How to be a Godly Father, by Matthew Henry
“With the church that is in their house”, 1 Cor 16:9.
On 16th April 1704 Matthew Henry preached his famed sermon recommending family religion under the notion of the church in the house, asking that we take stock of the state of religion in our own private homes, whether it flourishes or withers.
Henry exhorts the master of the family to go before their household in the things of God and to be “… as prophets, priests and kings in their own families; and as such they must keep up family doctrine, family worship, and family discipline“.
Let us now turn and consider the scriptural duties of fathers to the end that “…the truths of Christ are professed and taught, the ordinances of Christ administered and observed, and due care taken to put the laws of Christ in execution among all who profess themselves his subjects, so that there may be little churches in our house.”
1. Be Prophets to Keep Up Family Doctrine.
It is not enough that you and yours profess to own the truth as it is in Jesus; care must be taken and means used that you and yours be well acquainted with that truth, and that you grow in that acquaintance, to the honour of Christ and his holy religion, and the improvement of your own minds, and theirs who are under your charge. You must deal with your families as men of knowledge (1 Pet. 3:7); that is, as men who desire to grow in knowledge yourselves, and to communicate your knowledge for the benefit of others, which are the two good properties of those who deserve to be called men of knowledge.
That you may keep family doctrine, you must:
Read the Scriptures.
Read the Scriptures to your families, in a solemn manner, requiring their attendance on your reading, and their attention to it; and inquiring sometimes whether they understand what you read. It is better to be without bread in your houses than without Bibles, for the words of God’s mouth are and should be to you more than your necessary food. But what will it avail you to have Bibles in your houses, if you do not use them – to have the great things of God’s law and gospel written to you, if you count them as a strange thing? You have great encouragements to read the Scriptures; for notwithstanding the malicious endeavours of atheists to vilify sacred things, the knowledge of the Scriptures is still in reputation with all wise and good men. You have also a variety of excellent help to understand the Scriptures, and to improve your reading of it; so that if you or yours perish for lack of this knowledge, as you certainly will if you persist in the neglect of it, the guilt will lie at your own doors.
Let me, therefore, with all earnestness press it upon you to make the solemn reading of the Scripture a part of your daily worship in our families. When you speak to God by prayer, be willing to hear him speak to you in his word, that there may be communion between you and God. This will add much to the solemnity of your family worship, and will make the transaction the more serious and impressive, if it be done in a right manner; which will conduce much to the honour of God and your own and your family’s edification. It will help to make the word of God familiar to yourselves, your children and household, that you may be ready and mighty in the Scriptures, and may thence be thoroughly furnished for every good word and work. It will likewise furnish you with matter and words for prayer, and so be helpful to you in other parts of the service. If some parts of Scripture seem less edifying, let those be most frequently read that are most so. David’s Psalms are of daily use in devotion, and Solomon’s Proverbs in conversation; it will be greatly to your advantage to be well versed in them. And I hope I need not press any Christian to the study of the New Testament, nor any Christian parents to the frequent instructing of their children in the pleasant and profitable histories of the Old Testament. When you only hear your children read the Bible, they are tempted to look upon it as no more than a school-book; but when they hear you read it to them in a solemn religious manner, it comes, as it ought, with more authority. Those masters of families who make conscience of doing this daily, morning and evening, reckoning it part of the duty of every day, I am sure have comfort and satisfaction in so doing, and find it contributes much to their own improvement in Christian knowledge and the edification of those who dwell under their shadow; and the more, if those who are able expound, and others read some plain and profitable exposition of what is read, or of some part of it.
It is easy to add under this head, that the seasonable reading of other good books will contribute very much to family instruction. It helps of this kind we are as happy as any people under the sun, if we have but hearts to use the helps we have, as those who must give an account shortly of them among other talents with which we are intrusted.
You must also catechize your children and household. Let them learn some good catechism by heart, and keep it in remembrance; and by familiar discourse with them help them to understand it, as they become capable. It is an excellent method of catechizing, which God himself directs us to, Deut. 6:7 ; to teach our children the things of God, by talking of them as we sit in the house and go by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise up. It is good to keep up stated times for this service, and be constant to them, as those who know how industrious the enemy is to sow tares while men sleep. If this good work be not kept going forward, it will of itself go backward. Wisdom also will direct you to manage your catechizing, as well as the other branches of family religion, so as not to make it a task and burthen, but as much as may be a pleasure to those under your charge, that the blame may lie upon their own impiety, and not upon your imprudence, if they should say, ”Behold what a weariness is it!”
This way of instruction by catechising belongs in a special manner to the “church in the house;” for that is the nursery in which the trees of righteousness are reared that afterwards are planted in the courts of our God. Public catechising will turn to little account without family catechising. The labor of ministers in instructing youth, and feeding the lambs of the flock, proves to many labor in vain, because heads of families do not do their duty in preparing them for public instruction, and examining their improvement by it. As mothers are children’s best nurses, so parents are or should be their best teachers. Solomon’s father was his tutor, Prov. 4 : 3, 4, and he never forgot the lessons his mother taught him, Prov. 31:1.
The early baptism of your children, as it laid a strong and lasting obligation on them to live in the fear of God, so it brought you under the most powerful engagements imaginable to bring them up in that fear. The child you gave up to God, to be dedicated to him, and admitted as a member of the visible church, was in God’s name given back to you, with the same charge that Pharaoh’s daughter gave to Moses’ mother, Take this child and nurse it for me; and in nursing it for God you nurse it for better preferment than that of being called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. It is worth observing, that he to whom God first did the honor of entailing the seal of the covenant upon his seed, was eminent for this part of family religion: “I know Abraham, that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord.” Gen. 18 : 19. Those, therefore, who would have the comfort of God’s covenant with them and their seed, and would share in that blessing of Abraham, which comes upon the Gentiles, must herein follow the example of faithful Abraham. The entail of the covenant of grace is forfeited and cut off, if care be not taken, with it, to transmit the means of grace. To what purpose are they discipled if they be not taught? Why did you give them a Christian name, if you will not give them knowledge of Christ and Christianity. God has owned them as children and born unto him Ezek 16:20 and therefore He expects that they should be brought up for Him; you are unjust to your God, unkind to your children, and unfaithful to your trust, if, having by baptism entered your children in Christ’s school, and enlisted them under his banner, you do not make conscience of training them up in the learning of Christ’s scholars, and under the discipline of his soldiers.
Consider what your children are now capable of, even in the days of their childhood. They are capable of receiving impressions now which may abide upon them while they live; they are turned as clay to the seal, and now is the time to apply to them the seal of the living God. They are capable of honoring God now, if they be well taught ; and by their joining, as they can, in religious services with so much reverence and application as their age will admit, God is honored, and you in them present to him living sacrifices, holy and acceptable. The Hosannas even of children well taught will be the perfection of praise, and highly pleasing to the Lord Jesus.
Consider what your children are designed for, we hope, in this world; they must be a seed to serve the Lord, which shall be accounted to him for a generation. They are to bear up the name of Christ in their day, and into their hands must be transmitted that good thing which is committed to us. They are to be praising God on earth when we are praising him in heaven. Let them then be brought up accordingly, that they may answer the end of their birth and being. They are designed for the service of their generation, and to do good in their day.
Consider especially what they are designed for in another world: they are made for eternity. Every child you have has a precious and immortal soul that must be for ever either in heaven or hell, according as it is prepared in this present state; and, perhaps, it must remove to that world of spirits very shortly: and will it not be very mournful, if, through your carelessness and neglect, your children should learn the ways of sin, and perish eternally in those ways? Give them warning, that, if possible, you may deliver their souls; at least that you may deliver your own, and may not bring their curse and God’s too, their blood and your own too, upon your heads.
I know that you cannot give grace to your children, nor is a religious conversation always the result of a religious education; “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong:” but if you make conscience of doing your duty by keeping up family doctrine, if you teach them the good and the right way, and warn them of by-paths; if you reprove, exhort and encourage them as there is occasion; if you pray with them, and for them, and set them a good example, and consult their souls welfare in your arrangements for them, you have done your part, and may comfortably leave the issue and success with God.
2. Be Priests to Keep Up Family Worship.
You must not only as prophets teach your families, but as priests must go before them, in offering the spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise. Herein likewise you must tread in the steps of faithful Abraham, whose sons you are while thus you do well; you must not only, like him, instruct your household, but, like him, you must with them call on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God, Gen. 21:33. Wherever he pitched his tent, there he built an altar unto the Lord, Gen. 12:7, 8 and 14:4, 18, though he was yet in an unsettled state, only a stranger and a sojourner; though he was among jealous and envious neighbours, for the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land, yet, wherever Abraham had a tent God had an altar in it, and he himself served at that altar. Herein he has left us an example.
Families, as such, have many errands at the throne of grace, which furnish them with matter and occasion for family prayer every day; errands which cannot be done so well, in secret, or public, but are fittest to be done by the family in concert, and apart from other families. And it is good for those who go before the rest in family devotions, ordinarily to dwell most upon the concerns of those who join in their family capacity, that it may be indeed a family prayer, not only offered up in and by the family, but suited to it. In this and other services we should endeavor not only to say something, but something to the purpose.
Under this head of family worship I must not omit to recommend to you the singing of psalms in your families, as a part of daily worship, especially Sabbath worship. This is a part of religious worship which participates both of the word and prayer; for therein we are not only to give glory to God, but to teach and admonish one another; it is therefore very proper to make it a transition from the one to the other. It will warm and quicken you, refresh and comfort you; and perhaps if you have little children in your houses, they will sooner take notice of it than of any other part of your family devotion; and some good im- pressions may thereby be fastened upon them insensibly.
3. Be Kings to Keep Family Discipline.
Keep family discipline so that you may have a complete church in your house, though a small one. Reason teaches us that every man should bear rule in his own house, Esther 1:22. And since this, as well as other power is of God, it ought to be employed for God; and they who so rule must be just, ruling in his fear. Joshua looked further than the acts of religious worship when he made that pious resolution, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Josh. 24:15. For we do not serve him in sincerity and truth, which is the service he speaks of, ver. 14, if we and ours serve him only on our knees, and do not take care to serve him in all instances of religious conversation. Those only who have clean hands and a pure heart are accounted the generation of them that seek God, Psalm. 24:4, 6. And without this, those who pretend to seek God daily do but mock him, Isa. 58:2.
The authority God has given over your children and household is principally designed for this end, that you may thereby engage them for God and godliness. If you use it only to oblige them to do your will, and so to serve your pride; and to do your business, and so to serve your worldliness; you do not answer the great end of your being invested with it: you must use it for God’s honour, by it to engage them as far as you can to do the will of God and mind the business of religion. Holy David not only blessed his household, but took care to keep good order in it, as appears by that plan of his family discipline which we have in the 101st Psalm, a psalm which Mr. Fox tells us that blessed martyr Bishop Ridley often read to his family, as the rule by which he resolved to govern it.
You are made keepers of the vineyard; be faithful to your trust, and carefully watch over those who are under your charge, knowing you must give account.
Countenance every thing; that is good and praiseworthy in your children. It is as much your duty to commend and encourage those in your family who do well, as to reprove and admonish those who do amiss; and if you take delight only in blaming that which is culpable, and are backward to praise that which is laudable, you give occasion to suspect something of an ill nature, not becoming a good man, much less a good Christian. It should be a trouble to us when we have a reproof to give, but a pleasure to us to say with the apostle, “Now I praise you.” 1 Cor. 11 : 2.
Most people will be easier led than driven, and we all love to be spoken to kindly: when you see any thing that is hopeful and promising in those under your charge, any thing of a towardly and tractable disposition, much more any thing of a pious affection to the things of God, you should contrive to encourage it. Smile upon them when you see them set their faces heavenwards, and take the first opportunity to let them know you observe it, and are well pleased with it, and do not despise the day, of small things. This will quicken them to continue and abound in that which is good, it will encourage them against the difficulties they see in their way, and perhaps may turn the wavering, trembling scale the right way, and effectually determine their resolutions to cleave to the Lord. When you see them keen to come to family worship, attentive to the word, devout in prayer, industrious to get knowledge, afraid of sin, and careful to do their duty, let them have the praise of it, for you have the comfort of it, and God must have all the glory. Draw them with the cords of a man, hold them with the bands of love; so shall your rebukes, when they are necessary, be the more acceptable and effectual. The great Shepherd gathers the lambs in his arms, carries them in his bosom, and gently leads them; and so should you.
Discountenance every thing that is evil in your children. Use your authority for the preventing of sin and the suppressing of every root of bitterness, lest it spring up and trouble you, and thereby many be defiled. Frown upon every thing that brings sin into your families and introduces ill words or ill practices. Pride and passion, strife and contention, idleness and intemperance, lying and slandering, these are sins which you must not connive at, nor suffer to go without a rebuke. If you return to the Almighty, this among other things is required of you, that you “put away iniquity,” all iniquity, these and other like iniquities, “far from your tabernacle.” Job, 22:23. Make it appear that in the government of your families you are more jealous for God’s honor than for your own authority and interest; and show yourselves more displeased at that which is an offence to God, than at that which is only an affront or damage to yourselves.
You must indeed be careful not to provoke your children to wrath, lest they be discouraged; yet you must also with holy zeal and resolution, and the meekness of wisdom, keep good order in your families, and set no wicked thing before their eyes, but witness against it. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump“. Drive away with an angry countenance all that evil communication which corrupts good manners, that your houses may be habitations of righteousness, and sin may, never find shelter in them.