Mrs. Miersma is the wife of Rev. Thomas Miersma, missionary in Spokane, Washington.
The children of God’s covenant, as we have seen, are not first of all our children, but the children of a Heavenly King, and as parents we serve as His stewards or agents. At the heart of their instruction as royal children pulses the almighty, efficacious love of God in Jesus Christ. To this love, the royal children of God’s covenant respond by faith, loving Him and living in godly fear, but because they are little children, and that by adoption, they must learn the proper way to express their love to Father in the way of godly fear. As the King’s servants, we do this by teaching His children to know their Father-King, especially in His word and His works, by leading them to pay homage to Him in His courts, and by training them to humbly trust Him and His wisdom as their Father. Striving to be the means by which our Father-King instills this godly fear in our children, we labor obediently, for the Lord’s sake, unto His glory. And because we seek His glory, our greatest desire for our children is that they be God-fearing children.
What is godly fear? Scripture uses the word fear in more than one sense, and it is an idea with many different facets, but, to put it very simply, godly fear, for us as God’s children, is that attitude of heart according to which we live continuously and consciously and in God’s presence. This conscious life in God’s presence has three main elements: personal knowledge of God, which works love for Him and a desire to please Him; awe and reverence before God, which moves us to adoration and worship; and humility before God, which reveals itself in trusting and obeying Him. In this article I will address the first element, knowledge, but we should first look at the means God uses.
God uses us to work godly fear in our children in three ways: through instructing our children’s understanding, through setting a godly example, and through training them in pathways or habits of godly fear. These habits, which begin as obedience to outward, established patterns of life, when joined with direct instruction and godly example, will, by God’s grace, lead to an inward desire to walk in those habits without compulsion. Forming or restoring beneficial habits, even in those things that relate to this earthly life—habits of healthy diet, regular exercise, practicing some skill, such as drawing or a musical instrument—is often a tremendous struggle. Once we lose these patterns, establishing or reestablishing them demands much effort.
How much more is this true of spiritual matters when the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh war to overthrow our desires according to the new man? This is why Scripture emphasizes the importance of training our children in habits or ways of godliness: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). “I have taught thee in the way of wisdom; I have led thee in right paths” (Prov. 4:11). A path presents a picture of a well-worn, habitual course. While this path is established by God and it is He who sets the course for our children and leads them in it, He uses parental training in habits of godly fear to accomplish this, just as He uses the head knowledge we teach to instruct the hearts of His children.
The first element of godly fear, then, is that we have a personal knowledge of God. If we are to live our lives consciously and continuously in God’s presence, we must rightly know our God. Rightly knowing Him means knowing Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word. For this reason, as Christian parents we will chiefly concern ourselves with teaching our children the objective knowledge of God in the Bible. That knowledge is found centrally in God’s house, where we bring our children to hear the Word of their Father-King officially proclaimed, both in public worship on the Lord’s Day and in the catechism class. Normally, God blesses this attendance to us and our children in the way of conscious preparation and instructed understanding.
What is included in this conscious preparation for coming to God’s house? What objective knowledge must we convey to our children, and in what patterns of life should we train them? In general, preparation begins with regularly reading the Scriptures to our children, even when they are very young. For preschoolers, a good Bible storybook may supplement this reading, but can never replace the actual words of Scripture themselves. Although at first children may have difficulty in understanding the words of Scripture, they will quickly comprehend more and more, especially when we stop frequently and briefly explain what we have read in words they can understand. We can engage their minds by asking them questions as we read or, as they become older, by posing a simple question before we begin reading and asking them to listen for the answer.
There is no hard and fast rule. With some children, posing a question may actually distract from their ability to listen, especially if they become more concerned with “getting it right” than with following the history or thought. The main point is that we should read the Bible, all of it, regularly and reverently. J.C. Ryle, in “Train Up a Child In the Way He Should Go: The Duties of Parents,” part of a larger work entitled The Upper Room, says of training a child in a knowledge of the Bible,
See that they read it all. You need not shrink from bringing any doctrine before them. You need not fancy that the leading doctrines of Christianity are things which children cannot understand. Children understand far more of the Bible than we are apt to suppose.
When children are able to read for themselves, they can follow along with the reading, and eventually participate in the oral reading themselves. This will often help them to concentrate, especially if they are visually oriented learners. Certain reference tools should be available and used in our homes: an English dictionary for checking the meaning of unfamiliar words, a good Bible dictionary to clarify questions that arise and to make certain concepts concrete, a concordance to aid us in comparing Scripture with Scripture, and a Bible atlas to help us understand passages with much geographical detail, like the Exodus and Paul’s missionary journeys. As our children grow older, we can sometimes read longer sections of Scripture, or perhaps from time to time read a portion from a good Reformed commentary, such as Righteous by Faith Alone, although the majority of our reading ought to be Scripture itself.
While we will normally read straight through a given book of the Bible, we could also read through the gospels using a harmony of the gospels, or through other sections of Scripture chronologically, reading prophecies in connection with the historical time in which they were originally given. Another possibility would be to study a particular topic in Scripture, using a reference tool like Nave’s Topical Bible. In our instruction we should apply the Word of God to our lives. We want to stress to our children that the Word of God is living and powerful, speaking to us now, where we are, in every situation of life. All these means will also help our older children establish their own personal study of the Bible.
We specifically instruct our children in the use of the means of grace, catechism instruction and preaching. An official means of grace, catechism instruction feeds Christ’s lambs, as He has commanded. Knowing its importance, we will work diligently with our children, ensuring not only that they thoroughly know their memory work and have completed their written work, but that they understand the meaning of the material they memorize or write. Because we want this instruction to be hidden in their hearts, we will not be content with their quickly cramming their memory work in the day or two before class, but will instruct them throughout the week. Not only will our children retain far more through the use of regular systematic review, but they will also see that their spiritual instruction is a priority in our lives. Once again, the words of J. C. Ryle will inspire us:
This is the thought that should be uppermost on your mind in all you do for your children. In every step you take about them, in every plan, and scheme, and arrangement that concerns them, do not leave out that mighty question, “How will this affect their souls?”
We can also specifically prepare our children for sitting under the preaching of God’s Word, the word of our Father-King, by teaching them not just to listen to the sound of words, but to follow a logical development of thought. Children learn to listen during family worship or devotions, but we can further their ability to listen intelligently by regularly reading aloud with them. Children who live on a steady diet of television, videos, and computer and video games will have a much harder time learning to concentrate on a sermon. Aside from the content of such material, much of it filled with either violence or silliness, which rarely fosters godly fear, the media themselves, by their very nature, weaken the ability of our children to think conceptually. Visual media, jumping rapidly and intuitively from one scene to another with little logical connection, may make our children mentally lazy because the media think and conceptualize for them, presenting before their minds, not words, but the image. Images tend to evoke emotional responses, encouraging our children just to feel, not to think. Images do not have an objective truth value. Children who regularly listen to stories—good, captivating, exciting stories—read aloud to them will learn to follow the line of a story, to see how details fit into the overall plot, to make “pictures” in their minds that enable them to understand, and to grow in patience and in the ability to slow down and direct their minds, which so readily and naturally seem to flit from one idea to another.
The ability to think and follow a spoken discourse, such as a sermon, will also be fostered by conversation with us. Opportunities for conversation abound when families eat together, read together, walk together, and travel together. In our hectic lives, preserving these opportunities demands conscious effort. But through these opportunities, our children gain abilities that will stand them in good stead when learning to listen to a sermon or to their pastor’s instruction in the catechism class.
How else can we help our children to listen and understand? We could read the Lord’s Day of the Heidelberg Catechism, or the text for the evening sermon on Sunday afternoon with our children and discuss in a simple way the sermon topic. When children are able to read, we can point out the theme and divisions of the sermon in the bulletin, and have them indicate by unobtrusively holding up their fingers when the minister begins the first, second, and third point. Above all, we should talk about what we have learned (more conversation) or how we were blessed by the sermon and patiently encourage our children to do the same, not by quizzing them or trying to force a spiritual response from them, but by speaking naturally together about what we love, the words of our Father-King. An excellent article on this subject, “Family Heirlooms” (2), by Mrs. Connie Meyer, may be found in the February 15, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer.
The most powerful teaching of the knowledge of God our children receive is our personal example. If we would have our children learn to know the Lord so that they may live in godly fear, we will ourselves attentively follow after this knowledge by regular attendance in public worship, Bible study, special lectures, and speeches. Our children will see us study God’s Word personally. They will hear our love for that Word in how we speak about it and about the servants of our Father-King, the officebearers who bring us that Word. Do we approach our regular family devotions with joy? Have we fallen into a dullness that takes the privilege of family worship for granted? Are we “in a rut,” unwilling to improve in this area, because we have “always done it this way”? When we are in trouble and distress, do our children see us turn to God’s Word for answers? Quoting J. C. Ryle once again,
“Think not your children will practise what they do not see you do. You are their model pictures, and they will copy what you are. Your reasoning and your lecturing, your wise commands and your good advice; all this they may not understand, but they can understand your life.
All Christian parents confess that they often fall far short of the pattern of godliness that they ought to show to their children and that, by God’s grace, they desire to show to their children. Our own knowledge of God is so feeble that we often falter in instructing our children. Yet in the way of dependence on God’s mercy in Christ, we will press forward in gratitude to our Father-King, desiring for our children the knowledge of godly fear and trusting His faithful promise, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”