If you are like me, you probably made a few resolutions for 2018. I hope one of them was to disciple your children more intentionally. I also recognize, however, that “discipling your children” is something you know about in the abstract but find hard to figure out exactly what that means. For a lot of us, we did not grow up in homes where our parents made concerted efforts at discipling us (largely because no one had done the same for them!), and thus, we don’t have much to go on in our immediate context nor experience.
Yet, providentially, God has given his church many teachers—one of whom is Richard Baxter (1615-1691). Baxter is remembered as a premier English Puritan and prolific author. One of his most influential works was The Christian Directory. Baxter wrote this treatise with the aim at providing young, “unfurnished and unexperienced” ministers with a detailed outline of all that is involved with being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Volume 1 is itself nearly 950 pages alone!
On the subject of the Christian home, Crossway released a readable selection from the Directory, Part II which covers this very topic: Richard Baxter, The Godly Home, ed. Randall J. Pederson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010). 224 pgs.
I thought it might be good to summarize Baxter’s instruction for family discipleship here. Best of all (and perhaps most empowering of all) you’ll find them doable, freeing, and helpful. You’ll find that he prescribes faithful plodding and not heroic conquest.
“Direction for the Right Teaching of Children”
1) Introduce your children to the Christian vocabulary (memory verses, catechisms, theological words, etc.) even before they may understand in full.
“When they come to years of understanding, that part of their work is done, and they have nothing to do but study the meaning and use of those words that they’ve learned already.”
2) Teach children according to their intellectual capabilities.
“Begin this with them while they are on their mother’s laps, and use it frequently. For they are quickly capable of some understanding about greater matters as well as about less. Knowledge must come by slow degree.”
3) Teach your children to read.
“It is a great mercy to be able to read the Holy Scriptures, and any good books themselves, and a great misery to know nothing but what they hear from others.”
4) Help your children to understand the history and importance of the Scriptures.
“Though this, of itself, is not sufficient to [save], yet it entices them to delight in reaching the Bible, and then they will be often at it when they love it, so that all these benefits follow.”
5) Don’t make family worship a boring, dull affair.
“It is commonly seen that [children] will grow sleepy, senseless, and customary under such a dull and distant course of duty, though the matter is good, almost as if you had said nothing to them. Your business, therefore, must be to get with them, and awaken their consciences to know that the matter concerns them, and to force them to make application of it for themselves.”
6) Don’t use family worship as a time to practice preaching to your kids.
“[Though it is not unlawful for a man to preach to his family], very few [fathers] are equipped to do it (even among those who think they are); and then they ignorantly abuse the Scriptures…Second, [it is more profitable to read books]. Third…to talk seriously with children and servants about the great concerments of their souls commonly more moves them than sermons or set speeches. Yet because there is a season for both, you may sometimes read some powerful books to them…Fourth, it often comes from pride when men put their speech into a preaching method to show their parts, and as often nourishes pride.”
7) Ask questions which require thoughtful answers from your children.
“First, it keeps them awake and attentive when they know they must make some answer to your questions…Second, it helps them in the application, so that they much more easily take it to heart and see how it applies to them.”
8) Do not publically examine your child’s heart to their shame.
“If it is their ignorance that will be opened by questioning them, you may do it before your children who are familiar with each other, but not when any strangers are present. If it be about the secret state of their souls that you examine them, you must do it alone, lest shaming and troubling them, make them hate instruction, and deprive them of its benefits.”
9) Use baptism as a helpful way to teach your children about the Christian religion.
Meaning: Teach what it means to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Teach that salvation is a covenant between God and man, mediated by Christ. Teach that man is not like an animal but made in the image of God, and that he has reason—capable of choosing between good and evil—and an immortal soul. Teach your child what it means to be devoted to God as Lord and that Adam failed at this, bringing men into a common ruin and corrupt nature. Teach that God in his infinite wisdom provides a Redeemer, the eternal Son of God who was pleased to take on flesh, being born of a virgin and living a perfect life. Teach that “all men are born with a corrupt nature and that they live in sin until Christ restores them (there is no hope for salvation but in him).” Teach them of Christ’s perfect obedience in the flesh, his willful substitutionary death, and glorious, vindicating bodily resurrection and ascension. Tell them that all who are faithful in repentance and persevere in obedience will be saved. Teach them that the Holy Spirit is to be obeyed and trusted.
“Teach these things again and again.”
10) After teaching them the gospel, have them learn the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments as aids in obedience and helps for sanctification.
“Tell them the uses of them; that man having three powers of soul, his understanding, will, and obedience, these must be sanctified, and therefor there must be a rule for each; and that accordingly the Creed is the summary rule to tell us what we in our understanding must believe, the Lord’s Prayer is the summary rule to direct us as what our wills must desire and our tongues must ask, and the Ten Commandments are the summary rule of our practice; and that the Holy Scripture, in general, is the more large and perfect rule of all.”
11) Teach them a shorter catechism, by memory.
“Whichever ones they learn, help them to understand and memorize them.”
12) Don’t try to do everything each night. Do one thing well rather than one hundred poorly.
“I think this method most profitable for a family: read them the best expositions on the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Ten Commandments, which are not too large to confuse them or too brief so as to be hardly understood…read one article, one petition, and one commandment at a time, and read these to them at different times. Second, in your familiar discourse with them open to them one head or article of religion at a time, and another the next time, and so on, until you come to the end.”
13) After you teach, let them repeat back to you what they understood.
“Encourage them for all that is well done in their endeavors.”
14) Labor to be sober-minded and serious about the business of forming within their hearts a love for God.
“Speak to them as if they or you were dying and as if you saw God, heaven, and hell.”
15) Take time to ask each child individually to give an account of God’s work in their lives.
“Show them the true marks of grace, and help them to try themselves; urge them to tell you truly whether their love to God or the [created things]; to heaven or [the world]; to holiness or flesh-pleasing be more, and what it is that has their hearts, care, and chief endeavor. If you find them regenerate, help to strengthen them; if you find them too much dejected, help to comfort them, and then to humble them, and then to show them the remedy in Christ.”
16) Ask probing questions and teach your child to ask probing questions of themselves.
“Such questions as these: Do you not know that you must shortly die? Do you not believe that immediately your souls must enter upon an endless life of joy or misery?…Such questions as these urge the conscience and do much to convince.”
17) Cause them to memorize key Scripture passages.
“[A passage] for every great and necessary duty, and against every great and dangerous sin; and have them often repeat them to you.”
18) Press your children to endeavor and promise unto godly aims.
“Do not urge a promise in any doubtful point…[or] beyond their present strength.”
19) Teach them to pray privately and publically.
“With [written or memorized prayers] or without…you should hear them pray sometimes, that you may know their spirit and how they profit.”
20) Give them readable, profitable books.
“Put such books into their hands as are suitable for them and [encourage] them to read when they are alone. Ask them what they understand and remember.”
21) Let capable children help you in family worship.
“Let their talk be profitable. Let those who read best read to the rest and instruct them (mainly the child reading but also the children listening) and further their edification. Their familiarity might make them very useful to one another.”
22) Don’t give them more than they can handle.
“Narrow-mouthed bottles must not be filled as wider vessels.”
23) Make things sweet and interesting by mixing Christian biographies into instruction.
“Labor to make all sweet and pleasant to them; and to that end sometimes mix the reading of profitable history, such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Clarke’s Martyrologie and Lives of Eminent Persons.”
24) Win your children over with kindness and mercy.
“Be kind to your children when they do well, for this makes your persons acceptable first, and then your instructions will be much more acceptable. Nature teaches them to love those who love them and do them good, and listen to those they love. A small gift, now and then, might signify much to the benefit of their souls.”
25) Don’t think this is too much to do or too high a cost to bear for your childrens’ soul’s sake.
“If anyone shall say that there is so much to do in these directions that they cannot follow them, I ask them to ask Christ, who died for them, whether souls are not precious and worth all this labor. Further, considering how small a labor this is in comparison to their everlasting end; and remember that all is gain, pleasure, and delight to those who have holy hearts; and remember that the effects to the church and kingdom of such holy government of families would more than compensate for all the pains.”
All content for summaries and direct quotes are taken from Richard Baxter, The Godly Home, ed. Randall J. Pederson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 213-224.