Accused by a member of Parliament of always repeating “the same old story,” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once retorted, “Of course, it’s the same old story! Truth usually is the same old story.” Whatever one may think of Margaret Thatcher’s politics, her words carry with them a reminder that can transform the lives of the families in our churches.
Believers in Jesus Christ are, after all, people who live every moment of life in “the same old story” of God’s work in human history. It is through this story that God forms, transforms, and reforms every part of our lives—including our family lives.
At the center of this same old story stands a singular act: In Jesus Christ, God personally intersected human history and redeemed a particular portion of humanity at a particular time in a particular place. Yet this central act of redemption does not stand alone. It is bordered by God’s good creation and humanity’s fall into sin on the one hand and by the consummation of God’s kingdom on the other. This is the story that Christians have repeated to one another and to the world ever since Jesus vanished through the eastern sky, leaving his first followers gap-mouthed on a hill outside Jerusalem (Acts 1:9–12).
So what does this story have to do with the families in your church?
If the story line of creation, fall, redemption and consummation fails to frame every aspect of our lives—including our family lives—we are prone, like the Israelites of old, to chase after other story lines and, ultimately, after other gods.
Unfortunately, in many churches, the story line that’s driven ministry to families has not been creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.Instead, the motivating narrative for family ministry has been a desire to gain numbers for the church or perhaps a longing to turn children into successful and mostly moral adults. Family ministry rooted in such transient whims will never have a lasting impact. Lasting impact must find its foundation in a far richer and deeper plot line: the story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. It’s in this divine story line that we glimpse the truth about who children are, who parents are, and how they should relate to one another. With that in mind, let’s take a close look at how God can work through this same old story to transform the lives of families.
The plot is a familiar one—a creation filled with goodness, a serpent filled with lies, a woman gazing at forbidden fruit, the man silent by her side. A choice was made, a hand extended, and suddenly all that had been so good was contorted into sin, sorrow, and death. No one on earth today has ever stood in the spot where our primeval parents took their first taste of cosmic treason. Yet our souls still bear the scars of that ancient exile from Eden.
There is both good news and bad news for families in these primal acts in God’s story line. The good news is that families and children are not byproducts of humanity’s sin. The divine design for marriage and parenthood preceded the fall (Gen 1:28). Even now, by raising children, men and women exercise divinely ordained dominion over God’s creation. This is pleasing to God (Gen 1:26–28; 8:17; 9:1–7; Ps 127:3–5; Mark 10:5–9). Parents provide for their families and nurture their offspring. This too is part of God’s good plan (Matt 7:11; 1 Tim 5:8). Parents train their children to avoid what is evil. Appropriate discipline is also godly and good (Prov 13:24; 19:18; 29:17; Heb 12:5–9).
But there is bad news for families as well: Because of the extent of humanity’s fall, meeting children’s needs and bettering children’s behaviors will never be enough. At best, parental patterns of provision and discipline prepare children to know the kindness of a heavenly Father, to sense the depth of their own sin, and to recognize their need for the gospel. At worst, these patterns train children to be satisfied with regulating outward actions and with pursuing gains that cannot persist past the end of time.
Viewed from the vantage of creation and fall, children are gifts to be treasured and sinners to be trained. And yet, no amount of training can ever raise a child to the level of God’s perfect standard. Every order of creation, including parenthood, has been subjected to frustration with the gap between the glory of God’s creation and the fact of humanity’s fallenness (Rom. 8:20–22). And so, as Jesus dangled from the splintered beam of a Roman cross on that fateful afternoon, God himself bridged the gap between his perfection and humanity’s imperfection (2 Cor. 5:21). The death of Jesus brought about redemption in the present; his resurrection guaranteed the consummation of God’s kingdom in the future.
This truth introduces a radical new dimension to family life. To embrace God’s redemption is to be adopted as God’s heir, gaining a new identity that transcends every earthly status (Rom 8:15–17; Gal 3:28–29; 4:3–7; Eph 1:5; 2:13–22). What this means for followers of Jesus is that our children are far more than our children; they are also potential or actual brothers and sisters in the body of the Messiah.
Husbands and wives, parents and children, women and men, orphans and widows, the plumber’s apprentice and the president of the multinational corporation, the addict struggling in recovery and the teetotalling grandmother in the front pew—all of us who are in Christ are brothers and sisters, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17; see also Gal 4:7; Heb 2:11; Jas 2:5; 1 Pet 3:7).
Seen from this perspective, my relationship with my children takes on a very different meaning. These daughters whom I adore will remain my children for this life only. I am the father of Hannah and Skylar until death, but—seeing and rejoicing that God has opened their hearts to the gospel—I will remain their brother for all eternity. Put another way, if your children stand beside you in the glories of heaven, they will not stand beside you as your children (Luke 20:34–48) but as your blood-redeemed brothers and sisters, fellow heirs of God’s kingdom. Remember the words of Jesus? “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50). Paul echoed this perspective when he directed Timothy to encourage “younger men as brothers” and “younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1–2).
Does this mean that once a child becomes a brother or sister in Christ, the relationship of parents to children somehow passes away? Of course not! The gospel doesn’t cancel roles that are rooted in God’s creation. Jesus and Paul freely appealed to the order of God’s creation as a guide for Christian community (Matt. 19:4–6; Mark 10:5–9; Acts 17:24–26; 1 Cor. 11:8–9; 1 Tim. 2:13–15). Paul called children in the redeemed community to respect their parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20; 1 Tim. 5:4). Meaningful labor was present before the fall and persisted in God’s plan even after the fall (Gen. 2:1–15; 2 Thess. 3:6–12). Far from negating the order of God’s creation, the gospel adds a deeper and richer dimension to the patterns in the first act of God’s story.
What does this truth mean for the day-to-day lives of parents in our churches? As a parent, I am responsible to provide for daughters and to prepare them for life; as an elder brother, I am called to lay down my life for them (1 John 3:16). As a parent, I help Hannah and Skylar to see their own sin; as their brother, I am willing to confess my sin (Jas 5:16). As a parent, I speak truth into their lives; as a brother, I speak the truth patiently, ever seeking the peace of Christ (Jas 4:11; 5:7–9; Matt 5:22–25; 1 Cor 1:10). As a parent, I discipline my daughters to consider the consequences of poor choices; as a brother, I disciple, instruct, and encourage them to pursue what is pure and good (Rom 15:14; 1 Tim 5:1–2). As a parent, I help these two girls recognize the right path; as a brother, I pray for them and seek to restore them when they veer onto the wrong path (Matt 18:21–22; Gal 6:1; Jas 5:19–20; 1 John 5:16).
Because I fully expected that Hannah would one day embrace the gospel, I began developing the habits of a brother long before our first conversation about what it means to follow Jesus. Because I see that Skylar is moving toward becoming a follower of Jesus, I do the same with her here and now. I did all of this imperfectly; I still do. I fall far short of living as a parent, spouse, and fellow heir within my family—and so will you. The central point is not that you or the members of your church will perform these deeds perfectly. It is, instead, that family members embrace the gospel more fully and begin to view one another in a renewed way, as brothers and sisters participating together in the “grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7).
Children are wonderful gifts from God—but they are far more than that. Viewed from an eternal perspective, every child in a household is also a potential or actual brother or sister in Christ. Until we learn to see our children from the perspective of “the same old story,” we fail to see who our children really are.