How to Teach the Reformation to the Next Generation

by Champ Thornton March 2, 2021

“Who’s this?” I asked my then-two-year-old son, as I pointed to the cover of a book I was reading, the biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

“Mah-tin,” came the reply. As a dad and pastor, I couldn’t have been happier. Already my son was learning major figures in church history. Before long, he’d know Calvin, Luther, and other Protestant greats. The Reformation as formation of the next generation. Starting off right.

But over time, I’ve come to see that the Reformation is more caught than taught. Or more precisely, both taught and caught.

Teaching the lessons and lives of the Reformation is vital. While my son retained no memory of “Mah-tin” as years went by, even young children can understand good Reformation theology and history. And more than ever before there are great resources to help parents pass on the truths rediscovered by the Reformation.

Yet we must teach with our lips and our lives. Information and imitation. Luther preached the gospel, but he also attempted to bring these reforms into the life patterns of marriage, music, work, and more. So, while Luther, in his commentary on Galatians 2:4-5, famously said that we should teach Christian doctrine “unto others and beat it into their heads continually,” his very next paragraph provides a biblical example of how to teach this gospel. Namely, that “Paul would not circumcise Titus,” for if he had, it would amount to an “overthrowing of the gospel.”

So, following the example of Paul and Luther, our teaching of the gospel will be deficient if it’s part of our family catechizing, but not part of our family culture. Both David Wells and James K. A. Smith, in their respective multi-volume studies on the intersection of Christianity and culture, have observed that culture is an extremely effective, if not subtle, teacher. To condense: there’s no place for truth because we are losing our virtue. Theological drift away from Reformation doctrine often occurs—in adults and in kids—because we’re influenced more by cultural liturgies than we realize. As a result, we’ve lost the courage to be protestant.

The Protestant Reformation must be taught and caught. So how might we pass along the Reformation to the next generation with our lives? The five solas open doorways for more exploration.

Sola Scriptura

Literally “Scripture alone,” this foundational sola asserts that the inspired and infallible Word of God is the final authority for faith and practice. Other lesser lights—tradition, experience, logic, preferences, nature—may provide some illumination, but Scripture is the noonday sun which outshines the rest.

So, in our families, what guides our decisions and activities and schedules? Experience may have one perspective on our kids’ involvement in team sports. Logic may lend its opinion on how often and how long we lead “family worship.” And tradition may weigh in on the holiday schedules or ministry responsibilities we feel obliged to keep.

But what does God’s Word say?

I don’t want my kids to merely embrace my opinions and beliefs—to simply dwell at the destinations I’ve plotted. I want them to calibrate their lives by the compass I used to get there. I want them to navigate by full light of Sola Scriptura.

Sola Gratia

Which of us, if we have any theological moorings in the Reformation at all, would deny the place and priority of grace? “Grace alone,” sola gratia. We teach about grace. We talk about grace. We sing about grace. We read books about grace-filled truth, grace-filled marriages, grace-filled parenting, and even grace-filled routines.

Yet do we model grace?

If we’re grumpy because, after our best efforts, things didn’t turn out as we had planned, are we teaching our children that life is about what we think we deserve? If we’re noticeably irritated with our spouse because we’ve continued to do our part but they have not, are we training the next generation to have an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” expectation?

What are our lives saying about grace apart from works?

Sola Fide

Similarly, we may affirm the Reformation doctrine of sola fide, faith alone. We rely for salvation on the work of another. Yet the faith that trusts God to remove sin and guilt, should also trust God when he doesn’t remove suffering and grief.

We trust—when we’re worried about the state of our finances or the health of our children. We trust—when we’ve been misunderstood or wrongly accused. We trust—when we just don’t know how it’ll all turn out. We trust.

In dozens of ways, before the watching eyes of the next generation, we have constant opportunities to teach that our God is trustworthy. And we submit to his goodness. We trust him, because of Christ.

Solus Christus

Yet how easy it is to believe in “Christ alone,” and fill our minds and mouths with something else. We may believe that the work of Christ is the sole ground of our right standing before God, but has this grounds become merely the foundation? Merely the first stone among many, the beginning now far behind?

As John Piper said, “There is a tremendous, relentless, almost irresistible pressure in the churches today, and in the academy, and in mission agencies, to take God for granted, while we give ourselves to other things that are perceived to be more strategic or urgent or practical.”

So, let’s strive to not talk about family rules without reference to Christ. To not discuss school without speaking of Christ. To not communicate doctrine without mention of Christ. Since he is Maker, Sustainer, and Lord of all things, to interact with any aspect of life without regard for Christ simply denies the true nature of things.

We honor and inculcate the doctrine of “Christ alone” when we do not speak of Christ alone, apart from all else. For our families, may “Christ alone” never be Christ . . . alone. May solus Christus, instead, pervade all aspects of life.

Soli Deo Gloria

Finally, we come to the question of “Why?” This may not be your child’s first word, but it quickly becomes a favorite. And as parents, at our best, we try to explain why decisions were made and why life works the way it does. “Why” is important because it teaches what’s important.

Yet how many times have we talked about theology—even good Protestant Reformation theology—and have left off the “why”? Why is the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity important? Why is the penal, substitutionary atonement of Christ important? Are these just “right” positions or is there more at stake?

Soli Deo Gloria is the ultimate Why. All of life is all about God and his glory. If we’re not taking time to explain the Why of what we teach—how any truth relates to God and his glory—then we’re neglecting to teach its importance. And if something, even doctrine, seems unimportant to our children, then theology will take its place alongside other “irrelevant” topics they have to learn, like Algebra and Calculus.

The five solas capture the truth of the Reformation that we must pass along to our children. And in some ways, we’re always teaching the next generation about the Reformation. Even when we fail, we have, once again, the opportunity to model repentance and reliance on the grace of Christ.

So, we may be instructing our children well or poorly, but we’re never not teaching them. The question is: What are we teaching the next generation? What are we really passing along? Not just in what we say, but in how we live.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.