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The Thistle
The Blessings and Challenges of Gospel-Centered Parenting
By Covenant Seminary on Monday, May 14th, 2012
Posted In: Article, Featured

Grace to Grow On: The Blessings and Challenges of Gospel-Centered Parenting
by Rick Matt
Associate Director of Communications

Parenting can be a daunting task, even under the best of circumstances. In a fallen world full of broken relationships, confusing expectations, and countless other pressures and pitfalls, how can anyone ever raise children successfully? Fortunately, the gospel offers help and hope for parents longing to train up godly, grace-filled children.


If you’ve ever struggled with how to discipline a disobedient child or advise a wayward one, you know how difficult, frustrating, and guilt-inducing parenting can sometimes be. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of parental discipline or advice you would rather not have experienced, you know how hard it can be to honor your father or mother. and yet, despite challenges such as these, the parent-child relationship also brings with it some of the greatest blessings that Christians can experience. How can parents navigate through the many landmines that await them and their children on the road to Christian maturity?

According to Dr. Mark Dalbey, interim president and assistant professor of practical theology at Covenant Seminary, and his wife, Beth, parenting is just like anything else in the Christian life: it’s all about the gospel. “although there’s no one answer that will work for everyone all the time,” Mark says, “there are biblical principles that can inform and shape what we do as parents. Hope for parenting lies in the gospel of grace and understanding how God has parented us.”

Beth adds, “Parenting requires trusting in and relying on the grace of God in Christ for everything we do. even when we make mistakes as parents—which we certainly do—we must remember that God’s grace has the power to save and transform despite our failings.” Mark and Beth have a fair amount of experience in this area. they have three grown children and five grandchildren.they also teach an occasional weekend course on the topic at the Seminary and around the country—a course appropriately titled Gospel-Centered Parenting.

The Dalbeys note that people in our culture and, unfortunately, many in the church, too often view parenting as a purely performance-oriented task with the goal of producing right behavior in our young ones. thus, the use of terms like “grace” and “gospel-centered” in this context might be seen by some as advocating a style of parenting that has no boundaries for acceptable behavior or no expectations for obedience on the part of children. For the Dalbeys, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Being gospel-centered in our parenting does not mean having no standards that we expect our children to live by,” Mark explains. “although it is true that our children need to obey us because we are their parents, focusing too much on the authoritarian aspect of that can be damaging to children and to the parent-child relationship. the biblical model is that behavior should flow out of the relationship itself. Obedience should flow out of love—not simply because ‘I’m your father ormother and I said so.’ ”

“God’s plan is for parents to have a more nurturing role,” Beth says. “He wants us to nurture our children as he nurtures us. We can’t be God, obviously, but we are made in his image, and we possess some of his qualities. His goal is to grow us all up in that image, and he loves to use other broken, sinful people like ourselves to do that. that’s why he puts us in families from the start. as parents, our goal is to shape our children toward greater Christ-likeness in all things according to gospel love. We don’t love our children because they keep our standards; we love them no matter what—and out of that love will hopefully flow the response of love and obedience.”

Mark adds, “In ephesians 6:1–3, the apostle Paul says that children are to obey their parents in the Lord not only because it is right, but ‘so that it will go well with you.’ obedience that flows out of love andrespect for parents is presented here as bringing forth the fruit of blessing to the child.”

But, as Mark notes, that relationship of love and respect is meant to be a two-way street. “Paul says in the very next verse, ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.’ Parents are not just the guardians and overseers of their children; they’re called to love and respect their children as people. and just as parents should help their children grow and mature and be accountable before God, so children can help their parents grow and mature and be accountable before God as well. that’s part of how the Lord uses family relationships to sanctify us.”

That process of mutual sanctification will look different duringdifferent stages of a family’s life. as children grow, their relationship with their parents changes in sometimes surprising ways. Mark offers an example of this from his own life.

“When our son Steven was 13 years old, I realized that the nature of our relationship had changed. I was still his father, with all that that implies, but we were also now brothers in Christ in a way we hadn’t been before. I showed him an open Bible and said, ‘Steven, as my son you see me in a context where many other people in my life do not. If you notice things in me that are not consistent with the Word of God, I’m giving you permission to bring those things to my attention—in a loving way, of course.’ Well, the first time he actually did that, I was stunned. My immediate reaction was, ‘How dare you say that to me!’ But then I realized that he had done exactly what I had asked him to do and he did it in a wonderfully loving way. that helped keep our lines of communication open and honest during his teenage years.”

Honest communication is key to close parent-child relationships, but it is especially important for children to see such communication going on between their parents—particularly as it relates to the need  for forgiveness.

“Our children need to be aware that Mom and Dad are sinners saved by grace just as they are,” Beth says. “they’ll know that instinctively anyway; we can’t hide it, so we need to be honest about it. Children need to see forgiveness being modeled by their parents when they’ve wronged each other. and parents need to seek their children’s forgiveness when they’ve been in the wrong against them too. no matter what mistakes have been made, God’s grace can heal all wounds and bring restoration.

But even if he chooses not to do this right away—or ever in this lifetime—we still trust in him to know what is right for our children.” Mark adds, “It is important that each person thinks of himself or herself as the biggest sinner in the room, the most in need of God’s re-deeming grace. that helps keep you humble before the Lord and before each other, and puts those mutual relationships of ephesians 5–6 in perspective.”

Even if serious parenting mistakes are made, it’s never too late to repent and seek the face of the Lord. the Dalbeys tell of a time when, after attending a Sonship conference as a couple, they found themselves feeling convicted of parenting mistakes they had made when their children were younger. They repented of these errors before their children, who were then in their teens. the children noticed a marked change in Mark and Beth’s approach to parenting after that and responded well to the new family dynamic. “It made a big difference in all of us to acknowledge those mistakes and move past them,” Beth notes. “that just shows again how the Lord works through imperfect people—and through family systems—to achieve his divine ends.”

One major struggle that many parents have is the issue of discipline. Is discipline ever called for? If so, what is discipline in the biblical sense, and what should it look like?

“We usually think of discipline in terms of punishment, sometimes as spanking,” Mark notes. “and though the Bible does give some warrant for this—think of Proverbs 23:13, for example, which speaks of disciplining our children with the rod—it is important to note that the word ‘discipline’ comes from the same root as the word ‘disciple.’ and that’s really what parenting is—discipling our children in the ways of the Lord. Deuteronomy 6 exhorts us to do this when we are at home, when we go out, when we lie down, when we rise up, and so on. the purpose of discipline is always to instruct and to bring growth in a godly direction. even when we do exercise correction, it’s not for the sake of punishment, but to bring about repentance, a change of heart, and a turning back to God and his righteousness.”

Beth comments, “When it comes to discipline, you always have to think in terms of what is appropriate—for the particular child, for the particular situation, for the particular family. each family needs to figureout for itself what that looks like. and appropriate discipline should always be accompanied by an explanation of what’s happening and why. We need to teach our children why we do the things we do.”

Mark agrees, adding, “there may be families for whom spanking would not be appropriate for good reason. For instance, if a parent was physically abused as a child, or if he or she has anger issues, I would say that parent probably should not be administering spanking because the temptation would be too great to misuse it.”

Given, then, that we are all sinners and that none of us have expe-rienced perfect parenting—indeed, some have been greatly wounded by their relationships with their parents—how can we hope to achieve any measure of success in our parenting?

First, says Beth, “We need to be careful not to fall too far on one side or the other. We can’t see grace as a license not to discipline our children. But we also can’t expect a set list of ‘how-tos’ to follow so that our children will turn out perfectly. It doesn’t work like that. We need to recognize that we don’t have it all together. our children know that, and God knows that—yet he is kind and patient with us, and we need to be kind and patient with our children.”

Second, as Mark notes, “God never intended parents to do this all alone. He meant for it to take place within the context of the church. We can look to how others in the church are modeling godly parenting and learn from them, and we can serve as models for others who may not be as far along the parenting road as we are.”

Ultimately, of course, it all comes back to the gospel. “the emphasis is always on God’s grace and its transforming power in our lives,” Beth explains. “When we live that out together, it changes everyone involved. that’s what families are all about.”

Some Key Bible Verses on Parenting and Parent-Child Relationships

  • Deuteronomy 6:1–25
  • Psalm 78:1–8
  • Proverbs 23:13–19
  • Hebrews 12:3–11
  • Ephesians 4:1–16
  • Ephesians 6:1–41
  • Timothy 1:12–17


Rick Matt (MATS ‘05) is associate director of communications at Covenant Seminary, where he works at writing and editing materials for a variety of print and online publications. He particularly enjoys hearing and telling stories about how God is working in the lives of his people. Rick is also the proud father of four rapidly growing children.

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Class Notes
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After ten years as an assistant pastor of Grace Evangelical, Germantown, TN, Randy Rhea (MATS ’98) planted Trinity Presbyterian Church, Corinth, MS. This past January, Randy and his wife moved to Madison, MS where Randy is serving as the assistant pastor of Madison Heights Presbyterian. Randy and his wife Sheri have two children, Emily (12) and Walker (9).

[MDiv] - 
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Congratulations to Michael Hall (MDiv '00) on becoming Pastor to Students at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Charlottesville, VA. Michael has served as Pastor of Student Ministries at Kirk of the Hills, St. Louis, MO for the past seven years. Michael and his wife Kirby Hall MATS '99) have three children, McKenzie (10), Carter (9), and John Thomas (7).

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