Book Review: “Successful Christian Parenting” by John MacArthur (1998)

While I’ve been learning from John MacArthur for years—most recently through his Grace to You app and Study Bible—I first became aware of Successful Christian Parenting when a friend from our church used it as the foundation for her two-part parenting class held at our Chinese Bible study. She gave my wife and me the book so that we could become familiar with the material and then help translate, so our first experience with it was more academic than purposeful. Since then, however, we’ve been reading it aloud to each other at night, just after we tuck the kids into bed. While the chapters seem extra long when read aloud, the information inside is biblically sound and essential for strengthening the spiritual foundation of any family committed to raising children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

MacArthur opens his first chapter by writing: “An old Chinese proverb says, ‘One generation plants the trees and another gets the shade.’ [ 一人种树,万人乘凉。] Our generation lives in the shade of many trees that were planted by our ancestors.” (3) While MacArthur is thankful for a such strong heritage, he’s also aware that our generation is failing horribly at planting trees on our own. In fact, he believes that “The family is the germ-cell of civilization, and we may be witnessing its death throes.” (xi) It’s no secret that our society’s “progressive” movements have made God’s design for marriage and the family a central target, and that “progress” to them involves destroying love in favor of self-fulfillment or community in favor or individuality. To return to the tree metaphor, the progressives desire to destroy the trees at their roots while keeping the leaves for themselves. The question must be asked, however: What kind of future does that leave our children?

MacArthur recognizes that these problems are societal, but he also wisely notes that their cures are not. Individual redemption and not societal reform is what this world needs (10). Spiritual change from within is all that can save us, both individually and culturally, and this becomes his major thesis throughout the book. Grounded upon a strong biblical foundation, each chapter in this book offers wise counsel on what our children and our marriages need most.

Sometimes, the change required in our parenting is merely an adjustment of perspective: “Success in parenting is measured by what the parents do, not by what the child does” (3); “Children do not go bad because of something their parents do. They are born sinful, and that sinfulness manifests itself because what their parents do not do” (32); and again, “What ruins most children is not what their parents do to them, but what they do not do for them.” (147) At other times, what’s required is a change of priority: “God’s design for the family is that it first be Christ-centered, and then marriage-centered, with the husband-wife relationship taking priority over all other relationships in the home and the parents, not the children, determining the family agenda.” (160) Throughout, though, is MacArthur’s constant call for a return to the biblical foundations that informed our ancestors about successful Christian parenting, and in this age of persistent “self-help,” this is admirable.

What MacArthur’s book lacks is “the next step.” His advice isn’t as practical as it is biblical, and I am certainly not suggesting that those two adjectives are mutually exclusive! While I realize that this book is “not a book on child psychology” (xi), and while it had better not be yet another short-lived “how to” for parents, I did notice that it lacks any defined action steps for parents to purposely make in their pursuit of successful Christian parenting. With his classic teaching aplomb, MacArthur delivers Truth directly from the Word, discusses what these truths mean, but then generally leaves it up to the reading parent to do with it what they think it right. Certainly, sections like “Chapter 3: Good News for Your Kids” go against this norm and are pretty explicit about how and when a parent should discuss the Gospel with their kids, but such instances are not as common as one would like.

This method of teaching is very similar to how MacArthur preaches: very detailed and theologically deep sermons based exclusively on the text and the textual context, though generally with only a flicker of application trailing at the end. Now, Grace Community Church might be filled with mature and Bible-savvy believers, and MacArthur might fully expect these spiritual meat-eaters to be able to figure out all the personal applications on their own, but I know that the majority of his listeners are growing Christians still in the process of learning, and they’re not yet able to draw these fine conclusions regarding application on their own. They need the help of a teacher, not simply to teach and reprove, but also to correct and to instruct in righteousness (2Tim 3:16). We all need to be led by the hand at times and shown exactly how we ought to apply the Word, for if we fail to consider how to do this on our own, all that Truth simply goes in and never comes out again.

This reminds me of my brother’s church which is pastored by a Master’s Seminary graduate. A great guy, fantastic preacher, and super wise man. The church itself is filled with some of the smartest, most biblically capable people you could ever meet. Yet when it came down to application, many proved to be infants. When a member from their congregation felt the call to plant a church on the other side of town, he was able to find just a handful of volunteers to assist him, and the church itself refused to have any part of the plant, fearing that it would become a rival for membership! How sad Christ must be to see these learned, supposedly mature “followers” of him more concerned about their membership role than obedience to the Word they know so well!

I didn’t intend to harp on MacArthur or Grace or Master’s or even my brother’s church so harshly here, but this trend of teaching without forcefully applying the Word can be dangerous. MacArthur implies the very same in his book, that “[Solomon’s] own life was inconsistent with his teaching. There is no greater mistake a parent can make.” (72) If we are not living what we teach, and if we are not helping our children or our hearers do the same, then we’re not really accomplishing our task. For that reason, I think that the effectiveness of this book could be greatly enhanced for the majority of its readers if it included an “Action Points” section at the end of each chapter, not because people are stupid, but because not everyone’s yet as mature and discerning as they ought to be.

The teachings in this book are as doctrinally solid as anything MacArthur’s put out, and it’s certainly an excellent starting point for understanding what God thinks of this important task of parenting. The back-matter was especially helpful and enlightening, and I despite its lack of application points, I do highly recommend it.

©2016 E.T.

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