Grace for Parents Of Prodigals

I will be a God to you and to your children… The promise is for you and for your children…

As a dad of a prodigal adult child, I would like to remind myself and anyone who cares to read of a few biblical and theological truths:

God’s Covenant Promises Are The Only Hope We Have For Our Covenant Children

The Gospel is for us and for our children. The covenant-keeping Lord has promised to be a God to us and to our children. Our God is merciful to a thousand generations. That is what Scripture says. His love for us in demonstrated in the Cross of His Son, who is the propitiation for all our sins (Rom 3:25; 1 John 2:2), whose blood is more than sufficient for our transgressions and those of our children. God’s wrath is satisfied. Jesus alone lived a life of perfect obedience to all the Law of God on our behalf. His righteousness alone guarantees our access to eternal life. God is for us and for our children in Christ. God alone saves sinners. God alone saves our covenant children.

Christian Parents And Their Covenant Children Are Under The Covenant Of Grace

If your child walks away from Christ, it is not because you did not “do it right” as a covenant parent, thus invoking covenant curses. This is easy to say but hard to believe, especially when your heart is breaking over your prodigal child. Our flesh is wired for the covenant of works—even though it is a broken covenant in Adam, even though the Last Adam has fulfilled it for us and we are now under the covenant of grace. The covenant of works says, “DO and you will be blessed by God; fail to do and you are under His curse.” And so, our “old Adam” rears his head and either wants credit if our children are walking with the Lord—or despairs of God’s grace if they are not.

Someone may say, “The Lord has blessed us so much! All of our children are walking with the Lord!” “Praise God!” we say but we think, “Why has not the Lord blessed us ‘so much’? What did we do wrong?” The truth is, we did plenty wrong. All Christian parents are utterly fallible. Because we are still sinful, weak, and prone to folly. Every parent has sinned against their children by commission or omission. (Please note: This is not to excuse heinous sins such as sexual, physical, or the vicious emotional abuse of children. Abusers must be called to account before the church and civil authorities. Christ’s blood and righteousness are sufficient for repentant abusers, but they must also face any necessary civil consequences.)

Every covenant parent feels like a failure because, in fact, we have all failed. There is only one perfect Father—who is perfectly wise, good, kind, righteous, and who disciplines His children only with loving compassion and for our good. And He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given His Son for all our sins–including our sinful failures as Christian parents. He has also graciously adopted us as His own beloved children in Christ. Neither our justification nor our adoption can be forfeited by our sins of commission or omission as Christian parents.

If you think your parental faithfulness saves your children, you are still thinking according to the covenant of works. If you think that your parental failures have caused your children to walk away from Christ, you have forgotten the covenant of grace. God indeed works through the means of grace and we employ those means with our covenant children, by faith in God’s covenant promises. But we let God be God and entrust our children to His wise providence and abounding mercies to sinners in Christ.

God Is Sovereign And Sin Is Real

I hear good Reformed folk imply that the right apologetics or sufficient catechesis or regular family worship will somehow make our covenant children apostasy-proof. Parents of prodigals already feel like failures, so these implied promises are like salt in the wound.

We confess that God sovereignly saves sinners. He ordinarily works through the means of grace to that end. Thus, we preach the Gospel to the lost, trusting God to draw His elect to His Son by His Spirit. We baptize our covenant children, as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace (Gen 17:7–8; Acts 2:39; Acts 16:15, 33). We remind them of the promise of our heavenly Father—that believing in Jesus, He washes away all their sins and renews them by His Spirit. We view them as non-communicant members of the covenant community. We take them to public worship and have family worship. We catechize them, pray with and for them, and plead God’s covenant promises on their behalf. We use the Law and the Gospel as we correct and teach them reminding ourselves and them that behavior modification is not the goal of discipline. Repentance, forgiveness of sins, and growth in grace is the goal.

We believe the biblical doctrine of original sin and know that our children are not exempted from it but then we hear those frightening statistics and/or anecdotes about Christian children who walk away from the faith once they leave home. We do not want that to happen. We hear well-meaning voices in the Reformed world tell us that if we do not want our kids to apostatize, we need to make sure they know “what they believe and why they believe it.” We might home school or enroll them in Christian schools. We might catechize more rigorously, send our kids to a world-view camp, increase our family devotional times, have them memorize more Scripture. We might read all the latest books on how to raise an apostasy-proof kid.

Instead of trusting God’s covenant promises and resting in His sovereign grace as we do these various things, we begin to trust in the means. Superstition sneaks in. After all, we hear the implied promise: if we do it the right way, if we do enough, then our kids will not walk away from the faith. The covenant of works has snuck back in.

Is not God sovereign? Is not sin real? Is n0t the Bible honest about the reality of prodigals? Is n0t His grace in Christ still sufficient to save them? Yes, mercifully, to all.

Christ Died To Save Prodigals From The Far Country.

He is the only hope we have for them. We continue to pray for our prodigals, love them, and point them to Christ.

Here’s the good news about prodigals. God grants them repentance, forgiveness, and welcomes them home. Jesus died for them. The Spirit alone can open their eyes to the absurdity of their rebellion and the goodness of God the Father. God is also teaching us to repent of our “elder-brother” ways, thinking that if we do the right thing, God owes us. Jesus saves sinners, even self-righteous, Pharisaical sinners like us. He graciously grants us to repent of our sins and our self-righteousness, even as misguided Christian parents who tried to “do it the right way” according to the covenant of works.

That means we can tell our prodigals that:

  1. We love them.
  2. Our home and our hearts are always open to them
  3. We are sorry for the ways we failed them as Christian parents
  4. Our only hope for them and us is Jesus, who died for all our sins and rose again to give us new and everlasting life.

Christ Died For My Failures As A Christian Parent

He is my only hope as the parent of a prodigal.

I cannot save myself and I cannot save my covenant children. Were up to me, I would have no hope for my prodigal. If righteousness were through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose (Gal 2:21). Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph 2:8–10), to the glory of God alone. This is what I believe and confess. It is true for me. It is true for my dear wife and it is true for our dear prodigal child. God grant us all grace—parents and their prodigals—to believe that the Gospel is still true for us and for them.

©Tony Phelps. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Peter said “The promise is unto you and to your children”, but did he stop there? And is the condition attached to the promise somehow different for your children from what it is for the other three categories listed by Peter? and didn’t the Lord Jesus say something about parents being given over to death by their own children? And where was “Dives” when Abraham acknowledged his sonship? (Or is this just sour grapes from a bachelor?)

    • John,

      Acts 2:39 is thoroughly Abrahamic.

      The promise is to those Jewish believers before Peter, to their children, and to the gentiles who far off. These are the same groups to whom God promised blessing to Abraham: believers, their children, and the gentiles/nations.

  2. Comforting Gospel words to help reset that dark default button of works to trust and confidence in sovereign grace . “I believe, but O Lord, help my unbelief!”
    Thank you Pastor Tony!

  3. Thank you Pastor Tony….just what I needed and exactly at the right time. Much appreciated. Jehovah Jireh.

  4. Wonderfully comforting Brother. Thank you. I’ve been praying for my adult girls who are not in church. Will continue to do so, believing His promises.

  5. Thank-you, brother…Grace for Parents . A deeply moving and encouraging post from a pastor who once told me, with a fair bit of adamance, that the gospel is not just for those outside the church.

    • Thank you, dear brother! And as the years pass, that conviction only deepens. I need it every day.

  6. Thank you, Pastor Tony. As the parent of a prodigal, you have read my mind and redirected me to God’s grace and sovereignty, which is a much better hope.

  7. Thanks for the post. Much appreciated! Will share with my wife and others I know who also have prodigal children.

  8. Thank you, Pastor Phelps. These are words for me, just as much as they are for my son who keeps putting his feet upon the prodigal path.

    • I’m grateful you found it helpful, Rachel. He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.

  9. Thank you Tony, very brave of you and so helpful. Miss your preaching, but I can hear it in your written words!

  10. I join the voices of others who have responded. I have five children between the ages of 30 and 15. Only one of them still believes, the oldest one. The rest don’t. Of course my husband and I struggle with feeling like terrible failures as parents. Both of us have such brokenness and dysfunction in our family history that got passed down to the kids. We are currently struggling with our 17 1/2 year old daughter who is making scary choices with a guy 8 years older than her. It’s been a very distressing few weeks trying to make sure she is safe. I’m so appreciate of this article to give grace and compassion and hope to families like ours. Standing on his promises of redemption. Thank you. * I do covet your prayers.

  11. We have now seen all four of our children confess Christ and stir the baptismal waters (of the Gulf of Mexico). Even so, my hope for them is not now, and never will be in the force of their confession (thankful as I am for it), or in their ability to “treasure Christ above all things” (sorry, John Piper), but in the faithfulness of our covenant-making and covenant-keeping God, who promised to be God to me and to my children.

    Moms and Dads: Rejoice over your children (or, weep for them as needed), but trust in God alone for them. In the good times and in the bad.

    (Wonderful post, Tony.)

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