Why do so many people—people with incredible conversion stories—parent children who abandon Christianity?
History overflows with great saints whose offspring lose faith:
- Samuel was a mighty prophet of God. His sons were a mess.
- David was a man after God’s own heart. His children were a disaster.
- Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were founded on the gospel. Now they lead the opposition.
I’ve witnessed dozens of couples, churches, ministries, and prayer groups who began with a furious fire of love for God whose next generation couldn’t blow a smoke ring.
Our children lose that fire because of the simplest and silliest of reasons: we assume the gospel. The following downhill slide reveals the stealthy creep of the lost gospel:
- The gospel is Accepted —>
- The gospel is Assumed —>
- The gospel is Confused —>
- The gospel is Lost (Mack Stiles, Marks of the Messenger)
The author continues, “For any generation to lose the gospel is tragic. But the generation that assumes the gospel … is most responsible for the loss of the gospel.” That generation is us. We are most responsible.
What happened to us?
We’re converted by one message but we teach another
A friend of mine lived wildly until the age of thirty. He slept with scores of women, drank an ocean of beer, and was a self-admitted, abusive jerk. In a desperate time of brokenness, he heard the hope of the gospel for the unworthy. He prayed, met and heard God, and he became a pastor.
He was converted by a flood of grace yet his sermons bullied, badgered, nagged, and scolded:
- You should never tell coarse jokes, nor should you cuss.
- You should be generous, and that includes tipping at least 20%.
- You should never come to church without your Bible.
Day after day, week after week, he proclaimed the Nike gospel, “Just do it! Be faithful; be loving; be generous; have hope; trust God; be nice!”
It’s virtually 100% predictable that we are converted by one message and then preach another. We are converted by the unbelievable hope of God’s love for the undeserving.
But we lecture on behavior. A list of Do’s and Don’ts that veil the message that originally changed our hearts.
The damnable presumption of assumption
One day I asked my friend why he neglected the gospel while lecturing on behavior. He said, “My congregation knows the gospel. Now they need to know what to do.” But he admitted to a confusion: why was his shrinking congregation so joyless?
Martin Luther wrote in his Commentary on Galatians,
“Continually listen to the gospel that teaches not what I ought to do (for that is the job of the law), but what Jesus Christ has done for me.
This is the gospel. It is the primary article of all Christian truth. It is most necessary that we should know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into our heads continually” (slightly edited).
We need at least to remember the gospel, if not to beat it into our heads continually; the reminder of the God who left heaven to live, die, and rise again. For us.
The gospel that tells us it’s a gift that cannot be taken; that we are his treasure; that we are his delight; that his Spirit makes a home in our hearts to live the life we’ve failed to live on our own; and that we have a future life that can be had now, a life richer than we can imagine.
Let’s remember the gospel. Or we’ll assume it, confuse it, and lose it. And so will our kids.
To learn more about grace, buy my book, Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids. Chapters include:
- Graceless Goodness: The Problem with Moralism
- The False Gospel of “Just Do It”
- The Ugliness of Religious Righteousness
- The Insidious Danger of “I’d Never Do That”
- We Read the Bible the Wrong Way
- If Grace is True, Why Be Moral?
Thanks back at you!
You’ve said it beautifully, Sam, and I agree completely. Yes, yes, yes! We start with grace but end up in moralism. But moralism is not the gospel–it’s the antigospel. If it’s what we’re preaching, then small wonder that today’s secularized culture isn’t interested. Moral uprightness is the fruit of life in Christ, but it can never replace that life, any more than apples can replace the tree they grow on.
Exactly! Why do we confuse the means (grace) with the result (living a life of love of God and our neighbor)? We receive grace; and only then can we give God (and our neighbors) a good life.
I totally agree, Sam. This brings up something that I teach our teens alot, which is the tragedy of Lot. He started well, but ended so badly, why? Because he wasn’t a man of God, he was a man who followed a man of God. We have to preach the gospel, all the time, and encourage our youth to OWN their faith. Keep preaching for grace, brother. God used you to open my eyes, and I know He’ll do the same in the lives of others. God bless you!
Really great insight about following God vs. just following a “man of God.” To begin with–maybe like baby steps–we usually are closely allied with someone who brought us to God. But soon–VERY soon–our primary connection must be a personal connection with God. He wants a relationship with US.
And for those of us in any leadership; we must be so careful of wanting the acclaim of “followers.”
John the Baptist said it best: “I must decrease and you must increase.”
Excellent as always Sam. Timely for the age of my kiddos (3, 5, 9)
And we have tons of hope! Our parents weren’t perfect, but God found us anyway.
We are far from perfect; but God will find a way!
Sam – this is a great post. I’ve been reading a book by Sinclair Ferguson that similarly speaks to the impact we have on others when the pure gospel gets convoluted within us: But what if there is a distortion in the understanding and heart of the preacher that subtly distorts his exposition of God’s character? What if his narrow heart pollutes the atmosphere in which he explains the heart of the Father? When people are broken by sin, full of shame, feeling weak, conscious of failure, ashamed of themselves, and in need of counsel, they do not want to listen to preaching that expounds the truth of the discrete doctrines of their church’s confession of faith but fails to connect them with the marrow of gospel grace and the Father of infinite love for sinners. It is a gracious and loving Father they need to know.” (Ferguson, Sinclair B. (2016-01-14). The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance).
That’s a great quote from Sinclair Lewis. It reminds me of a quote by Steve Brown:
“While the apostle Paul was not antinomian, he was very close to it.…That brings me to a syllogism with two premises and a conclusion. Premise: The real Christian faith is close to antinomianism. Premise: A lot of modern day Christianity is not at all close to antinomianism. Conclusion: A lot of modern day Christianity is not real Christianity.”
Sam: Great post! I think above all else, the Gospel must be real. Preaching platitudes doesn’t connect anyone to God. It is the personal experience and a parent’s honest conversation about their own struggles with faith and the harsh reality of a fallen existence that strikes home. Too often we leave the serious discussion to a Sunday School class. Life is real and painful and that is exactly where God meets us, in a very real and personal relationship! Not in a Christian comic book that doesn’t take the heart’s cry into account. Do we REALLY depend on God, transparently share our struggles and our struggles with faith with our children??
“The gospel must be real.” Absolutely; and yet it is HARD to find that “real” or “authentic” Christian life. Most of us are so concerned to “look good” to all the other Christians.
Which is totally nuts. The admission ticket to Christianity is saying, “I messed up my life and I can’t fix it.” So why do we work so hard to fake like we’re doing okay?
That’s probably why Luther had to say, “Beat the gospel into our heads daily.” And the gospel is: We can’t do it but God did do it.
Great post Sam
Could it be that pride is the root of our failure to pass on our faith to the next generation? We don’t want to admit that we fail regularly, so we give the impression that our behavior comes naturally, which misleads our kids into thinking that they can behave properly without Christ (which they can’t) which causes them to be frustrated about Christianity, which causes them to fall away.
Honesty and humility are the antidotes to pride.,
Yes, I think the root of it all is pride. Which is utterly stupid (but whoever said human beings were smart?) I mean, can we really hide our weaknesses from our kids? They see the way we live day in and day out.
Humility and honesty are not only needed, they absolutely makes sense. Otherwise we are just the emperor with no clothes.
Another thought-provoking post Sam! And it’s generated some good discussion as evidenced by the many comments. I hope my own contribution isn’t offensive in length. But as you’ve given me a lot to think of over the past several hours it has produced a fair return!
There are some things commonly referred to by Christians that bear thinking through to get at what is meant by the term or phrase. “The gospel” is just one such example. Fill a room full of a hundred individuals who call themselves a Christian and ask them what “the gospel” is and you’ll get a variety of answers. It’s one of those phrases we have a tendency to take for granted (there’s that nagging assumption at work again!) as to what is meant when we say it.
The most helpful definition (and there are most always shortcomings in any definition) is that the gospel is the life and words of Jesus Christ. Hence, the first four books of the New Testament are aptly called the Gospels. To be sure it’s a broad definition. But I think a necessary one for, without the breadth of the sum of our Lord’s words and life, we lose sight of two crucial ingredients: God’s character of infinite love as seen in his Son, and, the commands Jesus claims that those who love him will follow as they increase in maturity. Both elements, grace and our response to grace as characterized by a loving obedience to what he tells us to do, are meant to transform us into Christ-ians; sons and daughters who follow hard after their Elder Brother and Lord, conveying to the world around us a reflection of our Father. And, in the process, passing the gospel along to the next generation through the harmonious combined message of our lips and limbs. I’m not sure this is happening on a widespread basis. For many reasons. The failure of which (together with the assuming you point out) limits the church’s impact contributing, in part, to the rejection of the faith, which is the main point of your post.
But there is another reason worth considering: that we have not presented the next generation with a God worth believing in.
We speak of a God who is love and then set boundaries to his love through doctrines and traditions handed down that are worthy of being re-examined to see if they really do stand up to biblical scrutiny as much as we thought they did. (Even the translation of Scripture can reflect doctrinal bias and experience the pressure of political correctness. Scripture may be perfect but translations…) For example, hell.
Many (if not the vast majority) would say that hell is a place of eternal punishment with no hope. Others, (myself included) would see something quite different in the scriptures that would lead us to conclude, as did C.S. Lewis and his mentor, George MacDonald, that “…hell is God’s and not the devil’s.” That hell itself was created by Love and has a redemptive purpose—if its inhabitants will yet yield themselves to the love of God in Christ.
My point is this: Which is the truer characterization of God as we know him as revealed by Jesus? A God who, for the sake of some supposed compelling justice, would create a place called hell exclusively for punitive purposes, tormenting his wayward, rebellious children for all eternity without hope of rescue should they repent? Or a God whose love is so blazing that he would stop at nothing to touch the free will he gave and bring his lost child home again to his Father heart if it take even the torments of hell to turn the lost one to Christ?
My example of hell is but a single exercise among many. But it is a key one for we have not only assumed much in terms of the “faith” of our children, but also the character of our God as perhaps unintentionally misrepresented by a “tradition of the elders” that holds sway still in our day.
Keep writing Sam. Like so many others, I count myself a beneficiary of your thoughtful posts and thank you for them.
P.S. Loved Bill White’s comment and reference to Sinclair Lewis. Good stuff!
Wow, many great thoughts here. As you probably know, your thoughts on hell are provocative. Many today utterly reject any notion of hell, while others hold a hugely dogmatic approach that bullies more than anything else.
I don’t fully agree with you, but I don’t fully disagree. I believe that hell actually can show us the love of God. Years ago I preached a sermon on it that you can find here: http://20255.maisolution.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/06-the-doctrine-of-hell.mp3
Thanks for all your thinking, praying, and sharing. We need each other!
Thanks for the link to your sermon, Sam. I’ll be looking forward to hearing what you had to say. And I appreciate the atmosphere here of gracious discourse. As you say, we need each other!
Right on! As a child we were bullied. So I rebelled. Having Law crammed down my throat. I didn’t realize how much God Loved me til I was in my 20’s! ♡
Great thoughts. Yes, I sometimes think we are bullied by the law. God uses the law to convict us of sin so we turn to him, but not to bully us. Through the cross, we woos us.
Great post, Sam – brings me back to remembering the “main thing” – what Christ did for us. But I will probably comment again after I read all the comments from others! Seems like you touched a lot of us with your insight, that’s we keep opening your posts.
Great to hear from you. Isn’t it funny how God has to teach us he same thing over and over again? I keep thinking, “I’ve got this,” and a year later I realize I hadn’t even scratched the surface.
I think it’s the same way with understanding the gospel and with remembering the gospel.
See ‘The Gospel for the Broken Church’
Thanks, I’ll check it out.