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Proverbs 22:6 - Is "Train Up Your Child" A Promise?

Proverbs: Real Wisdom for Real Life  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  35:13
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Preach the Gospel to your kids through godly discipline

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Introduction

Charles Spurgeon once said,
“He who thinks it easy to bring up a family never had one of his own. A mother who trains her children aright had need by wiser than Solomon, for his son turned out [to be a] fool.” (https://thecripplegate.com/reconsidering-proverbs-226/ )
The point is well-taken—Solomon wrote Proverbs to prepare his son to walk in the fear of the LORD, but we read in 1 Kings 12 about how Solomon’s son Rehoboam foolishly rejected the wisdom of his father’s advisers and recklessly threatened his kingdom, resulting in Israel being torn apart by civil war. Throughout all of his formative years, Rehoboam heard his father’s teaching on wisdom and the fear of the LORD, but as soon as his father was out of the picture, Rehoboam threw himself headfirst into folly and destruction.
And we wish we could say that Solomon was alone in having a son that ignored all of his upbringing, don’t we? But the painful reality of our lives is that far too many Christian parents have watched in horror as their grown children turn decisively away (sometimes to their own self-destruction) from their Christian upbringing. Many of you—far too many—know this heartbreak firsthand.
And surely part of the difficulty of seeing your children walk away from the Lord comes from the fact that our text this morning seems to promise the very opposite--
Proverbs 22:6 ESV
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Along with the weight of your disobedient child comes the implication from this verse that it’s all your fault. So many parents read this verse as an indictment of the way they raised their children: “If I had just trained her better, she wouldn’t have departed from the faith!” “His apostasy is because we didn’t train him up right!”
The most common way that this verse is interpreted is that, in fact, it is not a promise, just a generalization. That raising up a child in the way he should go in the faith doesn’t guarantee he won’t depart from it, but makes it more likely that he won’t. But if we’re honest, that interpretation doesn’t hold up—after all, we don’t read the rest of Proverbs this way, do we? For instance, in Proverbs 3:5-6 we read
Proverbs 3:5–6 ESV
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
Do you really want to read these verses to say that if you trust in the LORD with all your heart and don’t lean on your own understanding, He will usually make your paths straight? If you acknowledge Him in all your ways, He is more likely to guide you, but there’s no guarantee? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to read Proverbs—I don’t want to read Scripture—that way!
So what do we do with this verse? What is the relationship between raising your child as a Christian and their salvation? This isn’t an academic question in this congregation, is it? Some of you are in the crumb-cruncher stage of parenthood—you need to know what this verse means. Some of you are watching your kids begin to make adult decisions about their faith, and they’re showing signs of leaving it behind—is this verse telling you it’s too late? Some of you have had your hearts broken over children who have completely walked away from their Christian upbringing—is this verse telling you it’s your fault for not “training them up” better?
Proverbs 22:6 is the Word of God—it is true, it is alive, it is active, it equips the child of God for every good work. It does speak powerfully and redemptively to the issue of discipline in childrearing. This verse says that you must discipline your children! But what I want to show you today from the Scriptures is that this is a promise—but what it is promising, and what it is telling us to do as Christian parents is not what we have been commonly led to understand. My prayer is that by the end of this sermon Proverbs 22:6 will not be a thorn of accusation in your side, but that it will be a mighty weapon in your hand that equips you to fight for the salvation of your children!
So the first step that we must take here with Proverbs 22:6 is to

I. Understand Discipline’s Purpose (Prov. 22:6)

This verse does teach us that it is necessary—indeed it is crucial to discipline our children. But the purpose of discipline in this verse is not what we commonly assume:
Discipline is not about forming Christian habits
That’s the common understanding of this verse (even if we don’t say it in so many words). That if you teach your kids to pray and read their Bibles and go to Sunday School and church and get them involved in youth group and send them on student missions trips and enroll them in a good Christian school (or homeschool them) and then make sure they get accepted at a Christian college, they won’t depart from that when they get out on their own. But when you think about discipline in those terms, what are you doing? You’re only shaping their outward behavior, aren’t you? And if you are only shaping outward behavior, you’re not doing anything worthwhile for them, are you? You’re not shaping their heart.
And it is their heart that is the issue! In fact, that’s the actual focus of this verse in the original Hebrew—this is a case where the English translators added far more to their translation of this verse than was warranted. Because the original Hebrew does not contain any indication of the phrase “should go” or “ought to go”. The original Hebrew text literally reads “establish a child in his way, and when he is old he will not depart from it”. The phrase “the way he should go” was first introduced in 1611 with the translators of the Authorized Version, and has been picked up in virtually every English translation since (NASB, NIV, ESV, CSV, HCSB, etc.) But the original text doesn’t talk about the way a child should go, it is a warning about the way a child will go without discipline!
Think about it—when it says “establish a child in his way...”, what is the “way” of a child? Proverbs itself tells us, doesn’t it?
Proverbs 1:4 ESV
to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—
A youth needs knowledge and discretion and prudence because he doesn’t have it!
Proverbs 7:7 ESV
and I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense,
A youth lacks sense—his way is foolish!
Proverbs 22:15 ESV
Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
And what does Jeremiah tell us?
Jeremiah 17:9 ESV
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
This verse is not telling you that a child raised to act like a Christian is guaranteed to be a Christian adult—this verse is telling you that your child needs to get saved! That if you leave your child to himself, you are guaranteed to raise a fool! If you let your child indulge her childish foolishness now—if you let her get “established” in her naturally foolish and rebellious habits, she will be a “dyed-in-the-wool” fool when she grows up!
How many times, for example, have you seen video online of parents giggling over their kids using filthy language they don’t understand? Their kid sees their folks’ delighted reactions and thinks, “Wow—they really think I’m funny! This must be okay!” And they establish that foolishness in their kid’s heart by not disciplining it out of them. But Proverbs 22:6 is a promise—it’s a promise that “what you have at 3, you will have more of at 13—and even more of at 33!”
Or parents that refuse to teach their children about spiritual things— “I’m just going to let them make their own decision about religion when they grow up”. What are they doing? They are establishing the natural rebellion against God that their children were born with—they are virtually guaranteeing that their kids will grow up ignoring God and His Word—and guaranteeing far more heartbreak and pain in their future.
Godly discipline is not about merely forming Christian habits,
Discipline is about preaching the Gospel to your children (Prov. 23:13-14)
Godly parental discipline is the way that you evangelize your children! It is not just about getting them to have all of their “good Christian ducks in a row”—it is about preaching the Gospel to them in a way that does what the Gospel does for everyone—open their blind eyes to see the spiritual darkness that they are in, turn them from that darkness to light, and bring them to salvation in Christ.
The goal of godly parental discipline is not good Christian behavior; it is a heart transformed by the Gospel.
The purpose of godly discipline is to evangelize your children. And so that means that we

II. Provide Discipline with Hope (Prov. 19:18)

Look back a couple pages at Proverbs 19:18:
Proverbs 19:18 ESV
Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.
Don’t set your heart on just letting him go on the natural path of his heart—that’s a death sentence! But provide godly discipline, because there is hope that he will come to saving faith in Jesus Christ through it! Just like anyone else, your children need to have their eyes opened—they have to be made aware of the righteousness of God and their guilt before Him. As a parent, you have an unparalleled opportunity to do this every single day with them, don’t you?
That’s exactly what the LORD exhorted the people to do in Deuteronomy 6, isn’t it?
Deuteronomy 6:5–7 ESV
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
Godly discipline means that you
Remind them of God’s righteousness
Make sure your children know who God is—not merely that He exists, but what kind of God He is! That He is loving and gracious and powerful, that He hears and answers prayer—but also that He is holy and righteous, and He demands and deserves our utmost obedience, worship and fear! That He is not some cosmic Santa Claus who gives us what we want or is someone we only think about or talk to when we are in trouble—let them see that everything you do as a family is ultimately about Him—whether you sit in the house or walk by the way or lie down to sleep or get up in the morning.
But a godly parent knows that you don’t just remind your children of God’s righteousness by talking a good game—you have to walk the talk! As Paul told the church in Corinth:
1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
Your kids will learn plenty about faith in Christ by watching you—if you send them to Sunday School and church while you stay at home because “it’s my only day off”, their foolish hearts will be established in their belief that sleeping in is obviously more important than worship. If they see you sitting in church constantly doodling or playing on your phone or checking your watch or keeping your mouth shut during the singing they’ll learn exactly what their foolish hearts are already telling them—that worship is a boring waste of time—Dad doesn’t bother singing, why should I? Mom isn’t listening to the sermon—why do I have to? Establish your child’s sinful, foolish way in his heart and he’ll be a “dyed-in-the-wool” fool his whole life.
Mom and Dad, your kids need to see that God is your greatest treasure in your life! They need to have that innate foolishness in their heart challenged and pushed out by seeing your love and devotion and obedience to Christ! They need to understand that God is holy, righteous and just—and they need to see that His holiness, righteousness and justice matters in your life!
Godly discipline reminds your children of the righteousness of God, and godly discipline will also
Reprove them when they sin (Prov. 29:15)
The verse I quoted earlier, from Chapter 29, says:
Proverbs 29:15 ESV
The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
To “reprove” means to offer correction, to point to the standard and then point to the behavior: “I told you to do this, but instead you did this.” “I said to pick up your room before you went outside, and you didn’t”. Reproof involves establishing boundaries for behavior: This is right and this is wrong. You must do this, and you must not do that. The foolish heart of a child (just like the foolish heart of every lost individual) likes to think that he gets the final say on what’s right and wrong—
Proverbs 16:25 ESV
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.
And when a child grows up in an environment where he gets his way all the time, when he can always talk his way out of discipline, when standards for her behavior are either unclear (or worse) inconsistent—then that child will have his foolish notion that he is the center of the moral universe established in his heart, and he will grow up to be a “dyed-in-the-wool” fool. And maybe the reason your kids will never take “no” for an answer is because your answer is never “No”!
Parents, what are you teaching your children about obedience? Because the way you train them to obey you will form the foundation of the way they obey God. “Set a child on his own way, and when he is old he will not depart from it!” Will they grow up believing that God doesn’t really care whether they obey or not, because they grew up with parents who never enforced any standards of right and wrong in their lives? Or will they grow up believing that God is unpredictable and random, sometimes ignoring their behavior and other times coming down on them like a ton of bricks?
Moms and Dads, make it your aim that your children will grow up in a home that has clearly established boundaries in their everyday lives, that they know what is expected of them, and that they will learn that obedience means that they do what they are told “first time, right away, all the way!” Because the way that they learn to obey at home with their parents is the way that they will grow up into obedience to God. Godly discipline isn’t just about instilling Christian behavior in your children—it is about seeing their hearts transformed by the Gospel.
Provide discipline with hope in your child’s salvation—remind them of God’s standard of righteousness, reprove them when they transgress that standard, and yes--
Use the rod when necessary (Prov. 22:15)
But Proverbs 29:15 indicates that reproof isn’t the only way that a child’s foolishness will be driven from him:
Proverbs 29:15 ESV
The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
There are times when the rod is necessary as well. The notion of the “rod” in the Old Testament involves the idea of a “standard”—in Ezekiel 40, for instance, the prophet sees an angel with a “measuring rod” (about three yards long) measuring the temple (cf. Rev. 11:1). So in that sense “the rod of discipline” can refer to holding a child to a standard—expecting them to “measure up”, we might say.
But the fact is that there are times when no amount of mere talking will get through to a child. You can point out the standard all day long and demonstrate that they haven’t “measured up”—but sometimes the only way to get through to a child’s foolish, rebellious heart is to “apply the board of education to the seat of knowledge”:
Proverbs 22:15 ESV
Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
There is a proverb from Ancient Egypt that says “little boys have ears on their backsides!” Sometimes there is no other way to get through to a young child than by a spanking—because all the reasoning in the world is simply not going to help. Now, to be clear, the Bible has no room for the physical abuse of children: Don’t ever spank a child out of anger or frustration. Don’t you ever hit them to cause an actual injury, don’t you ever intentionally crush their spirits or cause them mental anguish.
Corporal punishment should be reserved for only the most serious offenses—in our house, lying and direct insubordination were the two things that would earn a spanking, and they were very rare occurrences. They were conducted in private, they were preceded by making sure that the child knew why they were being spanked and followed up with an assurance of pardon. Dads spank boys and moms spank girls. And spankings are only meant for a short window of time for a child—starting when they are old enough to understand why they are being spanked, and ending when verbal reproofs become more effective (usually between the ages of 3 and 6, though every child is different.)
Again, there is no room in the Bible for the abuse of children—but Proverbs says that it can be worse abuse not to spank, because never administering corporal punishment leaves a child to his own self-destructive way:
Proverbs 23:13–14 ESV
Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.
Left to themselves, children are just like everyone else: Sinners who will turn away to their own way. Moms and Dads, there is no one else on this planet that can evangelize your children as effectively as you can through godly discipline! You cannot guarantee that your works as a parent will save them—salvation does not come by anyone’s works, but by the sovereign work of God alone, after all. But if you abdicate your unique role as your children’s evangelist by neglecting to discipline them, you allow them to be established in their own way—a way that will draw them straight down into destruction!
Your hope for your child’s salvation does not come through your own efforts to establish good Christian behavior in your child. Your hope for their salvation is grounded in the same hope you have for your salvation:

III. Hope in the Discipline of God

The hope your children have for their salvation is the same hope that you have—
The hope that your discipline fell on Christ (Isaiah 53:4-6)
In Isaiah 53, we read
Isaiah 53:6 ESV
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Did you catch that? It’s the same phrase that we find in Proverbs 22:6: “Set a child on his own way, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” And Isaiah says that indeed, we had each “set ourselves on our own way”—every last one of us has, in one way or another, established ourselves in our self-destructive foolishness. The five-year-old pitching a fit in the supermarket, the teenager slamming the door and storming out of the house, the thirty-year-old who grew up with perfect attendance in Sunday School who now has perfect attendance at the strip clubevery last one of us were established in our foolishness. But God laid the punishment for that foolishness on Jesus Christ instead!
What is the hope for your willful four-year-old? That Jesus died for little fools like her! What is the hope for your angry, rebellious teenager? That Jesus died for fools like him! What is your hope for your grown child who mocks and despises his Christian upbringing? Jesus died to save fools like him!
Your hope for your kids’ souls, Christian mom and dad, is the same as your hope for your own soul—that
Isaiah 53:5 ESV
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
So bank on that hope as you raise your children to know and fear and love God! Bank on that hope as you watch them being tossed and turned through the turbulence of their teenage years, and bank on that hope even as you pray for that child who has fled far from their roots in Christ, because the power of God to save them reaches farther than they can ever run, and His ability to cleanse them by the blood of Christ goes far deeper than they are able to stain themselves!
That’s Good News for them in the way they sin against God’s righteous standards—and it is Good News for you for all the times you have sinned against God’s righteous standards for discipline! For all the times you’ve lashed out in anger and violent frustration against your kids and called it “discipline”, for all the times you let your kids get away with flagrant disobedience or lying or laziness just because you were too tired to argue—you have sinned against your children (and against God) just as surely (and just as often) as they have sinned against you!
But the hope you have, Christian, is that
The hope that God is a better parent to you (Heb. 12:7-11)
than you are to your children! The writer to the Hebrews says
Hebrews 12:7–11 ESV
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
You may have grown up under a father who “disciplined you as he saw best”—but the best of men are men at best. Maybe your father indulged you and let you get away with everything and enforced no standards whatsoever—a father who was far too easily pleased. Or maybe you had a father who was simply impossible to please—no matter what you did or how hard you tried, it was never good enough.
But here is the Good News for you this morning—God is not a Father like that! Your Heavenly Father is extraordinarily easy to please—He is extremely pleased with you, and how far you have come! He is delighted with the faithfulness He sees in your godly parenting, He is delighted with your growth in holiness and maturity, He is thrilled with your desire to glorify him in your home.
But at the same time, God your Father is extraordinarily difficult to satisfy. He will never stop disciplining you, guiding you, growing you “for your good, so that you may share in His holiness”. He has so much more that He wants for you—so much more maturity in holiness, so much more of the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” for your life—and He will never be satisfied until the day when you stand in His presence, perfected for all time and conformed to the image of His Son.
So Christian mom and dad—discipline your kids the way your Heavenly Father disciplines you. Be extraordinarily easy to please, but extraordinarily difficult to satisfy. Don’t let your children be established in their foolish, sinful nature—preach the Gospel to your kids through godly discipline! Talk of God’s righteousness when you sit down and when you rise, show your kids that God is your greatest treasure, teach them obedience so that they will know how to obey God, and entrust their souls (along with yours) to the saving power of the grace and mercy of God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
BENEDICTION
Hebrews 13:20–21 ESV
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:

1. Why do so many Christian parents feel guilt when their children don’t turn out right? What part of that guilt is well-founded? What is unfounded?
2. How does the original Hebrew reading of Proverbs 22:6 differ from the most common English translations? How should the original translation affect our parenting?
3. How does inconsistent or unclear discipline affect the way children think about God? Are there clear expectations for behavior and consistent enforcement of those rules in your home?
4. What is the difference between the Bible’s instructions for corporal punishment (i.e., spanking) and the world’s opinion? How should Christian parents’ saving relationship with Christ affect the way they administer physical punishment to their children?
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