Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus
Despite reading a lot of books, I'm often deeply influenced by them. This book is exceptionally influential. While I have read John Piper, J.I. Packer, John MacArthur and others, I don't believe I have seen the Gospel laid out in such a way as the authors of this book bluntly lay it out. I'm left thinking "Do I really believe the Gospel? Does anyone, really?"
The authors are clearly writing from the Reformed tradition. I'm reading this from a (personally) Reformed-leaning Southern Baptist perspective, and I found that the Gospel they lay out shatters much of the rules and doctrines our churches have erected as well as parenting techniques we've championed. But this book is applicable in any relationship, not just parenting. I've been thinking about it in terms of marriage and dealing with my coworkers. The book also has implications for what we want taught in Sunday school and children's church curriculum. I can better understand why many churches are using The Gospel Project over, say, Orange's children's curriculum. One emphasizes Christ throughout the Bible while the other is basically teaching moral lessons using the Bible as a source.
This is not a how-to book other than the challenge to alter your thinking. There is much good in this book, but a few points that I will quibble with the authors (below).
The authors begin with a critique of stereotypical Christian parenting attitudes and their perceived consequences. Parents (and Sunday schools) typically teach moral lessons. "God is pleased when you're honest," "God is sad when you steal," "God wants you to show gratitude and humility," etc. The danger is that everything that is not Gospel is law:
"the primary reason the majority of kids from Christian homes stray from the faith is that they never really heard (the gospel) or had it to begin with. They were taught that God wants them to be good, that poor Jesus is sad when they disobey, and that asking Jesus into their heart is the breadth and depth of the gospel message...Good manners have been elevated to the level of Christian righteousness" (loc. 185, 219).
"(A)sk yourself what percentage of your time is spent declaring the rules and what percentage in reciting the Story...Yes, we are commanded to teach the Word, prayer, and worship to our children, but their acquiescence to these things won’t save them. Only the righteous life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ saves them" (loc. 308, 390).
By teaching kids to make moral or polite choices, in absence of an understanding that their good choices are still like "filthy rags" to God, we give kids a false sense of pride and invite them to judge others based on their behaviors. Telling a child he is "good" is false as none are good but God.
"if we persist in seeking to build our children’s self-esteem by praising them, we make them into our own image, boys and girls who idolize the benediction, adults who are enslaved to the opinions of others, and parents who pass on the lie to the next generation—even though it hasn’t worked to make them good either...Christian righteousness is that level of goodness that can withstand the scrutiny of a perfectly holy God and earn the benediction, “You are good!” It is perfect obedience in both outward conformity and inward desire. It is goodness for the sake of God’s great glory motivated by a pure and zealous love for God and neighbor."(loc. 563).
This is the money quote:
"The obvious difference between Paul and us is that Paul bragged about his weakness, and we try to hide it" (loc. 2279).
We all need to understand that we are sinners who earn no favor with God by obedience and works. None of us could do that perfectly, and it is only by God's grace through Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection that we can have peace with God and become His dearly loved children. Obeying your parents, taking turns on the playground, telling the truth gets us nowhere in the eyes of God.
This is also very soul-freeing for the parent. If we believe that it is up to God who is saved, then we should pray for our childrens' salvation but not behave like it all hinges on us. Some children will not be obedient to our teachings, and maybe that's how God wants it:
"a strong, successful family may not be the way he has chosen for us to glorify him...Our modern worship of personal success stories is clearly seen in the number of books that outline the methods for producing spiritual giants...What if he’s going to use our failure and our children’s rebellion to make us humble comforters of other sufferers for his glory?"
The above definitely convicted me of my judgmental nature toward parents and their children. It also reminded me not to be fearful of my child's outcome. Training up a child "in the way he should go" is not a promise or guarantee of successful outcomes. Plenty of apparently godly parents in the Bible produced evil children and vice versa. It's all grace.
The authors give some examples of how to work these ideas of the Gospel into your conversations with your child, especially during times of discipline. (There is an explanation of how discipline/training is useful in its own right.) Some of these examples sound really campy and artificial:
"Rather than telling Rebekah that she’s a good girl, we could say, 'I noticed you shared your swing. Do you know what that reminds me of? How Christ shared his life with us. I’m so thankful for God’s working in your life that way. I know that neither of us would ever do anything kind if God wasn’t helping us. I’m so thankful.'" (loc. 5483).
The authors warn parents to avoid a "carrot-and-stick" mentality of rewarding children for obedience.
"Remember, their obedience does not make them righteous, but if they are righteous, if they’ve tasted how good he is, then they will begin to desire to obey out of a heart of gratitude" (loc. 656).
I disagree with the authors here, as should anyone familiar with John Piper's work. Piper's great book Future Grace would say that doing everything out of gratitude for God's past grace will leave your tank running on empty. Our obedience should come with an expectation and gratefulness for God's future grace and provision. Hebrews tells us that Jesus went to the cross "for the joy set before him," and so should we (Hebrews 12:2). The Bible tells us repeatedly that God rewards the faithfulness of His people and Jesus himself promises blessings (ex: Matthew 5-6). Obedience to the wisdom laid out in Proverbs tends to lead to the best results for our lives, and we can be thankful that God gives us such wisdom. Even studies done by non-Christians in multiple fields show the socioeconomic benefits of two-parent homes, forgiving others who have wronged you, etc.
The authors write that at the judgment we are all winners, which is true. "Will will have rewards in heaven, but these are not earned by us through our merit." John MacArthur is very much in the authors' theological camp but seems to disagree with him on this point. He writes that everyone will be awarded in terms of stewardship and obedience, and some will be quite sad at the judgment for not having made the most of what God gave them and being obedient in all areas. To quote MacArthur:
"Some of you are going to be there and you're going to suffer loss. You're not going to receive the full reward that you could have received. Why? Because you haven't lived the kind of life you should have lived. You haven't ordered your priorities. Listen. Listen to this statement: II John 8, "Look to yourselves, listen, look to yourselves that you loose not the things, which you have wrought that you receive a full reward." You know you can actually earn things and you can actually do the things that please God and then like Paul had such a fear of you can become a cast away. You can forfeit your crowns by some sin in your life. Remember Revelation 3:11, remember this: "Hold that fast which thou hast that no man," what? "Take your crown." Paul said in Colossians 2:18, "Don't let anybody rob you of your prize."
With some people, I hate to say it, it's going to be a day of shame. But you say, "I thought there was no judgment." No, but there'll be shame there. Say, how do you know that? I John 2:28, "Little children, abide in Him that when He shall appear we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming." You know it's possible that a Christian is going to be at that judgment seat and down deep in his heart there's going to be maybe just a little, and I don't think the right word because I don't think we can understand heaven and there's no sorrow there, but there's going to be a loss. The Bible clearly says, "suffer loss." And the Bible does indicate the possibility of shame. And there will be some works very definitely worthless."
As such (and because I'm an economist by vocation), I'll continue to incentivize my son's behavior while reminding him that none of us are perfect and all of us rely solely on God's grace through Jesus. But I will also remind him of heavenly rewards and future grace (see the MacArthur and Piper quotes above). I will also enforce habits that I think are helpful to adulthood and self-sufficiency. It's beneficial to health, safety, and easier to find things if your room is organized. I struggle with being organized myself and have to develop the habit of tidiness. Hence, I help instill that in my son by requiring he pick up his toys every night.
The book ends somewhat awkwardly (before the appendix and references, which make up about 20% of the actual text). There is a fairly weak critique of modern parenting methods and the number of books being produced. The authors want to argue that the Bible is enough and was sufficient for centuries after the founding of the church for parents to raise children properly. Parents are always bringing their contexts and cultures into their parenting, and the vast majority over the centuries were neither functionally literate nor had ready access to the Bible in a language they could easily understand. Even so, as the authors write, there is a misunderstanding and misapplication of the Gospel today. I was raised in a Christian home and Bible-teaching church but did not have a proper understanding of the Gospel as laid out in this book.
In all, I give this book 3.5 stars. Were it not for the above errors by the authors (in my judgment) I would rate it much higher. In any case, I recommend it. It has definitely set the tone for how I think about life and relationships in 2015.