Reformed theologians have spoken of the three uses of God’s law:

1. The Civil Use: God’s law written on man’s heart (Romans 1-2) through common grace restrains sin and evil in society by means of human government punishing unlawful behavior (stealing, assault, perjury, murder).

2. The Evangelical Use: God’s law functions as a mirror to show us our sinfulness and our inability to meet His perfect standard of righteousness, thus driving us to seek salvation and forgiveness through the gospel. The law becomes our tutor which leads us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith (Galatians 3:19-24).

3. The Normative Use: God’s law serves to teach those who have been justified by faith how to show our love to our God and Savior by doing those things which please Him (John 14:15).

These three uses of God’s law provide a useful framework for thinking about what should go on in Christian parenting.

1. The First Use of God’s Law: The Civil Use

Because our children are born sinful and foolish they need outward restraint through discipline. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. The rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). A child who is not yet a believer (regenerate) will not be motivated by a true love for God to stop lying or to cease from hurting his siblings. Painful consequences, however, will restrain his sin and foolishness. Until recently, most Christian parenting books have emphasized this aspect of parental discipline which is primarily aimed at getting outward control of children through consistent discipline—the establishment and enforcement of reasonable standards of behavior.

2. The Second Use of God’s Law: The Evangelical Use

Our children’s sinful failures produce wonderful opportunities for us to show them their need of the gospel. Children, like adults, are prone to self-righteousness and want to feel good about themselves because they meet some outward standard of goodness (i.e. good grades, good manners, etc.). All children need to be shown that they are not truly good and thus they need Jesus. When a child lies or loses his temper, her parents should take advantage of the opportunity to remind him that he is a sinner who needs the forgiveness and the transformation that only the gospel can bring. Jesus came into the world so that we needy sinners might have our guilt washed away (1 Peter 3:18 2 Cor. 5:21) and that we might receive a new nature by which we are freed from slavery to sin (Romans 6).

The first time I was exposed to the idea of using our children’s failures evangelistically was in Tedd Tripp’s wonderful book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart. More recent books, including Give them Grace, by Fitzpatrick and Thompson also strongly emphasize the second use of God’s law in parenting.

3. The Third Use of God’s Law: The Normative Use

Once our children profess saving faith in Christ they should want to know God’s Word so that they can express their love for the Lord Who saved them by doing the things He commands (John 14:15). At this stage, their motivation is no longer a mere fear of consequence (the first use of the law). Rather, they love God and are eager to do those things which please Him (Titus 2:14). This is the ultimate goal of Christian parenting and a blessed work of the Lord in a child’s heart.

Two Words of Caution

1. Much popular instruction on parenting has focused almost exclusively on controlling outward behavior (the first use of the law) while not adequately emphasizing the need to see our children’s sin as evangelistic opportunities (the second use of God’s law). A related problem is that children have often been taught the Scriptures in a moralistic way, focusing upon using Bible characters merely as moral examples (“Dare to be a Daniel” or “Like David, you can fight the giants in your life”) while neglecting the fact that the central theme of all Scripture is redemption in Christ (Luke 24:26-27). The outcome can be outwardly obedient moral kids who don’t realize that they are wicked sinners who desperately need a Savior.

2. In recent days there has been a refreshing emphasis on bringing the gospel into both our discipline (the second use of the law—our sin shows us our need for Christ) and our instruction (showing our children Jesus in all of Scripture). Some have also helpfully incorporated the third use of the law—when our children are converted they should obey out of love for Christ.

There is a danger, however, that some who joyfully embrace the second use of the law in parenting can swing too far in this direction and neglect the first use of the law (the need to control outward behavior through painful consequence). This error occurs when a parent’s sole response to his/her child’s sin is to point them to Christ without bringing the painful consequence which Scripture commands (Proverbs 13:24). You can’t know when your child will be broken in his sinfulness and come to faith. In the meantime, just as civil laws are necessary in the unbelieving world so that sin will be restrained, children still need to be disciplined so that their foolishness will be restrained (the first use of God’s law).

Additional Resources

For more on parenting see:

  • Newheiser, Parenting is More than a Formula, published by Presbyterian and Reformed.
  • Newheiser and Fitzpatrick, You Never Stop Being a Parent, published by Presbyterian and Reformed.
  • Fitzpatrick and Newheiser, When Good Kids Make Bad Choices, published by Harvest House.