Last thing at night, when our children were small, I often secretly watched them as they slept: there they lay, breathing rhythmically, almost imperceptibly, relaxed, at ease, enjoying ‘the sleep of innocence.’ But man – perhaps especially a father – looks on the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:7). What of the heart on which God gazes?
Wearing biblical lenses we come to see a more sinister reality: our children may be unknowing and naive, but innocent they have never been. Like ourselves they are guilty and depraved. Already, as Robert Murray McCheyne once wrote, the seed of every known sin is planted in their hearts.
The truth is not merely that if things work out badly our children may drift spiritually and morally; rather, the drive to do so is already embedded in their hearts. All that is required for the tragic harvest is that they allow themselves to give expression to their heart’s desires. For in the sense in which Reformed theology has used the term, our children are already totally depraved; that is, as Louis Berkhof expressed it: ‘(1) . . . inherent corruption extends to every part of . . . nature, to all the faculties and powers of both soul and body; and (2) that there is no spiritual good . . . in the sinner at all, but only perversion’ (Systematic Theology, p. 247).
The total depravity of our children is a faith-doctrine, a biblical insight. Our natural instinct is to think of new-born children as moral and spiritual tabulae rasae, clean sheets on which to write a successful life. Admittedly the page may soon be a little blotted (the occasional temper tantrum!), but the background is still basically white, surely?
Not so, according to the Scriptures: the wicked go astray from the womb and speak lies from birth, insists the psalmist (Ps. 58:3). Even if we see these words as describing only some (‘the wicked’ are a specific category in the Psalms), we would be foolish to minimize what David is saying: the fruit is already in the root. We commit sin because our basic nature is twisted.
This is as true of a David as it is of ‘the wicked.’ That was the revelation which stunned him when Nathan exposed him after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah (2 Sam. 11-12; cf. Ps. 51:5).
This is not a self-justifying excuse; it is a confession of sin. David’s sin was not an aberration in an otherwise satisfactory life, but a revelation of congenital heart-disease.
How can this be? In Romans 5:12-21, Paul explains it in terms of the unity of the human race in Adam. Sin entered the world through him, and death followed. All sinned in Adam the representative head of the whole of humanity.
The proof of this is seen in the way death spread to all and reigned over them. Paul adds: ‘even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam’ (Rom. 5:14), i.e., those who had not been recipients of the special verbal revelation of God’s will.
Paul may not be thinking here exclusively of infants; but no class of persons more clearly illustrates this terrible consequence of the fall than do infants who die before they are even capable of understanding God’s command.
Why does this happen? Death does not come, ultimately, from ‘natural causes,’ but because our representative Adam has catastrophically brought us down in his fall. This is what our forefathers wisely taught their children: ‘In Adam’s fall we sinned all.’ By his disobedience we have all been constituted sinners (Rom. 5:19). As a result of our natural relationship with him we have come to share in his depravity from the very beginning of our existence. We are flawed from conception. None of us has a ‘normal’ birth.
Nor is it long before this manifests itself in a thousand ways: are all tantrums expressions of physical discomfort? Are we not shocked to see the willfulness of children? Or do we fail to ascribe to God every evidence we see of a gracious character forming? (Do we know our hearts so little that we think it is thanks to ourselves?)
In a world drifting on a sea of parental moral and spiritual confusion, the doctrine of the total depravity of our children is actually an important practical anchor. Parents who understand its significance recognize the divine wisdom in teaching the commandments of God, given as they are largely in negative form. God wrote them for sinners. They also recognize the importance of teaching God’s law in the context of God’s grace in Christ and through the Spirit. With Augustine we know that God will give what He commands.
God has not given us angels, but sinners to train to be saints. Since the situation is further complicated by the fact that parents are also sinners, we constantly need to rely on the teaching and directives of Scripture. While that is a subject all on its own, here are some simple guidelines.
- Recognize that your children are miniature versions of yourself. Learn to think in terms of Adam and Christ, sin and grace. That itself will help you realize why God has given you the command not to exasperate your children (Eph. 4:4).
- In bringing up your children, do not commit child-idolatry (in which the one commandment is ‘never say no’) or self-idolatry (‘he/she will reflect my glory’). Rather, by God’s promised grace, parent a sinner into sainthood.
- Take seriously the promise of God’s Word that He will be your God and the God of your children. But if you believe in infant baptism, do not make the mistake of presuming that covenant children do not need to repent and believe the Gospel. For in baptism we recognize the need of the washing of regeneration and place our children under a life-long covenant responsibility to repent of sin and to believe in Christ.
- In times when there is grievous sin, never forget that there is more grace in Christ than there is sin in your heart and your child’s heart combined. In Christ there is a way back from the far country of a life style even for children who have given full expression to heart depravity. So Monica discovered after years of praying for her son, Augustine.
After all, ‘And such were some of you’ (1 Cor. 6:11) and did you not find grace in Christ?
Sinclair Ferguson is author of Children of the Living God, A Heart for God, and Grow in Grace. When not teaching at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia he lives with his family in Glasgow, Scotland.