Many thanks to John for the introduction, and also for the invitation from the folks at Desiring God for the invitation. I was encouraged and amazed a couple of years ago, frankly, to be invited to the Desiring God Conference in 2009. There’s only one thing that could have amazed me more, and that’s being invited back. So, thanks very much.
Dealing with Father Hunger
I want to talk about the role of a father in his home, and address what neglect of that office does, and what it results in: father hunger, which is a hunger that creates an ache that runs deeper than any other kind of ache. And because we do not live our lives in various watertight compartments, an ache which begins in half the homes in your congregation, although it begins in the home, doesn’t end in the home. It’s not going to be kept out of your congregational life. It most certainly will not be kept out of your pastoral counseling. And because of how God calls men to the ministry, it will probably not be kept out of many of your pulpits. What are we going to be doing? What should we do about Father hunger?
Now, I want to echo something that John indicated right at the beginning because we’re going to be talking about a difficult subject. And because I will, for many of you, be prodding or poking that ache, I want to begin with a gospel reminder. Begin with gospel, walk through the gospel, and end with gospel. Begin with forgiveness, walk in forgiveness, and end in forgiveness. Begin with the cross, walk with the cross, and end with the cross.
Jesus is the only way to the Father, as we’re told in John 14:6. Because many of us have had poor fathers, or have been poor fathers, or both, our temptation is to place a message like this as a thunderbolt in the hand of an angry and irritated Zeus. But the Father that Jesus brings us to is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He is the God of all grace and forgiveness. And one of the sins that he forgives is our tendency to perpetuate fatherlessness. This is not a message of accusation, but rather one of repentance and hope. I want to begin with that, and I want to end with that. I don’t want you to experience this as a drive-by sermon.
That said, the Apostle Paul considers the fruit of a man’s behavior in his home as one of the central qualifications for pastoral office. He says that if a man does not know how to manage his household well, then how will he know how to care for the church of God (1 Timothy 3:4–5). From this, we learn that fatherhood in the home and pastoral care in the church are analogous activities. Let me say that again. Active fatherhood in the home and pastoral care in the church are analogous activities.
Now, this makes sense only if they are related activities, if they have something in common. If the art of fatherhood is learned in one area, it can be transferred to the other. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, to say that if a man can’t operate a backhoe, then how can he expect him to be able to write computer software? That kind of reasoning only makes sense if there’s some sort of parallel between the two. When the apostle considers the leadership of the church, the first thing that occurs to him is not a rigorous MDiv program. But before a wise understanding of fatherhood can be transferred from the home to the church, it must first be transferred from the Scriptures to fathers. And here we go.
Four Foundations for the Role of Fathers
What I want to do is give four foundation stones, and then proceed to four application points. I want to begin with four premises, four axioms, four foundation stones, four doctrines, four teachings that I believe are found in the Scripture. And I believe that we should build our application on those foundational truths. This is the way of the Bible. God begins with indicatives, he proceeds to imperatives. The first three chapters of Ephesians are all indicatives. The last three chapters of Ephesians are imperatives.
In Ephesians 1–3, one of the most striking things about it is that there’s nothing to do. Nothing to do. There’s no practical Christianity, no hands-on work, no getting your hands dirty. That comes later in the last three chapters. The only thing you can do in Ephesians 1–3 is believe it or not, accept it or not. The first three chapters are God’s grand indicatives. He tells us what the gospel is. He tells us who we are in Christ. He tells us how Christ is the cosmic reconciler of all things. And then, he tells the most important word in that book: therefore. At the hinge of the book, he says, “Therefore, let me build on the foundations that I’ve laid, and let’s turn to how you must live in the light of those truths.” I want to do something that is analogous to that. I want to tell you what some of our foundational assumptions ought to be, what we ought to believe about God, what we ought to believe about the world, and then from that position proceed to how we should live in our homes. And then, in my next talk, I want to talk about how that has application for the church.
1. Fatherly Pleasure
First, this is the first of the four foundation stones in Proverbs 23:26. It says:
My son, give me your heart,
and let your eyes observe my ways.
Do we want our children to give us their hearts? What parent does not want that? And what Christian parent has not worried about it not happening? But if you want them to do this, remember their frame. Remember that they are but dust. That’s how God remembers us. God is our Father. He remembers us that way. He remembers that we are but dust. They are the little ones, and you are the adult. If you want them to give away their heart, which is a hard thing to do, then show them how to do it. Show them how that’s done. This is what God the Father does for us.
From Father to Son
Note the first words spoken by the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ at the beginning of the New Testament. We know from all of Scripture that God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is God the Father, after all. But these opening words tell us a great deal about what our typical fatherhood is like. We should take note of the first words.
The first words in Genesis, for example, spoken by a man are spoken by Adam when God gives Eve to him. And the first words spoken by human being are poetry. We should pay attention to that. God introduced Adam’s wife to him, and he speaks poetry. What does God the Father do when he first speaks? When he first says something in the New Testament? This is our typical fatherhood.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).
There are six things I want us to derive from this text. There’s a world of information about fatherhood in these two brief verses.
First, when Jesus was baptized, his Father was there. His Father was there. His Father was present.
Second, he made his presence felt by sending his Spirit to descend like a dove in order to rest upon Jesus. He was there, and he made his presence felt.
Third, he made his presence known by speaking. He spoke. And what did he say?
Fourth, his statement corresponded with the giving of the Spirit in that the father identified with his Son. He said, “This is my son.” The father identified with the Son.
Fifth, he expressed his love for his Son. He said, “This is my beloved Son.”
And sixth, he expressed his pleasure in his Son. One of the first things that we are told about the relationship of the Father to the Son, is that the Father thought his Son was doing a great job. This is what fatherhood is like. This is where fatherhood reaches its ultimate expression.
In human history, there will never be another moment more like Father and Fon than that moment between the Father and the Son. And here’s the keynote: pleasure. That’s a good word here at Desiring God. This is the pitch that a father-son relationship needs to match — well-pleased. When we don’t match that pitch, a lot of things are going wrong. In fact, so many things are going wrong that we sometimes misidentify the source of all our trouble.
A Failure to Be Pleased
In our generation, we are confronted with many social dislocations that all go back to a foundational father hunger. All men are some man’s son and all women are some man’s daughter. But far too many of them have never heard their father say anything like that to them. You might say, “Well, we stumble over the fact that the kid to whom we’re supposed to be saying this is not very much like Jesus.” Well, I’ll give you that. Let’s grant that. He’s not very much like Jesus. But we should remember that we’re not very much like the Father.
Well-pleased is an alien concept to many of us, and because it is an alien concept, we have a great deal of cultural debris to get through. That being the case, we should perhaps get started. As we look around, we know that we are broken, but we somehow assume that our notions of fatherhood are intact. We think that everything’s broken except for that. But perhaps, it goes the other way. Perhaps our world is as broken as it is because our understanding of fatherhood was shattered first. That’s the first foundation zone.
2. Fatherly Generosity
Second, over the years I’ve been aware, and over many years, of the fact that my own father, a gifted evangelist and a gifted biblical counselor, has counseled many people to work through the Gospel of John, and to take note of absolutely everything that is said about God the Father. In his counseling ministry, he has people work through the Gospel of John, and just has them take note of everything that is said about God the Father.
I was working on a book called Father Hunger that’s going to be released this May, and as I was working on this book, I had heard my dad give that advice many times, or heard him refer to the fact that he had done it. And it occurred to me that this was something that I ought to do. I thought, I need to work through the Gospel of John, and take note of everything that’s said about God the Father. The impact of that exercise was striking, stunning, staggering.
The Gospel of John is a mine full of diamonds, and it’s hard to know how to carry them all out. And once we’ve gotten any one of them out, they’re so big that there appears to be any number of ways to cut each diamond. How can we summarize this? There are no doubt many ways to do this, but it seems to me that the most obvious feature of God the Father, the Father of Jesus Christ, in the Gospel of John is his generosity:
- He is generous with his glory (John 1:14).
- He’s generous with his tasks (John 5:18).
- He’s generous with his protection (John 10:28–32).
- He’s generous with his home (John 14:1–2).
- He’s generous with his joy (John 16:23–24).
The Father gives in the Gospel of John:
- The Father gives in John 3:34–36.
- The Father gives his Son (3:16–18).
- The Father gives his Spirit (14:16–18).
- The Father gives himself (John 14:22–24).
Learning this about the Father, who is a spirit, who’s intangible, should stir us deeply. He’s seeking worshipers who will worship him in spirit and in truth, in short, who will become like he is. What is he like? He’s generous with everything. Is there anything he has which he has held back? Is there anything that God the Father has which he has withheld from us? What should we tangible, earthly fathers be like? The question is terribly hard to answer, but not because it’s difficult to understand. We must look to Jesus. The great Puritan Thomas Watson said, “In Christ there is the exact resemblance of all his Father’s excellences. The wisdom, love, and holiness of God the Father shine forth in Christ.” And so, Christ images the Father, and we are to image Christ. The way to do that is clearly to be open-handed and generous with what God has given to us.
3. Fathers as Carriers of Masculinity
Third, we need to talk about masculinity. When we call him “Father”, we are not saying or implying that he is male in any way. God is a spirit. What we are saying is that he is ultimately masculine, and that every masculine office in the created order reflects that masculinity in some way, partaking in it somehow. The historic Christian position here is that God has taught us how to speak of him because this was something we plainly needed to know. Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father.” Jesus is the Way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Evangelicals have sometimes shied away from this because the liberals back in the early 20th century loved to emphasize the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The thought is, “They emphasized the fatherhood of God, and look what happened to them.” We need to learn it, however, because it’s in the Bible. If we’re word-centered Christians, if we’re Bible-centered Christians, we need to learn to approach the Father.
We do not call God “Father” because we have projected our notions of male-based fatherhood up into the heavens. We call him “Father” because traces of his masculinity have been bestowed on us. The traffic goes the other way. A father down here partakes of fatherhood in some mysterious way. The Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians that all fatherhood derives its name from God the Father. In Ephesians 3:14–16, he says:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
The phrase rendered here as “every family” is literally pasa patria. All fatherhood derives its name from our heavenly Father. This particular rendering of “all fatherhood” makes it explicit, but the point remains unchanged even we go with a more general translation of every family. Taking it that way, every family is named in accordance with the Father, which means that fatherhood is essential to every family, even maybe especially in families where fathers are absent in any number of ways.
Even feminists who try to take the step of refusing to take the last name of their husbands are still stuck with the indignity of keeping the last name of their fathers. I’m not quite sure what they’re trying to accomplish. And then, calling for attempts to undo all of this fathered stuff, feminism is like calling the attempt to turn cats into dogs as something like Felinism. A family is named a patria. A family is more than just roommates, or a legally-recognized living arrangement, or a civil union. And home is more than where you hang your hat. A family is a creation of God’s. God established the family in the garden, and there’s nothing your legislature can do about it. Sorry.
The entire created order declares and exhibits the glory of God. The heavens declares handiwork (Psalm 19:1). The whole creation displays his majesty, power, and might (Romans 1:19–20). Everything reflects him in some way. Everything that we see around us answers to something within the Godhead, somehow and in some way. God has taught us that fathers and husbands are reflectors in some way of his masculinity. Men are not the source of this. Males are not the source of this, but they are the specified carriers of it. The third foundation stone is that earthly fathers are to be masculinity carriers. They are not the fount of masculinity, and they are not the source of masculinity; they are the designated carriers of it in the marriage relationship and in the home.
4. Biblical Headship
What is masculinity then? What is it? Simply put, masculinity is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility. Let me say that again. Masculinity is the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility. A man who assumes responsibility is learning masculinity. A boy who is taking on responsibility is learning masculinity. A boy for whom his parents make excuses, is learning how to run away from masculinity.
A culture that encourages men to take responsibility is a culture that is a friend to masculinity. When a culture outlaws masculinity, they soon learn that the resultant outlaws are a terrible bane to them — instruments that destroy civilization with their mutant forms of masculinity. Every society needs masculine toughness, but it needs a toughness that lives, and thrives, and is honored within the boundaries of the law, which is nothing other than a reflection of God’s holy character. If we want this kind of toughness in the men, we have to teach it to the boys, and we have to cultivate it in them. Like a concrete foundation, masculine toughness has to lie underneath masculine tenderness. It should be a velvet-covered brick.
Masculinity is authoritative and the Scriptures teach that authority flows to those who take responsibility, and it flees from those who seek to evade it. But we need to keep qualifying this because in our attempts to get around what God has told us to do, we have distorted the definitions of many of these words — authority and responsibility for starters.
Authority and Responsibility
Authority flows to those who take responsibility through sacrificial service, as Jesus did. You don’t take responsibility and authority by bossing people around. The Bible calls this assumption of responsibility headship, and we see that it extends far beyond the limits and boundaries of biological sex. First Corinthians 11:3 says:
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
There’s much to discuss here, and I’m not going to be able to even begin to touch on it, but for the present, I simply want to point out that the headship of God over Christ clearly does not mean that God is male and Christ female. And the fact that Christ is head over every man does not mean that Christ is male and every man is female.
These categories of headship and submission do show up in the relationship between husbands and wives, with husbands being masculine and wives feminine, but they are clearly not bound by, or defined by, biological sex. We have to fight off a bundle of mistaken assumptions, and this is why Scripture has to be our guide.
A related mistake that is readily made is that we assume that headship and authority are tied to just bossing people. In addition, we think that submission means that we’re arguing for necessary inequality. But that’s not what it means in Scripture at all. As we’ve just seen, the head of Christ is God. Paul tells us elsewhere that Christ did not consider his equality with God something to be grabbed at, but rather he emptied himself taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6). For orthodox Christians, who believe in the Trinity, having a head does not turn you into a zero. Having a head doesn’t have that impact. Jesus had a head, God the Father, and he is equal in his essence to God who is nevertheless, his head.
He submitted to that head, being obedient even to the point of death. Just as headship does not mean male, submission to headship does not mean that women are relegated to the realm of chattel. Feminism is therefore at its root, a Trinitarian heresy. God the Son is subordinate to God the Father, but subordination is not inequality of essence. Jesus Christ, the one who submitted and obeyed, was fully and completely God. Christian men who are taught the ways of Christian masculinity are being taught to imitate Jesus Christ. And since Jesus Christ submitted to the Father, if you want your wife to submit to you, just like with the kids, show her how. If you think that submission is easy, show her how easy it is — maybe you’ll quickly say, “Well, I’ve got to go down to the church and counsel somebody.”
When Jesus taught us masculinity, he did this by submitting himself to the point of death. Biblical authority knows how to bleed for others. So, masculinity is the glad assumption of bleeding responsibility, of sacrificial responsibility. And this is what Jesus established for us. Christian husbands are commanded to love their wives in just this way. As Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, Christian husbands are explicitly commanded to imitate Christ at just this point. The foundation of all Christ’s authority in the church is the blood that he shed.
He took responsibility through sacrificial service, and therefore, all authority flowed to him. Therefore, God has highly exalted him, and given him the name that is above every name. Why? Because he died. And God exalted him from the grave. That’s how it works. This is the gospel. This is the gospel pattern. If you want to preach the gospel to your people, if you want to preach the gospel to your children, if you want to preach the gospel to your wife, die, and God will raise you up. Jesus took the rap for things that he didn’t do. That’s the model that we’re supposed to live out. Therefore, God has highly exalted him. Here’s the fourth foundation stone, biblical headship is bleeding and joyful sacrifice. We are called to an authority that bleeds for others.
Four Applications for Fathers
What are we to do? What are we to build on these foundation stones? I want to begin first, by noting that men are called to provide and protect.
1. Provision and Protection
Men are called to provide and protect. The role of a father as a provider and protector is not an arbitrary assignment to an arbitrarily-selected group regardless of any other consideration. Here is the mandate given to Adam in Genesis 2:15. God wants men both to work and to protect, the two verbs that are used. There, they have to do with working the ground and protecting the ground. Work has to do with nurture and cultivation, while protection refers to a man’s duty to be a fortress for his family, which incidentally was what Adam did not do. The serpent came into the garden, and Adam did not fight the dragon.
We find a working definition a job description for masculinity in the first few pages of the Bible. When men take up their responsibilities to nurture and cultivate, and to protect and to guard the fruit of that nurture and cultivation, they’re doing something that resonates with their foundational creational nature. When men take the responsibility to provide and protect, that resonates with them. They suddenly find out that they are for something. I remember a young husband one time telling me that he was working through these truths, and he suddenly realized, “Now I know what I’m for.” Men think, “Why am I here? Why am I here? What am I for?” When men walk away from these responsibilities, they are in a very real sense, and don’t miss this, walking away from their assigned masculine identity.
If the Scriptures teach us that we are , “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as it most certainly does (Psalm 139:14), there’s no reason to believe that this glorious intricacy attends only one-tenth of the project — say, in the assembly of the DNA, or the fact that God made you taller than your wife — with everything else being done in a spirit of slapdashery. The assigned roles given to fathers are as intricately fitted to the reality of his broader relationships as the intricacy of the mechanics of reproduction itself. To think differently, is to believe that the engineer who designed the dashboard so exquisitely just decided to throw a jumble of parts under the hood in the hope that it would somehow work. There’s no reason to think that such a person would do such a thing. No, God is a precision engineer. The work that went into the interior is also seen in the engine block, and then in the drive train, and so on throughout.
Receiving Our Roles, Not Creating Them
I used the phrase provider and protector a moment ago. This is not something that we came up with ourselves as a pragmatic solution to certain practical problems. It is not a human invention or tradition. It is not a holdover from our evolutionary hunter-gatherer days. This is an essential part of God’s creation design. When we look at the beginning of our race, looking carefully at our circumstances, when God placed us in the world, we see these roles assigned to man. Again, men were put in this world in order to work it and keep it, to till it and protect it. They were placed here with this twofold mandate in mind. This is what men are for. Men are called, like our first father, to provide for their families and to protect their families. Christians believe that the universe was created, and further we believe that it is designed all the way through and all the way down. This created reality encompasses every atom, every hair, every leaf, and every man, woman, and child.
The man was fitted for his task, and the task was fitted for the man. If God prepares good works beforehand for all of us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10), then doesn’t it stand to reason that he prepares tasks that are suited to our sex? Men don’t carry things because they happen to have broad shoulders. They have broad shoulders because God created them in order to carry things. That’s what you’re for. All of this is to say that fatherhood has a point, and that the point goes far beyond the services provided by a stud farm or a fertilization clinic. Fatherhood is a point that extends far beyond the moment of begetting. Remember how God the Father is with the Son. He’s there, he’s present. It’s an ongoing relationship. That point extends into everything, and if we are baffled by what the point might be, wisdom would dictate that we should read the manual. That would be the Bible, that would be the Scriptures that God gave us.
Modernists want to accept the intricacies of the human machine. But when stumped, they consult a different manual entirely, or make one up as they go. This is akin to troubleshooting problems with your Apple laptop by consulting a Chilton manual for a 1972 Ford pickup truck. And we wonder why our families are not getting on better. So, the first point of application, provide and protect.
2. Authority Is Edifying
Second, authority is edifying. In Deuteronomy, we are treated to an obscure law that prohibits boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21). What is the point of that law? I think the principle is clear. If God has given something that is designed for the nourishment of life, like milk, that thing should not be transformed into the instrument of death. That which God gave for life, should not be turned into the instrument of death. There are many things that this principle applies to — education, worship, discipline, catechisms, and on down the road. But it most certainly applies to a father’s authority.
A father’s authority was given for life, not death. For example, the Apostle Paul said that his apostolic authority was given to him for building up, not for tearing down (2 Corinthians 13:10). It is the same kind of thing with fathers. Your authority is given to you for building up, not tearing down. This is an authority that is designed for giving, not an authority that is designed for grasping and grabbing. It is authority to sacrifice on behalf of another, not an authority to claim tribute from those others. So, when a father has been given authority, this should be handled by him as his children’s life. He is not to take that authority, fill a black cauldron up to the rim with it, and then cook the kids in it. But unfortunately, this is what happens when a fatherly authority is merely asserted and enforced, and not lived out in a way that makes it winsome in the eyes of all his children.
When a father’s confused in this way, he can start to think the most outrageous things. Well, if the kids don’t want to be cooked in it, then they must hate milk. But the Bible says they should love milk. What’s wrong with them? Here’s the second point of application: your authority was given to you to be a gift to them. Your authority was not given to you to be a gift to you. God gave you authority as a gift to others. God did not give you authority as a gift in the first place to you.
3. Secondhand Imitation Is True Imitation
The third point of application is the blessing of biographies. I was speaking to an earnest father one time at a conference that I had spoken at, and his dilemma was a very real one. And I have no doubt in a group this size, there are a number of you in the same position. He had grown up without a father, and in the providence of God, he was now married and had four sons.
He said, “I didn’t have a dad. I have no idea what it looks like. No idea. And now God gave me four boys. What do I do?” His question was straightforward, “How can I be a model when I have had no model?” We are built by God to learn by imitation. The loss, when we have had nothing to imitate, is a real loss. At the same time, God has arranged things such that we can recover something of that loss by coming to know the Father in heaven. We can do this by the means appointed by the gospel. We are not the first fatherless generation in history. Let me say that again. We are not the first fatherless generation in history, and we are not likely to be the last. The good news is good news to the fatherless. Just as we have a tendency to track our father issues into the sanctuary, the traffic, mercifully, does go both ways. God restores us when we worship him and he restores us in this area. If we have come to Christ, we have to realize that Christ brings us to the Father.
Christ is in the Father. What does it mean if we are in him? If we are in Christ, then we are in the Father as well.
In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you (John 14:20)
In the gospel, the fatherless no longer are. Let me say that again. In the gospel, the fatherless no longer are. This addresses the foundational issue, but there’s still some remaining practical questions. God the Father may have restored us on the central issue, but a man might still not know how to teach his son how to throw a ball, or how to read the Bible, or how to change the oil in his car. For that sort of thing, it would hardly address the issue to just double down on the worship. If your church has two services, going to both, for example. One of the things that men can do is of course, read books, listen to didactic talks like this one and so on. But there’s something else that I would recommend.
Paul says that when Timothy came to the Corinthians, he would remind them of Paul’s way of life. In 1 Corinthians 4:17, Paul says, “When Timothy comes, Timothy will remind you how I, Paul, live.” We are able to imitate what we see, but we are also able to imitate what we hear about, and what we read. Throughout the Book of Acts, Luke reminds us of Paul’s way of life as well, and he does so through the written word. But this principle can be extended. I would recommend that men who have had a real shortage of practical examples should read biographies of fathers. Read biographies of fathers. This would include fathers of great men, fathers in the church, fathers on the mission field, fathers over navies, and fathers of countries. Learn everything you can about JC Ryle, for example.
4. Analogy of the Cosmos
The fourth point of practical application is that the family is an analogy of the cosmos. God intends for his children to learn about his fatherhood by this analogy first. A two-year-old boy, shaking the crib at 3:30 a.m., is not doing so because he is troubled by the vision cast by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He is not being annoyed in his playtime by theological liberals. He’s not vexed by theological or philosophical problems. But even so, there at 3:30 in the morning, he is a student of what fatherhood is like. He’s a student of what fatherhood is like, and he is soaking it up. Fathers are speaking about God the Father constantly. They do not have the option of shutting up. What they are saying may be true or false, but they’re not in a position where they can refuse to say anything.
Just by virtue of being a father, you’re talking about the Father. A father who just sits and stares, a father who’s down at the office all the time, a father who deserts the family for whatever reason, and a father who just donated sperm at the sperm bank — all of them are speaking. Every one of them is saying something all the time. A father who teaches his son to swing a bat, a father who listens to his daughter explain why Peter Rabbit shouldn’t have disobeyed, a father who kisses their mom on the lips, a father who reads for hours to the family every evening — those fathers are speaking also.
I want to remind you of the gospel. This is not said as though children are blank slates, empty receptacles ready to mindlessly receive whatever the Father puts in. We are not Pelagians. We do not believe that sin and the mystery of Adam’s rebellion has passed our children by. My father, a very shrewd gospel man, loves to call babies “little bundles of sin.” All they lack is the requisite muscle strength and intelligence.
Fathers Who Imitate God
Now, earthly fathers need to understand that there’s an atheism dynamic going on with their children because we are fallen, and that is also in play. There’s a self-will that wants to reject parental authority, and, in the words of every two-year-old, “Me do it.” There’s also a childlike dependence that wants the father to overcome that disobedience in order to prove that he loves the child enough to deal with as small an obstacle as this petty and childish rebellion. Children need to be fathered despite their resistance, and they want to be fathered. And the ratios between those two sentiments vary. A wise father studies those ratios, and works with them. This is why fathers need to learn how to be strict in the same way that God the Father is strict, and to be merciful in the same way that he is merciful.
God the Father is strict. God the Father is severe. God the Father is full of mercy. How do we know that the mercy of the Lord is everlasting? How do we know that his mercy endures forever? Because he destroyed Sihon and Og. That’s how we know his mercy endures forever. God is a judge. God is a father. God is kind. God is holy. And we need to be imitating him. What is that like? If we are strict only, if we say, “Well, I just have one setting. I just am old-school severe,” we crush the spirit out of our children, or provoke rebellion. If we are merciful only, we create a culture of entitlement and self-indulgence in the home. And in the worst possible combination, if we are strict where God is merciful, stingy where God is generous, and merciful where God is strict, then we are busy supplying the strip clubs of the future with their pole dancers. We are destroying people.
Isaiah says in Isaiah 5:20:
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Don’t invert mercy and justice. Don’t swap them out. We know how to imitate God. We know how to discipline. Grace has a backbone. Love for your children has a backbone. You’re not called to be doormats. Mercy, and grace, and kindness, the generosity that I was talking about earlier, is not the kind of generosity that is taken advantage of in a way that indicates that God is somehow senile or losing his grip.
A World Full of Yes
Think about how God set us up at the beginning. He created Adam, gave him a perfect world, gave him a perfect woman, gave him a perfect marriage, gave him a perfect garden, gave him a perfect opportunity, and he put one tree in the middle of that garden, and said, “No.”
Everything else in the world was yes. You might think, “There are so many yeses around here, if Adam just transgressed with that one tree, well, God would wink and overlook it.” No, he didn’t. They rebelled, and they were excluded. They were shut out from the garden. All the woe of all human history came from that one fateful decision, and God enforced what he had said. He didn’t say to Adam, “Well, you ate from the tree today, but let’s try two out of three. Let’s try three out of five.” He didn’t say to Adam, “Put that fruit down. I’m going to count to 10” (a lot of parents think they’re teaching godliness when they’re actually teaching fractions — nine and a half, nine and three quarters). No, Adam disobeyed. And God had said, “The day you eat the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, you shall surely die.” And what happened? They died. They were excluded from God’s presence.
Was God severe? Did God pull the trigger? Did God say, “You did what I told you not to do, and I’m going to do what I said I was going to do?” Yes, God was strict. Was God so strict that he had given them a world full of trees that were prohibited, and then one tree of grace in the middle of this world of law? And did he say, “Adam and Eve, go stand by that one tree. That’s the one place you can eat.” What does your home look like? What kind of garden does your home look like? Is it just a world full of no’s? Or is it a world of “yes” with the no defended and bounded? All right, what’s God like? What is God like? And then I go to the Scripture to study what God’s like. I want to learn from the Bible what God is like. Those were the four foundation stones and the four points of application. I want to come back to what I began with. I want to come back to gospel.
Back to the Gospel
I know this is a pastor’s conference, and I know that a lot of you come here because you are beat up there. I know that a lot of you are here because you are beat up back home. I know that people say unkind things. I know that people do unkind things. I know that people say untrue things. I know that people do terrible things, and they do it in the name of Jesus. I know that there’s no nastiness like ecclesiastical nastiness. And if you came to this conference because you’re beat up there, and you don’t like being beat up here, this talk, you might feel is kicking you around some. But I think there’s a fundamental difference between this and the bad kind of unedifying beat-up. And the kind that God delivers to us has gospel in it. There’s always gospel in it. You’re his children, you’re his servants. There’s gospel in it. So, I want to return to the reminder that the gospel is good news.
One of the problems with being an angry father, or a severe father, or an austere father, is that when such fathers are convicted of their sin, which they ought to be. If we sin, we ought to be convicted of it. If we have blind spots, we ought to be shown them. If we have areas where we are stumbling our children, or stumbling our wives, we should pray God to open our eyes so that we can see that. That’s what we want. The problem is when we discover that we’ve not not been in this area very much like the Father, we are afraid that the Father is not very much like the Father. Let me go over that again. When we discover that we’re not very much like him, one of the things that we’ve done is we’ve believed our own propaganda. The family, the wife, the kids, they’re getting a picture of God the Father from your behavior, and you’ve suddenly realized, “This is atrocious. This is bad. I shouldn’t be doing this. I shouldn’t be living this way.”
But you discovered not only have they believed that false statement about God the Father, but so do you. When you turn back to God the Father, you believe that he’s going to receive you the way you’ve been receiving them. You’ve been prodigal, as they well know, and as you well know. In your repentance, you’ve been misbehaving. You’ve been not the kind of father you ought to have been. And you think that when you come back to the Father, you’re going to be received poorly because that’s what you think fathers do — they receive poorly.
Dealing with Both Sons
I mentioned being prodigal. Remember that story that Jesus told. What a father that was. What a father. He’s looking down the road for his son, the wastrel son, the one who spent all the money on hookers buying rounds for the house. The one who went to a far country and descended to sharing table fellowship with the pigs.
Not only did the father long for reconciliation with that son, but this father, when the elder brother came in from working out in the fields and was standing in the driveway and he heard the jazz quartet that the father had hired, and heard the sound of music and dancing, it says, he refused to go in. What did this that father do? We’d say, “Well, I can understand receiving the wastrel son back because we’ve been telling the prodigal son story for so long as though that’s the center of it. That’s one of the great points of it.” We understand receiving the wastrel son, but we don’t understand that same father going out and pleading with the Pharisee, pleading with the sanctimonious elder brother. He goes out and pleads with him. And why was the elder brother angry? He said, “I’ve been doing this bookkeeping thing in my head. I’ve been working all these years for you, and you never so much has gave me a goat to celebrate with my friends.”
And the father said, “Well, son, you don’t have any friends. There’s a reason why, and I thank you for this opportunity to bring it up.” But the point was, the father gives himself to both sons. How many of us, when we read the parable of the the Pharisee and the Publican, who both go down to the temple to pray, and the Publican says, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and the Pharisee says, “I thank God that I’m not like other men” — he gave glory right where it was due, and Jesus says he went home unjustified — go home thanking God that we’re not like that Pharisee?
You have kids that have different frames. You have kids that have different makeup, different characters. Some of your kids are the law, some of your kids are diligent, and some of your kids are scrupulous. Some of your kids push the boundaries. Some of your kids are constantly in trouble. You’ve got kids all over the map, and you’re called to be a father to them all. You’re called to be father to those who get into trouble if you turn away for two minutes, and you’re called to be fathers to those who are living in mortal fear of breaking a rule. You need to have a home of grace for all of the kids.
What people don’t know is that the Father is not guilty of the sin that they are repenting of. If we are repenting of all the things that we do, all the things that we get into, all the ways that we stumble, if we repent of those things we haven’t fully repented if we turn back to the Father for forgiveness for these things, thinking that the Father is going to receive us the way we would’ve received us back in our unrepentant state. Here is the gospel. Here’s the good news. You are ministers of the gospel. You are pastors of the good news. Here is the good news spoken to you. If your heart has been in any way pierced, or touched, or convicted by anything said here, not only in this talk, but in any of the other talks that we’re going to address, know that your heavenly Father is looking eagerly down the road for you.