What I’ve Learned From Having a Son That’s an Atheist

When I started having children I was going to do everything right as a mom and my children were all going to grow up and live committed Christian lives. That was the plan at least. So many things didn’t turn out the way I planned, but the Lord has used some of those difficult things in my life.

My oldest son Jonathan was an intelligent and determined kid from the time he was quite young. He was an early talker and once he started, he never stopped. He’s almost 21 now and we’re still listening. He always loved to sing the Psalms and hymns. Before he was three he could sing through all verses of his favorite hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. On Sunday evenings when our church would take hymn requests, his hand was the first up. He had many favorites, oftentimes it was whatever hymn we’d been working on in family worship.

As a little kid he loved playing pretend church. He received a children’s microphone and mic stand for his fourth birthday. He would set it up in front of the fireplace and say, “We’re doing church now.” He’d get frustrated with his little brothers when they wouldn’t sit still while he led music and preached a mini sermon. It wasn’t just the playing though; he liked to talk about the Lord and things from Scripture and discuss what he was learning from the children’s catechism.

At four-and-a-half years old he came to me and said, “Mommy, if Jesus paid for all my sins, why did he only die on the cross once?” I tried explaining but he looked at me puzzled and said, “Can you call Pastor now and get the right answer?” He wasn’t satisfied with Pastor’s answer either, declaring it was “too much.”  When an OPC Pastor friend was visiting, he gave Jonathan an answer that made sense to him and that he finally understood. These were the sorts of things he was thinking about and trying to understand at an early age.

I was encouraged from the time he was young that he was thinking through things of the Christian faith. During family worship he was excited to learn, loved to ask and answer questions and prayed fervently. He was determined to memorize the Children’s Catechism and had all 145 answers memorized by the time he was six-and-a-half. We  sometimes even wondered if he would be a pastor one day. As he got older he became increasingly passionate about the Christian faith. He was unashamed and would talk to anyone who would listen. By middle school he was learning more about apologetics and reading various Christian books. We continued to have these amazing conversations with him about the faith. We were convinced he had truly trusted in Christ.

Then everything changed.

I really can’t tell you exactly when, but sometime in high school he began questioning things. Our family had entered into a difficult season. I became very sick and was in and out of the hospital, and I knew he feared losing me. It changed our lives in many ways. He observed me in excruciating pain and physical misery.  We also suffered several losses close together. My children have been to more funerals than some adults. He witnessed the difficult and untimely deaths of several people close to us, both family and friends, including the suicide of a family member. We became well acquainted with the horrors of cancer and other life threatening ailments. He saw the suffering of many and he himself was suffering, as he had begun to struggle with depression and anxiety. And then he revealed something I’d began to suspect. One day he said something to me I’ll never forget. “I can’t believe in a God who allows those who love Him to suffer so much.”

I was crushed. What had I done wrong? Did he not see me trusting Christ in the midst of suffering? Had he not been listening when I shared of my comfort in Christ through this difficult season? What could I do to get him to understand? It’s been a few years since that day, when my mother’s heart broke. The Lord has used this in my life in so many ways and I’ve learned many things.

  1. The importance of grace in our parenting

Around the time I first found out he was questioning things, I knew it wouldn’t be long, a few short years, before he’d be 18 and possibly out of our home. I asked myself a question: “What is the most important thing I want my children to understand before they leave home?” The gospel was that thing, but how was I going to do that? I’d already been preaching the gospel to him since he was a baby.

It was around that same time that I had a conversation with someone I’d attended church with as a teenager. We had reconnected after many years. I learned he had left the church and so I asked him “why?” He answered, “I was never good enough for my parents. How was I ever going to be good enough for God?”

His answer shocked me because the church he and I attended was excellent about preaching the gospel of justification by faith alone. It made no sense to me how he obviously didn’t understand the gospel at all. I did a lot of research and spoke with several people about it and became convinced that we as parents can help or hurt our children’s understanding of the gospel by our parenting. So often, we are focused more on obedience itself than the “why” of obedience. We excel at preaching the law in our home, but the gospel is often an afterthought. This can be damaging to our children.

I learned from and was encouraged by the stories I’d heard through the years from both Rod and Ted Rosenbladt (father and son). They both have very specific stories of how they understood the gospel and God’s unconditional love for them because of the grace their earthly fathers displayed. Legalism isn’t the answer. All law and no gospel isn’t the answer. Getting your children to obey perfectly apart from the gospel is not the answer.

I’ve noticed whenever I talk about grace in parenting, some people get nervous or uncomfortable because of assumptions that are sometimes made about what it looks like. We had Dr. Scott Keith on the Theology Gals podcast to talk about his book Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God’s Grace. He said something that I believe to be extremely important in this discussion: “Permissiveness is not synonymous with grace.” Parenting in a way that demonstrates the gospel in our home is not some “hyper-grace” or antinomian parenting model. It’s not permissive parenting. While we’ve attempted to demonstrate grace in our home while preaching the gospel to our children, there are still rules and punishment for indiscretions. We preach both the law and the gospel to our children  appropriately. But there are also opportunities for demonstrating grace. Dr. Keith’s book tells many of those stories, a couple of which he shared on our podcast. Dr. Keith in his tribute to Dr. Rod Rosenbladt on Being Dad says:

“Though I have always wanted compliant children, I am proud to say that I think I have throttled that sinful desire enough to have raised gracious and kind children instead who know that they are forgiven on account of Christ.”

  1. Trusting in the Lord for my children’s salvation

I didn’t realize it immediately when my son confessed his unbelief, but sometime later it hit me: I was trusting in myself for my children’s salvation and not in the Lord. I thought I was trusting in the Lord for their salvation, but I really wasn’t. I believed the lie that if I just did everything right, took them to church, taught them the Bible, prayed with them, protected them from the world and so on, that of course they’d trust in Christ and walk with the Lord and never live in rebellion.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the things I mentioned, we absolutely should train them in the Lord, but we must not forget that salvation is of Him. We must trust in Him for our children’s salvation. When the Lord convicted me of this and through repentance, prayer, and His work in me, I began to trust Him and something amazing happened: the Lord gave me great peace. God’s power is far greater than we often recognize, and there’s great peace and joy in trusting in His work in our children’s lives, and trusting in our Lord’s goodness and sovereignty.

I know that by even writing this and revealing I have a son who doesn’t walk with the Lord that some people may be asking, “I wonder what they did wrong that their son rebelled?” I probably would have thought the same thing once upon a time. And it’s not because I have a son who rebelled that my views have changed. I was wrong to believe that my children’s salvation was a result of the things I did.

Someone asked a question in a large Reformed Facebook group about whether it’s the parents’ fault if a child rebels. Had you asked me 20 years ago, I would have answered the same way most of the other parents of young children did, “Of course.” There was a clear difference between the way young parents commented on that post than parents with older children did. While yes, the Lord can and will use our obedience in training our children in “the way they should go,” those things do not promise they will never rebel. Even if we have a child in rebellion now, it doesn’t mean the Lord isn’t working in their lives to bring them to salvation. I’m grateful we taught our son Scripture, that he memorized the catechism, and understands the gospel. I pray the Lord uses these and will bring him to saving faith in Christ. I find comfort in the sovereignty, wisdom and love of God.

  1. The idol of obedient children

Our homeschool mom’s group did a study together and we talked about idols women can have: a good marriage, a clean house, and obedient children. Some women objected to the idea that good things could become idols, but they absolutely can.

Michael Horton says:

“We picture idolatry as the worship of something evil. However, most of our idols are good servants, that we have made lords.”

The Heidelberg Catechism on idolatry:
Q. What is idolatry?
A. Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word.

Obedient children was one of my idols. And I was trusting in myself over God to work in my children’s lives to bring them to salvation. I was often more concerned with what other people observed than I was with my children’s hearts. I even gave myself credit and was proud of myself when my children did seek the Lord and live in obedience. When our children do come to saving faith, it is because of the work the Lord has done in their lives. It is He who makes one alive when they were previously dead in their trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:5

  1. He’s still my son

One day an old friend of mine asked me in a general way, “How’s Jonathan doing?” I explained that he was doing well, had a good job, a new apartment, was hoping to marry his girlfriend one day. In response she said, “Oh, I thought he didn’t believe in Christ and wasn’t going to church anymore.”

I understand she may have been referring to how he was doing spiritually, but I sensed it was more than that and it brings up something which concerns me. There’s anattitude from some parents when their children rebel, something I’m not sure I can describe well, it’s like they’re being given the message that they just aren’t good enough. The thing is, none of us are good enough, that’s why we need Christ. I think if we give our children this message, we’re neglecting to really give them the message of the gospel.

My son is still friends with several people he grew up with from our homeschool co-op and many of them have left the church. This response from their parents is something that these other kids sense. Jonathan has told me on several occasions that some of these friends will speak poorly of Christians, I think in part because of this attitude, and because of the legalism they grew up in. Jonathan tells me about these conversations he has with his friends who have also left the church. I was a bit surprised when he explained that he tells them, “Not all Christians are like that. My parents aren’t like that.” I think many of them view the heart and theme of Christianity as a list of rules rather than the gospel.

The same things that were important to teach and demonstrate to my son in his teenage years, continue to be important now. Being good enough is not the right response to our non Christian children, the gospel is. Unfortunately in some of our circles, I see lots of law and little gospel. This creates the hopelessness the friend I grew up with felt when he told me, “I could never be good enough for my parents. How will I ever be good enough for God?”

Why would we show less love in our interactions with our own child than we do to our non-Christian neighbor?  Of course our relationship with our non-Christian child will have some differences from our relationship with our Christian child. I am grateful however to have a good and close relationship with my son still. I think that, because we’ve maintained that close relationship, he has felt free to continue to ask us questions about Scripture and the Christian faith. I have failed at times though, in my responses to Jonathan, and become defensive when it feels like an attack on my faith. I’m still learning.

The Lord will use this for my good and His glory

I don’t know what the Lord’s plans are for my son, but I can tell you the Lord has already used this experience in my life. I have told those close to me that this has been an exercise in trusting in the Lord. This has been a sort of trial in my life and I’ve experienced some suffering because of it. On the Theology Gals episode on suffering, we talked about some of the reasons laid out in Scripture for suffering, along with the ways the Lord uses our suffering and trials. I’ve witnessed some of those things first hand through this season which has included a difficult illness, the loss of people I love, and my son’s unbelief.

While my heart is still broken by my son’s lack of faith, the Lord has used this to teach me to trust Him and to draw me closer to Himself. It’s easy for us to blame ourselves when our children make bad decisions and fail to walk with the Lord. I’m sure many parents have had occasion to ask themselves, “What did I do wrong?” There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t had failures in their parenting since we are sinners. The good news is, the gospel isn’t just for our children, it’s for us parents too.

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Is the Shack for Christians?

Check out our podcast episode on The Shack & Christian Discernment

The book The Shack has sold over 25 million copies worldwide and has been translated into numerous languages, so it’s not a surprise that Hollywood has decided to cash in on its popularity with a blockbuster movie. While the book is marketed as a “Christian novel” and the movie is marketed to Christians, it simply isn’t based on Biblical Christianity. In fact, it’s full of heresy. The number of Christians who are singing its praises is evidence of the lack of discernment prevalent in American Evangelicalism. What’s even more concerning is that many Christian pastors and teachers are endorsing the book and movie.

The Shack was written and self-published by William P. Young and gained popularity with very little marketing. It’s the story of Mack (Mackenzie) Phillips after the abduction and murder of his daughter while on a family vacation. While her body is never found, evidence of her murder by a notorious serial killer is discovered in an abandoned shack. Years later, in his great sadness, Mack receives a mysterious note from “Papa”  that seems to be from God, inviting him to the shack. While he is there, the shack is supernaturally transformed into a beautiful scene and it is there he has encounters with manifestations of the Trinity, who communicate with him through much of the book.

While The Shack is a work of fiction, it points to ideas based in Scripture and attempts to answer questions about God and why He allows evil. The Shack endorses ideas that are not Biblical and at points are even heretical, including its portrayal of the Trinity. It also uses actors to represent the persons of the Trinity, which is a violation of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). This simply is not a book or movie that Christians should watch or endorse.

Discussions of the upcoming movie may offer opportunities for conversations with friends and family about Biblical Christianity. Several trustworthy Christian sources have offered reviews and commentary on the book, along with a more detailed analysis of the theological errors and heresy within it. These resources should offer help in understanding and discussing with others why the book and the upcoming movie is not something Christians should get behind.

1. The Shack: Its dangerous theology and error (full documentary) by Paul Flynn

In his documentary, Paul Flynn discusses in detail the theology in The Shack and where it is not consistent with Scripture, including the heresies which it promotes.

2. The Shack vs The Bible (Video) WWUTT (YouTube video)

This video from WWUTT (When We Understand The Text) is a short summary of the Biblical issues in The Shack. This is a great resource to share with believers who are planning on seeing the movie.

3. The Shack by William P. Young by Tim Challies

Tim Challies has written a longer, more detailed article about The Shack. He explains in detail the Biblical issues with the book, including on the Trinity, salvation and forgiveness. This is one of the most thorough reviews of the book and discussions of its theological errors.

4. Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or reviewing) The Shack Movie by Tim Challies

In this article, Tim Challies explains why he’s decided not to see the movie The Shack, even for the purpose of reviewing it. His biggest concern is “its visual representation of God.” He explains that “To watch The Shack is to watch human actors play the roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I take this to be a clear, serious violation of the second commandment.” He also reviews some of the same concerns from his earlier article.

5. Is the Shack Christian? by James B. DeYoung

James B. DeYoung, author of Burning Down “The Shack”: How the “Christian” Bestseller is Deceiving Millionsargues in this article that the “novel and the movie are becoming the greatest deception to blindside the evangelical church in the last 200 years.” He also discusses Pilgrim’s Progress, another Christian allegory which some have tried to compare to The Shack.

6. The Shack: The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment  by Albert Mohler

Albert Mohler points out several theological issues withThe Shack arguing, “The popularity of this book among evangelicals can only be explained by a lack of basic theological knowledge among us.” Along with showing several things in the book which are contrary to Scripture, he also spends some time talking about why The Shack is so popular among Evangelicals, not just the storyline, but even the theology, when it’s so obviously not Biblical. He argues that we desperately need a “theological recovery” and that this should be a “wake up call for Evangelical Christianity.”

7. Shack Ebola Virus Outbreak 2 (audio) Fighting for the Faith with Chris Rosebrough

During the first hour of this episode of Fighting for the Faith, Pastor Chris Rosebrough talks about “Cru’s (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) Nonendorsement/Endorsement of The Shack.” He also gives “an Overview of the Theological Errors and Dangers of The Shack and Wm. Paul Young.”

8. “The Shack” to be the next blasphemous blockbuster [VIDEO] Berean Examiner by Amy Spreeman

In this article, Amy Spreeman talks about blasphemy inThe Shack and lists the book’s heresies which Michael Youssef has identified. She also points out that, “Everyone gets into heaven in Young’s story. No sin or repentance, no need for a savior, and no need for a Gospel at all.”

9. William Young, Author of The Shack, Outright Denies the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (starts at the 45 minute mark) Fighting for the Faith with Chris Rosebrough

Pastor Chris Rosebrough plays an interview with William Young, author of The Shack, where Young denies penal substitutionary atonement. Young also embraces other unbiblical theology, such as aspects of pelagianism.

 

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Reformed Acronyms and Abbreviations

Reformed Acronyms and Abbreviations

With all of the acronyms and abbreviations used in Reformed Christian circles, we’ve put together a reference list as we often get questions about what these things mean. Not everything on here is specifically Reformed, but are things which may be used in various theological discussions and writing.

2C 2nd commandment

2CV 2nd commandment violation (3CV and so on depending on the commandment violated)

2K two kingdoms

3FU Three Forms of Unity

3PC/4PC three point Calvinist/four point Calvinist

AACC American Association of Christian Counselors

AALC The American Association of Lutheran Churches

ACA Anglican Church in America

ACBC Association of Certified Biblical Counselors

ACE Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

ACNA Anglican Church in North America

Amil Amillennialism

AoG/AG Assemblies of God

APA Anglican Province of America

APC Associated Presbyterian Churches

APM A Puritan´s Mind

ARBCA Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America

ARP/ARPC Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

AV Authorized Version, Bible (same as KJV)

BCF Belgic Confession of Faith

BCO Book of Church Order

BCP Book of Common Prayer

BCT Baptist Covenant Theology (1689 Federalism)

BoT Banner of Truth

BPC Bible Presbyterian Church

BPS Book of Psalms for Singing

BT Biblical Theology

CanRC The Canadian and American Reformed Churches

CARPC Covenanting Association of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches

CB Credo Baptism

CBMW  The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

CCCC/4C’s Conservative Christian Congregational Conference

CELC Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference

CmL Ceremonial Law

CofC Church of Christ

CoG Covenant of Grace

CoR Covenant of Redemption

CoW Covenant of Works

CREC Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (formerly the confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches)

Credo credoBaptism (believers baptism)

CRC/CRCNA Christian Reformed Church in North America

CRPC Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church

CT Covenant Theology or Critical Text

CTS Covenant Theological Seminary

CvL civil law

Dispy dispensationalist

DPW Directory for Public Worship

DoG Doctrines of Grace

EFCA Evangelical Free Church of America

ELCA Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

ELS Evangelical Lutheran Synod

EP Exclusive Psalmody

EPC Evangelical Presbyterian Church

EPCA Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia

ERLC The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention

ERPC Evangelical Reformed Presbyterian Church

ESS: Eternal Subordination of the Son

ESV English Standard Version, Bible

ERQ Eglise Reformee du Quebec (Reformed Church of Quebec)

FACA The Federation of Anglican Churches in the Americas

FCC Free Church of Scotland, Continuing

FCS Free Church of Scotland

FoG Form of Government

FotF/FOTF Focus on the Family

FPCNA Free Presbyterian Church of North America

FRCNA The Free Reformed Churches of North America

FV Federal Vision

GA general assembly (the highest court of presbyterian polity)

GPTS Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

GSB Geneva Study Bible

HCSB Holman Christian Standard Bible

HNRC/HRC Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation/Heritage Reformed Congregation

HRC The Heritage Reformed Congregations

ICRC International Conference of Reformed Churches

IFB Independent Fundamental Baptist

HC head covering

IHOP International House of Prayer

IRBS Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies

KPCA The Korean Presbyterian Church in America

kirk Scot word for the church

KJV/KJB King James Version, Bible

KJO King James Only

KTS Knox Theological Seminary

LBCF/1689 LBC Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689)

LCMS Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

LD Lord’s Day

LS Lordship Salvation

MDiv Master of Divinity Degree

MERF Middle East Reformed Fellowship

ML moral law

MLJ Martyn Lloyd Jones

MOS Mortification of Spin (podcast)

MT Majority Text

NAPARC North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council

NASB New American Standard Bible

NCT New Covenant Theology

NGSB New Geneva Study Bible

NIV New International Version, Bible

NKJV New King James Version, Bible

NLT New Living Translation, Bible

NPP New Perspective on Paul

NPW normative principle of worship

NRC Netherlands Reformed Congregations

NRSV New Revised Standard Version, Bible

OCRC Orthodox Christian Reformed Church

OPC Orthodox Presbyterian Church

OPCGA Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly

Paedo paedobaptism (infant baptism)

PB Puritan Board or paedobaptism

PC presbycurious

PCA Presbyterian Church in America

PCAGA Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly

PCUSA Presbyterian Church USA

PSA Penal Substitutionary Atonement

PRCT Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology

PDM Psalms of David in Metre

PreMil Premillennialism

Presby Presbyterian

PresRC The Presbyterian Reformed Church

Presup presuppositional apologetics

PostMil Postmillennialism

PRC/PRCA Protestant Reformed Church in America

PRTS Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary

PTL Praise the Lord

R2K Reformed two kingdoms or radical two kingdoms

RB Reformed Baptist

RCA Reformed Church in America

RCC Roman Catholic Church

RCJ Reformed Church in Japan

RCM Reformation Christian Ministries

RCUS Reformed Church in the United States

RE Ruling Elder

REC Reformed Episcopal Church

RES Reformed Episcopal Seminary

RPCA Reformed Presbyterian Church of Australia

RPCGA Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly

RPCHP Reformed Presbyterian Church (Hanover Presbytery)

RPCNA Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America

RPCS Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland

RPCUS Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States

RPTS Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary

RPW regulative principle of worship

RSC R. Scott Clark (for TG listeners)

RSV Revised Standard Version

RT Received Text

RTS Reformed Theological Seminary

RUF Reformed University Fellowship

SBC Southern Baptist Convention

SBFA Salvation by faith alone

SD Sabbath Day or Savoy Declaration

SDG Solo Deo Gloria

ST Systematic Theology

SWRB Still Water Revival Books

TE Teaching Elder

TEDS Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

TG Theology Gals

TGC The Gospel Coalition

TR Textus Receptus or Truly Reformed

TT TableTalk

TFoU Three Forms of Unity: Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort

TULIP Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints. (The 5 Points of Calvinism)

URC/URCNA United Reformed Churches in North America

VT Van Til

WELS Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod

WCF Westminster Confession of Faith

WHI White Horse Inn (radio show/podcast)

WLC Westminster Larger Catechism

WPCUS Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States

WRF World Reformed Fellowship

WRS Western Reformed Seminary

WSC Westminster Shorter Catechism or Westminster Seminary, California

WTS Westminster Theological Seminary(PA) or Whitefield Theological Seminary or Western Theological Seminary

YRR Young, Restless and Reformed

 

*If I’ve missed something or need to make any corrections, you can either comment on this post or email me. Some things may be more specific to Theology Gals listeners than the Reformed community as a whole.