Chester, Tim, and Ed Moll. Gospel-Centered Family. New Malden, Surrey, England: The Good Book Company, 2011.
Guest review by Doug Young.
I recently taught my children the meaning of an old, and all but lost saying—A rift in the lute. A lute is the predecessor to today’s guitar. The rift, or crack, is evidence of a problem that, if not addressed, threatens the instrument. Tennyson’s line in his epic poem Merlin and Vivien gives us the meaning: “It is the little rift within the lute that by-and-by will make the music mute, and ever widening slowly silence all.” What poetic tragedy. Our own sin, combined with the sins of our children have created a rift that only the gospel can mend. The fact is that most of us need help understanding how to apply the gospel to our families. Our busy schedules, changing needs, demands, problems, and a culture hostile to families in general and Christian families in particular make it a challenging task indeed.
Gospel-Centered Family, by Ed Moll and Tim Chester, is such a welcome book because we need help learning how to apply the gospel to our families. We need help not only in teaching the gospel to our kids, but in living the gospel through our families. Gospel- Centered Family is like a personal trainer. It provides an excellent agenda but demands that you do a lot of your own thinking and application. The book is 95 pages thin but busting with excellent questions and ideas for action. The beauty of this book is that it does not give all the answers but equips you to dig deep for the answers yourself, while directing you toward gospel applications.
The book is built around 12 core principles:
- Your family can show how great it is to live under God’s reign of love.
- Knowing God is far more important than “succeeding” in life.
- The biggest obstacle to good discipline is our own selfish hearts.
- Trying to be a good parent will crush you if you don’t embrace grace.
- Addressing the heart matters more than controlling behavior.
- Don’t train your child to be a legalist.
- Make sure you enjoy your children.
- Teach your children about God in the context of everyday life.
- Shape what younger children watch and how older children watch.
- Teach children to pray by praying with them.
- We belong to two families.
- Children are not the center of the world.
If parents took these core ideas to heart and determined how to implement and communicate them consistently and faithfully to their children, they would take a mighty leap forward in applying the gospel to their own homes.
I was struck with a thought in the first chapter that has brought some clarity into my own home. Simply, my children must learn to live happily under my authority. Home is the place they must learn this lesson. Moll and Chester write, “Discipline disobedience. Don’t let your child rule the home. If you do, you’ll be teaching them that they are king in their lives. They’re not. It won’t prepare them for wider social interaction. And it won’t prepare them to meet the true King” (13). I’m reminded that the standard is immediate, complete, and cheerful obedience. What’s at stake is more than harmony in my own home. The question is, will they submit to the King? If they cannot submit to me now, they will struggle to submit to their rightful King. The authors lift the idea of submission higher when they say “Your number one aim as a parent is to show how great it is to live under God’s reign of love” (14). Submission is beautiful. It’s royal. After reading this chapter I want to faithfully and lovingly teach my children obedience and submission in preparation for King Jesus.
Submission is certainly fundamental, but perhaps even more fundamental is the idea that our discipline should be aimed at our children’s hearts rather than their behavior. If we fail here, we may be grooming little moralistic Pharisees. Most of us would agree that God is most concerned for our children’s hearts. But how do we address our children’s hearts? Does it mean that we have the perfect Scripture text ready for every possible scenario? Does it mean we must be skilled child psychologists ready to uncover their motives, fears, and conditions? Moll and Chester simply suggest that godly discipline helps our children see their need of Christ. Do we discipline in such a way that our children have a growing sense of their need for a savior?
I would like to see Moll and Chester flesh out how we can cultivate in our children a growing sense of their need for a savior. If I could add just one thing to the book I would suggest it here. While we do not want to cultivate legalists, the law does have a powerful role to play in our parenting. Children are born with an incredible aptitude to justify their sin. Unless they are first convinced that they are sinning, and then convinced that they are powerless to save themselves, they won’t cry out for a deliverer. I am convinced that parents must address their child’s behavior by giving the child appropriate biblical categories for their behavior. Names like: selfishness, impatience, anger, rebellion. A child must see his own condition and eventually submit to the verdict: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). They must see their own face in the mirror. The child’s conscience, as well as the law, which says do this and don’t do that, have their place. “But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:23-24). Parents can fall into the trap of not teaching the law for fear of creating legalists. But they must remember the role of the law as a tutor. Our children must see their face in the mirror and see their sin as sin, before seeing Jesus as their all-sufficient savior. May God give us grace to hold up the mirror of the law and then lovingly and consistently, direct them to Christ. Let’s not neglect the tutor’s role. What Moll and Chester provide here is an excellent chapter on the issue of legalism and how to avoid the error that pressures our children to earn our acceptance through performance. “God accepts us as we are by grace, but He accepts us with an agenda of change. Of course He does: He wants the best for us, which is to become like His Son” (47).
Gospel-Centered Family is as much a book for parent’s hearts as it is for their children. “How ironic that trying to give a true picture of God’s amazing forgiveness can make us feel guilty. It’s more than ironic: it can become a dangerous cycle. If we feel condemned, we won’t communicate grace, making us feel still more condemned. If we want our families to be gospel-centered, then we must bring the gospel to bear on our own failures. If we can’t bring our parenting sins to the cross, then we don’t have any good news to celebrate. We can’t communicate grace to our children if we’re not communicating it to our own hearts” (32-33). Another irony of parenting is that our children’s sins often provoke in us the same sins we are trying to correct. We get impatient with their impatience, angry at their anger, rude at their rudeness, and we lose self-control when we behold their lack of self-control! Moll and Chester speak graciously to the exasperated parent and apply the same remedy that our children need—the gospel.
Gospel-Centered Family will help you ponder the gospel’s implications for your home. The book does this by asking excellent questions. We often underestimate the importance of asking and answering good questions. It’s so easy to skip the questions! An education consultant I know said something I will never forget. “The quality of your life is determined by the quality of the questions you ask.” One such question: “Think about the last time you got mad with your children. What did you want in that moment?” The content of the chapter helped me to think through this question. The last time I was angry with my children I wanted peace, quiet, harmony and compliance. These are all good things. The problem is that I wanted these things more than God’s glory, and more than the plan God has for me as a father. In that moment I was unwilling to step my children through the necessary loving discipline the moment required. O ye of little faith! My loving Father has given me a task that is not only best for my child but best for me as well. Instead, the idol of “Peace Without Effort” raised its ugly head, and I worshipped it. I believe thoughtful consideration of these excellent questions will help parents understand not only their children, but themselves as well. Here are a few more:
• When do your children see or hear you extolling the surpassing greatness of Christ?
• Does your life prompt your children to ask questions about God “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road (Deuteronomy 6:7)?
• Are you protecting your children from Christian service or preparing your children for Christian service?
• How do you open your home to the church family? Could you have someone live with you? Could you open your meal table more to people?
In the final section of the book titled “A Mission-Centered Family,” Moll and Chester present a vision for families in the context of a bigger family—the Church. They encourage us to open our homes in practical ways and to give children important roles. They prompt us to be intentional about intergenerational relationships. We need “the wider church family for advice, encouragement, and challenge.” Our children need good models of family life; they need opportunities to serve; they need the spiritual insight of seasoned believers and young believers zealous for Christ. No family is an island, and our children must understand that.
Most of us need prompts to act. As much as a book can, this one consistently calls us to put feet to our intentions. I heartily encourage parents to read this book together, dwell on its questions, consider its ideas for action and develop workable plans and patterns for their families. In fact, anyone who is involved in the lives of children would benefit from the wisdom in Gospel-Centered Family. Ultimately, it’s the gospel we need. It is the gospel alone that will mend the rift. We may all be cracked, but thank God that he has addressed our every need in Christ. The gospel is truly enough.