Brittany Norris asks a few questions of Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s Give them Grace in her review, “Give Me Grace.” In the spirit of conversational theology, we asked Fitzpatrick and Thompson to write a response, which you can find below.
Give Me Grace
We are not nor can we be the saviors of our children. He is the Savior. When we forget this, our parenting will be pockmarked by fear, severity, and exhaustion. (Give them Grace, p.55)
Does this parenting “style” sound familiar to anyone else but me? Like many mothers, I am prone to think too much of my abilities and too little of God’s. Even when I have a dreadful day with the children, I still wake up the next morning thinking that if I just try harder, I can get my children to act more sanctified. Enter Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s Give them Grace, a helpful antidote against the poisonous legalistic bent in parenting.
As this mother-and-daughter-team see it, Christian parents too often make the goal of their parenting Judeo-Christian moral training, which any Mormon or Jewish parent could accomplish as well as we can. What makes parenting truly Christian, the authors suggest, is steeping our training in the message of our children’s inability to keep the law, and their need for a relationship with the Obedient Son who kept the law in their place. Though we know that our own salvation is accomplished this way, somehow we get gospel-amnesia when it comes to raising our kids. After all, “[i]n the same way that iron filings follow a magnet, our hearts chase after rules—not because we ever really obey them but because we think they make life manageable” (p. 81). According to Fitzpatrick and Thompson, our children are often “taught that God wants them to be good, that poor Jesus is sad when they disobey, and that asking Jesus into their heart is the breadth and depth of the gospel message” (p.18). In this way, Jesus simply becomes the extra boost the kids need to be good enough. But when we teach them obedience while neglecting their need for the righteousness of Christ to cover their (constant!) disobedience, we give them a false confidence in their flesh—a sure path to Hell. Nevertheless, the authors encourage us to teach our children the Law—over and over—not because they can obey, but to help them see that they can’t.
One of the most powerful sections of Give Them Grace is their discussion of the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son (or, as Fitzpatrick calls it, the Story of the Welcoming Father). As the authors demonstrate from the parable, both sons sin, and the Father welcomes both into the abundance of his grace. Yet many of us tend to focus our disciplinary efforts on the “prodigal” child or behavior and overlook the pharisaical, “older brother” ones (read: outward compliance and self-righteousness). The older brother, with his indignant reaction to the younger brother’s restoration, is just as guilty of wandering away from his Father’s love as was the Prodigal. I need this reminder when I encounter both the Prodigal and the Pharisee in my own home (and in myself). It is often tempting to squelch the licentious eruptions from my children because they are showily disobedient. Meanwhile, I may notice the whiney legalism that surfaces (“She took an extra turn, Mom!”), but I mistakenly think that the self-righteous lack of mercy is not equally worth correcting. Fitzpatrick and Thompson rightly point out that the Heavenly Father welcomes both Prodigals and Pharisees with open arms, and suggest that even little pharisees should be lovingly shown their sin as we point them to the true, merciful Law-Keeper.
Also helpful is that co-author Jessica Thompson is herself in the process of raising children according to the gospel principles outlined in the book. With four young children of my own, I need both to steep myself in the theological underpinnings of Christian parenting and to see real-world examples of these same principles in action. In the immediacy of a teachable moment—with spaghetti boiling over on the stove and the baby crying—I may not remember the finer points of Jesus’ passive and active righteousness on my shouting three-year-old’s behalf. I may, however just manage to remember a similar moment that Thompson shared from her own life and be able to apply the Gospel Story to my child’s sinful behavior in like manner. Or not. And when I fail, then I can lead my daughter to the foot of the cross where we can both seek forgiveness: her, for her rebellious tantrum, and me, for my angry knee-jerk reaction.
Nevertheless, my main criticism of the book is one that other Reformed reviewers have noted: Fitzpatrick and Thompson have a decidedly non-covenantal view of the regenerate state of children. Because none of us know whether our children have yet experienced God’s redeeming grace, the authors encourage us to treat our children as unbelievers unless the child has formally announced his own salvation. An otherwise helpful appendix in the back of the book which suggests gospel-based responses to children needing discipline for common offenses (lying, blame shifting, disobeying, etc.) offers different presentations for Christian and non-Christian children. With Fitzpatrick coming from a Reformed Baptist background, this viewpoint is not surprising. And, as they do throughout the book, the authors are right to point out the dangers of breeding hypocrisy in our children, whether through coerced apologies or presumed regeneration. The real pitfall of hypocrisy, however, is not merely in pretending to be something we’re not. Hypocrisy is deadliest when the hypocrite actually thinks the outward show is good enough. We unintentionally teach our children that their sinner’s prayer/formal profession of faith/declaration of Christian identity itself (forms of outward conformity) is enough to please God, since it is apparently enough to please us…else we continue to treat them as little heathens. It would surely be a recalcitrant child who refused to pray the Prayer for Salvation by the age of four or five in such an environment. So making a strong distinction—as the appendix charts do—between how you present the gospel to your children based on some singular point of decision may actually drive them to believe that their faith must reach a certain minimum of sincerity in order to earn righteous standing. To a lesser extent, this may be an inadvertent danger in the authors’ insistence on waiting until the child initiates an apology before forgiveness is articulated. Am I sorry enough? Yes, I think I am. The unspoken message is that the purity of Johnny’s repentance—or faith, when considering his own regenerate state—is the basis for his forgiveness. And here we are, coming in the back door of works-righteousness. For, of course, none of us—children included—are capable of pure repentance or faith. Our most lofty spiritual impulses are always co-mingled with sin. The only standard for “sorry enough,” or “believing enough,” is perfection, and none of us can manage that, which is why we need Christ’s perfection credited to us. Certainly, paedobaptists have their own pitfalls; presumption comes to mind. But it seems better to treat your children like members of the visible Church that they are, while daily lavishing them with their need for the same Gospel that unbelievers need. As the parable has it, wheat and tares really do grow together, and can only be distinguished in the Final Harvest.
Brittany Norris (MA, University of Colorado) lives in San Diego, where she’s the wife of a ruling elder and the homeschooling mother of four energetic and effervescent children.
Response to “Give Me Grace” and Brittany Norris
Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson
First of all, we’d like to thank Modern Reformation for this opportunity to respond to the generally insightful and gracious critique by Brittany Norris of our book, Give them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus.
We appreciate the fact that Norris would take the time to read and respond to our book even though she knew going into it that we had significant differences on covenantal theology. Generally speaking, when people know upfront that there will be as significance a difference of opinion on something as integral to their belief systems as covenant theology is for many, they dismiss the book out-of-hand. We’re very thankful that Norris took the time to read the book and demonstrate godly maturity in being able to cull out segments that she found helpful. In other words, she refrained from throwing out the baby with the bathwater and with a book on childrearing, that’s a good idea.
We obviously agree that many Christian parents fall into the trap of moralism or as Christian Smith identified, “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” This, coupled with a pervasive insufficiency in communicating the gospel, was our primary goal in writing the book. We are gratified that Norris rightly identified and deduced our objectives.
Now to the areas of disagreement (remembering that this is disagreement between sisters for whom Christ died): We agree that we have a “decidedly non-covenantal view of the regenerate state of children.” Rather than using our response now to try to convince any of our readers of the correctness of our position (as if that would be possible), we will simply clarify the areas where we think Norris has misunderstood or misrepresented what we’ve written in Give them Grace.
To begin with, Norris references our Appendix 2, “Common Problems and the Gospel.” In her remarks she misconstrues our position on regenerate and unregenerate children. She states that we
unintentionally teach our children that their sinner’s prayer/formal profession of faith/declaration of Christian identity itself (forms of outward conformity) is enough to please God since it is apparently enough to please us…else we continue to treat them as little heathens.
This statement grieves us. If our writing was so ambiguous at this point that a parent could think that we would propagate this kind of works righteousness, we are indeed sorry. We do not think this. In fact, the heartbeat of our message is that mere outward conformity to a religious practice such as saying the “sinner’s prayer” would never merit the pleasure of God. It is simply impossible for us to overemphasize how strongly we oppose that statement. Throughout the book we say over and over again, that both parents and children must be hidden in the righteous of Christ alone and never put any trust in any outward conformity at all. Children and parents (both covenantal and non-covenantal) must trust in Christ who makes believing children and their parents righteous by faith alone.
Perhaps Norris is foisting her own presupposition of what non-covenantal people believe (and they may!) onto what we have said. If we were unclear on this point, we would simply ask for a charitable reading of what we’ve said rather than an assumption of what “reformed Baptists” believe. On numerous occasions, we say that the promises are for those who believe—no matter how they may conform to outward religious practices (or not). We assume that the promises being for those who have been given faith by Christ’s grace alone is an area of disagreement among covenantal and non-covenantal people but we never propose to judge the state of any person’s salvation no matter what they have prayed or how “good” they seem to be.
In our own home, we present the Bible’s promises for both believing and unbelieving children to our children, continually assuring our kids that if they have believed (no matter what they’ve said to us) all of God’s good gifts are already theirs. We are very well aware of the fact that they may outwardly conform to our religious practices out of a desire to please us and not out of real faith. When they exhibit what we identified as “religious obedience”(Luther’s category) in the book, we continually tell them that their obedience is not meritorious and that the Lord sees the heart but delights in their simple faith in his promise to declare that they are righteous no matter what. The issue for us is not declaration of faith but rather real faith – something only the Lord can judge.
In sum, we agree that wheat and tares do grow together and that no one aside from our Sovereign God knows those who are really his. We are continually striving to teach and believe that “salvation is of the Lord” alone and to treat each of our dear children as fellow-sinners as in need of the grace and faith and righteousness as we are.
It is our sincere desire that this response may have cleared up any misconceptions about our book. In any case, we are thankful for this opportunity and pray that the Lord will continue to illumine all of our hearts to the glories of his grace. Again, we’re thankful that Norris took the time to interact with our book and we pray that this brief response will be helpful.