The Bible is not replete with long or detailed sections on how to be a good father. To be sure, there are verses that are directed explicitly to fathers as such, but these are few and far between (cf. Eph. 6:4, for example). Neither will you find passages that celebrate fatherhood the way you will find it celebrated in Father’s Day cards. I am reminded of this every time Father’s Day rolls around because as I try to think of a relevant passage to preach from, I quickly realize that the standard stock for Father’s Day sermon texts is short and sweet.
This does not mean, of course, that God has a low esteem of fathers. After all, he is presented to us in the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As believers, we relate to God as Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit. We pray, “Abba, Father,” and receive with joy the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:14-17). As our Lord was about to ascend back into heaven, he reminded his followers that he was about to ascend to his Father and their Father (John 20:17). When we pray, we are taught to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven.” There can be no higher praise for fatherhood than the fact that God condescends to take such a title upon himself. It tells us that fatherhood is good and very good, a noble, holy, loving, and essential institution among men.
But that does not take away from the fact that direct instruction to men as fathers is few and far between. Why is this the case? The reason is not hard to find, and once found, neither is it hard to understand. It is because God wants men to be, first and foremost, men of God. Once a man is a man of God, everything else falls into place. A man who follows God, who imitates him in his character as Father, will be a good father. He will love and lead his children as he ought. He will not provoke his children to wrath but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Furthermore, those men who seek the Lord and model their lives after the instruction that God gives us in his word will also avoid the pitfalls and extremes that befall fallen cultures when it comes to fatherhood. They will avoid what some have called toxic masculinity on the one hand, and on the other, the effeminate behavior that is being commended to men in our generation. The idea that men should be more like women is foreign to the Bible. We need to heed Paul’s word to the Corinthians, and act like men (1 Cor. 16:13). The church has fallen down on the job in the respect, which is why secular prophets like Jordan Peterson have risen up to take the mantle of calling men to be men in our day. But of course, that does not mean that it’s okay for men to adopt harmful attitudes that lead to physical and emotional and verbal abuse. And the Bible prevents us from going there. God word commands men to so lead their families that, like God, they command the respect of those they lead (cf. 1 Tim. 3:4-5).
But all this does not mean that the Bible has nothing to say to men. It does. And perhaps the best place to look and see what God expects men to be in relation to their families, especially their children, is to be found in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy. Now often, when this text is cited with reference to family life, the first nine or so verses are considered and that is it. However, I think that is a mistake. In order to see what God wants men to be, we really need to consider the entire chapter, and that is what I want to do this morning. As we consider this chapter as a whole, the contours of a godly father become clear. In particular, we see that a godly father is one who understands and believes the Biblical portrayal of who God is, and who relates to him in ways that are appropriate to this understanding and faith. He understands that we can only relate to God in a holistic way, in which the entire life is brought under the Lordship of the true God. Only in this way can he model to his family what it means to follow and know God. Only in this way can he be willingly given the respect owed to him in the Fifth Commandment, and only in this way can he pave the way for future generations to follow and love and obey this same Lord of all.
At the very beginning, we notice something that we are likely to miss in our very individualistic culture. It is this: God is very interested in the continuation and preservation of godly families. Why are they to obey the commandments of the Lord which he has given them (6:1)? It is so “that thou mightiest fear the LORD thy God, to keep all his commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days might be prolonged” (6:2). There is this wonderful emphasis upon the transmission of the faith from father to son. He is very concerned about men passing the baton of truth onto their children. He is pleased when there is the continuity of faith in the family line, when father passes to son and son to his son the faith once delivered to the saints. That is in fact the whole point of Deuteronomy 6, if not the whole book. It is not enough for fathers to see to their own hearts, but they must look to the hearts of their children as well. Like Job, the godly man is concerned about what goes on in the minds and hearts of his children (cf. Job 1:5). He does not just preach the gospel to himself, he preaches it to his children as well. He models it for them. He seeks to convince them that it is not just right but good for them.
Fathers, it is not enough that you practice the spiritual disciplines for yourselves. You must of course start there. But you must also care about the spiritual wellbeing of your children. It is part of what it means to be a godly man. You cannot follow God if your life is not a continual invitation to your family, your wife and your children, to follow you as you follow the Lord with all your heart. This is not something you leave to others, not even to your wife. A lot of men do that. They rely upon their wives to bear the burden of the spiritual leadership of the family. But that is not what God’s word calls us as men of God to do. Even if you think that your wife is more spiritual than you are (and she very well may be!), that does not that you take the back seat in the spiritual leadership of your family. (Neither does this mean you ignore your wife or her ability to contribute to the spiritual well-being of the family, but it does mean you so lead so that her gifts are amplified the way they should be.)
So, what does a godly man look like? Let’s look at the text of Deuteronomy 6.
First of all, a godly man is a man who hears the word of God. You will notice this emphasis upon hearing: “Hear therefore, O Israel . . . . Hear O Israel” (6:3-4). What are they to hear? It is clear that they are to hear the words of God. It is the same way the Decalogue is introduced in the previous chapter: “And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep and do them” (5:1). They were called to hear the word of God primarily because in those days that is the way information was passed on. People didn’t own their own copies of the Bible, so they would go to the priest to hear him read the word of God to them. At the borders of Canaan, Moses is relating the word of God to the people of Israel again, reminding them of its truths. For those of us with the privilege of owning multiple copies of the Bible, it is all the more important for us to pay attention to its message. And given the fact that we not only have the Law, but the Gospel, and the fact that God has not just spoken to us through Moses but through his own Son, it is all the more important for us to hear what God has to say to us. As the author of Hebrews argues, we ought to take God’s word to us through his Son with infinite seriousness: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation: which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard them?” (Heb. 2:1-3).
We need to hear the word of God because this is the starting place of all theology and godliness. It is vain to say that you are following God if you have not heard him speak. All religion that is the product of our own thoughts and feelings is vain. How can even dare to think that we can grasp the infinite? It is supremely arrogant to think that we can figure God out. The only way we can have hope that we know who God is and what he expects of us is if he has spoken to us. This is exactly the argument that Paul makes to the Corinthians: “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God” (1 Cor. 2:11-12). You cannot know my thoughts unless I reveal them to you; neither can we know God’s thoughts unless he reveals them to us – but he has done just that, in the Bible, through his apostles and prophets. It behooves us to hear what he has to say.
Second, a godly man understands who God is. “Hear, O Israel, The LORD our God is one LORD” (6:4). He understands who God is because God has revealed himself to him in his word. The central affirmation, and the basis upon which everything follows, is the truth that the LORD God is one. This is in contrast to the polytheism of the surrounding peoples among which Israel found itself, and from which it had been redeemed. But though we are no longer tempted by the polytheism of pagans, their many gods represent the many, many voices that still call us to place our allegiance in things other than the true God. There is the god of work and achievement, and the god of money, and the god of pleasure, and the god of entertainment, and the god of food and drink, and the god of human praise. Like the gods of old, they each have their reasons for our affections and loyalty. However, the oneness of the LORD God is meant to show us that there is only One who deserves our ultimate allegiance. He does not and will not compete for our affections and trust. He is a Jealous God (cf. 6:15), and rightly so because all other gods are fake and false; they have no right to claim our service.
However, a godly man not only understands God’s unique claim upon his allegiance because he is the one true and living God, but also understands that this God stands in relation to him as his redeemer. We often forget that the premise to the Law is redemption. God gives the law to the people whom he has redeemed: “I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. . .” (Deut. 5:6-7). Note the story that is told the inquisitive son in verses 20-25: they are premised upon the fact of redemption from Egypt. The reason for the commandments is to be found in their redemption. The motivation to serve God is not one of servile fear, but of gratitude and love for what he has done for us. And it puts the commands in perspective for us. This reminds us that the God who redeems is the God who loves with a steadfast love, and therefore his commandments are not grievous (cf. 1 John 5:3).
You see this throughout the passage. Why are they to hear and obey? So that “it might be well with thee” (6:3). “And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day” (6:24). The godly man is the man who knows that God’s way and will is for his good, that it is a good thing to draw near to God. It is not something that you have to hold your nose in order to do. It is a delight to obey God and follow in his ways. He knows that God is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6).
Of course, for us who live on the other side of the cross, we don’t just look back to a temporal redemption, we look back to the redemption accomplished by Jesus who died so that we might have eternal life. He didn’t just die to rescue people from earthly slavery, but from slavery to sin and its consequences, slavery to the fear of death. We don’t serve Christ in order to win his favor, we serve him because through grace we have his favor. We don’t serve him in order to gain the forgiveness of sins, but because we already have the forgiveness of sins. We have been redeemed and that is why we serve him. The obedience of the godly man is gospel-oriented.
A godly man understands that no one else can do what God has done through Jesus Christ. He knows that there is no real redemption apart from the cross. He knows that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life and those who know him will never truly die; they have eternal life in him. No one else can make such a claim and hold good on it.
Then, a godly man is a man who relates to God as he ought. If we believe what the Bible says about God, then it ought to affect the way we live.
Above all else, a true understanding of God ought to cause us to love him, and that is exactly what the godly man does: “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all think heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (6:5). Years later, when the Savior was asked what the greatest commandment in the Law, he responded by pointing to this verse. You see, it is not enough to have an intellectual knowledge of who God is, you must love him. To know God and look away from him in disgust is to be like Satan. There is something profoundly wrong with the person who cannot see the beauty of God. And there is something wrong: it is sin! It is sin that warps our understanding and affections and bends them in directions that are wrong and ugly and depraved. To fail to love God, therefore, is the clearest evidence that we are still captive to sin. We must love God because there is no object worthy of love as God is worthy of love.
We must love God also because there will be no true obedience apart from it. This is why our Lord said this is the great commandment. All obedience starts here. Without love to God, our service to him is merely external and perfunctory and vain. Love is the fuel of obedience. The engine of service to God will lie dead on the tracks without the fire of love energizing the soul. Our thoughts about God must be right (ver. 4) and our affections to God must be right (ver. 5) in order for a life of godliness to even get a start much less flourish.
If this is settled, then everything else will follow. People praise and talk about what they love. Therefore, it is no wonder that the Lord goes on to say that they will evidence this love and obedience teaching it and talking of it to their children (6:6-9). Our religion is a farce if we never talk about it in our homes. If religion is nothing more than something we do once or twice a week, our religion is in vain. If your thoughts and affections are centered on God, then talking about him with your children should be something that naturally follows. Family life should reflect the priorities of your heart. If God is front and center, then this will show itself in the home. But if God dwells on the fringes of your heart, if religion is nothing more to you than something you do in order to salve your conscience, then this too will show in the home.
There are of course things we must be careful of here. For one thing, I’m not saying that there should be no discipline in instructing your children in the things of the Lord. Yes, it should be natural, but that is not the same thing as being undisciplined. In particular, it is a good thing to have regular times of devotion with your children, something that is planned. But on the other hand, we also have to guard against introducing religion in our homes in a purely mechanical way. It comes back to the father taking heed to verses 4-5 and guarding his heart so that the Lord is the one to whom his allegiance and affections belong.
This means that a godly man is watchful over his own soul. This is the point of verses 10-15. You don’t lay your guard down, because the devil is going about like a roaring lion seek whom he may devour. We are always in danger of taking God’s blessings and turning them into idols, and allowing them to dull our spiritual appetites. You don’t rest on past laurels. You don’t take God’s grace for granted. You don’t fall asleep on your post.
There are many, many men who have done great things for God and then crashed and burned, and it did incredible damage to their family. King David is the unfortunate preeminent example for this. He was a man after God’s own heart, and yet because of his sin his family suffered the consequences. And they were terrible consequences, involving rape, murder, and betrayal, among other things. If it could happen to David, it can happen to me. It can happen to you. “Beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name” (6:12-13).
A godly man thus relates to God in love and obedience and watchfulness. Another thing that characterizes the godly man is that he continually trusts in God. The problem with many of the Israelites coming out of Egypt is that they never seemed to be able to fully trust in God, even after all that they saw. This is the point of verse 16: “Ye shall not tempt the LORD your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.” This is a reference to the story told in Exodos 17:1-7, where the people of Israel came to a place and there was no water to drink. Their lack of faith was so complete that they began to complain that they had even left Egypt (ver. 3). God still provided for them there (with water from the rock), but that did not excuse their unbelief. So Moses is reminding them that they should always trust in God’s provision for them, even when it isn’t clear how this is going to happen. The God who can bring water from a rock can provide for his people in the direst of circumstances.
It’s going to be hard to make the case to your children that God is worth following if their father can’t trust him. And believe me, your children have already figured out what or whom you trust. There is no more powerful apologetic for the gospel than parents who trust in the Lord with all their hearts and show it with their lives and emotions and decisions, and in the way they react to life in general. I can tell you that the very best gift that my father gave to me was his faith in God. I saw it in a thousand tangible ways. It was clear to me that God was real to him, and under God played no small part in bringing me to trust in God as well.
Now if you live in this way, what is going to happen? I will tell you what will happen. Your children will come up to you and ask you questions about your faith. Or if they don’t ask you directly, I guarantee you they will be thinking about it themselves. Like the son in Deut. 6:20, “And when [not if!] thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the LORD our God hath commanded you?” Do you notice that the hypothetical son here already feels like the God of his father is his God: he says, “the LORD our God.” If you have shown them that God is real by our love to him, your obedience to him, your watchfulness and your faith, then they will want to know more about him as well.
And how will you answer? You answer by telling them how God redeemed you (cf. ver. 21-25). You don’t tell them about yourself and what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished. You tell them, like the father in Deuteronomy 6, about what God has done. Notice the emphasis in these verses upon the action of God. There is nothing about what the Israelites did for God here. It is all about God’s powerful and redemptive acts in history for them. You point them to God’s ultimate redemptive act in history: the cross of Christ and the empty tomb. You tell them how Jesus Christ took our sin upon himself and purged it forever, demonstrating once and for all that God’s holy and just wrath was satisfied. And you tell them about God’s promise that those who trust in his Son will have the forgiveness of all their sins and the presence of the Holy Spirit to sanctify them and make them holy. You preach the gospel.
And that is what a godly father is like.