Teaching Our Children about Forgiveness

Parents are parables. Our lives tell stories to our children. The great gospel story that we hope our lives will tell is one of forgiveness. God forgives us in Christ, and a living witness of God’s forgiveness is a heart of forgiveness in us—a heart that not only receives, but gives. We must begin teaching our children about forgiveness with the gospel, but we must also become parables of forgiveness for them with our lives.

One of the most striking parables about forgiveness is told in the negative: the parable of the unforgiving servant. In the parable, a servant who owes much is forgiven much, only to turn around and demand from another the relatively little that was owed to him (see Matt. 18:21–35). This parable stresses how incongruous it is for the forgiven not to forgive, but the fact that Jesus stresses such an incongruity implicitly teaches us that we first become forgivers by being forgiven. That is why we teach forgiveness to our children by starting with the good news that we are forgiven because of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism in its exposition of the Apostles’ Creed helps us understand the extent of our forgiveness in the gospel:

Q. What do you believe concerning “the forgiveness of sins”?
A. I believe that God,

because of Christ’s satisfaction,

will no longer remember

any of my sins

or my sinful nature

which I need to struggle against all my life.

Rather, by his grace

God grants me the righteousness of Christ

that I may never come into judgment. (Q&A 56)

As outlined here, our forgiveness is lavish—secured in Christ and forever. The next lesson for our children is that if this is our forgiveness in the gospel, then so it should be when it comes to our forgiveness of others.

We teach our children that their forgiveness of others should look like their own:

Our forgiveness should be because of Christ, in honor of Him, just as God forgives us “because of Christ’s satisfaction.”
Our forgiveness should be forgetful, as we stop bringing past sins to mind, just as God “will no longer remember” our sins.
Our forgiveness should be consistent, just as God forgives “my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life.”
Our forgiveness should be gracious, as we let go of our demands, just as God “by his grace” grants us Christ’s righteousness.
Our forgiveness should free others from fear of our judgment, as we stop holding past sins over them, just as we “may never come into judgment” again before God.

Here’s the scary thing as a parent: once our children know the gospel and what forgiveness is, they will be able to spot incongruity in us when we are acting like unforgiving servants. One way we fall into this as parents is bringing up the past with our children. We might say things like “You always do this . . . ” to guilt, voice our frustrations, or manipulate obedience from them. When we speak like this, we inadvertently become parables of unforgiving servants.

But we ought not to lose hope. We can be positive parables of forgiveness. Parents who are parables of forgiving servants are open about forgiveness, and our children learn the most about forgiveness when we forgive each other.

Parents, ask your children for forgiveness regularly. They have hearts that react to sin and injustice, just like you. Do not let unconfessed sins come between you, and when your children sin against you, encourage them also to ask for forgiveness. This involves not being harsh with them so that they, in turn, feel comfortable talking about their sins. When they are young, name their sin for them and teach them how to ask for forgiveness beyond saying, “I’m sorry.” There is something so much stronger communicated about sin and reconciliation when we teach them to ask, “Will you forgive me?”

When your children struggle to forgive someone, pray with them about it. Even when your children are little and may not have an awareness of begrudging anyone, pray daily with them that they might develop hearts of forgiveness. Prayer is one of the best ways to communicate indirectly with their hearts. It’s especially helpful when they are not inclined to listen to your direct instruction. Use prayer as an indirect route that their hearts may be softened by the Spirit.

Family is wonderful. It can also, at times, be volatile. Establish a regular rhythm of prayer together as a family. This can be as easy as praying at mealtimes. This regular rhythm, even if it is only at one meal a day, gives us an opportunity to go before the Lord whenever inevitable tensions arise. When a fight has just broken out, Jesus calls us to be reconciled. One way to clear the air is to ask for help in prayer. Something about the ordinariness of a mealtime prayer of thanksgiving makes such requests surprising but, most importantly, ordinary.

We should be open about forgiveness with our children, and once such an open space is created in our homes, we need to diligently guard the peace that reconciliation brings and no longer sin against each other. But when we do, we forgive.

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Ligonier Ministries

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