Paul’s letter to the Ephesians conveys an overarching theme: believers are called to walk in light, love, and wisdom in every aspect of life—including family. God’s Word has established an order for relationships within the home that, when lived out, bears testimony to a confused culture about the difference Jesus makes. In this message, Alistair Begg investigates the Bible’s instructions about children, helping us understand how their nature shapes the roles and responsibilities of parents.
We’re going to read from Romans and the fifth chapter. Romans chapter 5 and from verse 12:
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Let’s turn to the Bible. Let’s turn to Ephesians and to chapter 6, and I’ll read verses 1–4, and then we’ll pray. Ephesians 6:1:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Father, we pray that you will help us, as we turn to the Bible, to think biblically, to respond properly, and to be quickened and enabled by the Holy Spirit. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, as we come now to chapter 6 in Ephesians, let me just say that this morning we might refer to this as an introduction to an introduction to this particular section. And I have found it helpful this week—and since I have, I hope you will too—to remind myself that we are actually dealing here with a letter, and the letter was written to believers in first-century Turkey. So they were living a long way away from here, and they were living at a very different period in time. Somebody may say, “Well, why in the world would you be dealing with it at all, given that we are so far removed from the life and circumstances of the time?” Well, of course, the answer to that we have just sung: that the Word of God is the Word of God and that it is timeless in its application.
And because it is a letter, I want us to keep in mind that this would have been read probably at one sitting, and therefore, when we move as slowly as we’re moving, the danger is that we get things disengaged from what has gone before. And so, I want to remind you that at the end of chapter 3—and you can check this as I’m saying it to you, you can see that it’s there; it’s always helpful, both through the ears and through the eyes, to work the material—but at the end of chapter 3, Paul has prayed again for these Ephesian believers, and he has reminded them in a wonderful statement of praise, of doxology, that all the praise and honor and glory needs to go to God, the one “who is able to do far more abundantly” than we can ask or even imagine. What an encouragement it must have been to them on the occasion when this letter was read out, facing the challenges of life in Ephesus and realizing what they were up against in terms of the alien culture, that God is able to do far more than we can ask or even imagine.
It is on that basis that we then went into chapter 4. And chapter 4 begins, if you like—what we’ve said—the sort of more practical half of the letter, although he immediately goes from his exhortation, once again, to theological input. But he begins by saying—it is imperative now—“[I want to] urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
And on those occasions, we tried to make sure that we understood that Paul was not giving a series of ethical directives to just anybody that happened to be around in Ephesus—so a sort of call to religion: “Try your best to stop doing this and start doing that.” But rather, he is addressing those who have been, as he says in chapter 2, moved from being blind to being sighted, moved from the realm of darkness to the realm of light, moved from being in bondage to being set free by the power of the gospel. And so when he says, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called,” it is to that calling he is referring.
Into chapter 5, he then brings that to the fore. He begins in verse 2 by saying, “It is important that you walk in love.” Then in verse 8, “that you walk in light.” Then in verse 15, “that you walk in wisdom.” So, how are we supposed to walk in light, walk in love, walk in wisdom? Well, again, on the basis of the work of grace within our lives. This is not a call to work something from the outside in, but it is a call to see worked out in our experience the reality of what God has done.
He has then gone on to remind them in 5:18 that, in contrast to the temptation to be “drunk with wine,” it is imperative that the believer is “filled with” the Holy Spirit, goes on being enabled by the Holy Spirit instead of being out of control as under the directive of a substance that will take you in the wrong direction; he said it is important that we are living in the power of the Holy Spirit. And it was then that he had gone on in verse 21 to say, “Now, when we live joyfully, thankfully, in this way, we will be submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
And it was at that point that we then noted that this submission to others to which he refers is according to the authority and the order as established by God himself. So the mutuality of brother-and-sister relationship within the church, with a spirit of humility and of submission, recognizing that God is at work in each life and in different ways—that is laid down, if you like, as a foundational element. But what he’s going on to point out is not some kind of system of egalitarianism that flows from that, but rather, he’s pointing out that God has actually established order within the framework of the family and the home and the workplace, and so the submission that is then to be represented is according to God’s order and according to God’s authority. And that was why we spent the time that we did on the matter of what it means for wives to submit to their own husbands and for husbands to love their wives according to Christ’s love for the church.
Now, as I say, all of this backtracking—at least for me in my study—was in order that I might remind myself, as I’m seeking to teach this, that Paul is writing to those who have been saved. We can go further back into chapter 2: “You were dead in your trespasses, you’ve been made alive together with Christ—by grace you’ve been saved—and you’ve been raised up with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” So, they’re saved, they’re seated, and now they are to be walking “as children of light.” And the light then will shine into the darkness—into the darkness of Ephesus, and into the darkness of our culture today as well.
In other words, as he addresses these very practical matters, he is touching on areas that are of essential importance, not only in the first century but clearly in our century too. These matters—what it means to be a man and a woman, what it means to be a child, what it means to be a parent, and so on—are being addressed by our culture and in our culture in a way that runs completely contrary to the instruction of the Bible. And here is surely one of the ways in which the distinguishing feature of a genuine Christian faith is going to come to the fore as we move further into this decade.
However long it is before Christ returns, however much more time we have to live things out, what it seems to me that we’re learning from Ephesians is this: the tremendous evangelistic impact of husbands and wives who, recognizing their own sinful propensities, their need of a Savior, their trust in Christ, have a chance to speak out to their friends and neighbors about the difference that Jesus makes. And in the same way, a family sitting down to eat a meal in a public restaurant or a mother moving two of her little rapscallions through the aisles of Target has a peculiar opportunity to cause an alien culture to say, “What is wrong with this picture? How is this happening?” In other words, instead of running around with a big batch of tracts, just run around with your children. And let that then testify to the reality of the grace of God. Instead of trying to corner somebody in your office and explain to them all your views in opposition to the evolutionary hypothesis, just love your wife. And cause your colleague to say, “Why do you do that? And how do you do that?”
You see, the confrontation with our culture is undeniable, but nothing is new. It was true in Ephesus. It was true when one of my friends wrote this in England years ago. Dealing with this very passage, he wrote,
We[’re] living in a world which is witnessing [a dramatic] breakdown in … discipline. …
A spirit of lawlessness is abroad, and things which were once more or less taken for granted are not only being queried and questioned but are being [reduced] and dismissed. There is no question but that we are living in an age when there is a ferment of evil working actively in the whole of society. … In many ways we are face to face with a total collapse … of what is called “civilization” and society.
That may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think so. And one of the areas in which this is most evident and obvious is in the matter of children and parents.
Now, that quote comes from London, 1960. 1960. Help! came out in 1965—since I always have significant, you know, historical markers to help me navigate history. “When I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way.” Right? That’s ’65. Well, no wonder. What are you going to do in the 1960s? Was that accurate in 1960? What would you make of America in 2018? Or the UK? Let’s stick with the UK; makes us feel better.
This is The Times of London yesterday; I read it before I went to my bed. I shouldn’t do this before I go to bed, because it keeps me awake at night. “Mother’s Day Cards Go Gender- Neutral.” “Waitrose,” which is one of the main grocery stores in England, “is selling gender-neutral Mother’s Day cards as retailers reduce their use of the M-word to make today’s celebration[s] more ‘transgender inclusive.’” They’re “selling a ‘Happy You Day’ card in [the] Mother’s Day range in which the word ‘mother’ does not appear.” They’ve been joined by other retailers who are offering “a ‘Two mums are better than one’ card for same-sex couples and ‘Dad, thanks for being the most amazing mum’ card.” Okay. It’s where we are. Here’s the Bible; there’s The Times. I always tell you, “You read the paper, read the Bible.” One foot in the paper, one foot in the Bible. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
Now, on two occasions—on two occasions… Incidentally, when I was driving here this morning listening to NPR, I listened to an interview between a transgender woman—that is, a young man declaring himself to be a woman—who has just married a fellow called Andy, who is actually a woman declaring herself to be a man. It’s very hard for me just to keep my car straight on the road.
On two occasions, when Paul gives to his readers a long list of the ugly fruits of godlessness—one in the second half of Romans chapter 1, which you’ll be able to find, and the other in 2 Timothy chapter 3—right in the middle of all of that ugly list is one little phrase: “disobedient to parents.” “Disobedient to parents.” He says, “Here is what happens when mankind turns away from God who has created him and when, in rebellion and in foolishness, seeks to reconstruct and construct his life in his own way and according to his own plans.” And in the midst of all of that that follows, it is very striking that, again in both occasions, he says one of the features of a putrefying culture is a complete loss of natural affection and the breakdown in the essential family unit whereby children would live in honor, respect, and obedience to their parents.
Conversely, when you read church history, you discover that at times of spiritual awakening—for example, in the eighteenth-century Awakening—practical godliness follows from a religious awakening. It is not that people went out and taught ethics and said, “You need to try and do these things.” It was that they went out and said, “The love of God for sinners is such that Christ has come. And if you will trust in Christ, then you will be included in that company. And then, once included in that company, your life will bear testimony to that. You’ll walk in the light, you’ll walk in the truth, you’ll walk in wisdom. If you’re a child, you’ll obey your mom and dad. If you’re a husband, you’ll really love your wife,” and so on. In other words, the practical elements and expressions of it are grounded in the gospel itself. That’s why it is the gospel that we must proclaim. However we feel about the press and the pushback of contemporary culture, we realize that our hope and our confidence is in the gospel itself—that God’s Word does its work by the power of the Holy Spirit bringing men and women to himself, including children.
Now, the fact that children are being addressed in this letter tells us something that we might be tempted to miss—or may even, some of us, want to miss. And that is that for him to address children assumes the presence of children when the letter is being read. Otherwise there would be no reason to address them directly. So in other words, the assumption is that when the congregation has gathered, it won’t be age-graded and age-divided, but it will be a congregation that is representative of the families that are within that congregation—thereby allowing the children to be on the receiving end of instruction, parts of which they’re going to inevitably have to go home and ask their mom and dad about, or ask their uncle, or ask their grandma, or whatever it might be: “I didn’t understand all of that letter.” You say, “Don’t worry about it. I didn’t understand all of it either. I hope he’s going to read it to us again sometime soon.” But, with that said, I want just to simply observe something. And that is that while we have every good reason to be thankful for the way in which we structure our programs here at Parkside Church, I think we as a church family need to address this question ourselves. And that is: At what point are our children included in the experience of our worship and our praise and our study?
You see, if you as parents create the impression with your children, whether they are little or teenagers, whatever—you create the impression like, “Oh, you wouldn’t want to come in there. You won’t like it. You’ll have to listen to Begg. You know, you should go in room 14”—if you convey that to your children, you are conveying something to them that, one, is probably inaccurate—at least in terms of the experience—but two, it is one that is forming convictions in their own hearts and minds, which will come back to bite them.
When you read the Old Testament, you find that, for example, when the Book of the Law was brought out in the experience of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Jerusalem context, and they said, “Bring out the Book,” and the book was read, and Nehemiah 8 reads, “And he read [it] … from early morning [to] midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand.” “Those who could understand.”
People say to me, “Well, why are you sometimes a little edgy when it comes to children screaming in the thing?”
“Well, because there’s children screaming in the thing. You know, that’s why. Because they don’t need to do that, and it’s not helpful to the mom or anybody around them, and it’s pretty daunting.”
“Do you love ’em?”
“How much do you love them?”
“Well, enough to, you know—yeah, we love ’em.”
But if they can understand—if they can understand—then why would you deprive them of the opportunity to hear? The same thing with Jehoshaphat, when the armies are coming against them, and Jehoshaphat calls everybody into the public square, and it says, “[And so] all Judah stood before the Lord, with their little ones, their wives, and their children.”
George Barna, who produces statistics all the time about how post–high school young people are dropping out of the church in droves—well, I don’t know how accurate that actually is. I read a quote the other day where someone said, “If your student ministry is a four-year holding tank with pizza, [then] don’t expect young adults to [stay] around.” I get that entirely. If that’s all you’re doing is a sort of gigantic adolescent babysitting operation inducing them to stay around with pizza, then how are they going to make a transition from there to becoming a constituent part of a church when they go off to university or to college?
But no, I think probably the reality of it is in many cases that these young people are not dropping out; it is that they never dropped in! They were never in. They had never established, or had established for them, patterns of public worship—that this is the Lord’s Day, that this is the Lord’s house, that this is the Lord’s Word, that these are the Lord’s people, and that if I am the Lord’s, then it would be very strange if I were to absent myself from the Lord’s people listening to the Lord’s Word on the Lord’s Day. And the fact that they may wrestle and fiddle and discover and rediscover is perfectly understandable. But it should be pretty obvious that that which they have never experienced is gonna have to be an entirely new encounter for them when they establish their own principles.
“Well,” you say, “are you ever going to get to the thing?” Yeah. Now. Now.
Let’s get to the first word, “children.” Children. The issue here is not age but relationship, I’m sure, but it seems from the context—context both of instruction here and of discipline—that Paul has in mind pre-adult children who are living at home. I take it that that’s the case. And so he is giving instruction in this letter to the fellowships in the Ephesian context, recognizing that there will be children who are there who will be on the receiving end of the instruction, and therefore, they will be able to find themselves, if you like, in the great mosaic of God’s purpose for his family.
Now, let me just say five things about children in the time that remains to us—and it’s not very long. It’s very straightforward and simple. Okay.
Number one: “Children are a heritage from the Lord.” Right? Psalm 127:3. They are a reward; they are a gift. Okay? How do we know this? ’Cause the Bible told us. So, on your worst day, you look them in the eye and you go, “You are my heritage. You are my little gift from the Lord.” Fact! Fact!
Secondly, they are on loan for a time. They are on loan for a time. They are ours for a limited time only. In those testing years, whatever those years may be, when it seems as though time has slowed and every hour lasts for a day and that there will never be an end to this, we can’t imagine the experience that we finally go through when we drop them at college, and we turn around, look over our shoulders, and say, “Eighteen years just went past in a flash.” Because we only have a short journey, and they’re ours for a wee while. You see, as parents we are guardians and we’re custodians; we’re not owners. We don’t own our children. They’re loaned to us. They are individuals, made in the image of God, with their own DNA, with their own personality, with their own temperament, with their own standing outside of grace, with their own need of a Savior, with their own need of the gospel.
Thirdly, these youngsters who are our heritage and who are on loan for a while are flawed from conception—are flawed from conception. It’s quite common—indeed, it’s a natural instinct—to think of newborn children as simply moral and spiritual clean sheets. After all, look at them. But the Bible tells us otherwise. The Bible—and this is a faith doctrine, isn’t it? All doctrine eventually is there as a result of our faith and trust and confidence in the Bible itself. Now, when the wicked are described, it may be a specific reference: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” David writes that, perhaps in that general way of himself. That was Psalm 58:3, of himself, and Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
You see, what the Bible says is that every child is born with a congenital spiritual heart disease—that every child is born like us, guilty and depraved. The doctrine of total depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we can possibly be in every dimension of our lives; the doctrine of total depravity—as taught, at least, in the context in which we understand things—is that there is no part of our lives that is not infected and invaded by the reality of sin. And it doesn’t really take very long for this to become apparent. I mean, do you think those early tantrums were just as a result of some external reality? Don’t you look at that happening and go, “How in the world does this little creature manage to express such unbelievable animosity towards me? My little heritage here, my little reward?” If you don’t have children of your own, help us out in the nursery. One Sunday morning in the nursery will convince you of the doctrine of total depravity. There is no other way to deal with this.
“Oh,” you say, “Yes, there is. There are plenty ways.” Of course, from the secular mind. I brought one of my books this morning. It’s entirely unread. I tried to read this book. It’s written by a very, very clever professor from Stanford University. He’s a professor of biology and neurology, and I bought the book because it was called Behave—and I need to behave, and so I thought maybe I could learn how to behave—[The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst]. I am not clever enough to grapple with this book, I tell you right now. I’ve tried. But I also can look in the index, and I looked in vain to see if there was any indication of the fact that perhaps the behavior of humanity might just somehow or another be related to the fact that man is inherently bad. But no, it’s all neurobiology, it’s all about hormones, it’s all about everything. And secular man says that that’s the case.
So, for example, the immediate scramble to the post-Florida shootings is to explain it immediately in psychological terms. I’ll tell you one thing about that boy: he was bad. He was bad. He was a bad boy. How do you know? ’Cause all boys are bad boys. We were conceived in this way. That’s why I read from Romans chapter 5.
You see, the theology of this is worked out by Paul, who is explaining that in our solidarity with Adam, Adam sins and brings down humanity with him: “as in Adam all die…” The existence of death in our world is testimony to the promise of God to the members of the garden that “in the day that you do this, you violate me, and you will die.” And death is an expression of that, spread over the whole of humanity. By Adam’s disobedience, each of us is constituted sinners, as a result of our natural relationship with him—that we share in this depravity from the very beginning of our existence, and that we are therefore incapable of keeping the law. And that’s why we need a Savior.
We could spend much more time on that, but we don’t have the time just now. We can come back to it.
Number four, on account of that, the children are in need of the commandments. The children are in need of the commandments of God. Whatever choice we might make about our children’s education, in whatever framework, we are, as parents, the Bible says, responsible to instruct them in the law of God from their earliest days—to instruct them in the law of God from their earliest days. So that the Ten Commandments, as an expression of God’s absolute perfect way for life to be lived and enjoyed, is there not as a mechanism whereby we could use it as a ladder to crawl up into acceptance with God, which is what we are tempted to do, but rather as a means of, as it were, turning a mirror on us and showing us that we don’t love God as we should. That we do tell lies. That we are covetous. That we do think wrong thoughts. That we understand what it is to be jealous and so on. That we want to order life in our own way. What a wonder it is when you have, for example, this statement in Proverbs chapter 4:
When I was a boy in my father’s house,
still tender, and an only child of my mother,
he taught me and said,
“Lay hold of my words with all your heart;
keep my commands and you will live.”
People say, “Well, it’s not externalism.” No, it’s not externalism. The Word of God is as we’ve sung it. The father says to the child, “Keep these words. Store them up in your heart, and you will live. Reject them and you will surely die.” The child says, “Well then, what am I supposed to do?”
Well, God wrote the commandment for sinners to convict us of our sin, to highlight us of a need of salvation. So our children need to understand God’s law in the context of God’s grace. Which is my fifth and final point: that these children who are gifts from the Lord, who are a heritage from the Lord, who are on loan for a time, who are flawed from conception, who need the commandments, are children who are saved by grace. Saved by grace. So that we teach our children to look to the Lord Jesus Christ. We read the Gospels with them; we show them that Jesus was born into the family of a workman, that Jesus kept the law of God in its entirety and perfectly. We tell them then that when Jesus died upon the cross, Jesus died on the cross to bear the punishment that we deserve because we’ve broken the law; and he bore all of that punishment for our weakness and for our wickedness and for our waywardness; and that if we will believe in him, his righteousness is ours.
Yeah… And when the children wander away and when they give full expression to their depravity, what do they need to know? They need to know that there is more grace in Christ than there is sin in them. There is more grace in Christ than there is sin in them. That, in the words of the songwriter,
There is a way back to God from the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that is open, and you may go in:
And at Calvary’s cross, that’s where you begin,
When you come as a sinner to Jesus.
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” You’re a heritage.
We’ll come back to this, I hope.
There may be some of us here this morning, and frankly, this has hit us like a thunderbolt, because we’ve been thinking that if only we could just do a little better on these commandments we would find acceptance with you. And now here we discover that we’re incapable. And so, may the story of God’s love for us in Jesus woo us and win us and cause us to confess to you that we are sinful, that we do need a Savior, and, perhaps even as our service draws to a close, call out to you and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I do believe that you are the one who saves the sinner, and that I am the one in the need of your salvation. I haven’t honored my mom and dad as I should. Save me. Make me yours.”
Lord, we pray that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit may rest upon and remain with all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Ephesians 3:20 (ESV).
 Ephesians 4:1 (ESV).
 Ephesians 5:2 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:8 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:15 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:21 (paraphrased).
 See Ephesians 5:22–33.
 Ephesians 2:5–6 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:8 (ESV).
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home and Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18 to 6:9 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 238.
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Help!” (1965).
 Andrew Gilligan and VincentWood, “Mother’s Day Cards Go Gender-Neutral,” The Sunday Times, March 11, 2018, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mothers-day-cards-go-gender-neutral-nc0rpxf00.
 Philippians 2:12 (ESV).
 Romans 1:30 (ESV). See also 2 Timothy 3:2.
 Nehemiah 8:3 (ESV).
 2 Chronicles 20:13 (ESV).
 Ed Stetzer, “Dropouts and Disciples: How Many Students Are Really Leaving the Church?,” Christianity Today, May 14, 2014, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/may/dropouts-and-disciples-how-many-students-are-really-leaving.html.
 Psalm 58:3 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 15:22 (ESV).
 Genesis 2:17 (paraphrased).
 Proverbs 4:3–4 (NIV 1984).
 Eric Hubert Swinstead, “There’s a Way Back to God.” Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.