A Father Worthy of Imitation

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Guest Contributor

Read the Bible. Pray. Repeat.

Go to church. Talk about God along the way. Repeat.

Sow the seed. Pray for fruit. Trust the Lord. Wait. Repeat.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

For fathers who take serious the call of shepherding their family, the repetition involved can, if one is not careful, lose joy and strength over time. No matter how much grace we see in the gospel, every father is subject to spiritual fatigue.

For this reason, we need fresh promises and testimonies of grace that will spur us on in our fatherly labors. One such story is that of James Paton, the father of the nineteenth century missionary John Paton.

A Father’s True Legacy

From his conversion at age seventeen, James Paton led his family to worship God. Personally, he made a habit of personal prayer and Bible reading. But in his family, he faithfully led his children to know and adore God’s grace and truth.

In itself, James Paton’s life was not noteworthy. He was a poor, Scottish artisan. Today, you won’t find an entry for him on Wikipedia, but in faithfulness to God, he shows the enduring legacy that a father can impress on his children.

James was the father of eleven children. One of them, John, became the risk-taking missionary to the cannibalistic islands of the New Hebrides. And yet through that ministry, Vanuatu (as it is now called) is ninety-four percent Christian, with the largest denomination being Presbyterian — the fruit of John’s labors.

In his biography of John Paton, John Piper highlights the massive influence James had on his children. Commending this faithful father, I will observe three fruitful patterns in his long life. May these patterns motivate fathers to not grow weary in sowing the seeds of the gospel.

Worship Jesus at Home

First, James Paton’s life revolved around Bible reading and prayer. John recalls how in the center of their home, their father would regularly commune with God in the “closet.”

The ‘closet’ was a very small apartment . . . having room only for a bed, a little table, and a chair, with a diminutive window shedding . . . light on the scene. This was the Sanctuary of the cottage home. . . . [O]ftentimes a day, generally after every meal, we saw our father retire, and ‘shut to the door’; and we children got to understand by a sort of spiritual instinct . . . that prayers were being poured out there for us, as of old by the High Priest within the veil in the Most Holy Place. (Autobiography, 7–8)

This is what private worship is all about, retreating from the cares of the world to enter consciously into the presence of God — interceding on behalf of others and feeding on the faithfulness of God through the regular intake of his word. Such private prayer is answered by God and observed by children, as John testifies, “I can still hear the echoes of those cries to God, pushing back all doubt with the victorious appeal, ‘He walked with God, why may not I?’” (8).

Fathers, do we pray like that for our children? Do we model for them personal worship? Though we cannot manipulate results, such earnest communion with God leaves an indelible impression on our children.

Make Corporate Worship a Highlight

Second, John Paton recalled the way his father attended their Reformed Presbyterian Church. The church house was four miles from home, but in forty years, James only missed three services — “once because of snow; once because of ice; once because of a cholera outbreak” (15).

It might seem that such a lengthy walk would invite complaint from children, but in fact it had the opposite effect: “Each of us, from very early days, considered it no penalty, but a great joy, to go with our father to the church; the four miles were a treat to our young spirits, the company by the way was a fresh incitement” (15–16). James Paton made going to church a joy.

Fathers, do we cultivate joy in going to church? May we sew shut our lips before we complain about God’s church to our children. May we openly and strategically exult in the grace of God who permits us to gather with fellow saints.

Take the Lead in Teaching Your Children

Third, James Paton employed the Lord’s Day to instruct his children. John recalls, “We had . . . special Bible Readings on the Lord’s Day evening — mother and children and visitors reading in turns, with fresh and interesting question, answer, and exposition, all tending to impress us with the infinite grace of a God of love and mercy in the great gift of His dear Son Jesus, our Savior” (16).

James also catechized his children, seeking to instill in their hearts a love for the truth of the gospel. And John’s life bore testimony to the fruitfulness of this endeavor. He writes of how these early lessons developed over time, and how he never “once even dreamed of wishing that [he] had otherwise been trained.” James Paton did more than lead his family to church; he led his family to know the God of the Bible.

Fathers, do we instruct our children, or does it fall to our wife to teach them? While we are busy during the week, what spiritual use do we make of evenings and weekends? May we who are the spiritual heads endeavor to teach our children the gospel.

Consider His Life, Imitate His Faith

The noble task of fatherhood is fraught with temptations. And one of the greatest temptations is that our good efforts go without avail. With shortsighted vision, we fathers can be tempted to give up.

Scripture says otherwise, as does church history. Stories like that of James Paton motivate us to consider his life and imitate his fatherly faithfulness. When we sow the seed of the gospel in our children’s lives, we do not know what it will produce, but on the testimony of Scripture (Isaiah 55:10–11) and the encouragement of examples, we know it will not return void.

Fathers, may we endeavor to be like James Paton. And may God be pleased to raise up sons like John Paton, who claim nations for Christ.

is the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana and the assistant editor for the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is the husband of Wendy and the father of two energetic boys.