The Lord’s Day Morning
“Biblical Family Life”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to the Book of Deuteronomy. Keep your thumb there in Deuteronomy, because I’m going to ask you to turn back in just a few moments to Philippians 2, by way of introducing the subject that we’re going to be studying this morning.
By the way, you’ve just sung that wonderful hymn, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. You should know first of all that this is the theme song for our Wednesday evening study of the Book of Numbers, because that song, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, is based upon the story told by Moses in the Book of Numbers, and we’re going to be studying that book on Wednesday nights. Now if you think that the Book of Numbers is irrelevant to you, just remember that in First Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul says that the Book of Numbers was written for Christians to tell us how to live the Christian life; so, bear that in mind.
Now, we have been working through a series of topical expository messages on the qualities or the characteristics of a healthy biblical local church. Really, we started this back on October 22 of last year. We looked that Sunday at the context in which we find ourselves as Christians gathered in a local congregation in this culture today. We talked about how individualism and relativism and consumerism negatively influence our culture and even the church; and, we talked about how the church has to be of a mindset not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds according to the word of God.
To that end, the next week we emphasized the importance of faithful biblical preaching (and especially expository Bible preaching) as the prime means whereby God builds up His church and enables her to stand against the world...to march in accordance with His will and way as opposed to in accord with the ways of the world.
We considered the importance of worship, both in all of life and in the gathered congregational praise of God’s people, and we said that we wanted to be a people that love to worship God, 24-7 in everything that we do, for His glory; but also, to love on His day to gather with His people to give praise to God; and, that our worshiping Him in all of life both leads us in preparation to come and worship Him together; and, our worship together informs and helps us to worship Him in all of life.
We also talked together about the importance of truth in the Christian life: that truth is unto godliness, and therefore every Christian has a passion for truth; and every healthy local church is not only characterized by faithful Bible exposition, by a passion for biblical corporate or public worship, but also by a passion for truth – that we care about doctrine, we care about what God says in His word because we know that theology (truth, doctrine) is meant to inform and instruct us for living the Christian life.
And while we didn’t focus on the specific core, key, cardinal doctrines of the Christian life in that message, we did focus on how important truth is to the Christian life; and that’s so important in the relativistic age in which we live, where truth is at a discount.
And then, the last time we were together we talked about godliness, and we said that a healthy biblical congregation of believers is characterized by a passionate pursuit of godliness. We said that a congregation cannot be godly if the members of that congregation are not individually pursuing godliness. We illustrated this from both the Old and the New Testaments, and we talked about what godliness means, we talked about its importance, we talked about the enemies of godliness in the Christian life, we talked about the impossibility of godliness apart from God’s grace. And that leads us to the subject that we’re going to study today.
In the bulletin we have written before us that our topic is “Biblical Family Life”, but we understand that when we begin to talk about godliness at home, family religion, biblical family life, what we are really talking about is one of the ways that God works godliness deep down and far out into the life of a local congregation. If we were to ask today, “How does God promote godliness in the local church, and how is godliness conveyed to the next generation?” there are several good answers that we could give. We would be right to start with God Himself. Godliness cannot be produced apart from the grace of God.
That’s why I wanted you to have your fingers in Philippians 2. If you’ll look at
Philippians 2... [Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians] chapter 2, verse 12, you’ll find the Apostle Paul says:
“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;...”
The Apostle Paul is telling them to take their growth in grace seriously, to work out their sanctification, to apply themselves to grow in grace, to sanctification, to being more Christ-like, to being more godly; do it with fear and trembling. Take it seriously. But look at what he says in the next verse. Why should they do this?
“...it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
In other words, the Apostle Paul says the reason we are to exert ourselves in the pursuit of godliness is not because we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. The reason we are to exert ourselves in the work of godliness is because God is at work in us to produce godliness, and God’s work in us calls forth a response from us. You don’t find godliness; you don’t achieve godliness in the Christian life by falling off a log. It requires exertion, discipline, effort; but it always is based upon the work of grace that God is doing in us. That grace enables us to grow in discipline. That work enables us to grow in a desire for godliness. That work enables us to exert ourselves to grow in grace, but God’s grace is always the foundation. It’s at the bottom of all of our own efforts in response. So if we were to say, “How does a congregation grow in godliness?” we would be right to start with God.
We would also be right to say a congregation grows in godliness through the means of grace. God has appointed certain means—the reading and preaching of the word; prayer; the sacraments...He has appointed a variety of means in His church to grow His church in grace. We would be right to say that. But we would also be right to say that God has appointed families to be a nursery for godliness in the church, to be a vital school for Christian discipleship wherein the congregation grows deep and wide in godliness, and that’s what we’re going to talk about together.
Isn’t it interesting that this is what is on Moses’ mind in the passage that we’re going to read this morning? We’re going to concentrate on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, but if you’ll look at verses 1 and 2, as Moses is speaking to the Israelites in what is his final sermon—the Book of Deuteronomy is his final sermon to the people of God—he says:
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it....”
By the way, can we stop right there and say he has just given you a beautiful definition of what discipleship is? It is both thinking and acting biblically. It’s not just thinking biblically, it’s acting biblically. Isn’t it interesting? He says here are the commandments that you are supposed to do. These are not commandments that you are simply to listen to, commandments that you are to know, commandments that you are to accept, commandments that you are to believe; these are commandments that I have taught you to practice, to do, to put into reality in your conduct and living. And so the goal of Moses’ teaching is not just so that the Israelites will assent to a set of truths that he has taught them, but so that they will practice that truth. ‘This is the truth that I have taught you to do; not just to believe, but to do.’ And, therefore, Christian discipleship – godliness – entails thinking and acting biblically.
But notice the next thing he says, verse 2:
“...So that you and your son and your grandson might fear the Lord your God....”
You see what’s on Moses’ mind. He is desirous of this godliness spreading throughout the congregation, but he’s not just talking about the present congregation. He’s thinking about their children, and their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren.
Well, how is that kind of legacy of godliness conveyed? How do we promote godliness in the congregation and in the next generation, and generations? Well, Moses tells you in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and today as we look at this passage, I want you to keep four things in mind: Prayer, Practice, Precept, and Providence.
Let’s pray before we read God’s word.
Lord, this is Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it, and to believe and to do them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is God’s word:
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God; the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit down in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
1. How is godliness promoted throughout the congregation and to the generations to come?
Yes, it’s ultimately the work of God. If I could give you a three-point formula that was going to assure the success and prosperity of your children and assure their eternal heavenly destiny of salvation, I would be a very rich man. (You know, if it was ‘Do these three secrets that I’ve figured out, and it’s all going to be fine!’ I could be a very, very rich man.) But this is the sovereign, mysterious work of God, isn’t it? And there’s no formula that causes all of the difficulties to go away.
A dear, dear friend of mine approached me four or five months ago...a family that I’ve known very, very well...I’ve stayed in their home before. I’d heard while staying in one of their children’s room while that child was away from home...I’d heard that family on their knees in their bedroom praying for their children. A godly, praying family. And this woman was telling me that four of her children had suffered for a number of years, wrestling with the abuse of illegal drugs; and it has been a taxing trial for her and her husband because they are devoted Christians who have prayed faithfully for their children, and it really took them aback when they discovered long after it had been going on this particular trial in their children’s lives. And she said to me, “Please tell your people that just because you pray doesn’t mean that all the problems go away and the trials never come.” But I was able to turn back to that sister in Christ and encourage her and say, “My dear sister, I know how you and your husband prayed. What if you hadn’t been praying for your children?” And in this case, in God’s mercy, it looks as if God will bring all four of these children through this great test and trial, and no doubt the faithful prayers of their parents had been used. But her warning was good, and that is that there is no faithfulness that works in some sort of quid pro quo way that binds God to give you some particular answer in the case of your children. In the end, it’s God at work when and where and how He will.
But He does tell us in His word what He wants us to do as parents in the promotion of godliness in the lives of our children, and He tells us four things. You see them in the passage before you in Deuteronomy 6. You’re going to see them in some other passages that we’re going to study today...Prayer, Practice, Precept, and Providence.
Let me tell you what I mean by those, and let me quickly acknowledge that I’ve been thinking on this for a number of months now, ever since I read that portion of the letter that William Still wrote to his congregation many years ago. William Still was the pastor of the Gilcomston South Church of Scotland congregation in Aberdeen. It was a university town, and so every autumn he had gobs of parents writing to him saying, “My young person is coming to study at Aberdeen, and you know, they haven’t been walking with the Lord. So I really want you to track them down and make sure they come to church, and make sure they go to youth group, and make sure they go to Christian Union.” And he said, “You know, if they haven’t started by then, it’s an uphill battle.” And he went on to say in that letter to his congregation, whereas hopeful parents are often looking for quick fixes, it boils down to this, doesn’t it: prayer, example, and precept – in that order – in that order – is how we rear godly children. Ever since I read those words I’ve been thinking through the way the Scriptures teach, and so I’ve just given you a little bit more alliterated version of that: Prayer, Practice, Precept, and Providence.
Let me tell you what I mean by that. We start with Prayer.
You remember when, in Matthew 19:13, people were bringing children to Jesus and asking Him to pray for them and bless them, and the disciples stand in the way. And they say, ‘Look! Jesus is a busy man! He does not have time to pray for your children and bless them. Leave the man alone. He’s got a kingdom agenda. Please go away.’ And what does Jesus do? ‘No, no, no, no! Allow the children to come to Me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ And then what does He do? He prays for the children, and He blesses them. Now He’s given you an example for what He wants you to do for children.
I want to quickly say today that though we may have in the first instance in today’s sermon the idea of an application to parents who still have children at home, this message is for this whole congregation. I can still remember the influence of those who were single or who were widows, or widowers, on my life, on my parents, on our family life together having a profound contribution. And so whether we are parents or grandparents, or great-grandparents; whether we are aunts or uncles, or whether we are in some state of life in which we can simply contribute through prayer and encouragement to the families of our congregation, that ought to be a profound priority, because families are under tremendous duress in our culture. Marriages are under assault from every side, and if families are God’s stratagem for the promotion of godliness in the congregation and in the next generation, all of us have a vested interest in the health of our congregation. So no matter our marital state, no matter our situation in life, all of us ought to have an agenda to support the families of the church
I want you to understand that that is exactly the agenda of the elders and the ministers and the staff of this church: in every way that we can, we want to support the family life of our congregation. We want to come alongside and encourage and cheer on parents in the nurture and admonition of their children. And we begin with prayer, don’t we? We begin with prayer, just as Jesus prayed for and blessed those children. Do you remember how Job did the same? Even for his grown children? We’re told in Job 1 and 2 that even as Job would offer a sacrifice for himself, what would he do? He would offer a sacrifice for his children as well, if perchance they had broken the Law of the Lord. And so he had a spiritual concern for them, and so our promotion of godliness in our family life begins with prayer.
Now you know that, but the question is how do you go about praying for your children? You know, it’s easy to pray for your children’s success, for their social acceptance, for their academic achievements, for their health, for their future marriages. Pagans pray for those things. But Christians ought to be instructed by the word as we pray for our children, so that it’s the word that’s instructing us what we ought to pray for our children. Do we pray that our children would grow in love for God? Do we pray that our children would manifest honesty and integrity in their dealings, would be self-controlled, would love God’s word, would be characterized by respect for others and for authority, especially? Would be characterized by justice and mercy? Would be faithful? Would have courage? Would be pure, and kind, and generous, and peace-loving? Do we pray ‘Lord, when my children are at school with their classmates, by Your grace would they manifest kindness in their dealings’? Do we go through the Beatitudes, or through the Lord’s Prayer, or through the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians, and pray those for our children? If we will pray Scripture for our children, not only will we be instructed in the things that we ought to want for our children, but we will always know that we are never praying for the wrong thing for our children. And we’ll be focused on the most important things: the cultivation of God’s grace in their lives. What does it matter if they’re wealthy and influential, if they don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ? What does it matter if they have great status and opportunity, if they are not people who have been formed by the grace of the Holy Spirit? These are the things that we ought to desire and pray for, and it begins there with prayer. How often have I been at funerals in the last ten years at First Presbyterian Church where I have heard children talk about parents who have now passed on to glory and remembering their prayers for them...remembering hearing them pray for them. It begins with prayer.
Secondly, Practice. If Deuteronomy 6 talks about our desires being focused on God (and it does, and thus instructs us in the way we ought to pray), so it also focuses us on living the truth...on practice. And I want to say that in our day and time I’ve never seen young people so sensitive to hypocrisy, and especially religious hypocrisy. It seems that our young people have a built-in “bunk detector” for those who profess to be Christians but who by their living, by their priorities, and by their choices show that they worship something – someone – else. Immediately those young people know that either what they’re saying is not true, or what they’re claiming is not true. And that’s not what we want to see in the life of our congregation. We want to see people who practice what they preach, and so our practice is vital to the promotion of godliness in the congregation and to the next generation.
Think of II Chronicles 17:3, where we’re told that Jehosaphat was blessed by the Lord--why? Because he followed in the example of his father David. Now, David wasn’t his literal father, but he was his predecessor in the kingly line, and Jehosaphat in this instance followed David in the good example that he set and was blessed of God.
Or think of Jesus saying in John 13 to His disciples, after He’d washed their feet, that He had given them an example of how they were to do to one another. And then what does He say?
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also love one another.”
In other words, He practiced the truth for them, and then what did He do? He gave the precept. We generally are tempted to reverse that—teach, and then practice. But the Scriptures tell us ‘practice and then teach.’ Practice the truth. Example godliness. Model the pursuit of holiness. Model love for God.
And then there is Precept. It’s talked about here in Deuteronomy 6. Moses said at every moment of the day—not just during the devotional time, but in the whole of the day, be looking for opportunities to teach the truth to your children. That’s the whole point about “...when you rise up, and when you lie down...when you go out and when you come in....” When you’re on the way, and when you’re not, look for opportunities to teach the truth.
We learn this as well in Proverbs 22:6 in that great verse that’s on the lips of most parents:
“Train up a child in his own way [or in the way he should go], and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The training, the teaching of truth to our children is a way that godliness is promoted in the generation to come.
And then, Providence. Now, there’s a little double entendre in that. We could be speaking of God’s providence. I’ve actually already spoken about that – the importance of God’s work in the promotion of godliness. I’m actually thinking about your providence as parents. Providence, you know, just means guarding, protecting, watching over, caring for, providing for. And as parents, we not only pray, we not only practice, we not only proclaim the precepts, we not only teach, but we also watch over, care, guard...especially in this culture.
I was talking to a godly mother in this congregation at the end of this week, and we were saying to one another that our young people face things today that I wouldn’t even have known about thirty years ago...to the point that it almost makes me sorry that they have to grow up in a world like this. But that means all the more that parents must be careful in their providence over their children, guarding them from certain contexts and circumstances that may be detrimental to their growth in grace. It may mean keeping them from doing certain activities which have become normal, accepted activities. We certainly need to support one another in this. It’s so easy when a parent decides, no, my child can’t be involved in this, to say ‘Well, what’s the matter with you? You some sort of crazy, nut case, fundamentalist? Why, everybody does that!’ So we need a context of positive support for that kind of serious parental decision and oversight.
And so in Prayer, and Practice, and Precept, and Providence God has established a school for discipleship in Christian families, and our business at the church is to come alongside and to encourage those families in every way we can. You need to understand that this is why we have the focus on discipleship that we have, and on family ministry, and on work with young adults, and even our ministry to students and families. It’s focused on coming alongside families and encouraging them in these ways. Our message to you is not ‘Hey, we’re the experts; leave this to us. Don’t try this at home.’ That’s not our message! Our message is to say ‘We understand that God has first and foremost appointed families as the nursery for godliness, and we as the congregation, as the ministers, as the staff, as the elders and the deacons, we want to come alongside, and with every resource we have reinforce and encourage and celebrate what God is doing in the life of your families. We want 1500 discipleship groups called households or families flourishing in our congregation, and we want to give every resource at our disposal to help you in that work.
2. What we can do as Christian parents to promote the spiritual health and growth of our covenant children.
Now, what does this look like by way of practical application? Let me say quickly seven things...if you think I can say seven things quickly!
First, this means that we need to consider the spiritual condition and needs of our children. One of the significant things that we can do as Christian parents for the spiritual health and growth of our covenant children...the first thing is to consider the spiritual condition and needs of our children. Do we think as much about their souls as we think about their careers, their friends, their academics, their social acceptance, their sports? Do we think about what their immortal souls need? And do we attend to those things?
Secondly, use the baptism of the covenant children of our congregation as an occasion to call all our children to faith. I read about a year ago about a man who, on the day before his youngest child’s baptism, prayed the entire day that God would bring to bear all the promises of grace in the Scripture in his life, that he would embrace Christ by faith; and then he used it to challenge his older children in the life of faith.
Thirdly, instruct your children in the great issues of salvation. Talk with them about the content of sermons and Sunday School lessons. Ask them about the Scriptures that they’re memorizing in Sunday School, the songs that they’re singing, the lessons that they’re learning. See how far they understand. Get to know their souls. Get to know their particular temptations, their particular fears.
Fourthly, correct and restrain your children from that which is prejudicial to their spiritual vitality. Yes, show a loving parental affection, but do not forsake firm parental authority. Grant that they would reverence you with delight, fear you with delight, in their relationship to you. Challenge them. Don’t be cute with them about their sin. Deal with it seriously.
Fifth, challenge your children to embrace faith in Christ. Do you do this? Do you exhort them in the things of the Lord? Do you use teachable moments and plunder the Scripture’s charges and challenges and exhortations and spiritual commands, and bring them home?
I’ve told you the story before many times of Douglas McMillan, whose mother was dying of cancer when he was in his young twenties. He came home late one night and she had him read the Scripture to her, though he was far from faith, far from grace. He’d strayed from the ways of his youth. And after reading John 14:1-6, she asked him to put the Bible down...that great passage in which Jesus promises “...that where I am, there you may also be.” And Mrs. McMillan, in the last days of her life, said to Douglas, “Douglas, in a few days I am going to be with Christ. Will you meet me there?” She was looking for every opportunity to bring home the exhortation of Scripture on the heart of her straying son. Do we look for those opportunities to bring home the truth of Scripture?
Sixth, be a disciple yourself. Be an example in your life, in your priorities, and in your choices. Your children are going to see what’s important to you. Is the Lord important to you? They will see it. Is the Lord’s Day important to you? They will see it. Is worship important to you? They will see it. Is the Bible important to you? They will see it. Is the Christian life important to you? They will see it.
Or, is your life taken up with trivialities, secular labor, and the pursuit of pleasure or escape from pain? If so, they will see it. Your children will see what is important to you, and it will either definitely contradict or confirm the things that you have been teaching them about the truth, about the faith, about God, about the Scriptures.
And, seventh, pray for your children. Pray for their salvation, for their spiritual growth, and for their future spouses to be in Christ. Pray with them and for them.
3. Simple and practical ways to promote family religion in your household.
Now my friends, if we would do just five things together in this congregation, it would revolutionize our conveying of the legacy of grace to the next generation.
First, sit together at church as families.
Secondly, work to have a Lord’s Day. Show your young people that you love the Lord’s Day. You cannot wait for it to come! Prepare for it like you care about it.
Thirdly, attend evening worship. In my forty-something years, I’ve never known anyone who was faithful in the attendance of evening service...when the storms and trials of life come, I’ve never known anyone who did not make it through. I’m not saying that the storms and trials didn’t come. I’m just saying that when they came, they made it through. Why? Because they came to evening service? No. Because they wanted God and they wanted all of God that they could get, and they wanted Him from dawn to dusk on the Lord’s Day, and it showed. And so when their hour of need came, God was there. They didn’t have to go looking for Him, He was there.
Use the Catechisms. Memorize them if you can. Store up the truth which is provided for you there.
And pray and praise and read the Bible together at home. Do it all the time. Do it in the car. Do it on the basketball court. Do it on the way in to church. Do it on the way to school. Pray, and praise, and read God’s word together.
Those five things alone would revolutionize our conveying of the legacy of godliness to the next generation. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. We ask, O God, that You would establish strong Christian families; that we as a congregation would be a great support and encouragement to those Christian families, and that those families would become schools for Christian discipleship. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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