Parents tend to make parenting more complex, and yet more superficial, than it really is. Christian parents today are begging for detailed programs, step-by-step methodologies, and turnkey instructions. Parenting gurus happily oblige. They offer precise plans for feeding infants God’s way;Christian methods for toilet-training toddlers; extensive lists of dos and don’ts governing preschoolers’ social lives; and similar catalogs of rules for every stage of life up to marriage.
Not all their advice is bad, of course. Some of it can be helpful and even profitable. But compared with the principles for parenting actually set forth in Scripture, most of the so-called “Christian” programs are needlessly complex and sometimes not altogether realistic. Far from being distinctively Christian, some of the advice dispensed in these programs is actually extrabiblical and therefore could safely be ignored. Some of it is simply bad advice.
For example, I know a young couple who refuse to allow anyone (including Grandma), to rock their baby, ever. They were taught in a Christian parenting program that rocking infants to sleep makes them not want to go to bed when they are older. So these parents live in fear that if anyone rocks their baby to sleep, it will awaken some rebellious or self-centered tendency in him that will bear evil fruit when he is older.
Sometimes it seems as if part of the Christian parenting industry thrives by feeding parents’ fears that if they do any little thing wrong with their kids, they might seriously damage the child forever, causing his character or conduct to be evil. By fueling such concerns, they persuade parents to march lock-step with the program, sign up for seminars year after year, and become utterly dependent on the parenting guru—unable and unwilling to think for themselves. They begin to regard parenting as a minefield strewn with hazards—one wrong step and you risk emotional and psychological damage to your child for life. So they become utterly dependent on systems that map out their every step, and they refuse to deviate from the plan, including those aspects of the program that have no basis in Scripture. Often they even are willing to defy both common sense and parental intuition for the sake of following someone’s program. This is not a healthy trend.
As we’ve already discussed, parenting is supposed to be a joy, not a burden. Scripture repeatedly stresses the blessings of having children and the rich rewards of parenting. “Children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). Scripture never portrays parenting as an obstacle course beset with potentially deadly pitfalls.
There is, however, one gigantic pitfall that is too often overlooked by Christian parents. It is something so basic to what we believe as Christians, so clearly taught in Scripture, that no Christian parent should ever be caught off guard by it. Yet I am constantly amazed at how little is said in most Christian parenting curricula about it.
I’m speaking of the child’s inborn inclination toward evil.
Every child comes into the world with an insatiable capacity for evil. Even before birth, the human heart is already programmed for sin and selfishness. Humanity’s relentless penchant for every kind of depravity is such that, given free reign, every baby has the potential to become a monster.
If you’re looking for a theological category for this doctrine, it is normally called “total depravity.” It means children do not come into the world seeking God and righteousness. They do not even come into the world with a neutral innocence. They come into the world seeking the fulfillment of sinful and selfish desires. Although the outworking of the sin nature does not necessarily attain full expression in every person’s behavior, it is nonetheless called total depravity because there is no aspect of the human personality, character, mind, emotions, or will that is free from the corruption of sin or immune to sin’s enticements.
The Inheritance of Original Sin
Where do children get this depravity? It’s not a learned behavior. It is an inbred disposition. Kids get it from their parents, who got it from their parents, who got it from their parents, and so on, all the way back to Adam. Adam “became the father to a son in his own likeness, according to his image” (Genesis 5:3). Adam’s children all bore the stamp of sin. They were infected with evil desires. They were born with sinful tastes and an aversion to the things of God—the same aversion that made Adam and Eve try to hide from the Lord’s presence (Genesis 3:8). And Adam’s children bequeathed the same sin nature to their own progeny. Thus the legacy of corruption and guilt has been handed down to every subsequent generation.
In other words, Adam’s fall tainted the entire human race with sin. Both the guilt and the corruption of sin are universal. The apostle Paul wrote, “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12, emphasis added). “Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men” (v. 18), meaning we inherited the guilt of sin. And “through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (v. 19), meaning we inherited the corruption of sin. No one is exempt. No one is born truly innocent. Except for Christ, supernaturally conceived by the Holy Spirit, no person conceived has ever been free from the moral taint of Adam’s sin.
That is true of all of us. We inherit both the guilt and the corruption of Adam’s sin, and we pass it on to our offspring. This is the doctrine of original sin. We are born into a fallen race. We inherit a fallen nature. We are inexorably drawn to the lure of sin. We have an appetite for evil and no natural thirst for God. We ultimately have no power of our own to obey God or resist evil:
Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7–8)
Sin colors our very nature. We are born with a sinful bent. We have a fallen character even before we commit our first deliberate act of sin. In fact, we sin because we are sinners. We are not innocent creatures who suddenly become sinners when we first sin. We are not bent toward good until exposed to evil. We aren’t perfect until ruined by our parents, as some would suggest. We are not even born morally neutral. We are born sinners.
All of that is also true of our children. Left to themselves, they will pursue a course of sin. And left entirely to themselves, there is no evil of which they are incapable. Psalm 58:3 says, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth.” The apostle Paul quoted a string of Old Testament references in his epistle to the Romans, showing from the Scriptures that there are no exceptions to the doctrine of human depravity:
As it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10–18)
Your Child’s Greatest Need
Parents instinctively recoil from thinking in such terms. What we see in our newborn infants seems the very epitome of chaste, precious, childlike innocence.
But our children are not innocent when they come into the world, except in the sense that they are naïve and inexperienced. All the potential for sin of every kind is already present in their hearts, in seed form. A proclivity toward sin drives their hearts, minds, and wills. And they have no native potential for true holiness or God-pleasing righteousness. They are totally depraved already, just waiting for that depravity to express itself. Although they have some knowledge of good in their hearts (Romans 2:14–15), they will not and cannot do the good, because they love evil (Jeremiah 17:9; John 3:19).
If you have trouble with that, just recognize that your child is a miniature version of you.
It’s humbling to realize your child has inherited his or her sin nature—and the godly wrath it rightly incurs—from you. That reality ought to compel Christian parents to keep their children’s greatest need—regeneration—at the focus of their parenting, and compel them to reign in the expressions of their depravity in the meantime.
Next time we’ll look at some of the means Christian parents employ to that end, and see how they measure up to the biblical standard.