The Pastor as Son of an Earthly Father

Desiring God 2008 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor as Father & Son

I would like to begin this session by reading Exodus 20:1–17, the Ten Commandments.

And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

“You shall not murder.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Last night, we considered together the pastor as son of the heavenly Father. Now the pastor as son of an earthly father. Transparently, we’re in the same domain of categories, father and son, yet what differences there are.

Diverse Experiences of Earthly Fathers

Our heavenly Father and even those of us with really excellent fathers would not want to say that they were perfect.

Right away, the parallels have to be drawn carefully. Not only because of this difference between God and his perfections and our fathers, the best of whom were not perfect and the worst of whom, quite frankly, were right reprobates, but also because God is uniquely God. He has what are often called incommunicable attributes. That is, attributes that cannot be communicated to us because he alone is God.

He really does know the end from the beginning. Not even the best of human fathers knows that. He is all-powerful. Even very strong daddies are not all-powerful. He is perfect. He is God. Then life does become more confusing. In all fairness, I had a good dad. But some of us here have grown up without knowing who their fathers are. Some of us have had absent fathers. When we were children, our fathers took off, left our mothers.

Some of us are struggling with our stepfathers, maybe the second or third stepfather. Some of us come out of divorced homes. Some of us, even when we’ve had fathers at home they’ve been absent. They’ve been so bound up with their work and then when they get home they want to watch the football game or whatever. They have not been emotionally tied to us in any strong way at all.

Mom has done the disciplining. Mom has done whatever nurturing we’ve had. Mom has also done the praying and the Bible teaching. Some of us were taught by the example of our home that spirituality is basically for mummies and kids; not for dads, thank you. Some of us came from homes like that. Some of us, no doubt, were abused by fathers or stepfathers.

Some had insecure little runts for fathers who expected their kids to reinforce their self-image rather than taking on the responsibility of helping their kids become adults. I know a man, pastor of a church. He’s the father of three children. They’re grown up now. The first child was brilliant, as was the dad. The third child was very bright, as was the dad and the oldest sister.

The middle child, quite frankly, was not the sharpest knife in the drawer but was a born athlete, a brilliant athlete. The trouble was that the father had no athletic ability or interest. Initially, he tried to make some sort of connection. He’d go for long walks with the son, and somewhere along the line he started the habit when the boy was only four or five of choosing a tree some little distance off and they’d each pick up 10 stones and see how many of each of them could hit the tree with, father and son.

When the boy was eight, he beat his father with a higher number of the ten stones for the first time. The father never played the game again. What kind of wickedness is that? Insecure little runt. Those of us who have had good fathers, no doubt they made their mistakes. All of us carry some of the scars. Cheer up. Let’s be frank. We inflict our next generation with new scars too.

Even those of us with grown children who are following the Lord know better than anyone that, humanly speaking, it has been a close-run thing, for we can look back at that moment or that decision; it could’ve gone this way or that way apart from the mercies of God. Sometimes, as some of you who are much older know, a wheel comes off with our kids, not when they’re 15 or 16 but when they’re 32 or 36. Small wonder that a Job prayed preemptively for his grown children.

So then, how are we to view our earthly fathers? In the light of such diversity, what can we learn from Holy Scripture about how we should view our fathers? Yes, in some ways, although the theology is rich, I tried to get something of that across last night when we speak of the pastor and his heavenly Father. What shall we say of the pastor and his earthly father when there is such diversity among us and our experiences of our own earthly fathers? What shall we say? This morning I’m going to outline three stances toward our fathers that the Bible emphasizes.

1. Honor Your Father and Your Mother

That’s the fifth commandment. It’s the first one with promise. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). The fact that it is the first with promise is picked up by the apostle Paul when he writes to the Ephesians. He quotes this commandment and makes his readers notice that it’s the first one with promise. Several things may help us crystallize why God says this.

Recognizing Our Dependence on Parents

To honor our father and our mother, to honor our parents, is to begin with recognition that our very existence is dependent upon them. Especially here in the West, we live with such a cultural emphasis on the individual that we sometimes forget that we didn’t just spring fully formed out of somewhere.

We are, at the end of the day, the product of a mother and father who at some level loved each other and produced us. We’re part of an ongoing organism, the human race. Made in the image of God. Moreover, in the majority of instances, our parents were the first ones to nurture us and care for us. We don’t really understand that very well until we become parents.

Then we stop and think about all of those years that we don’t remember. I was seven years married before we had our first child. We were not sure we were going to have any. Then Tiffany came along. My wife went through 40 hours of labor and then an emergency C-section at the end of it. As I drove home to change clothes and have a shower, I wept all the way.

It’s a wonder to this day I didn’t have a car accident. I had tears streaming down my face. I had a daughter. I held her in my arms. Over the years the diapers I changed, the times I fed her. My wife had medical problems. She couldn’t nurse her. So I got up, and she was a dream to give a bottle to. We’d make it up the night before, eight ounces.

She’d wake up in the night. I’d change her. Glug, glug, glug, glug. Then, bang! Down she went. Twenty minutes max, every time. My son? He was not like that. My wife still has medical problems. I was trying to be the heroic dad. He had projectile vomiting. If you put more than one ounce down him, he’d look around, bright as a button, interested in everything and then would upchuck. It would go 10 feet. He was terrific.

You’d put one ounce down him, and then you’d want to wait until he burped. Not some little one. You learned that it didn’t count. It had to be a really obscene burp, and then you’d give him another ounce and do it again. I never got him down in under an hour and a half! He doesn’t remember any of that. I remember teaching our kids to ride bicycles. Puffing along, holding them up. They don’t remember any of that.

All the things that we built into their lives when they were one and two and three and four — they don’t remember any of that, and not much, even, when they were five and six. Then suddenly I stop and think, “Ooh la la. That’s what my parents did for me.” “You shall honor your father and your mother.”

The Legacy of Faithful Parental Prayer and Sacrifice

For those of us with Christian parents, not only did they pray for us, usually before we were born, but they prayed for us faithfully, day after day after day when we were entirely thoughtless and careless. I learned to pray in English and French. I was brought up in both languages by listening to my parents pray, inevitably in family devotions.

Because I belong to that generation, I was brought up in King James English. The prayers were in King James English. So by the time I was participating in family prayers (I don’t remember any of this; I was four or five?), inevitably my prayers sounded like, “Eternal and merciful God, thou who inhabitest eternity, we bow in thy presence by the mercies of thine own dear Son.”

That’s how I talked. It wasn’t because I was bright. I learned it. Any idiot could copy this stuff. That’s the way my dad prayed. That’s the way my mum prayed. It just tripped off my lips. We had our little, “Now I lay me down to sleep” routines and things like that as well, but in family devotions and learning to read the Bible, that was all part of growing up.

In our family, when we had family devotions, it was our habit for each person to read a verse. Mum always started. All the rest of us read around. It didn’t matter how long or short the verse was or how many names it had in it. It didn’t matter. If you were old enough to lisp anything then one of the others gave the verse to you line by line so that you participated too.

Just because you were two and couldn’t read yet didn’t mean you didn’t participate. Somebody gave you the next few words, and you repeated them; the next few words, and you repeated them; the next few words, and you repeated them from as early as I can remember. If you come from a strong Christian home, you remember other things. My father was a pastor. I can remember him preaching Sunday after Sunday to vast crowds of twenty-five.

That’s what there was in French Canada. Usually the routine on Sunday was pretty clear. After everybody had gone, then in the morning he’d play the piano and we’d sing. We sang right through 1,200 songs of Sankey and then about 540 songs of Sur les Ailes de la Foi. Well, not all on the same Sunday, but we sang them all.

Then a whole lot of other things as well. Then eventually, the kids played their instruments and then we had a little sort of Baptist combo going while the dinner was being made. Then afterwards, Dad would do all the dishes. Mum was still not all that well. She’d go and lie down. Then we’d play family games. Every once in a while, Dad wouldn’t be there at the piano.

I’d go looking for him. More than once I found him on his knees in tears in front of his chair in his study interceding with God for the people to whom he just preached, all twenty-five of them. Nobody taught me to do that except by the modeling, which is everything. The worst kind of home to be brought up in is the one with many pretensions and low performance. The best kind of home to be brought up in is the one with few pretensions and high performance.

Eventually, I went to seminary myself. When I was at seminary, I heard about some very interesting developments that had taken place in 1948 and 1949 when I was just a little tad. I won’t go into all the details. They’re in the book. In this miserable business, my father had played some role in our denomination that had left him isolated by many and hated, and so on.

The denominational hero, the leader of the time in our denomination, turned out in this particular business to be a bit of a manipulator and a scoundrel. I was hearing this stuff for the first time at seminary. The instructor said as he finished this class on Baptist history in Canada, “One of the first things I want to see when I get to heaven is Tom Carson’s crown.” My dad? Give me a break! He’s just my dad! The next time I got home I said, “Dad, I’ve been hearing some interesting bits of Baptist history in 1948 and 1949.” “Oh? What have you been hearing?” So I summarized it.

I said, “Was that the way it was?” “Um, pretty close.” “How come you never told me?” He said, “There were two reasons. First, you’re a son of a manse, and you’ve already seen all kinds of poisonous stuff. You don’t dump things like that on kids. You have to be a certain age and maturity before you can handle some of these things. But there was another reason. Your mother and I realized that we had to guard our own souls, so we made a vow that we would never, as long as we drew breath, say a negative word about T.T. Shields, and we have kept our vow.”

I thought back to the number of times when my parents had talked about him as the great preacher he was; he was the hero of the faith in the 1920s. My mother could remember some of the sermons he’d preached, giving me the outlines of them as we worked through various passages in our family devotions. I never once heard a negative word about T.T. Shields from my parents. Not one.

“You shall honor your parents. You shall honor your father and your mother.” Some of you have parents who are themselves pastors who have worked faithfully in small corners of the world. You wonder what it would be like to have had parents who worked in more prestigious settings or in more glamorous occupations or with a little more money around. Listen. “You shall honor your father and your mother.” God says so.

The Promise of Human Flourishing

The promise gives us a great clue as to at least one of the reasons why this commandment is so important. It’s not the only one. This is the first commandment with promise, and the promise is “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). That is to say, this commandment is for the ordering of society, for human flourishing.

If you have a situation where parents are not ordered, then the entire culture is coming undone. The entire society is unraveling. Values are not passed on. High orderings of things are simply evaporating. They all have to be relearned again and again and again. What this does is establish intergenerational stability. One of the most frightening things that you can find in this culture is how little honor of our parents there actually is.

We stress so much the individual freedom amongst us. In some parts of the community, not more than 23 or 24 percent of children actually were reared in homes with strong fathers at all. Suddenly you wonder, “What is this going to do to the very fabric of culture?” If you want to live long in the land where God places you, you’ve got to have this intergenerational stability. There are entailments of thinking that the whole universe begins with you.

Honor Your Imperfect Father and Mother

The commandment does not limit its applicability to good fathers. That’s interesting, isn’t it? It does not limit its applicability to good fathers. The text does not say, “Honor your father so long as he was a good dude. Honor your mother so long as she was a sweetheart.” It actually just says, “Honor your father and your mother.”

Analogy of Honor

The closest analogy I can think of is the apostle Paul writing to believers in the first century and saying, “Honor the king.” Whoa. Caesar? Which one, Caligula? Yeah, if you lived through Caligula’s reign, Caligula was mad! He was bonkers! Earlier Caesars had been declared gods, apotheosis, by the Senate after they had died. Caligula declared himself a god while he was still alive! Then he deified his horse too. Paul says, “Honor the king.”

Then there was Claudius. He wasn’t mad. By Roman standards, he wasn’t all that bad. Mind you, he did expel the Jews from Rome, and he wasn’t too keen on the Christians, but he had nothing on Nero. Nero at one of his parties crucified 800 people. As they were hanging there on the cross, then he poured pitch on them and put them all alight to provide lighting for his party!

Ultimately, both Peter and Paul lose their lives to Nero. Paul says, “Honor the king.” He doesn’t say, “Honor the king provided they’re really decent blokes,” which makes one suspect that what Paul is after in some of these sorts of injunctions is recognition of the structures that God has given. “The powers that be are ordained by God,” Paul writes.

That doesn’t mean you honor the king for absolutely everything that he does. You may have to abominate some of what he does and actually preach against it. Sometimes you may have to defy him and say, “Is it better to obey God or to obey human beings?” You might have to make that choice when what the king says and does and demands goes against what God says and demands.

Yes, that’s true. Yet in this fallen, twisted, broken world God, for our good, for his own glory has still ordained certain structures. Within those structures, we give honor to whom honor is due, to use Paul’s language. Within that framework, likewise, to our own parents, even if they’ve been right reprobates.

That doesn’t mean that we honor our father because he was a drunk. Nevertheless, you don’t want to get into the spirit of sneering condescension that begins to mock fatherhood, or even your own father, as if he’s not a human being but just a turd you can step on. You hear things like that, don’t you, from people who should know better. You don’t do that!

Honor Both Parents

You honor your father and your mother. This is something that ought to be enforced in the home. I have seen homes where fathers are quite happy to be honored, thank you, but what happens to the mother, that’s another issue. I have to tell you, it wasn’t like that in our home. The quickest way to get into really big trouble with my dad was to sass Mum. That was big-time trouble.

It was also modeled by him. Oh, they disagreed on things and occasionally had their spats. Yes, yes, yes. My father was pretty athletic. He’s the one that taught us to skate and to throw a ball and to swim. He’s the one that cheered us on in any athletic thing that we did. He himself was a competitive swimmer when he was a young man. He was a pretty graceful athlete.

And my mum? To say that she was all thumbs and imbalance and awkwardness would be to give too positive an assessment to her physical prowess. She had many, many gifts. She had an abundance of that rarest of gifts, common sense. She was superb in the Bible study she led for women and young people.

When she was at seminary, she got higher marks than my dad in both Greek and Hebrew and in homiletics too. She was a very gifted lady. When she was ticked off by some ladies in the church on occasion, “What are you doing wasting your education? A midwife and all of this training, looking after three snotty-nosed little kids all under the age of seven?”

She said, “I’m not looking after snotty-nosed kids; I’m building character,” and slammed down the phone. So my mother was a remarkable woman in all kinds of ways, but when it came to athletics, I never saw her throw a ball. She never entered into family competition around the pingpong table. Not once.

She had a glorious voice and could sing like an angel, but she couldn’t swim 10 yards if her life depended upon it. It was not her shtick.

Fathers Must Model and Teach Honor

But you know what? I never once heard my dad laugh at her for this. Not once. Isn’t it easy to take the mickey out of people who don’t do things in some domain where we’re gifted and they’re not?

I don’t remember him ever putting her down. I just don’t remember it. In fact, as a general rule, he wasn’t very good at putting people down, except on his prayer list, but it was especially true with respect to his wife. Then when she started succumbing to Alzheimer’s. She went through all of the cycles over nine years until she finally died.

He kept her home as long as he could. By this time we were living down in Illinois and we would drive up. They go through a bit of a cranky period, Alzheimer’s patients. I remember her dumping a big spoonful of marmalade into her tea. We were trying gently to say, “Mom, the sugar is here if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“Don’t tell me what to do! I’ve always done it this way!” Which was not my mother. How do you handle that? Not once in nine years did I ever hear my father say, “This is not the woman I married.” But many times I heard him say, “She looked after me for so many years. It is now my privilege and my service to look after her, this woman I love.” We are to honor our father and our mother. I am blessed with a heritage in which my father not only taught that when we were young and enforced it and when he was old, modeled it.

Momentary Obedience, Forever Honor

To honor your father and your mother does not presuppose that at every stage of your existence you should obey them. I’ll come back to children obeying parents in the Lord in a few moments, but what do you make of Genesis 2? Marriage, instituted by God, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife” (Genesis 2:24). There is a new home that is eventually set up.

He becomes the locus of authority in that new home. It’s not then as if he is supposed to be under his father’s direct command all the days of his life. There is a way of honoring parents once we have become adults that does not mean simply doing exactly whatever they say whether we think that this is wise or good or godly or not.

Because not only may they say some stupid things, some unbiblical things, but eventually we leave our mother and father. However much we honor them, we leave them, and we cleave to our spouses in a new home. The fifth commandment should not be vitiated by any of these observations. That there are tensions as a new generation pulls away.

Practical Implications of Honoring Parents in Adulthood

The practical implications of honoring our parents, honoring our father and mother, even when we have pulled away are easy to tease out. It means we take on the responsibility for keeping in touch. Even when they’re awkward, we treat them with respect. We pray for them and not merely presume on their prayers for us. We become interested in their opinions and outlook.

As their horizons grow smaller with old age we make sure we know who their friends are, ask them what’s going on in their lives, what people they’ve talked to about Christ, what their aches and pains are, what they’re doing, what projects they’re taking on. We become concerned for their well-being.

We still listen to their instruction, to their advice, to their admonition, but we are no longer children simply obeying them. We’re in this broad domain that you find in Proverbs 1:8. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” The Hebrew word is, “Do not forsake your mother’s torah.” God, in his mercy, sometimes raises up a Lois and an Eunice when the dad isn’t pulling his weight to stamp a new Timothy.

What is clear is that where this commandment to honor our parents is breaking down in extravagant ways, not only is God being defied since he gave the commandment, but the stability of the entire culture is breaking up. Hence the words of Micah 7. “Put no trust in a neighbor” (Micah 7:5). So bad was the social relationship at the time.

“Put no confidence in a friend. Even with her who lies in your embrace be careful with your words. For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.” That’s the net result of having the family unit break up, until it becomes an endless game of one-upmanship.

Whether with forced betrayal in totalitarian regimes where they’ve sent in the secret police to use your own family members against you — whether totalitarian regimes of the left or right — or in our world where there can be family betrayal in these tell-all biographies that honor nobody but simply leave us being the victims of these stupid parents who did silly things.

Aren’t you tired of reading them? No honor, no thankfulness, no respect, no care. Just publish it on the Internet. We’re a long way from TV programs that existed when I was a boy, like Father Knows Best. Can you imagine a TV program with the title Father Knows Best? Father is universally presented as the twit. He’s the slowest, the thickest, the most corrupt, the wuss, the pussyfoot, and everybody else is right, especially the smart little charming 6-year-olds with fast mouths.

What does Paul say will take place in the sinful human race between the first coming and the second coming of Christ in what he calls the last times in 2 Timothy 3? He says, “People will be . . . disobedient to their parents” (2 Timothy 3:2). Honor your father and your mother. That brings me to the second thing the Bible emphasizes.

2. Children, Obey Your Parents in the Lord, for This Is Right

That’s the second emphasis found in the Bible. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” In some sense, this is a subset of the command to honor our parents. That is, when we’re of a certain age, one of the cardinal ways in which we honor our parents is precisely by being obedient to them.

I told you how we did family devotions when I was growing up, reading verse by verse, verse by verse. In the providence of God we were reading through Ephesians one day and we were reading through from the end of Ephesians 5 into Ephesians 6. It came to my brother’s turn, who on occasion could be a little imp.

He read, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” My father looked up. “Jimmy, did you hear that?” “Yes, Dad.” Then someone read Epheisans 6:2. Then someone read verse Ephesians 6:3. The next one was my father’s turn. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” Jim popped his head up. “Dad, did you hear that?”

Making children obey doesn’t mean you can’t laugh. The person who laughed loudest at that was my father, by far. My father suffered on the edge of depression, maybe well into it by today’s standards, because of things he went through in the church. Hard things, really difficult things. But you know what? I’ve consulted with my older sister and my younger brother at great length.

We kids can’t remember that. We remember him as a man of laughter. There was no doubt that obedience was mandated. This obedience can be a subtle thing, especially as children grow and become older children.

Proverbs on Discipline and Obedience

Now it’s important still to remember the plethora of texts that talk about obedience. A lot of them are in the book of Proverbs. Let me list a few, although this isn’t an exhaustive list.

The Nature of Discipline in Hebrew Poetry

Proverbs 13:24: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” What this is saying in the kind of sharp, antithetical language you often get in Hebrew poetry, what this is saying is that if fathers don’t engage in disciplining their kids, it’s probably because they don’t love them enough.

They’re just indifferent. It seems easier to back off. “Oh, this will work out. Don’t bother me. I’m watching a football game,” which means you’re not actually loving your child. If you’re not loving them, then in that simple antithesis, you’re hating them. Proverbs 19:18: “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.”

The Implications of Failing to Discipline

If you fail to discipline your son now there are big implications down the road, huge implications. Proverbs 22:15: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” That’s so different from so much of the pop psych that goes around nowadays that presupposes that children are wonderfully free, innocent beings until we muck them up with our discipline and the way we make them suppressed and feeling guilty about things they shouldn’t feel guilty about.

That’s a long way removed from, “Folly is bound up with the heart of a child, and you get rid of it with a good stick.” What is lost, of course, is the doctrine of original sin. That’s what is lost.

Discipline as Children Grow

What’s the first word your child said? Well, it does depend on the child. My daughter was verbal. She was astonishingly verbal.

She was about twelve or thirteen months, and as I was changing her diaper she suddenly pointed up at the light in the middle of the room and said, “Da!” I didn’t know what she wanted. Kept changing the diaper. “Da!” I said, “Light.”









“Li. Li. Da!”


“Li. Li.” She was trying to practice the word, trying to find the word for it. The next night, she pointed at the doorknob and I said, “Doorknob.” That was her first word. My son’s first word was, “Car.” But I’ll tell you the first word that they repeated most. “No!” And I’ll bet you the first word that your kids repeated most was no too.

Coming to a sharp focus about the age of two. They don’t call it the “terrible twos” for nothing. “No!” Sometimes yes, you can steer them around something or suggest an alternative and distract them and all those happy things that parents do. Yes, yes. But at some point, where do you tackle the sheer defiance? Then at three, “Why? Why do I have to?” “Because I said so, and if you don’t do it, you’ll get a smack.” Don’t reason with them at the age of three.

The Complexity of Discipline

The time comes when that changes. It changes. It changes from child to child too. By and large with my daughter, except for a half-dozen instances, I could look at her sharply or growl a little bit and that sufficed. Not with my son. My son was bound and determined to learn everything the hard way. If you did smack him, then he was bound and determined under no circumstances to give in and actually cry. He was one tough. He’s still one tough dude.

He’s a Marine. The Marines have their own martial arts program. Did you know that? MCMAP. Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. It’s the most lethal of all the rest of them put together. He’s got a black belt. He’s a black belt instructor. I punched him in the shoulder the other day. Well, some months back when he was last home. It was just father/son horsing around. He put his big arm around me and said, “Dad, do you have any idea how many ways I could kill you with my bare hands?”

This is not a conversation every father has with his child, you understand. So whatever influence I have upon him at this stage isn’t exactly the same as whatever influence I had upon him at the age of three. Long before they become black belts in MCMAP, long before that, they are fifteen or sixteen and wanting reasons. The time may come when some other sanction has to be imposed.

Take away the car. Take away some other privilege, but there have to be reasons, good reasons. We made it a rule in our family devotions that any question could be asked at any time. There were no bad questions. So my son went through a period when we’d read through one of these passages where there was judgment and death and destruction.

“Well, Dad. God sure seems a little harsh in this one, doesn’t he?” What are you going to say? “Nicholas, watch your mouth, watch your mouth!” Or do you begin to address it, talk it through, think it out? So this business of disciplining a family. Some parents are pretty good at discipline when the kids are three and five and six and blow it entirely when the kids are teenagers because they don’t know how to slack off and give them some space, give them some rope. Let them learn some things by failure.

Conversely, there are some parents who, quite frankly, are pretty awful with the kids when they’re six. You wonder, “What kind of rebels are these kids going to grow up to be?” Then by the time they’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen these kids turn out to have pretty good parents, after all. This business of discipline can be a subtle thing.

What it does presuppose is that we’re actively engaged. Thinking things through. Trying to do what’s best for the child. From the child’s point of view, if the child is being brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, you learn to obey your parents. Even the Lord Jesus in the days of his youth, when he was but twelve and called to do his master’s business, returned to Nazareth and submitted to his parents.

The Wisdom and Promise of Discipline

Again, Proverbs 29: “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. . . . Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart” (Proverbs 29:15, 17). I’m going to say one more thing about this before leaving it. Do you recall the very famous passage so often quoted, Proverbs 22:6? “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

There are some who treat that as simply an unqualified promise, almost a mechanical thing. You do a good job as a parent, and if a wheel comes off, quite frankly, it’s your fault. Because if you bring up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it. Your fault. I’ve heard the text preached that way many times.

One of the mistakes in that exegesis — I don’t want to dilute anything the Word says. Don’t misunderstand me, but one of the mistakes in that exegesis is that it fails to understand that God in his Word speaks to us in different literary forms, and different literary forms have different ways of making their appeal. This is not simply unqualified promise, nor is it law. It’s Wisdom Literature.

Understanding the Nature of Proverbs

Wisdom Literature has a way of setting forth the polarities with a stark clarity that helps us think through how this universe under the sun, ruled over by God, works. But it doesn’t put any of the footnotes in. For example, if you think that proverbs are simply unqualified promises, what are you going to do with this pair from Proverbs 26?

“Answer not a fool according to his folly” (Proverbs 26:4). Next verse. “Answer a fool according to his folly” (Proverbs 26:5). Now try and absolutize that pair. You can get some help when you see the second line in each proverb. “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” In other words, don’t get yourself dragged down by the foolishness of some idiot who’s talking a lot of nonsense, and then you try and reply and you get dragged into some stupid debate.

It’s like what the apostle Paul says. “Don’t get into foolish debates about genealogies and technical questions about the law that don’t produce any righteousness.” You end up just as big an idiot as the person you’re trying to correct. On the other hand, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5).

There is, at some point, some place for pricking the pretensions of some idiots. The best example I know of this. (I’ve said it elsewhere; if you’ve heard it, forgive me.) It concerns one of the faculty members at Trinity. He has a spectacular gift for talking to young people. He’s just very gifted. He and his wife have foster parented about thirty kids over the years. They adopted the last one. They had two of their own children grow up. He’s just very, very gifted at talking to that crowd.

Once a few years ago, he was asked to go to CLC, College of Lake County, a junior college not too far from where we live, to help out in a course on religion. There was a Catholic priest and an Anglican cleric and my friend, Perry Downs, who were asked to go in giving different perspectives in a 3-hour night school class on what they thought Christianity was.

God’s got a sense of humor, and it happened that the Catholic priest arrived drunk. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying all Catholic priests arrive drunk. This one did. He just looked like an idiot. It happened (because God’s got a sense of humor) that the Anglican priest in this case had a brand new full-fledged PhD and was mightily impressed with himself. So he went right over the heads of all those 18-year-olds. Then there was Perry, who absolutely stole the show, because Perry knows how to talk with 18-year-olds.

So they got through their presentations, and then it was open question and answer. There was a young 18- or 19-year-old lass chewing gum. First question, “Yeah, but Dr. Downs, what about all those Hindus and Muslims?” She was chomping on that gum all the while she was asking her question. Perry said, “I hadn’t thought of that. I’m going to have to start all over.” For most of us, that’s not a pastoral technique I’d recommend. You don’t laugh at students. I know that. But he can pull this thing off. She’s laughing too.

After everybody’s quieted down, after he has, in effect, very effectively pricked the pretensions of her folly he says, “No, no, no. That’s a serious question. I understand that. But don’t ever ask a question in such a way as to imagine there have not been two-thousand years of serious thought on these matters. Christians have thought these things through. The Bible itself talks about these things directly. There are answers from the Word of God. Let me try to lay out some of them for you.”

What had he done? He had answered a fool according to her folly, lest she should be puffed up in her own eyes. Still, the question arises, “How do you put those two proverbs together?” That involves judgment, discernment. Is this a place where I keep my mouth shut lest I get sucked into poison or is this a place where I do speak up and try to prick their pretensions?

Both proverbs stand. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). This is the way God has made the universe. This is the way things are under the sun. This is the way families operate. This is the way things are designed by God himself. But proverbs don’t put in the footnotes.

They don’t talk about how sometimes a son comes out and is just horrifically disobedient. Nor do they talk about the times when a son emerges from a really wretched family when all the sociology should insist that this person will come out to be a perverted reprobate himself and grace reaches down and transforms him.

Proverbs don’t put in the footnotes. They give you the structure. Be very careful you don’t lay a false guilt trip on parents who, as far as parents can be righteous and faithful in this sinful broken world, have been good parents, solid parents, have seen three of their kids following the Lord with intimacy and gratitude, and then one with a wheel coming off.

How long will that wheel come off for? Two years, three years, six years? I was in another city recently and talked to parents who had two grown children. One was heading a large mission program. Another was in church ministry. I thought how very wonderful this is. Then I went out for a meal with them.

They told me about another son who died at the age of 41 of AIDS from drug use. Seven or eight years before he died he was converted. Before he died he left a video for his parents that they were to see after he had gone. He said, “Mom and Dad, by the time you see this, I will have gone to glory. I’m leaving you this because I don’t want you to whip yourself all your life for being failures in my case.

You loved all three of us. You treated us the same. You taught us the way of the Lord. My siblings, in the mercy of God, chose wisely again and again. I didn’t, and it’s my fault. I’m so grateful for grace at this point, but I don’t want you to go to your graves whipping yourselves for what was my fault through and through.”

The Role of Families in Reformation and Revival

Listen. Be careful you don’t treat proverbs like unqualified promises without putting in any of the footnotes. God alone knows the heart. God alone knows where all the fault and the blame is. Still, having said that, you don’t want to weaken Proverbs 22:6 either. This is the way the universe is built. This is the way God ordained things.

He ordained things such that parents bring up their children in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord. Children learn to obey and throughout their lives, honor God. This is the way good social order and, more importantly, the faith itself is passed on from generation to generation. When in the mercy of God there really is genuine reformation and revival in the church and in broader society — when it takes place, the families change.

Malachi makes that clear, doesn’t he? As he anticipates the coming of Elijah, John the Baptist, before the ministry of Jesus. Malachi 4:6: God sends Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord. We read, “He” — that is, John the Baptist who comes in his ministry of calling people to repentance. There are thousands who bend the knee in repentance and seek the face of God.

“He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:6). We will not have reformation and revival at a purely individualistic level, because a purely individualistic level is still selfishness. Where there is genuine godliness, where people have genuinely been reborn, where the Spirit of the Lord is moving in reformation and revival, parents will be seeking the good of their children constantly.

Children will be learning to obey and to honor their parents. “The hearts of the fathers will turn to their children and the hearts of the children will turn to their fathers. Because otherwise God will come and strike the land with a curse.”

3. Hate Your Father and Mother

“Hate your father and mother.” That’s a direct quote. It’s got to be put in context, I know, but it is stunning. It comes from the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself. It shows up in several ways. Here it is in Luke 14:26–27:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

Unpacking the Command

Clearly to put the point so baldly as simply to say, “Hate your father and your mother,” demands that we unpack this a wee bit. I don’t want somebody to take that little clip out and put it on the Internet somewhere. “Don Carson says, ‘Hate your father and mother,’” and that’s it. It is possible, after all, to abuse what Jesus is saying. Yeah, I understand that. After all, Jesus himself elsewhere insists in the strongest terms that children must obey their parents and adults must honor their parents.

In fact, he rebukes the Pharisees in their day for playing fast and loose with the tax laws. Did you know they declared something was korban, something was actually dedicated to the temple, then money that should’ve gone to the support of their parents was funneled off and used for religious purposes that promoted their own reputations. Maybe they could even keep some on the side, but it didn’t go to their moms and dads.

What Jesus says is, “That’s wrong! It’s wicked! It’s selfishness because the Bible commands you, ‘Honor your parents. Honor your father and mother.’ By your tradition, you’re nullifying the Word of God.” So Jesus is as strong as anyone on this business. Yet he dares to say this. The language is striking. In one sense, it’s already tied back to Exodus 20.

Because before you read the fifth commandment you have to read the first. “You shall have no other gods before me.” For the fact of the matter is, it’s also possible to make our families our idols. Then Christianity, insofar as it has a bearing on our families, is a nice religious benefit that makes really neat American citizens and stable families and taxpayers.

But really neat American families and stable citizens and taxpayers can still go to hell. In some parts of the world, this doesn’t have to be explained.

The Gospel’s Transformative Power

When I studied chemistry and mathematics at McGill University, about 40 percent of the student population was Jewish. I remember one lad from an Orthodox family becoming a Christian in the Christian fellowship group that I was a part of.

He became a Christian. His parents held the equivalent of a funeral for him. They wrote him off. He was dead as far as they were concerned. I’ve just come back from China. I came across there a Buddhist monk. He’d been a monk in Tibet for fourteen years. He became a Christian through really quite marvelous circumstances, genuinely converted.

He went back to his own village. His entire family and the villagers said that he had so disgraced them that if he ever showed up again they’d kill him. This sort of thing is not all that uncommon in some parts of the Muslim world. So whatever else we must do as we think about fathers and sons and families we must not accidentally slip into the view that the whole point of the gospel is just to make nice families.

It’s true that the gospel does so transform that it produces fathers who are becoming more like the heavenly Father. It produces sons who are becoming more like the eternal Son. Yes! It changes everything! But if you think of this in terms of being the be-all and end-all in and of itself, then God exists basically to make happy families, and all you’ve got is a new form of idolatry.

The Essence of the Gospel

We stumble into this in part, I think, even when we try to show how the gospel is relevant in our broader culture and society. How do we show that the gospel really is relevant?

“Well, you see, in churches where the gospel is really preached and where there’s discipline and there’s care and there’s good teaching, then you have a lower divorce rate,” and so on. Then you said, “Wait a minute, Don. I’ve seen those statistics that evangelicals have the same divorce rate as everybody else.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s where you simply ask people, “Are you an evangelical?” and if they tick the “yes” box then you come out with these common statistics.

But Gallup and others, Barna, they’ve put in some extra filters. “Do you think of yourself as an evangelical?” “Yes.” “Do you read the Bible at least four times a week?” All the answers of “no” get discarded and all the “yes” answers get ticked. “Do you go to church at least once a week and participate joyfully in corporate worship?”

All the “no” answers get thrown out. All the “yes” answers get ticked. By the time you got through these filters and then you ask the residual questions, “What are the divorce rates and the alcoholic rates and so on compared with the broader culture?” then there’s huge gap, as you would expect there to be, because the gospel really does savingly transform.

It does not transform everybody who merely claims to be an evangelical. That’s just a name. But where the gospel itself does work, it transforms.

The Primacy of the Gospel

So we begin to use, as our apologetic, “Don’t you want to consider Christ? It’ll give you a happy marriage. It’ll make you more stable. It’ll address your alcoholism.” And so on and so on.

Thus, we try to show that the gospel is worth it because of the sociological impact, because of the horizontal impact. Now I don’t mind saying those things. There’s some truth to them all. Yet it is still by itself a distortion. What is it in the Old Testament that most typically is said to make God angry? It’s not war. It’s not rape. It’s not broken families. It’s idolatry.

God is against social injustice. Read Amos. God is against perversion and greed at the horizontal level. Read the opening chapters of Isaiah. But what is most characteristically said to make God angry, what makes him stand against us is the de-Godding of God. It’s the overthrowing of God. It is making ourselves to be the center of the universe. It is thinking that God exists, if he, she or it exists, to serve us. Or else, quite frankly, we’ll find another god, thank you.

But he is the Sovereign, he is the Creator, he is the Judge. He will not give his glory to another. What the gospel does, first and foremost, is announce the good news that this God, even though he stands over against us with all of his holy and righteous wrath, also stands over against us in incalculable, measureless love such that he sends his own Son to bear our sin in his own body on the tree so that we might be reconciled to God. That changes everything.

So if instead of listening to this message, this message of Jesus, this gospel, this gospel that entails bowing to him as Lord and saying, “Yes, your Word is right. Your way is right. Your death is effective. Your resurrection is triumphant. I bow before you as my Maker and my King, my Redeemer,” we say, “Well, yeah, yeah. It’s a bit inconvenient for the family at the moment. You told us to play happy family, so I want to play happy family,” then what we’re really doing is saying we’re sacrificing the most ultimately important on the altar of the relatively important. It’s another form of idolatry. There are a lot of stingers in the tail on this one.

“How’s your daughter doing?”

“She got accepted into Harvard. Really good stuff. She’s doing pretty well, you know?”

“How’s your son doing?”

“He just got appointed to a great job on Wall Street.”

Why is it that the first thing we respond to when we’re assessing how our kids are doing is how they’re doing academically or in their salary or in their family or the number of children or grandchildren if, in fact, we’re uncertain about the state of their souls?

The Eternal Family of Believers

“What shall it profit a man if he gain a happy family and lose his own soul?” There are parents who are pushing their kids all the time, all the time, all the time to make top grades but are not pushing them to pray or read their Bibles. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that you immediately try and get low grades. But first things first. First things first.

Jesus makes it painfully clear. Remember what Jesus says further in Matthew 19:29? “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” Then when the church is operating as it ought to operate, what we discover is that we have an intimacy of family in the church of the living God that outstrips everything.

I come from a family with a lot of Christians in the extended clan. My wife comes from a family that is quite tight in many ways, but she’s the only Christian in the whole lot. She’s an identical twin, but grace doesn’t run in the genes. We’ve prayed for them for a lot of decades now, and we still want to see the Lord answer those prayers, but at the end of the day, although we’re quite tight with them in some respects and enjoy being with them and sometimes go on holidays together, in all fairness there’s this big barrier such that I’m closer with some of you in this room than I am with them.

Didn’t Jesus himself say, “Who is my father? Who is my mother?” He’s not being disrespectful of Mary. “Who is my sister? Who is my brother?” and he points to his disciples. “For this family connection goes into eternity.” Our nuclear families don’t go into eternity. The individuals do. We will recognize them. Yes, yes, yes, we will.

But in heaven there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage, whereas the church of the living God goes in as the church of the living God for all eternity. It’s wonderful. Already we are establishing these family connections. I have spiritual fathers. I have spiritual siblings. I have spiritual children. As thankful to God that I am for the family that God has given me, that’s the family that will endure for all eternity.

The gospel of Christ must never be relegated to second best. It just doesn’t operate that way. What I have said is true of all believers. Recall what I said last night. Pastors, before they’re pastors, are first and foremost believers. They need to remember that. This is the pastor, this is the Christian, as son of an earthly father. Tonight, God-willing, the pastor as father of both family and congregation.

is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is a founding member of The Gospel Coalition, and the author of How Long, O Lord?