by Richard M. Gamble

The Good, the True, the Beautiful: A Multidisciplinary Tribute to Dr. David K. Naugle

A Hymn to the Evening

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