Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus, by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick & Jessica Thompson. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 213 pages.
Elyse M. Fitzpatrick holds an M.A. in Biblical Counseling. She is author of seventeen books on biblical counseling, family, and the Christian life. Jessica Thompson has a Bachelor’s Degree in Theology and is a homeschooling mother of three children.
Most parenting books aim to tell their readers what they need to do to be good parents. This book does not. To focus on what we need to do is to focus on the law. Give Them Grace urges parents to see what God has done for them and their children in the gospel.
Fitzpatrick and Thompson explain that people naturally like law. We are comfortable following “ten easy steps toward being a good parent.” But parenting with the law is not Christian parenting. Christian parents do use the law. But if they only use the law and never use the gospel, there is nothing exclusively Christian about it. When parents misuse the law, their children get the idea that God will be happy with them if they just “be good.” “And instead of transmitting the gloriously liberating and life-changing truths of the gospel, we have taught our children that what God wants from them is morality. … This isn’t the gospel… We need much less of Veggie Tales and Barney and tons more of the radical, bloody scandalous message of God made man and crushed by his Father for our sin” (19). Mere outward obedience may look like conformity to God’s law, but if it is performed out of a desire to earn God’s approval, it does the child more harm than good. Parenting only with the law crushes and breeds despair in children. Though the law may bring immediate, outward results, only the gospel accomplishes the ultimate result we want for our children: that they know Jesus, who has rescued them from their sin.
Every parent wants to be a good parent, who raises good kids. Give Them Grace explains that we can’t raise good children, because we aren’t good parents. Only the Holy Spirit can raise good kids. “There is only one good Parent, and he had one good Son. Together, this Father and Son accomplished everything that needed to be done to rescue us and our children from certain destruction” (50). We’ve accepted the formula “good parenting in, good children out.” Instead, we ought to parent to the best of our abilities, while entrusting our children to God, who saves our children not because of our best efforts, but in spite of them (52-53). Parents sometimes fall into despair when they think about their mistakes. The authors expose this as works-righteousness, because it betrays the assumption that everything depends on what they do. Parents sometimes orient their lives around raising obedient children. The authors expose this as idolatry, when obedience becomes more important than God himself. Both of these errors see the law as the key to parenting. Our faith ought not to be in ourselves, but in God. Therefore we will avoid making statements that, as the authors demonstrate, often obliterate the gospel such as “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” and those that breed toxic pride like “You’re such a good girl!” (71-72). Rather, we will use the means that God has appointed to build our children’s faith in the one who has saved them from their sins, whether they sin by breaking the rules or by taking pride in keeping the rules.
Only after the authors have “bombarded” the reader in the first four chapters with the encouragement to proclaim the gospel to their children do they give advice on discipline. They explain that God “changes” our children (they use the oxymoronic term “gospel obligation” where we would say “sanctification”). He does this through their parents’ training and instruction “of the Lord” (83). They explain the “of the Lord” in Ephesians 6:4 to mean that every aspect of parenting must be tied to the gospel message. They give advice on the practical steps of Christian parenting, which they summarize as management (basic instructions for daily living), nurturing (feeding their souls with grace), training (telling them what Jesus has done for them), correction (when they doubt or forget), and rehearsing gospel promises. The book also devotes chapters to explaining the role of Proverbs in parenting, parental decision-making, and prayer.
The greatest weakness of Give Them Grace is chapter nine. It tries to articulate something like what we call the theology of the cross, when it explains that parents will not always appear to be successful with their children. It contains some accurate ideas, for example, that a child falling away from faith is not necessarily due to poor parenting. Unfortunately the authors claim that God chooses some of our children to fall away, because it brings him glory. The tenth and final chapter, however, is one of this book’s great strengths. It applies a generous measure of gospel to the parent, so that we know that our sins are forgiven and are motivated to serve our Savior as faithful parents.
Give Them Grace contains a few other weaknesses. In addition to its statements that promote double-predestination, it makes several statements that use the language of decision theology. Throughout the book it is clear that the authors do not have confidence in infant Baptism as a means of regeneration. Frequently it assumes that we cannot know whether our children truly believe in Jesus or not. It says more than Scripture when it explains that the book of Proverbs commands parents to employ corporal punishment.
In spite of its weaknesses, this book’s strengths make it well worth reading. The authors distinguish law and gospel. They urge parents to use both law and gospel in raising their children. They demonstrate that the gospel must predominate. They show the benefits of the Holy Spirit’s work in children’s lives. They apply gospel encouragement to parents, showing again and again that Jesus has forgiven us. The gospel content of this book is strong. It is worth the time of every pastor to read it. This is especially true if he has children. But even if he doesn’t, he will be dealing with other people’s children, and he will be training parents to raise their children. Give Them Grace is a valuable book for every member parent and prospective parent to read, as well, as their pastor guides them through its shortcomings. Its practical advice is good, but its focus on the gospel is exceptional. By proclaiming the gospel, it helps equip pastors and parents to do the work of bringing children up in the training and instruction of the Lord.