Imagine the following parenting situation. You've told your child to pick up his toys. Your child refuses to obey you. He is being disobedient. Perhaps this situation isn't too hard to imagine. How should parents respond biblically?
The distinction between law and gospel is essential in understanding how parents should proceed. Michael Horton provides a helpful definition of law and gospel when he writes:
“Everything in the Bible that reveals God’s moral expectations is law and everything in the Bible that reveals God’s saving purposes and acts is gospel.”
God’s law shows us what is good, right, and true. God expects perfect, perpetual obedience to his law. This standard reveals that we are not good, right, and true. We have all rebelled against a holy God who, because he is good, hates sins. This standard reveals that we deserve infinite punishment for rebelling against an infinitely good God.
God’s law points us to our need for a savior. We not only need our guilt removed, but we need an earned righteousness. Gospel is the good news of God accomplishing salvation for sinners. God the Son took on humanity. He earned all righteousness and died the death that his sinful people deserve.
Those who rest in Christ’s finished work have their sin forgiven, Christ’s righteousness credited to them, and the full favor of God upon them.
Both law and gospel are essential. Both are revealed by God in his Word. Both have a purpose. Law and gospel work together. However, it is important to note that law and gospel are different. What God requires (law) is not the same as what God provides (gospel).
How might the law-gospel distinction be utilized by parents when their child is being disobedient?
Show the child in what way they have broken God’s law. Get to the heart root of his sin. Is he disobeying? coveting? being idolatrous? etc.
Choose the response needed to help correct the sin. Does he just need a verbal correction? Does he need something taken away? Does he need a more severe consequence? Give him consequences as needed (especially for explicit rebellion) to show him the seriousness of breaking God’s law. Without consequences, he, like we, will view sin lightly.
Explain how this sin shows him his need for Christ and his finished work. Without Christ, he is guilty before God and in need of a perfect record of righteousness. Christ alone is sufficient to pay the debt of his sin; Christ alone has a perfect record of righteousness.
Encourage him to rest in Christ and his finished work.
Law and gospel are both essential. If we only teach our kids law, they will have no hope. If we only teach our kids gospel, they will not see their need for it. As parents, we want our children to be united to Christ through faith. As such, let us sow the seeds of law and gospel diligently and pray that God would cause the increase in our family. Every rebellious action of our children provides an opportunity to apply the law and gospel to them. Ultimately, our children do not need behavior modification, they need new life in Christ.  Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 109.
Stephen Duarte (ME, National University; working on MTS, Reformed Baptist Seminary) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Debbie and father of two.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.