Those who like to centralize grace in theology and life are often asked: “How do you parent with grace? What about discipline and the importance of order in the home?” It’s a great question, and not easily answered. In God’s kingdom there isn’t one right way to parent (as controversial of a statement as that might be). But one way to spiral toward an answer isn’t through a list of prescriptions or “how to’s”, but with a story. Family is one of the most utilized metaphors for the church in the New Testament. And there’s a reason for that. Parenting points to something beyond itself — to the very heart of our Heavenly Father and to the story of all stories.
When we parent our kids, especially for those 18 years we have them in our homes, we take them through the whole story arc of redemptive history. In the beginning, when they are young, our care for them is very one-way. They are born into our families by grace, not by any choice of their own, and we love them unconditionally, even when they can’t sleep well, or when they’re sick, or when they fuss. When they get a little older, this kind of love continues, but we also start to teach them the difference between right and wrong and that there are consequences for their disobedience and sins. You could say that in some ways we become the voice of the law to them, with various forms of discipline, teaching, and instruction becoming more prominent. We don’t make this the main mantra of our home, though. Grace always wins the day when our kids are unable to obey or listen to us. Their sins grieve us, yet we remain their parents nonetheless, on their good days and bad days in equal measure. In this, we image the New Testament to them — how even in this “Old Testament” era of their lives, mercy is greater than sacrifice (Hos 6:6) and love is greater than law (Heb 10:5-10).
As they grow into their teenage years, discipline changes. Disobedience often becomes more frequent, and they might start to look like a prodigal, wanting to forge their own path. At the same time, we realize that our lawful words have less and less effect on them, and they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, regardless. We still give advice and warn them of the consequences of their actions, many times with tears. But, our parenting morphs into less badgering and more quiet encouragement, promising that we’ll always be there for them, come what may, even if their lives tailspin out of control.
When they turn 18 and leave our homes, that’s when things really change. No longer are we their guardian. No longer are they under any house rules. Even “obedience” language goes away. There are no “do’s and don’ts” or any law-like preclusions. No sticker charts or chore lists. Just love and freedom, like it was in the very beginning when they were infants.
Galatians 3:23-26 says, “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
Paul is saying that the law was like a guardian in the home until Christ came — like Vin Diesel in The Pacifier — but when Christ came the guardian was out of a job, similar to how adults are no longer under an in-home nanny or tutor, or under those kinds of parental roles anymore. We are children of God through faith alone, clothed with Christ, not the law.
So, as parents, our final word is the word of the father to the prodigal. In the face of his son’s waywardness, he is no longer judge or discipliner. He doesn’t hold his sin over his head like a mirror. He simply runs to him, embraces him, and says, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate!” And so the story goes, that, in Christ, God has the same kind of unconditional, new-testament posture toward us rebellious sinners. This is good news for parents and non-parents alike. To those who grew up in a loving home and those who didn’t. To moms and dads who hit home runs and those who are weighed down by their parenting failures. For God is the true Parent, and we are forever saved and defined by his matchless love, not by our works.