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The Gospel-Shaped Parent

By: Paul and Susan Gilbert

Click Here: Part 2, Part 3

Many people would say that marriage is the most heart revealing and soul exposing relationship on planet earth. Indeed, there have been times in our marriage of 25 years where this certainly felt true. However, Susan and I were blessed with three years of dating where we were able to build a shared vision together before deciding to say, “I do.” These 36 months proved to be the rich soil we needed to grow something truly special and durable.

Why can’t it work that way with kids?

Our first child, Grace, was born on February 7th, 1999. However, she did not join our family after a long history of us swapping back-stories and deciding together that we were the right fit. No sir, Grace dropped into our lives as a complete unknown. Grace’s temperament, her personality, her quirks, her faith, and her dreams were all sovereign surprises that have been unwrapped, one day at a time, over the last 18 years.

Susan and I truly love our four kids. They are amazing, awesome, and well, just throw in every other descriptive adjective that you can think of. But let’s be clear about something: it’s been nearly impossible to predict how THEIR genetic makeups would interact and synch with OUR genetic makeups. Unlike deciding whom to marry, we have had no input or control over the types of children God that will join the family for the rest of our lives.

This is why we would say that being a parent, quite possibly above all other human relationships,  ruthlessly exposes a person’s brokenness, sinfulness, and self-orientation. Parenting itself carries thousands of complexities that leave us feeling, at times, nothing less than desperate. Thus, needy parents recognize the presence of ‘need’, but they need more than techniques, programs, or plans to sustain and support them. Parents need something sturdier, something theologically sound, something deeper to draw from, both for ourselves and for our children.

This “something” may not surprise you. This “something” is the Gospel.


The Problem of the Gospel

As believers, it’s tempting to think of the gospel as a static body of information that saved us at conversion and will one day, probably when we enter eternity, be useful again. The gospel is like a raft we sit inside as we paddle feverishly through a Class VI whitewater rapid.  It delivers us safely to the end, but we have to cooperate with an enormous amount of sweat and effort.

As parents, we can sometimes fall prey to this same way of thinking.  We affirm the truths of the gospel but overlook how the gospel drills down into the “how to’s” of parenting. Our burden is that we not only be schooled in the content of the gospel; we want to be skilled in the application of the gospel. And in few places is this distinction more essential than when it comes to parenting.


The Gospel-Shaped Person

Scripture is so real. For instance, it might surprise you to discover that the Apostle Peter struggled to live out the practicalities of the gospel. But in Acts 10, Peter comes to undertstand that the gospel allows both Jews and Gentiles to enjoy equal standing before God and also before each other. However, just a short time later, some Judaizers from Jerusalem arrived in Galatia and refused to treat the Gentile Christians as their spiritual equals. They even declined to eat meals with them.

Peter, unfortunately, switched allegiances and followed their lead  by treating his Gentile brothers as second-class citizens. This spiritual schizophrenia created division, anger, and hurt within the church community. Now, let’s think about this. Who would argue that Peter did not intellectually understand the truths of the gospel – he was an apostle, after all! Peter, though,failed to live consistently with the truths of the gospel. He neglected to apply them to his relationships, because he was basically living in fear of what the Judaizers would think of him (Gal. 2:14).

If you’re sitting and saying, ‘Hang on. What does Peter have to do with my parenting?” Just hang in there and keep reading. We’re going somewhere…


The Gospel-Shaped Parent

I don’t know about you, but Susan and I find that our parenting is often driven by the same kind of gospel-denying, fear-of-man dynamic that afflicted Peter. It can take many forms and show up in unexpected ways:

  • Discipline: “If I confront my teenager, will they still like me?”
  • Boundaries: “If I say, ‘no’ to this activity that “all” the other kids are participating in, will other families think we are strange?”
  • “Helicoptering”: “If I allow my child to fail, will other people think we are terrible parents?”

In the hit TV sitcom  The Wonder Years, Kevin Arnold, on the heels of failing to defend the nerd of the class, Margaret Barkwahr, because of his fear of what the other boys would think of him, rather astutely says, “Who you are in 8th grade is who other 8th graders say that you are.” We would venture to say that the same thing is often true for us as parents:

Who we are as parents is often defined by what other people say that we are

The gospel of grace is the only solution to combatting these kinds of fears. Specifically, parents need to keep running to the gospel that says:

  • Our successes and failures as parents do not change our relationship with Christ
  • My security and significance as a person is based upon what Christ has done for me, not what I have (or have not) accomplished as a parent
  • Spiritual victories in parenting are a testimony to God’s grace
  • Spiritual “defeats” in parenting are a reminder of our ongoing need of that grace
  • The gospel gives us the courage and the spiritual cover to tell the truth about ourselves as parents



The glorious gospel reminds that we are more broken and sinful than we could ever truly know, but we are also simultaneously more loved and forgiven than we could ever conceive. The gospel – the truth that Jesus died for us and rose from the grave for us – tells us that our performance, self worth, and value as parents is ultimately tied to Christ’s love, not to how well we parent.  For any man or woman with kids, that’s good news indeed!


Paul and Susan Gilbert live in Tallahassee, Florida. They have been married for 25 years and have 4 children. Paul is a pastor at Four Oaks Church in Tallahassee. He can be followed on Twitter: @revgilbert

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