3 Ways Our Children May Respond to Discipline that Overlooks the Gospel

3Responses020515We need to handle God’s Word with care as we discipline our children.

In our last post, we considered the need to give our children the hope of the gospel when we correct them. If we only take them to the Bible to show them how God says to live, we’ve missed our prime opportunity to tell them how they can live that way. They’re not going to obey God by trying harder or mustering up more self-discipline, and they’re not going to earn God’s favor by obeying Him.

Jesus has won God’s favor for us. In Him, God’s holy requirements are satisfied. If we’ve placed our faith in Him, we are one with Christ. The Father looks at us and sees His Son. He’s pleased with His Son, so He’s pleased with us. For the rest of our lives, He will work to make us more like that deat Son who loved us and died for us.

If we only tell our children what God requires, without telling them what God — in His great love — has already done to satisfy those requirements, our children may respond in one of three ways:

  • They may give up trying. They hear the “rules”. They see that they can’t possibly, in their own strength, obey them all. They’re never going to be perfect, so why even try? They may become sullen or discouraged, or they may openly rebel. This is the child who doesn’t seem to care, whose heart only seems to grow harder when you seek to discipline him, or who just becomes indifferent or withdrawn. Much of the rebellion in Christian households can be traced to correction that has been divorced from the hope of the gospel.
  • They may obey, but only in an attempt to earn our love and approval. They go through the motions. They work harder to do what we’re telling them they should do. They want to please us, but they’re not obeying out of a heart of love for God.

If they’re attempting to win our approval, we may be in for a surprise when the approval of their peers becomes more important than our approval. That’s when we will be scratching our heads in wonder as we watch older children suddenly turn away from the godly standards they appeared to embrace in their younger years.

  • They may obey in an attempt to earn God’s approval. They will work hard to obey God, and then believe that He owes them something for their obedience. These children don’t obey out of a heart of love and gratitude for what God has already done for them in Christ. Instead, they seek to save themselves through their own good works.

They become proud, judgmental, and self-righteous. They don’t need Jesus. They may be able to explain the facts of the gospel. They may profess faith in Jesus. But if they have never come face-to-face with their sin and utter inability to please God, they won’t see themselves for who they really are. And if they don’t see themselves, they won’t see their need for Jesus.

Jesus had things to say to people who put their confidence in their own works:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27-28, ESV).

Many of these compliant, moral children, who look like they are doing so well, will live joyless, self-righteous lives, afraid to ever be open and honest with anyone. Others will eventually see the futility in their striving and suddenly turn away from the faith when they leave home. The whitewashed tomb will open and the dead men’s bones will suddenly appear.

The Bible is not a rule book. It’s a story of redemption and love. God takes what is broken and makes it new. While we take our children to the mirror of God’s Word, we need to also take them to the One who has already fixed what they see in that mirror.


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  1. This is 100% truth. By the grace of God, I am learning and growing to change my bitter, joyless heart. I was raised with the approach that children need to look right and act right. Very little was focused on the heart issues and I did not learn about grace. My MO was to do the right thing to avoid discipline and conflict and keep God and my parents happy. I have had a very difficult time honestly opening up to people (though I think I appear friendly to most). I did not make the connection until reading this article that this difficulty stems from my efforts to look godly though it’s not what I’m really feeling or desiring. It is a deep division in the soul that we subconsciously learn to try to hide so others won’t see the hypocrisy. It will never be mended as long as we hold onto the pride of doing good to gain approval which sheds the peace of God’s grace.

  2. I see this behavior in my 8 year old son, he wants to please us and loves approval from us. I truly believe he is saved.

    Can you give some examples of what to do or say or how to be sure to teach to make sure this would not be a problem.

  3. I too was wondering if you can give some examples of how to do this practically. Thanks so much.

  4. OK, some practical ways to bring the gospel into our discipline! I think I should probably write a follow-up post to answer your question more thoroughly, but here are a few suggestions:

    First, there’s nothing wrong with our children desiring to please us. If we love God, we will want to please Him. If our children love us, they will desire to please us. But if they are only doing what is right in order to please us, and not out of a love for God — especially as they mature — we need to point them to Jesus.

    1. Love God with all YOUR heart, soul, and might. Your children will know if you truly love God and desire to obey Him. And that love will greatly affect how you portray God and His love to your children. Live a life of joy in Christ. If you clearly love God and if your life revolves around serving and obeying Him, your children will most likely learn to love God, too.

    2. Help them fall in love with Jesus. Talk about Him. Thank Him throughout the day. Pray together. Watch Him answer your prayers. Point out the many demonstrations of His love and grace all around you.

    3. Help your children understand what a great sacrifice Jesus made in order to save us from our sins. Read the gospels. Read the “Jesus Storybook Bible” that continually points to Jesus. Talk about His death on the cross for our sakes.

    4. Let your children see you repent and rejoice in His gracious forgiveness, knowing that you are secure in His love for you in Christ.

    5. Give the glory to God when you see evidences of His grace at work in your children’s lives. “It’s such a blessing to see God making you more like Jesus.” “God has given you the strength to be patient with your brother, hasn’t He? Let’s thank Him,” etc. Take the focus off of them and their performance and place it on God and His love and grace.

    6. Remind them that Jesus was tempted just like they are, but without sinning. He did this because of His great love for us. And now He is interceding for them before God the Father. He will give them the strength to obey.

    7. Make sure your child knows you love him, no matter what he does. Don’t discipline in anger or harbor resentment after he has sinned, leading him to believe that he has to earn your love and acceptance with good behavior. Discipline promptly and lovingly, and assure him of your love. Do be sure he knows that his obedience gives you great joy.

    8. Pray with your child, that God would work in His heart and give him the desire and ability to obey Him. Thank Jesus for dying to pay for our sins, and for the Holy Spirit that He has given us who teaches us and gives us the strength and ability to obey God.

    9. Take your child to Scripture as you discipline him. Talk about what God requires, and then talk about his inability to meet those requirements. Talk about Jesus’s perfect life and death on the cross that makes us perfect before God, when we put our faith in Jesus instead of ourselves. Because He loves us, God has given the free gift of salvation, made possible through the death of His Son.

    10. PRAY! Pray for wisdom and a discerning heart as you disciple your children. Lovingly instruct a child who seems to measure his worth on his performance rather than Jesus’s. Pray that your children’s hearts will be soft and open to the gospel. Pray that they will understand what God has done for them — because He loves them.

    Does this help at all? Your question is a good one that needs to be answered. I will try to elaborate more on these and other points in another post.

  5. Excellent Article. I have read books such as Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tripp and Give them Grace By Fitzpatrick and both have taught us to keep the gospel the focal point of discipline. One way we use this practically is with our children when they act in rebellion (throw a fit or disobedience) we send them to a quite place in the house to sit and think about what they did and so mommy or daddy can pray and ask God for wisdom how to handle this…also gives me time to get my emotions in check.

    Then when I go in the room tell what will happen as discipline and then talk to her and ask them what they did wrong. I will use my daughter as example: She lied. Sometimes she will “soften” the sin and say, “I didn’t listen.” But I will have her identify the actual sin she committed and tell her what the bible says about it. Then I will ask her, “Why did you do that?” Trying to expose her “heart motive” and she will tell me “because I didn’t want you to be angry with me” Then I will tell her, “if you lie what does that make you?” and she will say very sadly, “A liar” and then I will ask her “Who is the Father of lies” and this is what get’s her very sad because she knows the answer and it makes her cry, “Satan”. This gives me a great opportunity to display the gospel to her in all it’s glory because I remind her that she cannot stop lying on her own and that she needs Someone stronger than Satan to help her. She needs Jesus and that is why Jesus had to come and that is why He had to die and that is why He is alive. Then we pray together and ask Jesus help in this matter.

    Thank you for sharing this article. I am so encouraged to hear there are those who take the time to do this with their children. It is hard work. And so many parents I understand do not do this because it is very time consuming. I realize there are so many different methods in parenting today even in the church, but as followers of Jesus Christ it is IMPERATIVE we maintain the focus of the gospel. It is for our sakes and for our children’s.

    Duet 6:“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.b 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

  6. What a wonderful read and a great reminder. It is easy as parents to focus on rules and consequence that sometimes we forget the most important thing. Love. Obedience rooted from love creates character but obidience rooted from fear creates habit.

  7. I am thankful for this article. I definitely try to keep pointing our boys to Him. I’m going to print off the blog post, yours and Sue’s practical advice responses and put them in our discipline room, next to our If/Then and other charts:-), and For Instruction in Righteousness(which I recommend to most people I talk to when discipline topic comes up:-)). Then I can quietly read through these as I pray through the discipline process to remind myself of what to help them focus on:-).

  8. Your lab imported it from New Zealand and has taken.