- First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi - https://www.fpcjackson.org -

The Family Alter

Deuteronomy 6:4-9
The Family Altar
Dr. Duncan

Our subject today is family worship. It is a vital subject
and I want to try and look at the whole issue of family religion with you for a
moment, so that we can put family worship in context. Many Puritan sermons used
to spend 40-60% of the message in application, and that’s going to be the case
today, although I won’t do what one Puritan did, and put 68 points of
application in the message. You can imagine the relief of the congregation when
they arrived at, “And sixty-eighthly.” It won’t be quite like that, but we’ll
be taking a biblical principle and applying it fairly thoroughly. We’ll be
referencing various passages of Scripture, so keep your Bibles open. I do want
to mention, in passing, that there is a wonderful tape available through the
church library of a talk given on this subject by Ruling Elder Bill Harper, just
a year or so ago, at one of our Men of the Covenant luncheons; and it is an
excellent and practical treatment of family worship. I commend it to you.

Let me also say that you should not let the gap
between the ideal and the reality stop you in this area, especially. Just like
people who struggle starting their personal devotions and keeping them going
consistently, find it frustrating sometimes and are tempted to quit because the
reality is not meeting the ideal, even of their own hearts and desires. So
also, and especially, we should not give up striving for the ideal even when the
reality is not there in our own practice and experience. We’re going to look at
a number of passages tonight, but I want you to begin with me by looking at
Deuteronomy 6, verse 4. 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 hearts, and you shall teach them diligently to your sons
and 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 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.

Lord and God, we thank You for this, Your word.
Teach us by it, inspire us, move us by Your Word. Perhaps it is the case that we
come to this message knowing more about our duty than we do. If this is indeed
the situation with us, then we pray that by the Spirit You would move us to
embrace with joy and wllingness, the duty You set before us in Your Word.
Perhaps we come unaware of the extent of our duty as heads of households and as
parents toward our covenant children. If that is the case, shake us from our
ignorance and bring us into a full realization of the glory of that
responsibility. And in all things, glorify Yourself and help Your people, this
we ask in Jesus name, Amen.

Our goal at First Presbyterian Church is for
every family unit to become a discipleship group, for every husband and father
to become an active, self-denying spiritual leader in his home, for there to
exist 1,500 family-based growth groups within our larger church family, for
family religion to be the fountain of healthy, robust, corporate worship, as
well as worship in all of life. And for that to happen, we need to know
something about what the Bible says about family religion. So, I’d like to set
forth before you four or five things on which to meditate. First of all, I want
you to think with me about our covenant responsibilities as Christian parents to
our children. Then, I want to think with you about five simple, practical ways
that we can exercise those responsibilities. Then, I want to ask the question,
“Why should we do family worship?” I want to speak briefly about the nature and
content of family worship, and then talk with you about obstacles to family

I. The covenant responsibilities
of Christian parents to their children.
There are significant things that we can do as Christian
parents to promote the spiritual health and growth of our covenant children.
Salvation is of God. I understand that. The Holy Spirit works when, and where,
how, and with whom He pleases. I understand that. I’m a Calvinist. Many of
you are too. However, God’s sovereignty does not rule out or work against our
responsibility, but in fact, usually works with our responsibility as His means,
as His cause, as His instrument to work His design. Salvation is of God, and
the Spirit works when and how and with whom He wishes, but Christian parents
still have covenant responsibilities toward their children whom God is pleased
to use as means of those covenant children’s spiritual birth and growth. And
among those means are the following: First, as Christian parents we must take
time to consider the spiritual condition and need of our children. Let me ask
you this: Do you spend more time thinking about your children’s physical and
temporal needs than their spiritual needs? Are you more concerned about their
placement in school, how well they do in school, the social group with which
they run, their success in secular employment in life, their performance in
scholastic pursuit, than you are their spiritual growth and nurture and health?
Cyprian, the great North African churchman, said that a parent that was more
concerned about the physical and temporal needs of his child than the spiritual
needs of the child, was like a man watching his dog drown and his child drown at
the same time–and choosing to save his dog. A fairly striking illustration,
isn’t it! It is vital that we are concerned and we take time to consider the
spiritual condition and needs of our children. That’s our first covenant
responsibility we need to exercise.

Secondly, there is this: We need to use the baptism
of our children as an occasion to call them to faith. Use the baptism of your
children as an occasion to call them to faith. Every time we see a baptism
administered in the church it offers you an opportunity to talk with your own
children about the significance of their baptism and all the claims that puts on
them and all the responsibility it puts on them to respond to God in faith, and
to embrace the promises of the covenant.

Cotton Mather, in his wonderful little book, A
Family Well Ordered
, tells the story of a man in his own town, whose diary
he had seen after his death. And in this man’s diary, he records what he did
the day before his children’s baptism. He spent the whole day in prayer,
begging God to make the promises set forth in symbol in the sacrament to become
a reality in the life of his children. He gave himself to God, he gave his
children to God, and then he begged God to respond in mercy to the promises He
had made in His word in the lives of His children. I want to tell you, as I
read Cotton Mather about that, I said to myself, “I didn’t do that when my
children were baptized.” But I have the opportunity, every time that baptism is
administered in this church, to revisit that situation with my own children, and
to pray those prayers and to tell them the meaning of their baptism, and to call
them to embrace, by faith, the realities that are set forth in that baptism. Do
you use baptism as a opportunity to call your children to faith? That’s one of
your spiritual responsibilities as a covenant parent.

Thirdly, we need to instruct our children in the
great issues of salvation. There are numerous opportunities to do this. We can
talk with them about the content of sermons, we can ask them about Scriptures
that they have memorized in Sunday School, we can see how far they understand
things they are learning in the Children’s Catechism, or learning from their
Sunday School teachers, or their Bible school teachers, or from their school
teachers at the Day School, or wherever they may be learning scriptural and
spiritual truth. We need to concentrate on learning their soul. Isn’t it
interesting here, in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, that the responsibilities of parents are
spelled out in nurturing their children in the truth. It’s not just one
location or space or time that they are to utilize in nurturing covenant
children–it’s everywhere. Not just at a Scripture reading or family worship
time, but everywhere in life they’re to be looking for opportunities to nurture
their children in the great issue of God and salvation.

Fourthly, we are, as covenant parents, responsible to
correct and restrain our children from those things which are prejudicial to
their spiritual life and salvation. We need to display a sweet and gentle, but
a firm parental authority. It is spiritual murder to indulge our children in
their sins. It is lunacy to allow our children to trample us. Here’s a
beautiful phrase. Cotton Mather says, “Our children ought to fear us with
delight.” There ought to be a combination of parental authority and filial
devotion which is displayed in the way we nurture our children. We need to
challenge straying teenager– and for heaven’s sake–we can’t be cute with our
children about their sin. Joking with young men about sexual indiscretion and
exploits is a crazy thing to do. Making fun with young women about caving in to
the pressures around them is a crazy thing to do. We need to challenge our
children, especially those teenagers, who are straying under the pressures of
peer influence.

Fifthly, we need to challenge our children to embrace
the covenant. Think how many exhortations there are in Scripture that we can
use with them. We need to exhort them in the things of the Lord. For instance,
turn with me to 1 Chronicles 28:9, as David addresses his son, Solomon, now
grown, he says, “As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and
serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind, for the Lord searches all
hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will
let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever.” You
know, all you have to do is take the word “Solomon” out of there, and you’ve got
an exhortation to your own children. Have you ever given that exhortation to
your own children? Challenge your children to embrace the covenant.

You don’t have to go to the Old Testament; you can go
to the New Testament. Turn with me to 1 John 3:23, where John says, “This is
His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love
one another just as He commanded us.” You can take that and bring it as a
charge, as a challenge to your covenant children. Believe in the name of His
Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as He has commanded us. Every
directive, every command, every imperative in the Scripture supplies you with a
challenge that you can bring to your covenant children to call them to embrace
the covenant. Plunder the Scriptures for charges and challenges and
exhortations and spiritual commands, and share them with your covenant children.

Many of you have heard me tell the story of Douglas
McMillan’s mother who was dying of cancer, and when Douglas would come home late
at night, he would often hear her singing. She couldn’t sleep because of the
pain of the cancer, and often she would ask Douglas to read passages of
Scriptures to her. On the final time when Douglas was there with his mother,
exactly a week before she died, the final occasion on which he read Scripture to
her, she asked him to read from John 14 and 16, the words that Jesus spoke to
His disciples. And after reading Jesus’ words to the disciples about preparing
for them a place with many mansions, that they would come to and be with Him,
she told Douglas, “Douglas, that’s enough.” And he said, “But I could keep on
reading.” And she said, “Douglas, that’s enough.” And then he closed the Bible
and she said to him, “Douglas, in just a little while I am going to be with
Jesus.” Douglas had not made a profession of faith, and his heart was hard to
the Lord, and she said to him, “Douglas, I want to ask you one thing? Will you
meet me there?” She challenged him to embrace the covenant. Do we challenge our
children to embrace the covenant?

Be a disciple yourself, that’s the sixth thing.
Love God. You have to be a disciple to make a disciple. You have to be a
disciple to disciple another. You have to be a disciple to disciple your
children. Look at the order of Psalm 34. In Psalm 34:1, 4, and 11, where David
says this, “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be
in my mouth. I sought the Lord and He answered me and delivered me from all my
fears.” So David blesses the Lord, David seeks the Lord; David is delivered by
the Lord. Now, look at verse 11. “Come, you children, listen to me, I will
teach you the fear of the Lord.” David had to know the fear of the Lord, David
had to know the praise of the Lord; David had to seek the Lord, and be delivered
by the Lord before He could teach the children the fear of the Lord. And so
also with us. We must know the Lord; we must walk with the Lord, before we can
teach our children the fear of the Lord.

And along with this, we must be conscious of our
example in life and priorities and choices. Your children will see what is
important to you. That’s absolutely crystal clear. Children have a “bunk
detector” that is virtually infallible. They see right through adults. Adults
have a hard time scamming children. Children see what is important to you. Is
God important to you? Is His worship important to you? Is the Lord’s day
important to you? Is the Bible important to you? Is the Christian life important
to you? is the work of God’s kingdom important to you? Or, is your life taken up
with trivialities, secular labors, the pursuit of pleasure, or just escape from
pain? Let me say this: your children will see what is really important to you,
and it will either definitively contradict what you have said to them with your
words, or it will definitively confirm what you have said to them with your
words. And to a certain extent, it will do the same for my words to them, or a
youth minister’s words to them.

Jerry Marsellino, in his wonderful little booklet,
Rediscovering the Lost Treasures of Family
Worship, says this about
this very point. “Often, so often, a child sees behind all the religious garb of
his parents, and finds what is really precious to them. He sees patterns of
heart which lure them toward a pursuit of wealth, leisure, athletics,
entertainment, television, shopping, and religious business. A child can easily
see when these things are more exciting to his parents than devotion to Jesus
Christ. When this proves to be the case, a child will embrace those same
affections to the detriment of his own soul. However, when children see parents
who pant after God, parents who are constantly pouring over the Scriptures and
going to God in prayer about everything, parents who have a proper balance
between the enjoyment of legitimate recreation and seeking to conform to
everything that would bring glory to God, their children can be expected to
adopt the same balance. Whatever or whoever is precious to you, the same will
be precious to your children.” We need to be an example in our lives, and
priorities and choices.

And finally, we need to pray for our children. Pray
for their salvation. Pray for their spiritual growth. Pray for their future
spouses. Pray with them as for them.

Not long ago, our Christian Education Department from
the denomination produced a prayer sheet that I keep in the back of my Bible,
which has 31 days of prayer for your children. Listen to some of the things it
suggests and gives Scripture references to pray. Pray for your children’s
salvation. Pray for their growth in grace. Pray for their love. Pray for their
honesty and integrity. Pray for their self control. Pray for their love of God’s
word. Pray for their justice in society. Pray for their mercy. Pray for their
respect for others and for authority. Pray for faithfulness, courage, purity,
kindness, generosity, for them to be peace loving, for them to have real
spiritual joy, for perseverance, for humility, for compassion, for
responsibility, for contentment, for faith, for a servant heart, for hope, for
wisdom, for willingness and ability to work, for passion for God, for self
discipline, for prayerfulness, for gratitude, and for a heart for missions.
There is so much to pray for your children that you should never be at a loss
for thought or desire or words as you lift them up before the Lord in prayer.
Pray for their future spouses. Pray with them as well as for them. All of these
are covenant responsibilities of Christian parents toward their children.

II. How to promote family
What are five simple and practical ways, then, to promote
family religion in your household, in light of those covenant responsibilities
that we have? What are some ways that mean you don’t have to go off and take an
eight-week seminar, or go to a conference in order to learn them? Here they
are. This is high-tech stuff, so just hang on. Sit together at church. Go to
church every week–even vacation–52 weeks a year, year after year, and sit
together. You have no idea the power of that on a child’s soul. There are very
few things in the world that can even approach the power of that on a child.
The family ought to be together in the worship of the Lord. Children can get
together with their friends after the service is over, but in church, the family
ought to be prime. And the power of the ordinary means of grace should not be
underestimated in this. In Terry Johnson’s book, The Family Worship Book,
he says this, “How does the commitment to public worship relate to the family’s
spiritual well being? The effect upon parents is clear enough. Spiritually
nourished parents make for better families. But the family pew has more in mind
than sanctifying the parents. When your children are brought with you into
public worship, they too are sanctified. Your children from their earliest
years will be ushered along with you into the presence of God. They will be
brought under the means of grace and will experience the fellowship of God’s
people, week after week, as they mature through childhood. And beyond this,
they will sit by you Sunday after Sunday watching you, you publicly humble
yourself before God, publicly submit to His word. Among their earliest and
warmest memories will be those of holding their parent’s hands during church,
sitting close by their sides, following along in the hymnal, placing money in
the offering plate, bowing their heads in prayer,; do not underestimate the
cumulative effect of this witness upon your covenant children, no doubt it is
considerable even incalculable. The key to your own, and your family’s
spiritual health is remarkably simple. Though there is considerable hype to the
contrary, it involves no pilgrimages to sacred places, it requires no weeklong
or weekend retreats, seminars or special programs. It depends on no special
techniques or novel methodologies. You don’t have to spend yet another night
out. You won’t need to add one more meeting to an already frantic schedule.
The key is to be found in regular, ordinary, weekly worship services of the
church. It is not a glamorous key, but it is the key nonetheless. Sit together
at church.”

Second. Work to have a Lord’s day. Live as if Sunday
is the Lord’s–not yours. There are a thousand different questions you have in
your mind. Forget the questions–here’s the big picture. Live as if Sunday is
the Lord’s day, not yours. View it not as some oppressive, restrictive,
narrowing, confining, thing; but view it as the market day of the soul. I
promise you that will have impact that you cannot calculate.

Thirdly. Attend evening worship. Now I know I’m
preaching to the choir tonight, literally, I know. I need to do this on Sunday
morning. But if we believe the whole day is the Lord’s day, it ought to be
framed with worship. Let me make a strong assertion here. I have never known a
family that was faithful in Sunday evening attendance, that when the great
crises of life came did not weather the storm and walk in faith and persevere. I
have never known a family that faithfully attended Sunday evening that when the
challenge came–when the crisis came–they did not weather the storm with faith.
That’s just an indisputable fact of my experience, and I think is somewhat of an
appropriate experiential testimony of the power of the means of being under the
means of grace.

Fourth. Memorize the catechism. Start with The
Children’s Catechism
. Go to The Shorter Catechism. Bless your heart
if you do The Larger Catechism. But memorize the catechism. It is a
proven message. It‘s simple; it’s content rich. It teaches our children the
language of Zion. They don’t need to understand it when they first memorize it.
That’ll come later. It teaches them the language of Zion. It increases, as a
by-product, their memory ability and their capacity for conceptual thinking but
it is simple and content rich. You don’t have to have some special accreditation
to teach the catechism and you know, the amazing thing is, the stuff that you
learn while you’re doing it.

Fifth. Worship together as a family at home. Praise,
pray and read the Bible together as a family at home. If you were to worship
together as a family at home each day, by the time your child was age 18, you
would have had over 6,500 opportunities to read the Scriptures, sing and pray
with him or her. If you had been reading roughly a chapter a day, you would have
read the Bible through four and one-half times. If you had been learning a new
hymn, or song, or Psalm, at the rate of one a month, you would have learned 215
new hymns, songs, or Psalms. Think of the cumulative effect of that on a child.
Now, with that the fifth of the simple and practical ways to promote family
religion, let’s just jump right into that issue of family worship as we look at
my third, and fourth, and fifth major points. Third. Why should we do family

III. Why should we do family
Three reasons. Because we are God’s stewards of our children.
We are accountable to Him. He has graciously given our children to us. Psalm
127:3 says, “Behold, children are a gift from the Lord.” We don’t earn them, we
don’t deserve them–they are gifts from God to us and we will give an account for
every gift that He gives us–especially our children. So we have a stewardship to
God. Secondly, God has commanded us to train up our children in the Lord in the
home. That’s what Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is all about. Listen to verse 7. “You shall
teach them diligently to your sons 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 up.”
Billy was exactly right tonight. It is great to learn about the Lord in church
and at school, but you also need to learn about the Lord at home. Learning about
the Lord at home is a preparation for learning about the Lord in church and in
school. And that’s my third point, the home is the seedbed of piety and religion
for the church. That’s Paul’s point in 1Timothy 3:4 & 5, when he’s talking about
the elders, and in verse 12 when he’s talking about the deacons. What’s his
point? That godliness begins in the home–that’s where godliness begins and
that’s why we do family worship.

IV. What is the nature and
content of family worship?
What is the nature and content of family worship? That’s the
big fourth point that I will be talking to you about tonight. The nature and
content of family worship. What should be in family worship? Song, Scripture,
supplication–that’s Jerry Marcelino’s rhyming version. In other words–singing,
Scripture reading and prayer–that’s what ought to be in family worship. Sing
together. Sing children’s songs with the young, sing hymns with the older
children. If you can’t sing, get a tape to help you, but sing together. Take a
hymnal, buy a hymnal, have a hymnal at home and learn the great hymns of the
faith. Bible reading. You can use Bible-story books for the young, catechism
memory, you can try and follow various Bible reading plans, you can read
consecutively through the Bible, but just read the Bible. You can read bits of
the Bible. Prayer. Use Scripture, but pray. Include adoration and confession and
thanksgiving and supplication.

It is amazing how young children can pick up on what
you’re doing while you are praying. One of the moms in the church was telling me
that during vacation Bible School week, her daughter had asked four consecutive
nights at prayer time to pray for Jennings. She was two. Two nights ago, I’m
praying about this, and that and the other, and Jennings says, “I want to pray
for mommy and for Sissy.” Now, he’s two. I don’t know what he knows; I don’t
know what he doesn’t know, but he’s already aware of what I’m asking for in
prayer. Pray with and for your children. Include adoration and confession and
thanksgiving and supplication.

How long should family worship last? It should be
regularly brief. You try and make it long and you’ll never stay the course. Ten
minutes or less is long enough when the children are young. Occasionally, it
will run longer as they grow older and conversations strike up.

When should you do family worship? Do it when it
works. The three most popular and common times are morning at breakfast,
suppertime, or bedtime–but do it when it works.

What are some resources? If you’ve never done family
worship before and you want to start, I’ve already mentioned Jerry Marcelino’s
Rediscovering Family Worship, Terry Johnson’s The Family Worship Book
or Cotton Mather’s A Family Well-Ordered.

What are the obstacles to family worship? There are a
lot of them. You may be getting a late start. Family worship, by the way, is not
just for couples with children. You may have already been married for many years
and you’ve never done it before, and it’s hard to start in midstream. You may
have been a parent for many years, and you’ve never done it before and it’s hard
and embarrassing. It’s humbling; it’s shaming to start in midstream because
you’re admitting you should have been doing something that you haven’t been
doing. That’s hard. You may have an unsupportive spouse. Your wife may not think
it’s important to do. She may be critical of what you’re trying to do. She may
be uncooperative, or, you may have a husband who is lazy and unconcerned about
family worship. But maybe you are a wife who really does desire your family to
worship; what do you do? Pray and make it easy for him to do it. Don’t nag. Your
children may be older. They may be unused to the practice and resistant to it,
so keep it short, explain why you’re doing it, and do it anyway. Your schedule
may be crazy. Your husband may be traveling. Your kids are piled up with
activities. Meet consistently but flexibly. Change times. You may do it at
different times on different days. Let your wife lead while you are away. Call
home when you are on a business trip, and do a conference-call family worship.
Or it may just be lack of discipline or a lack of the sense of the importance of
family worship, or a lack of experience of family worship in one’s own
upbringing. If it’s a lack of discipline, pray for discipline. If it’s a lack of
a sense of the importance of family worship, pick up something like the
resources that we’ve mentioned and read about this. If it’s a lack of experience
of family worship in one’s own upbringing, there’s good news–this is not
rocket-science–sing, pray, read. And find somebody to be accountable to who
cares about your soul and the souls of your family, and who’ll ask you–“Bob,
Jim, Lig, how’s family worship going?” And hold to that accountability.

May God grant us a congregation where family religion