Some Thoughts for Grieving Christian Parents

A hopeful message for Christian parents about raising their children.

If we treated Christian child rearing like we do pastor or missionary work, we would approach things very differently with parents of unbelieving adult children. When we hear of a missionary or pastor who labored for many years in one area to see few (if any) conversions, we laud that Christian, and we speak of his admirable and long-suffering faithfulness in the midst of difficulty and discouragement. What if we did this for Christian parents in similar situations?


The holidays can provide time for reflection on parenting. My wife and I have raised five children. They rarely missed a Sunday of church from infant to adult. They each professed their faith willingly as children. We have gone through the anguish of seeing some of them drift away from God in their high school years, the jubilance of seeing some reaffirm their faith as adults, and the painful disappointment of seeing some drift away from the faith as adults. Many Christian parents know the agony of beholding adult children walk away from the faith, and that grief tends to increase during the holidays.

As a pastor for over 25 years, I have seen the sorrow of many godly Christian parents as one, some, or all of their children have left the faith as adults. But the sorrow arises from more than just the obvious spiritual concern for their children. There is also overwhelming guilt: what did I do wrong? And there is often crippling spiritual doubt: Lord, why did you forsake me and not answer my prayers, when you seem to answer the same prayers of other Christian parents?

While it is expected that such sadness, guilt and doubt in Christian parents would arise from within, the heartaches are often exacerbated by fellow Christians; either good-hearted Christians with bad theology, or arrogant legalists who are akin to Job’s comforters, suggesting you must have done something wrong to cause this. I want to address you Christian parents, as well as challenge some common poor theology attached to child rearing that causes so much confusion and anguish among Christian parents in this situation.

Is There a Covenant of Works in Parenting Children?

In Reformed theology, we distinguish between the covenant of works and covenant of grace. In other words, Adam needed to obey God’s command to pass his probation and receive eternal life. If he failed, he would break the covenant and receive death; for himself and all mankind. Christ, the second Adam, obeyed God in our place and took upon himself the punishment we owed God for breaking the covenant of works in Adam. For us, salvation is all of grace: it is based on Christ’s work for us, not on our work or faithfulness.

While this may seem basic, there is probably no other area more than child rearing where we like to sneak a covenant of works back into the Christian life. You’ve heard it as, “God has promised to bless our Christian labors as parents with the salvation of our children;” or “If we train them right, God will ensure they will not depart from the faith;” or put negatively, “If you do not do such and such, your children will leave the faith.” The terms of this assumed works arrangement vary from not putting your children in public schools, to having daily family devotions, to spanking, to not allowing children access to certain entertainment, to always loving them and being an excellent role model, etc. It is not as if these matters are unimportant in ordering a Christian household, but these applications are often given under the guise of a threat: if you do/do not do these things, your children will/will not end up Christians. While maybe not using this exact language, Christian parents are often under the assumption that God promises to reward our faithful labors as parents with the spiritual faithfulness of our children even when they are adults. Thus it becomes a covenant of works – you do this, and God will do this. Let’s consider some common Scriptures misused to encourage this idea.

Proverbs 22:6. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

As one writer put it, “This verse has been a great comfort to parents of young children embarking on the awesome and fearful task of raising children…(yet) a dagger in the heart of parents of older children.” It is important to remember that regarding this as a promise that God will bless our faithful Christian parenting with faithful Christian adult children would negate the entire book of Proverbs. Proverbs is a warning from a believing father to his son(s) who are about to go out into the world on their own. Proverbs 4:10-13.

Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight,
for I give you good precepts;
do not forsake my teaching…
Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live.
Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.

If Proverbs 22:6 guaranteed the faithfulness of children brought up correctly, there would be no need for these proverbs; no need for the warnings in the book. It is clear from the book that the son could well go the way of the fool, not heed his father’s warnings, and suffer; not only in this life, but in the life to come. It is unfortunate that so many have taken 22:6 as a guarantee of salvation upon correct training, ignoring both the context of Proverbs as a whole, as well as the testimony of the entire Bible.

Time prevents a full interpretation on Proverbs 22:6, but the word “should” is not in the original Hebrew. Some Hebrew scholars take the verse in the negative, the opposite of how it is normally understood. The idea would be, “Raise your children in their own way, and they will likely remain that way.” In other words, if you do not offer them any spiritual guidance, they will likely follow their natural inclinations. Medieval Jewish commentator Levi ben Gershon translated the verse as, “Train a child according to his evil inclinations and he will continue in his evil way throughout life.” Whatever your solution, the interpretation cannot contradict the rest of Proverbs, as well as the rest of Scripture, which contains no such promise.

Acts 2:39. “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

Some have assumed from this verse that God has made a promise that covenant children will belong to him in a saving way. Knowing how common it is for covenant children to grow up and leave the faith, some suggest this is a general promise; but a promise that cannot always be counted on is not a promise, especially one that God himself makes. The promise referred to here is stated in the previous verse: that if you repent and believe in Christ, you shall be saved. This promise is for your children also: that if they repent and believe in Christ, they shall be saved. For those of us who believe babies of believers are to receive the sign of the promise, we understand that baptism is not a guarantee of salvation but a sign to the child: that as one set apart and privileged to grow up in the covenant community, the gospel is offered to them, yet dependent on their faith, (i.e., they must believe the promise).

Titus 1:6 If anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.

This verse is sometimes used to suggest that God promises that faithful Christian parents will raise believing children, and if a child is not a professing Christian – or does not continue to genuinely profess Christ as an adult- then the father is in sin, and he is not worthy to be an officer in the church. This understanding is so clearly wrong that I am amazed people interpret it this way. For one, there is really no way to know if a child is a genuine believer. While we can assume the best, only the Lord knows who are his, especially when they are so young.

Secondly, the word pistas (“believers” in the text) can be translated either as “believing,” or “faithful,” depending on the context. “Faithful” is the context here, and the word is defined in the next phrase: “not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” The parallel passage, I Timothy 3:4, gives more context: “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive.” The faithful child is submissive to his parents. Paul is not adding an entirely new qualification to Titus that he failed to mention to Timothy, that the child be a genuine believer, but is stating the same point a bit differently. The point is that the elder must keep his children in order and not allow them to do whatever they want. Non-elect children in the home do not disqualify an elder just as non-elect members in the church do not disqualify an elder. You cannot control people’s salvation, but you can discipline in both church and home.

Scripture, Responsibility, and Guilt

Beyond these verses, Christians repeat clichés such as: “God’s usual means of building his kingdom is through child-rearing;” “While we understand not every covenant child raised by godly parents will be saved, we should normally expect this to occur;” “Don’t worry – even if your child strays for a time; because you raised him in the Lord, eventually he will return to the Lord; God is not finished with him yet.” None of these common sayings, whether well-intended or not, are actually taught in the Bible, and as the above writer stated, they become daggers in the hearts of Christian parents whose adult children have hardened their hearts to the things of God.

What does the Bible say about rearing children in the Lord? The Bible gives Christians parents certain responsibilities concerning their children, and they are well-known verses. This article is addressing the Christian parents who loved their children, provided for their children physically, brought them up going to a gospel-believing church, corrected their children and held them to standards, prayed for their children’s salvation, and tried to live the Christian life as an example. Of course at times you lost your temper; at times you over-indulged them when you should have disciplined, and you disciplined when you shouldn’t have, etc. There are no perfect parents. Actually, the Christians’ responsibilities for parents in the Bible are not difficult, for his yoke is easy and his burden light. They are rather instinctive for all Christian parents, even new converts.

Yet the responsibility for the children’s salvation is never given to parents. In salvation, there are always, and only, two parties responsible: God and the person. Or, as we say in theology, divine election and human responsibility. Ultimately God is responsible for who is saved. While he uses many different means to save individuals, there is no promise of salvation if parents fulfill their responsibilities. In the same way, a missionary may spend thirty years on a mission field faithfully performing his duties, but his faithfulness does not guarantee conversions. It is clear throughout Scripture that God chooses whom he wills regardless of anybody’s works; not the works of the person he chooses, or the works of that person’s parents. Once God decides to save, he then makes the means effectual unto that end.

When it comes to human responsibility, a person who hears the gospel is responsible to believe it, regardless of the imperfections of the person he hears it from. No child who grew up hearing the gospel will be able to stand before God and offer an excuse that he did not believe because of his parents’ faults and inconsistencies. Israel was full of teachers who were mostly unbelievers, and even in that setting the Israelites were responsible for rejecting the Messiah promised to Israel. They were expected to believe the promise.

Parents, there are things to repent of and things to regret in how we raised our children. There is no way you can raise a child for eighteen years and not have some regrets. And as sinners, we will often see our weaknesses reflected in our children. But there is one thing you cannot take responsibility for, and that is their lack of faith. Or conversely, you cannot take credit for the presence of saving faith. God was not dependent upon you for their salvation; he chooses according to his divine pleasure. And to show God’s sovereignty in salvation, he often chooses contrary to expectations. How often Christian parents are confused when they see children of apostate or abusive parents who remain in the faith, but their children do not. The wind blows wherever it wishes. Having guilt in looking back and seeing those areas where you could have done better, that is normal and even healthy at times, assuming you ask for forgiveness from the Lord. Yet guilt for your child’s refusal to believe in Christ for salvation, that is both false and dangerous guilt. If God has chosen to pass your child by for salvation, that is his right. And if

your child, knowing the offer of the gospel, refuses that offer, that is his responsibility, not yours.

Was God an Unfaithful Parent?

Those who want to say that good faithful Christian parenting should always (or even normally) ensure the salvation of the children, or who criticize Christian parents when their children grow up and reject the faith, have a bigger problem on their hands than causing great pain to parents. They are leveling an accusation against God himself. The Lord compares himself to a parent who loved his child, Israel, and yet the majority of them failed to believe in him. Deuteronomy 1:30-36 states:

The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place. Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God, who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go. And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, “Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb….”

Does anyone dare suggest that God himself was a poor father? The Lord loved Israel, provided for Israel, taught Israel, and yet almost all of them refused to believe. Does any human parent assume they can parent better than God himself to ensure better results?

A Spurious Calvinism

It is concerning child rearing that Christians who believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation tend to express contradictions to this doctrine. How often we hear things like, “The secular university caused the young woman to lose her faith,” or “If you send your child to public school he will lose his faith,” or “If you do not properly inculcate your children with a full-orbed Christian world-view he will lose his faith.”

A Christian cannot lose his faith. No one can snatch a believer out of his Father’s hand. This type of language takes salvation out of the hands of the Lord and places it entirely into the hands of the parents. This does not mean that parental decisions cannot affect the child’s sanctification – but nothing outside of a person can take away his faith. If a child goes to a secular university and “loses his faith,” the problem was not the temptations of the university; the problem was that the young person never believed the gospel. Can outward temptations lead a young Christian to stray for a time from his faith, or cause him to question his faith? Of course, which is why parental decisions are important. But these temptations and questions happen to children no matter their schooling, environment, etc. The point is that there is nothing a Christian parent can do that can cause a regenerated person to lose his faith, because the God who regenerates hearts to believe in the first place also preserves them unto the end.

A Better Means of Grace?

In the same way, Christians have elevated child rearing above the chief means of grace. In Reformed theology, we believe that the preaching of the gospel is the chief means God has appointed for the salvation and sanctification of his people. Yet we do not speak of preaching the way we do child rearing. For example, we would never assume that we should expect most people who hear a gospel sermon to be converted. We know that was certainly not true of Israel in the Old Covenant, and we do not assume so today. Again, we do not tell missionaries, “Most people where you go will come to faith when they hear your sermons.”

And yet that is exactly what we tell Christian parents concerning the upbringing of their children. We sever the Bible passages that warn us not to expect this, as if child rearing is in a unique class where the warnings of Scripture do not apply, warnings such as, “Many are called, few are chosen,” or the Parable of the Sowers, or “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…” In these passages, we are warned that many who hear the gospel, who hear the outward call, are not chosen, and do not have the root that produces genuine faith, and that they will often be members of our own families. We rightly apply those warning passages to the chief means of grace, preaching, but then we assume they do not apply to what is not the chief means of grace, child rearing. We have, in essence, created a non-biblical category that elevates child rearing above preaching, and assumes the normal warnings about the outward call do not apply in child rearing.

If we treated Christian child rearing like we do pastor or missionary work, we would approach things very differently with parents of unbelieving adult children. When we hear of a missionary or pastor who labored for many years in one area to see few (if any) conversions, we laud that Christian, and we speak of his admirable and long-suffering faithfulness in the midst of difficulty and discouragement. What if we did this for Christian parents in similar situations?

Not All Is as It Seems

Christian parents with one or more adult children who have left the faith live in daily anguish. There are some things that make the anguish worse. The first is seeing adult children in the church who have never strayed from the faith. While we rejoice in this, we are always reminded of our own children at the same time. When this happens, though, remember that not all is as it seems. While I have known many wonderful young people who have never strayed, and their faith remained strong into adulthood, just because a child remains in the church does not necessarily mean he is a genuine believer. Most Jews in Jesus’ day attended synagogue like their parents did. After pastoring for many years, I have come across more young adults than I care to count who remain in the church but do not seem to actually walk with God; they have no fruit of the Spirit. Some are only there because church and Christianity are comfortable cultures for them. Others are legalists; proud of themselves for being so different from the

world, yet they have no love; no fruit; they are noisy gongs. In other words, the problem of unregenerate adult children is much greater than you think: it even includes some adult children who have never left the church. Remember, there are many parents whose children are still in the church who also stay up at night worrying about their children’s spiritual state.

Secondly (as surveys reveal), many, if not a majority of young people raised in the faith leave for a time, at least until their thirties, before returning. These surveys noted similar results for Reformed and broadly evangelical churches. There may even be a seed of regeneration in covenant children who have left the church, and that seed needs much time to germinate. Only God knows these mysterious things. On the other hand, we should not talk as if we know this will happen with our children. It may not. God has as much right to pass over your child for election as he does any other child in the world. And he is not powerless to save them later in life if he wills.

Beyond this, watch out for Job’s comforters in the greater church. There are parents and teachers out there who think so highly of themselves and their parenting that they are convinced your adult child’s lack of salvation is all your fault, as Job’s comforters assumed Job’s sufferings were his fault, and they will destroy your consciences if you allow them. They are either taking credit for the (assumed) salvation of their children, or with parents of young children, they are under the illusion that they can control the spiritual outcome of their children by their parental habits, teachings, etc. Remember that God is not pleased when the proud oppress you with their arrogance and accusations. Do not allow them to destroy your faith and trust in the Lord, who alone saves and who knows your hearts.

Final Thought

I have heard it said that watching an adult child walk away from the faith and harden himself over time is very similar to the grief of losing an adult child in death. I imagine there is some truth to that. Parents, it is very important as you grieve that you surround yourself with Christians who genuinely understand grace; and understand that salvation does belong to the Lord. Grieving parent, may God bless you as you endure in the midst of trial and discouragement, for at the end awaits the glorious crown of life.

Dr. Todd S. Bordow is a Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is the Pastor of Cornerstone OPC, in Houston, TX.