Out of all the pastors, authors, and theologians in the world, who has influenced you most theologically?
I asked myself this question and started rifling through the names—John Calvin, Herman Bavinck, C. S. Lewis, Soren Kierkegaard. But then I came up with a surprising answer: my mother, Arliett. The reality is that for all the Calvin or Bavinck I may quote, the deepest roots of my theological instincts can be traced to my mom’s instruction in the faith.
Now, my mom doesn’t have “formal theological training.” She was raised in a Catholic school and got saved in a Calvary Chapel Bible study a few years before I was born. I don’t recall us owning a single systematic theology text in the home before I bought mine in seminary. Mom learned theology by attending church and Bible studies, and through her own devotional reading and the countless hours she spent listening to sermon tapes. In time, she learned enough to be recognized by the leadership at our old church and was asked to be a women’s Bible study leader, which she excelled at leading.
After knowing and loving Jesus herself, more than anything Mom wanted my sister and me to know him too. For the first few years of my churchgoing life she was my Sunday school teacher who used flannelgraphs to teach us God’s Word. After her major surgery when I was in junior high, she told us her prayer was that God would let her live so she could encourage us in our faith until we were adults.
Years later, I can say God granted that request. Mom did not let up, ever. She was our full-time spiritual cheerleader and gadfly.
So what exactly did she teach me about theology? Plenty, but four truths stand out.
1. The Trinity is non-negotiable.
As a kid, we had lots of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons going door to door in our neighborhood. Mom told us to ask one key question: “Do you believe in the Trinity?” If they didn’t, just tell them you do and don’t continue the conversation.
That’s not the best example of “ecumenical” dialogue, but she wasn’t interested in that. She cared much more about the spiritual health of her children. She never mentioned Arianism, tritheism, modalism, or the difference between the economic and immanent Trinity, but she taught us clearly that Christians confess an eternal triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Anything else is not the God of Jesus Christ.
2. Is it in the Bible?
Mom also taught us the importance of Scripture. Both she and my dad would read it to us at night. On the way to school in the morning, she’d practice memory verses with us. In that and a million other ways, she was teaching us God’s truth is found in the Bible.
We weren’t fundamentalists who rejected all non-Bible books (my parents took me to the library often). But when it came to faith and morality, if it wasn’t in the Bible then it wasn’t binding on us for salvation, and could probably be avoided. In the years since, I’ve come to appreciate creeds, councils, and the like, but this basic instinct to trust God’s Word above all other words came through the words of my mother.
3. We have a story-shaped gospel.
Since Mom taught Sunday school, I learned a lot of Bible stories at her knee. From an early age I had an inarticulate sense the Bible wasn’t just a collection of disembodied truths, but a series of stories telling the spiritual history of the generations of believers who’ve come before, all leading up to the saving actions of Jesus. Not only that, I knew I myself had become part of this story. Long before I knew what “narrative theology” was, my mom taught it to me.
4. Humility is vital.
My mom also taught me humility. I can’t tell you how often she talked to me about Solomon’s humility in asking for wisdom. In a hundred different ways she warned me against pride, against thinking I knew a lot simply because I knew a little more than my friends. For natural-born sinners, humility before the Word of God and the Author who is beyond fathoming is a lesson that can never be taught too early or too much.
Embrace Your Role
I don’t write all this simply to tell a heartwarming story about my mom. Instead, I hope to encourage parents to embrace their primary role in the spiritual formation of their children. Before I’d ever learned about God in a seminary, I learned about him in my home.
As someone who has worked in student ministry for years, I know about all the wonderful programs and Sunday school lessons that can be used to help shape the spiritual life of your child. But the plain fact is that, at most, we have your kids for an hour or two per week. You have them for the rest. Your child’s spiritual life is not mainly the church’s responsibility, but yours. The local church is there to help you do your God-given job as a parent.
After all, your primary job as a parent is not to make sure your kid gets on the right sports team, or into the right college, or has a “successful” and “happy” life. Your primary job, by both implicit example and explicit instruction, is to point your child to Jesus in all you do.
If this prospect overwhelms you, hear these three brief words of encouragement.
First, good for you. This is a big deal, and in my experience too few parents care about it beyond wondering why their church hadn’t speed-sanctified their child for them. Feeling a little holy trepidation and urgency isn’t a bad thing.
Second, calm down. You’re not responsible for converting your child; that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Simply point them to Christ. Too much urgency will make you crazy.
Finally, take heart. You’re not alone. You have the promise of Jesus that he will be with you until the end of the age as you seek to fulfill his Great Commission—even unto the ends of your own backyard (Matt 28:19–20).