The Rod and Reproof: The Loving Discipline of Covenant Children
by Rev. Steven Key
"The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame." Proverbs 29:15
The living God takes very seriously the baptismal vows which parents make and the responsibility He gives all parents when He gives them children.
Discipline is the order of God's government, an order given to us because He knows that we are sinners - indeed, that we are conceived and born in sin. Today, the wickedness of the society in which we live has also permeated the church. And it has not left us unaffected. The Lord has entrusted to us as members of the Protestant Reformed Churches a most beautiful truth, that of the covenant. God takes us into His own life of fellowship and love, and causes His own covenant life to vibrate through us His people. And He has directed us clearly how we ought to function as His covenant people in the midst of our families. But there is an unrelenting effort on the part of Satan to destroy our families. And there is an unrelenting effort to destroy the truth of the covenant as it applies in a very practical way to family life and the instruction and discipline of our children.
In obedience to God, we parents in the Protestant Reformed Churches present our children to God for the administration of infant baptism as a sign and seal of that everlasting covenant of grace. (In the worship service where baptism is administered, parents make vows before God in answer to the following questions in our Baptism Form.
First. Whether you acknowledge, that although our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea, to condemnation itself; yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as members of his Church ought to be baptized?
Secondly. Whether you acknowledge the doctrine which is contained in the Old and New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian Church, to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation?
Thirdly. Whether you promise and intend to see these children, when come to the years of discretion [whereof you are either parent or witness], instructed and brought up in the aforesaid doctrine, or help or cause them to be instructed therein, to the utmost of your power?
For many of us in the Reformed church world, it has been hundreds of times that we have heard these vows of the Baptism Form answered with a simple, "Yes." But how many times have we truly meditated upon the meaning and significance of those vows? For example, we acknowledge that our children are sinners, holy only in Christ. We confess our belief that the doctrine taught in this Christian church is the true and perfect (or more accurately, the "complete") doctrine of salvation. We promise and acknowledge our intention to instruct our children and to bring them up in that complete doctrine of salvation. But do we realize that that doctrine is not only a knowledge of the various fundamental truths of Scripture's doctrine, but that it also involves much more? Do we realize that the doctrine contained in the Old and New Testaments is also all that which God teaches us concerning the way of the Christian life and the way of family life and the way we must discipline our children? Yes, usually contrary to methods of child-rearing proclaimed by the psychologists and "experts" of this world, God Himself gives us clear instruction in child discipline. That is not to say that it is easy instruction. That is not to say that we will even agree with that method of discipline, as far as our sinful minds are concerned. But when God Himself gives instruction, you and I must not only listen; we must obey.
The Book of Proverbs is filled with rich instruction, also concerning the upbringing of covenant children. Yet, I think any minister who understands the importance of Christ-centred preaching will tell you that to preach from the Proverbs is very difficult. There are not many sermons preached from the Book of Proverbs, certainly not series of sermons. It is not that the Proverbs are difficult to understand. They are often only too painfully clear. But when preaching from the Proverbs it is difficult not to fall into the error of making the Proverbs so many moral homilies that apply to all men. It is easy to overlook the Proverbs as part of that one portrait of the God of our salvation in the face of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as we consider the words of Proverbs 29:15, I urge you to heed the call that we have here with respect to the training of our children - not because I say so as a parent who thinks he knows it all, but because the only wise God says, "The rod and reproof give wisdom." And it is exactly when we understand this as something far more important than instruction in child psychology, when we see this as the authoritative instruction God gives us to rear our children in Christ, that we see the importance of heeding this word. I call your attention, therefore, to:
The Discipline of the Rod and Reproof
We consider this theme under three headings:
I. Necessary Discipline
II. Twofold Discipline
III. Rewarding Discipline
I. The Necessary Discipline of Which the Text Speaks Is That of Training a Child.
And, more particularly, when we remember that the Scriptures are addressed to the church of God, and here specifically to covenant parents, then we see that the writer refers to the child of the covenant.
It is true that this proverb expresses a general maxim that can be applied to all the children of men: The rod and reproof are proper means of discipline for all children to help them best to function in society (if that is how you want to interpret "wisdom"); but a child undisciplined and turned loose brings his mother to shame. That is true as a general rule for all men. But if we make of this text a general rule, a proverb for all, then we fail to see the beauty of the gospel here, and we fail to see its specific application to the covenant family and to the rearing of our covenant children. For we must remember that, in Scripture, the first meaning of that word "wisdom" is Christ. When we bear that in mind, then we recognize that this text gives instruction with reference to the child who is established by God within the sphere of the covenant, and therefore to parents who are members of the church of Christ.
Who is this child of the covenant of whom the writer speaks?
According to Psalm 127:3, "Children are an heritage of the LORD." That means that our children are given to us by the Lord Jehovah. Covenant children are His possession. They are not ours to do with as we please. He appoints us custodians of the children He entrusts to our care. And it is necessary that we remember that we are dealing not with our own children, but with God's children. That is a truth that was understood among the Israelites.
Especially in Israel, among the people of God, there was a tremendous interest in children. This was undoubtedly due to the doctrine of the covenant and the promise which God had given the patriarchs, to establish His covenant with believers and their seed, as an everlasting covenant. Though they understood the history of Jacob and Esau, and the truth that the line of election and reprobation cuts right through the outward sphere of the covenant, though they understood that they could not presume the salvation of their children, the Israelites nevertheless viewed their children as covenant children, children whom God had given them to bring up within the sphere of His kingdom and law. And therefore the lives of the children of God to a large extent revolved around their children. That becomes evident if you take a good Bible concordance and study the words translated "child" in the Old Testament. There are some nine different Hebrew words for "child," each describing that covenant child from the viewpoint of various stages of his development and maturity.
But we must remember that at the foundation of all these facts concerning the various stages of child development lies the truth that our children are born dead in trespasses and sins, and are righteous only in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Discipline is a necessary part of the life of a child.
These children, to whom we give our affection and whom we love so dearly, are sinners, worthy of everlasting hell from the moment they are conceived. And even as regenerated children, they have an old man just like you and I have, warring within them. If you are not blinded by their preciousness, you can see them, already in infancy, projecting that wretched sinful nature.
And most often, the sin that our children project is that particular sin or number of sins that plague our natures as their parents. We must confess that to our children, too, and teach them: We see our sins in you, children. And, boys and girls, because you have the same sinful natures that we have, you too must learn the truth in Jesus. You must learn to put off the old man of sin and to put on the new man, to put on the life of Jesus. You too must be sorry, exceedingly sorry that you have sinned against God. And you too must be taught that true joy and happiness in our lives is only in God through Jesus Christ. For the more you see that, the more you will be thankful that God has saved a sinner like you. And the more you will want to keep God's commandments and to live unto Him.
To that end God has ordained that there be a relationship of authority which parents exercise over the children God has given them. That is necessary because of the nature of the child. When you think of the fifth commandment, for example, you see that it is perfectly adapted to the character of the child. That is why it is incredibly foolish to talk about the rights of children. God Himself knows the life and development of the child. He has ordained not only the way of physical development, but also the way of spiritual development. He sees that children are sinners, who, if left to themselves, will bring shame not only to Him, but to His church and even to the one to whom that child is closest - his own mother. That is the point of the last part of the text before us.
The child who is undisciplined, the child who is not brought up with the rod and reproof and then who is let go as a young adult, brings his mother to shame. A clearer picture of misery and ruin cannot be conceived. How often have you not seen a mother laugh off the evil temper of her child? Perhaps we even have done it. A son's or a daughter's wretched nature is passed off as the accident of childhood so that a mother will say to herself, "That evil temper will pass away, as he gets older and I am able to reason with him more. Time will take care of it." God here teaches us that time of itself fixes nothing! Time only strengthens and brings about the maturity of that wicked nature! That is a certain fact.
You and I cannot project the future of our children. We cannot know what lies in the future as far as health or sickness, height or strength or talents or positions that our children may have. But of one thing we may be absolutely certain, according to God's own Word - that child, without the government and discipline ordained by God, will rush on under the impetuous and wicked impulse of his own will and, left to himself, will bring shame as he runs toward destruction. The sound discipline of heavenly guidance is our Father's blessing. His most fearful curse is to give us up to our own ways, to walk in our own counsels, as we read in Psalm 81:12. A child left to himself will only show in all of his life that hatred of God and his neighbour which permeates the whole of his nature.
I cannot overemphasize the necessity of exercising Christian discipline toward our children, for the salvation of our children and the reflection of God's glory.
What do people see when they look at your children and mine? If people can look to the homes of Protestant Reformed believers and see there a God-honouring structure of order and a respect for authority that stands out in contrast to the shallow, man-centred thinking that has permeated the world and the church today, it will be one of the most powerful testimonies to the truth we claim to believe. Is the covenant fellowship of God reflected in your family life?
Is the loving but authoritative discipline of Christ seen in you as parents, as you exercise discipline toward your children? Without it, without obedience to the precepts of God in the rearing of your children, all your so-called love of the Scriptures and the truth of God will be seen by all those around you as so much hypocrisy.
The manner in which our children are trained to conduct themselves in the worship service, in school, in the neighbourhood, and at home, reflects upon the truth which is revealed in the Bible.
If we take our children to church, only to give them toys to play with, if we do not teach them to sit still and to be quiet in the worship service and to listen and to bow before the authority of Christ, we make a mockery of God Himself.
For by such action, we teach our children that church is not all that important, and that the Word preached is something we only have to sit through and bear.
If our neighbours look at our homes and do not see any greater degree of godliness in our homes than they have in their ungodly home, they will say that our religion is so much garbage, and our Christ means nothing, and the truths that we proclaim have no practical bearing on the way we live and teach our children to live.
We have a responsibility to order our homes according to the Word of God, so that they bear a positive witness to the truth of God's covenant as we live in His loving fellowship as those redeemed by Christ and who love Him.
And, I might add, that responsibility is placed upon us not only as individual parents, but also as churches. We all are responsible to help and lovingly to encourage one another in disciplining our children. I say that being fully conscious of the fact that this frequently is an area where we are least free to speak. J.C. Ryle, a 19th century preacher and writer in the Church of England, remarked in his book The Upper Room,
As a minister, I cannot help remarking that there is hardly any subject about which people seem so tenacious as they are about their children. I have sometimes been perfectly astonished at the slowness of sensible Christian parents to allow that their own children are in fault, or deserve blame. There are not a few persons to whom I would far rather speak about their own sins, than tell them their own children had done anything wrong.
That attitude seen in the 19th century is no different today; perhaps it is worse. May God deliver us parents from such an attitude.
Your children as well as mine need discipline according to the instruction of our heavenly Father. Solomon writes in Proverbs 19:18, and I quote literally, "Chasten thy son, for there is hope; and set not thy soul on making him die." That latter is what you do, if you refuse to chasten your children according to the will of God. So necessary is the discipline of our children, that it is literally a question of life and death, all within the sovereign counsel and will of God. When our children do wrong, they must see in us the wrath of God against sin, that they may also see forgiveness in Christ Jesus.
II. The Rod and Reproof Is the Twofold Discipline We Are Called to Administer to our Children.
Contrary to the well-known teachings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and the teachings of many who have rejected the Word of God, the rod is a necessary instrument in the discipline of our children. So important is that rod that God tells us in Proverbs 13:24, "He that spareth his rod hateth his son."
The rod of discipline is not easy to use.
The world has so corrupted the concept "love," that our deceitful hearts would readily say that it is love to let a child do his own thing, so to speak.
And I would have you mothers notice that the mother is mentioned specifically in this text. Because the father's calling is to provide for the family, the calling of the early discipline of your children falls primarily upon you mothers who are at home. That is one reason you are mentioned specifically. But I would submit that there is another reason you are mentioned in connection with this calling to use the rod and reproof. If the father's stronger character generally induces him to "provoke his children to wrath," which Paul warns us fathers against in Colossians 3:21, does not the mother's softer and generally more tender nature lean toward the opposite evil? Would you mothers attempt to correct your children with a few harsh words, or with a mild, "If you quit that right now, I'll give you a piece of candy?"
The Scriptures, however, teach something quite different. Woe be unto you parents who refuse to heed the Word of God in the discipline of your children! For God tells us to love, not hate. "He that spareth the rod hateth his son." Love necessitates correction with the rod and reproof! If we love our children, God says that we must administer discipline and correction.
The rod is a generic instrument which might take several different forms. It was an instrument that was used as the shaft of a spear. It sometimes denoted a sceptre, the mark of authority used by one who ruled. But the rod was also an instrument used to administer corrective and physical discipline. For us it might be a stick or a switch or a firm ruler. But whatever that instrument may be, it is a means to return the wayward child to the right course.
We must also note in this connection, that rightly to use the rod on our children requires love. All too often, where physical discipline is exercised, it is not done out of love either for God or the child. We who must administer such discipline to our covenant children, must do so under God's authority and with His manner and attitude. That attitude is revealed in Hebrews 12:6-8: "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and no sons." God does not abuse us in His chastening. He loves us.
There is a reason also in this connection that God prescribes the use of the rod. It takes just a little time and effort to get the stick out. And for us to reflect God's attitude of love through our reactionary, impatient, sinful flesh, it is necessary that we slow down and think about what we are doing. Slapping your children around the head and beating on them with your fists, whipping them or beating them with any object close at hand, or anything of the like, is nothing more than abuse of the children whom God has entrusted to your care. And if that has been your ungodly method of punishing your covenant children, you must repent before God and before your children this day!
God instructs us to use the rod in love.
The chastisement of the rod, used in love, is a chastisement quickly and mercifully inflicted. Although our children may question it, there is no punishment more mercifully inflicted than the rod. It is God's method, which is quickly over, with no need to look with disdain upon a corrected child for hours and even days. The rod is not a punishment that keeps the child in mom's and dad's "doghouse." Furthermore, God's call for the use of the rod takes into account his or her physical welfare. God created a particular part of the body capable of receiving the impact of the rod without injury. It is evident that God did not create every part of the body to receive the blow of the rod. When we parents administer the discipline of the rod in love, then we do not do so to injure. That means that we are not to strike our children in the back, where we may cause injury to the spine or the kidneys, nor in the stomach, nor on the head or hands; but on the flesh of the backside where, if the rod is used properly, it may be keenly felt.
And if you ask, what about the older children, the text speaks to that also. We may agree that the rod is good for young children. But how should we discipline our teenagers? Well, you may be surprised to hear that teens are not to be excluded from the use of the rod when necessary. It is striking in the text, that Solomon implicitly calls for the use of the rod and reproof until the child is an adult. The term "child" refers—as is clear in the Hebrew term used—to a child who has reached the age of independence, who is ready to move out of the house and marry.
You will find, when you administer discipline to your child as God commands and as you nurture that child to receive more and more responsibility and to become more and more dependent upon God, that the rod will not often be necessary with your teenager. As a covenant child matures in the way of loving discipline, under the diligent use of rod and reproof as a child, he learns to experience joy and peace in the home. He grows in the knowledge and understanding of the Word of God, of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. He realizes that obedience to God is the way of happiness. And the rod is less frequently necessary as a means to instruct. But it is still a means.
But along with the rod must be reproof.
"The rod and reproof." When the rod is used, God has ordained discipline to be twofold. Proper Christian discipline is not dictatorship, rule by might with the rod alone. To separate these two is to ask for the chastisement of God to fall upon your head. Eli gave the reproof, but spared the rod; and he had to suffer the torment of hearing that his sons were slain by the wrath of God, and the ark of the Lord was taken by the Philistines. Others, contrary to the Word of God, use the rod alone. Now, there are many times when a matter of discipline can be handled by reproof alone. The indication of Proverbs 17:10 is, if reproof works the sorrow of repentance, then let the rod be spared. If not, use the rod and let not thy soul spare for the child's crying. But never use the rod without reproof.
Reproof is verbal instruction in godliness.
The child must not only be steered away from the path that leads to hell, but he must be shown the error of his way before God and he must be instructed in righteousness. Our children must be taught to evaluate their own specific actions in the light of the Scriptures. They must be taught to bow before the authority of God. They must be taught why the thing that they did was wrong in the eyes of God. Biblical discipline requires words. How much do you think you would get out of my preaching, if all I did was stand in the pulpit from week to week waving my arms and making contortions with my face, but never saying a word? The message of the gospel cannot be communicated by mere gestures or by pounding the pulpit. Nor can the instruction in Christian discipline be communicated if all that our discipline amounts to is a painful pantomime with a stick. The wrath of God was exercised toward us, that we might hear those precious words, "I love you in Christ Jesus." And even now, when we experience the chastisement of God, it is to lead us in the way toward heaven.
When we understand that precious truth, then we ought to express our love to our children especially when we are called to use the rod. We must reprove them, expressing our love for them. We must assure them that the rod is not administered out of hatred, but out of a heavy heart that loves that child in Christ. What a terrible thing it is when confessing Christian parents beat their children, but fail to reprove them and to point them to the love of Christ. How utterly wicked it is for a parent to spank a child only to leave him like a dog to lick his sores. It is no wonder when such children run to their rooms, slam their doors, and mutter under their breaths, "I hate you." Such an attitude expressed by a parent who uses the rod, but never reproves in love, has no semblance whatsoever to the attitude God expresses in chastening His spiritual children. God demands the rod and reproof.
And we ought not forget that belonging to reproof is prayer, which brings parent and child close to God. The necessity of prayer in the discipline and instruction of our children cannot be overemphasized. For one thing, we parents must repeatedly approach God seeking forgiveness for our failure to exercise discipline as He has ordained. We need to do that today and every day. We need to pray for grace to obey His Word and to bow humbly before His wise instruction. We need to pray for much wisdom in dealing with our covenant children. For we know that if God were to reward us according to our iniquities, every one of our children would walk the way to hell. And we need to pray for our children. We ought to do that not just generally, but specifically, naming each one by name and praying for the specific needs of each child and bringing before God the specific problems we face with each child. More than once, I have heard the testimony of a child of God, speaking of his Christian father whose discipline fell far short of the biblical standard. But one thing that father did, in the presence of his children, was to fall on his knees to beseech God's forgiveness for himself and God's mercy towards his children. Such prayer leaves on the mind and soul of a child an impression that will never leave him. In prayer also, we are to reflect the love of Christ toward us. He prays without ceasing, serving as our faithful and constant Intercessor by His Holy Spirit.
In all things the Lord God calls us to reflect Him, also in the administering of Christian discipline to covenant children. And He says to us in Proverbs 3:11, 12: "My son, despise not the chastening of the LORD (despise not His use of the rod on you); neither be weary of his correction (of his reproof): For whom the LORD loveth he correcteth (He reproves); even as a father the son in whom he delighteth."
III. The Rod and Reproof Give Wisdom—and That Is Rewarded Discipline.
God has so ordained that in the way of proper Christian discipline, He will reveal the wisdom of God in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The rod of correction, administered with reproof, drives foolishness far from the covenant child of God. Such is the promise of God (Proverbs 22:15). That does not mean that you and I by our actions make our children God's children. If you examine your discipline in the light of what you have heard from the Scriptures, you know that that is far from being true. All we have done is give them a corrupt nature. Nor does that mean that God is a debtor to us—that if we bring up our children in the discipline of the rod and reproof, as He has commanded, that He is indebted to save our children. But according to His eternal and sovereign good pleasure, He has determined that this is the way in which we must lead our elect little ones to Jesus.
There is no greater blessing for our children, as children of God, than to have godly parents who obey this Word of God, who use the rod and reproof when God requires it.
Such is a reflection of the love of God in Christ Jesus for us. That love of God is rooted in the giving of His own Son for our adoption. Our Father did more than show His love in the cross. He also constantly assures us of that love by leading us in the way of righteousness. He assures us of His love, not only by chastising us, but by speaking to us in the preaching of the gospel. As parents, we too need to taste that love. We must be prepared to confess our sins one to another within our families, and so to demonstrate in the family our belief that confession and forgiveness of sins is the only way to salvation. May we so love one another for God's sake.