Responding to a Child’s Sin

When your child sins, how do you respond? Does your response invite and move them toward the God of grace? Or does your response unintentionally push your child in another direction, creating distance in their relationship with you and confusion in their relationship with the Lord?

In such challenging seasons of parenting one thing well-meaning Christians may be tempted to do is question their child’s standing with the Father. Implicitly, this may take the form of a long-term, understated disposition toward your child that questions their status as children of God. Whether this takes place in conversation between you and your spouse or simply in your own heart, either way your child will likely pick up on your doubt. Explicitly, in hard moments when egregious sin has been revealed, it may sound like, “How can you call yourself a Christian?” or “Are you even a believer?”

So, is this the best way to approach our children? Is it helpful for believing parents to question their child’s salvation, whether openly or inwardly? I ask these important questions specifically considering a child who verbally professes faith in Christ, whether or not they are producing visible fruit (for children who don’t believe, see the next blog). Before we answer, let’s ask the question behind the question – what do we think of the Christian who sins? What do we think of ourselves when we sin?

God’s Response to His Children

We get a glimpse of the way God responds to his sinful children in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. The Corinthian church is a wild and scandalous bunch! Although they have not abandoned the gospel, they are grossly abusing it. Rather than the godly fruit Paul had hoped to see in this church he planted, he hears that they are suing each other, sleeping with prostitutes, and even getting drunk at the Communion table! What you might expect Paul to say in response is, “Obviously you are not believers, or else you wouldn’t be so rebellious.” Or, “I see no fruit in your life, so you must not be truly saved.” But, in the counter-intuitive way that God’s Holy Spirit often works, Paul actually does the exact oppositeListen to how he responds to their scandalous sin:

  • To those engaged in lawsuits against one another, he asks, “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3)
  • To those sleeping with prostitutes, he exhorts, “Do you not know that your body is a  temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Cor 6:19)
  • To those being divisive in the church, he graciously poses, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16)

In each question, there is an assumption of salvation, not a questioning of it. To those who have been sexually immoral, he assumes salvation when he says, “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” To those who are suing each other, he assumes salvation when he speaks of their future reign with Christ, saying, “Don’t you know you’ll judge angels?” Paul is still able to assume salvation in speaking with these people because he knows it does not depend on their own righteousness, but on Christ’s, in whom they believe. So even when we abuse grace by our sin, God’s response is not “Clearly you are no child of mine, depart from me.” But instead, we hear grace that is utterly shocking! His response is, “Don’t you know you are my child? Come back to me.” “Child, you know this isn’t who you are anymore. Be who I’ve already pronounced you to be.”

It’s not that God doesn’t care about holiness. Just the opposite! He is undoubtedly committed to sanctifying his sinful people. But, as we see in Paul’s example, God’s primary method of sanctifying us is not by threats of judgment, but by promises of grace. So even when he confronts sin, it is done in a way that invites and attracts us to the Savior.  

So how does Paul’s example inform us as parents? 

True vs. False Assurance

As we go further it’s worth reminding: we are writing with regard to children who profess faith in Christ, even if that is with a great deal of wrestling, doubt, apathy, or seeming lack of evidence. It is a different case if they reject Christ outright, and we must deal with such frightening and dangerous implications accordingly (see upcoming blog). But, if the child says he believes in Christ, who are we to judge salvation? Do we know the human heart or have the precise metric for measuring the fruit of salvation? As Paul says, “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor 4:5). And so, for now, if they profess faith in Christ, then that is how we are called to deal with them – as Christians.

At this point you may think, “But I don’t want to give my child a false assurance of salvation!” If so, I am thankful for your concern, but I also want to further consider and test the true legitimacy of such concern. What are we supposed to base our assurance on? It is not on our work, our fruit, or our obedience. Those things may be the evidence of salvation, but we would be setting ourselves up for no assurance at all if we put our confidence in something as fickle and unreliable as ourselves. Reader, can you confidently say that there is no “fruit” lacking in your life? Or can you say that there aren’t areas of your life or seasons in which the evidence of your salvation is dim? I surely can’t! Thank God that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:5)!

The assurance of our salvation must stand firmly and solely on the already finished work of Christ at the Cross. Period. There is no such thing as false assurance that is based on the Cross. Just the opposite, if in Christ’s work your child is assured of their salvation, they are children of God, indeed. Ironically, it is when we question their salvation in times of failure or disobedience that we are actually contributing to a false assurance, making them think that salvation waxes or wanes based on their behavior.

It is a grasp of the grace of God in the gospel that produces the fruit of his Holy Spirit and change in a person’s life. So if we do see sin or we do see major blind-spots, we must call them away from sin to a renewed belief in the gospel. And even as we do so, we do it not to them as unbelievers who need to be perfect to attain salvation, but as believers who are going through the ups and downs of progressive sanctification by the Spirit. The same ups and downs that we go through as Christians, even though circumstantial struggles are undoubtedly different. At no point will our righteousness ever be more than “filthy rags” in comparison to Christ’s perfect obedience done on our behalf, which is why we and our children must depend solely on the righteousness of Christ.

Practically Speaking

So, back to our original question, what then do we do when our children sin? If we don’t question salvation, then what do we do? By way of conclusion, here is a summary of three things to keep in mind as you attempt to shepherd your children:

1.We approach them as believers on the same difficult, lifelong journey of sanctification that we are on. You and your children are in the same category – pilgrims on the way. Imperfect, but being perfected by the Spirit. Sinners, yet justified in Christ. Broken, but redeemed and awaiting an even more glorious redemption.

2. We call them away from their sin. As sheep under the care of the Shepherd, we acknowledge the dangerous and foolish ways that they are straying from His care. They need discipline that is loving and restorative, discipline that is not in anger or judgment,  but the kind of discipline that is a “rescue mission” (T. Tripp).

3. We call them to a renewed faith in the gospel. We aren’t calling them simply to different behavior, but to a deeper faith in the gospel, which is the root of real growth and lasting change. When our child’s egregious sin and failure is revealed, and our response is to question their salvation, we are implying that salvation depends on them, which will lead to either rejection of the faith (“I could never be good enough”) or legalism (“I’m saved as long as I am doing X, Y, and Z”). But when their egregious sin and failure is revealed, and instead our response is, “Aren’t you glad that salvation that doesn’t depend on our goodness?” then they will understand who this Jesus is and why he’s worth living for.