Have you ever noticed how many guarantees there are offered to you? People promise guaranteed satisfaction on so many sorts of products and services because people want to know that the money they spend or the effort they expend will be worth it. No one wants to pay a bunch of money only to have buyer’s remorse or work super hard on something that turns out to be a waste of time. Now if there is anything that parents want is a guarantee on, it is that their children are going to do all right in life. Parents put more effort, more of themselves, into their children than anything else in their lives (if they are doing it properly!), so they, of all people, want to know that what they are doing is the right thing. We’ve all heard the horror stories of parents who seemingly did everything right and yet the kids did not turn out the way their parents hoped. This puts us on the hunt for some sort of technique, some sort of verse, some sort of something that will help us sleep at night knowing that no matter how anything else turns out in life, at least the kids are going to be ok.
Many believe that they have found their answer in this verse. All you have to do is train up your kid! This means that any kid that wasn’t trained, or at least wasn’t trained properly, will turn out poorly. Now, I think we all know that life isn’t that simple, but we still have this verse here. We can’t just say, “Well, that is not how my life has turned out, so the Bible must be wrong.” That is a very dangerous way to do Bible interpretation. We can’t interpret the Bible through our own life experience, so what are we supposed to do with it? What is this verse really promising us, if anything? Well in order to understand this verse, we need to understand a little bit about how the Bible works, and specifically how Proverbs work.
In this sermon, we need to cover two important things: God Never Contradicts Himself and God calls us to train our children for His glory.
As always, whenever there is an important theological topic, theologians need to put a fancy name on it. Obviously, the idea that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself is really a foundational concept, so we’ve got a name for it! The term theologians use is called the analogy of faith. Let’s examine what is meant by the analogy of faith. All we are saying is that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself, so the Bible is the best guide and interpreter of the Bible. Is there one verse that could be interpreted a few different ways? Well, find another verse that addresses that topic clearly. Whatever is meant there in the clear passage is what it means in the unclear passage (R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, 27-29). To put it in a very simple way, keep the context of the whole Bible when you are interpreting any individual verse. Do you remember last week when we talked about the importance of context in a chapter of the Bible? We saw last week how the context of the whole chapter of Matthew 18 helped us interpret it correctly. This week, we are going to see how the entire Bible (more or less) helps us understand Proverbs 22:6.
Why is keeping the whole Bible in mind helpful? Well, we know that the Bible was written in its entirety by God Himself. This means that though there were several human writers, there was one Divine Author. What this means is God isn’t going to contradict Himself. We can contradict ourselves because we either don’t remember what we have said before, or we are simply inconsistent about what we believe. God doesn’t have any of those limitations.
This is an important thing to grasp in our minds because this is foundational to the rest of our interpretation of the Bible. This means that the best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible. We can best understand what the Bible is saying over here by what the Bible says in other places. By comparing different passages of Scripture together, we can determine what any one passage is referring to.
Let’s look at an example of this. We can see Ephesians telling us that God forgives us purely by His grace. We might walk away from that thinking, “Ok, then, it doesn’t matter what I do. I’m saved by grace, not my works, therefore, I will do no works.” But then James comes along and reminds us that there are still commands that we will obey if our faith is a living one. We are still saved by grace, but that salvation is made evident by the works that faith produces. The one doesn’t cancel the other but they complement one another. Now, we know that James isn’t preaching salvation by works because the entire rest of the Bible very clearly affirms salvation by grace alone. And indeed, once you read James closely, you will see that James isn’t saying that salvation is obtained by works but it is displayed by works.
This is why something like keeping the whole context of the whole Bible is so important. Yes, we need to know the immediate context, but to keep ourselves from getting into the exegetical weeds and becoming unbalanced on something, we need to see what the rest of Scripture has to say on the topic. If we try to “find balance” using our own intuition rather than the Bible itself, we always run the very high risk of going too far the other way.
So how does keeping the whole Bible in mind help us with Proverbs 22:6? When we start to look at the rest of the Bible, we can see that what is seemingly promised here, simply hasn’t worked out in the rest of the Bible. Ironically, we actually have the example of Solomon himself not following the right path when he is old. In fact, precisely when he got old, he married a bunch of other women and turned his heart away from God to false gods! He even attempted to kill the next guy in line to the throne as a result of that sin (1 Kings 11:40)! What happened? Was David just not a good dad? You could make that argument based on Absolom’s case, but the 1 Kings 11 passage makes explicit that David followed God wholeheartedly, so he has a decent chance as any to fulfill this verse of training his child appropriately.
We also see examples of terrible parents who produce good kids. Let’s look at 2 Kings 21:19-26. Amon was a miserable dad. The guy did basically nothing right, and yet Josiah comes from him and goes on to be one of the best kings since David, according to God Himself (2 Kings 22:25). We’ve seen parents produce two kids of completely opposite dispositions. Adam and Eve had both Cain and Abel. One was a worshiper and the other was a murderer. Jacob had his twelve sons where both Reuben and Joseph came from him (different mothers, though).
By seeing these other passages in the Bible, because we know that the Bible does not contradict itself, we are able to arrive at a proper understanding of the Scriptures. Obviously, based on the data that we have, we can conclude that Proverbs 22:6 isn’t an iron-clad promise, because it has obviously not been that for these other parents, in the Bible. Remember, we are not drawing on the data of our own lives but drawing on Biblical data to figure this out.
Even if we look into the Proverbs themselves, we will see that Proverbs has never promised fool-proof parenting. One scholar put it this way: “...yes, Proverbs has an optimistic air about parents and tradition, But that should not lead readers to regard the book as naive or idealistic. A closer reading of the book reveals its unapologetic realism” (O’Dowd, 709). In another place, he said, “The book does not solve the problem of contradictions in life. Instead it leaves this problem to the limits of human understanding, calling us away from pragmatism and despair to an ethics grounded in faith, providence, and hope” (707). This last sentence I think needs some unpacking for us.
Proverbs is showing us what our approach to life should be even in the face of hardships and a culture that says we are doing this wrongly. Proverbs isn’t trying to reveal every mystery or lay out what to do in every single situation we will encounter in life. If it even tried to, the book would be endless! It simply lays out what a wise approach to life would be in a variety of situations leaving it to a mind transformed by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit to reason our way through it. Proverbs 26:4-5 is a great example of this where we are told to not answer the fool and to answer the fool. Different situations require different responses, and Proverbs is able to sustain that reality.
What Proverbs is calling us to is an ethic that is “grounded in faith, providence, and hope” (707). I love this because I think it captures so well what we are trying to do here. When we live out this wisdom that God has left for us here, we do so in faith, in trust that God is leading us the right way. We do so trusting in God’s providence, His total care of all things. There is nothing in your life that is left to chance. I have spent so much of my life trying to make it regret-proof, overthinking so many decisions in my life because I just want it to be perfect. It is fine to plan and be careful, but where the arrogance comes is when I think that by doing so, I can fundamentally control my life so it is lived in the way I want. It isn’t my life, it is God’s. I think about a decision long enough to take God’s Word into account, the wisdom of other people, and go for it. If it turns out badly, well, God’s providence is going to work through it. In the end, I still have hope of what God is going to do in the future. Keeping these three things in mind I think is going to transform how we approach the Proverbs.
We see this powerfully illustrated in the book of Job. Job actually never gets the answer to why despite faithful living, he experienced all this trouble. The “only” answer he gets is the only answer we need: “God is God, and we are not.” We are living in His world, and no matter what our experience of it is, it is going to be worked out for His ultimate glory.
So after all of that, let’s dive into our verse (finally!) At first, it would seem that we have an iron-clad promise that as long as you raise your children correctly, they will turn out ok even when they are old, but as we have seen, the rest of the Bible would seem to indicate to us that this simply isn’t the case. This doesn’t mean we throw our hands up in despair saying, “Well, then, nothing works! Might as well give up!” We don’t have to do that.
So what is this verse saying to us, then? In one sense, in general, if you teach your children the things of God, they are likely to continue in those teachings. God’s wisdom is that we teach our children because they need it. This isn’t meant to be a promise so much as it is a prodding to teach your children.
This isn’t the only place in Scripture where this is taught. In Deuteronomy 6:7, we are told to teach our children diligently. Psalm 78:6-7 tells us to teach our coming generation about the works of the Lord with the implication that they will follow the teachings presented to them. Included also is Psalm 102:18, Deu 4:9, 11;19, Ex. 12:26-27, and Josh. 4:6, and that is just the Old Testament. Obviously, teaching one’s children is an important task for the people of God. This was a priority that God continues into the New Testament in Eph. 6:4, Col. 3, and Jesus’ own interaction with children, Matthew 19:14. Children are very important to God, so He has commands all the way through the Bible to train them up, and He has laid that responsibility squarely on the parent’s shoulders.
In short, children look to you to learn about God and His Word. Yes, things like church attendance is important. Sunday School is so helpful, which is why we are so grateful to those who serve in that capacity week after week. Bible videos, children’s books, and VBS are all helpful to you, but none of those things can replace you. There is no more of a powerful witness of Jesus’ ability to impact a life than a life lived in front of others. Parents, there is no one that your kids are watching more closely than you. So train them. Show them how it is done. But this doesn’t mean that God owes us children doing what we want them to.
We don’t train them for our own glory or their own glory. This is such a hard part about being a parent! It is so easy to train our children with the idea that if we do so properly they will make us look good. What makes that so easy to think is that it is kinda true! We look at well-behaved kids and assume that this is the parent’s good work. God will sometimes reward in that way, but He doesn’t have to. Other times I am motivated for my kids to be obedient because I want their lives to be easier and have the approval of strangers. Sometimes I am selfless enough to not care about what this means for me, but I am not sufficiently focused on God to get past what it means for my children. Sometimes God allows kids to take themselves through quite the convoluted path to ultimately them where He wants them to go. In those situations, we trust them to His care, continue to pray for them, and rest that God is indeed a good God who will work all things for our glory and His good.
So what is our takeaway? We recognize that while God gives us clear directions for what to do with our children, we must not think that this will be a magic formula to ensure our children turn out a certain way. This doesn’t mean we don’t train them (to do that is to be disobedient), but it does mean that we don’t train them with the idea that if we’ve done that, God owes us good kids. We train them for God’s glory, not ours, not theirs, and not anyone except God’s.
I don’t know of a single parent who doesn’t look back on their child-rearing without some level of regret. None of us have done this perfectly. Some of us actually did it very poorly. But Jesus can forgive bad parents. The gospel is for parental failure, too. If that is the case for you today, then you, to borrow a phrase from John Piper, you are going to have to rely on the same grace of God as the parent who did it perfectly. Repent of that sin, apologize to your children, if necessary, and go after Christ (recognizing that just because you have apologized, doesn’t mean that potentially decades of hurt magically go away). Maybe your wayward children turn back immediately because of that, maybe they don’t, but the point is to be reconciled to God. Live out the gospel in front of them as an adult, and maybe, just maybe, when they, too, are old, they will not depart from The Way as well. This is a life-long process, and commitment to God’s Word is the only path forward. One Scholar put it this way: “Like children, parents are prone to error. And so God puts children, parents, and others on notice that true wisdom is found only in the tradition of those who "fear the Lord" (Prov. 1:7). One cannot have wisdom (or society) without tradition, but not every tradition counts, and thus heating wisdom's call is a task that never ceases” (O’Dowd, 709). We all need to be walking along this path, and we will, only by God’s grace, be able to lead our children down it as well.