What John Calvin Taught Me About Parenthood
Have you ever played a word association game? Let’s do one now. What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you think of John Calvin? Perhaps you thought of the words predestination, reformation, and theology. I doubt you thought of parenthood.
Calvin on Psalm 78
After my first child was born, I spent hours reading Scripture and thinking through what God expects of me as a parent. Then I came across Calvin’s commentaries and found among all the rich theological truths that pastors and theologians discuss and debate a nugget of truth for parents in his commentary on Psalm 78.
Psalm 78 is a psalm about the importance of passing on God’s word to the next generation. It recounted past events in the life of God’s people, detailing to the future generations all that God has done. Multiple times the psalmist used the words, “remember” and “forget.” The song writer wanted Israel to never forget what God has done and for them to continue telling that story for generations to come.
“He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (vs. 5-7).
In Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 78, he says this: “The decree then is this, That the fathers being instructed in the doctrine of the law themselves, should recount, as it were, from the mouth of God, to their children, that they had been not only once delivered, but also gathered into one body as his Church, that throughout all ages they might yield a holy and pure obedience to him as their deliverer.”1
This is something we all know as Christians. We know that we need to teach our children God’s word. We know we are to teach them the gospel, the goods news of what Christ has done for them. We know that we must teach them this good news, not once but over and over throughout their lives.
Calvin goes on, “In the first place, the fathers, when they find that on the one hand they are instrumental in maintaining the pure worship of God, and that on the other, they are the means of providing for the salvation of their children, should, by such a precious result of their labors, be the more powerfully stirred up to instruct their children.”2
Three Takeaways from Calvin’s Commentary:
- It is our duty as parents to teach our children about what Christ has done. In Deuteronomy 6, the Israelites were instructed to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (vs. 5-9). On this side of redemption, we need to teach our children how Christ came to do what they could not do. We need to teach them how he fulfilled the law and through faith in his perfect life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection, his works have become theirs. The gospel needs to be the story that shapes our children’s lives and hearts. Because we are all prone to forget, we need to teach it to them when we walk by the way, when we sit, when we lie down, and when we rise.
- We also need to teach our children that they are part of the Body of Christ and united together in Christ. As Calvin wrote, “that they had been not only once delivered, but also gathered into one body as his Church, that throughout all ages they might yield a holy and pure obedience to him as their deliverer.” We must also teach our children what it means to be part of the Body of Believers. They must learn what it looks like to live in covenant community, to not forsake meeting together, what it means to submit to the leadership of the church, to love and serve fellow believers, and to live in unity.
- God uses parents as one of the means by which he provides for the salvation of our children. We know it is the Spirit which brings our children’s dead hearts to life but God uses us and our discipleship in the process. Perhaps we could compare it to how God uses our prayers to bring about his will. He doesn’t need to, but he chooses to use our prayers. This teaching from Calvin tells us that God also chooses to use parents in the process by which he saves our children. That’s why Calvin says that we should be “more powerfully stirred up to instruct” our children. We should take the responsibility seriously. We should be intentional and diligent in teaching them God’s word. And we should pray for them, that the Spirit would ratify the covenant in their hearts.
There is much to learn from Calvin about justification, soteriology, and God’s sovereignty, but there are also a few lessons we can learn from him about our responsibilities as parents. May we all remain faithful stewards of the gifts God has given, including our children. May we seek to instruct them in the Lord, trusting the Spirit to use our discipleship to do his lifesaving work.
1. An excerpt from Calvin's Commentary on Psalm 78.
Christina Fox is a graduate of Covenant College and received her Master’s in Counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She serves on the national women’s ministry team of the PCA and is the editor of enCourage. Christina is a conference and retreat speaker and writes for a number of Christian ministries including TGC and Ligonier. She is the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament and Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ Helps Friendships to Flourish. You can find her at www.christinafox.com, @christinarfox and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/ChristinaFoxAuthor.
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