We continue our series on J. C. Ryle's meditations and admonitions from Proverbs 22:6. Here is his fifth proposition.
V. Train your child to a knowledge of the Bible.
You cannot make your children love the Bible, I allow. None but the Holy Ghost can give us a heart to delight in the Word. But you can make your children acquainted with the Bible; and be sure they can not be acquainted with that blessed Book too soon or too well.
A thorough knowledge of the Bible is the foundation of all clear views of religion. He that is well-grounded in it will not, generally, be found a waverer, and carried about by every wind of new doctrine. Any system of training which does not make a knowledge of Scripture the first thing, is unsafe and unsound.
You have need to be careful on this point just now, for the devil is abroad and error abounds. Some are to be found amongst us who give the church the honor due to Jesus Christ. Some are to be found who make the sacraments saviors and passports to eternal life. And some are to be found in like manner, who honor a catechism more than the Bible; or fill the minds of their children with miserable little story books, instead of the Scripture of truth. But if you love your children, let the simple Bible be everything in the training of their souls; and let all other books go down and take the second place.
Care not so much for their being mighty in the catechism as for their being mighty in the Scriptures. This is the training – believe me – that God will honor. The Psalmist says of Him, “Thou has magnified thy word above all thy name” (Ps 138:2); and I think that He gives an especial blessing to all who try to magnify it among men.
I would like to note a couple things here. First, many of you know that I promote using a catechism for children. It is a solid, time-tested means of instilling doctrinal truth in our children. Nevertheless, Ryle’s remarks here are correct. A catechism must never take the place of the Scripture. The Bible is our ultimate authority. A catechism is only a means for expressing and learning its teachings.
Second, Psalm 138:2 is probably better translated as, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (ESV). The point is not that God has exalted his word above his own character and glory. In context, the psalmist is saying that he thanks God for his steadfast love and faithfulness. God’s “name and word” refers to his covenant promises backed up by his own character. Now I would hasten to add that although Ryle’s interpretation of this verse is slightly off, his main point is still entirely correct.
Ryle goes on to give specific hints on how to have your children read the Bible.
See that your children read the Bible reverently. Train them to look on it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God, written by the Holy Ghost Himself – all true, all profitable, and able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
See that they read it regularly. Train them to regard it as their soul’s daily food – as a thing essential to their soul’s daily health. I know well you can not make this anything more than a form, but there is no telling the amount of sin which a mere form may indirectly restrain.
See that they read it all. You need not shrink from bringing any doctrine before them. You need not fancy that the leading doctrines of Christianity are things which children can not understand. Children understand far more of the Bible than we are apt to suppose.
Tell them of sin, its guilt, its consequences, its power, its vileness – you will find they can comprehend something of this.
Tell them of the Lord Jesus Christ, and His work for our salvation – the atonement, the cross, the blood, the sacrifice, the intercession – you will discover there is something not beyond them in all this.
Tell them of the work of the Holy Spirit in man’s heart – how He changes, and renews, and sanctifies, and purifies – you will soon see they can go along with you in some measure in this. In short, I suspect we have no idea how much a little child can take in of the length and breadth of the glorious Gospel. They see far more of these things than we suppose. [Here Ryle adds this footnote. As to the age when the religious instruction of a child should begin, no general rule can be laid down. The mind seems to open in some children much more quickly than in others. We seldom begin too early. There are wonderful examples on record of what a child can attain to, even at three years old.]
Fill their minds with Scripture. Let the word dwell in them richly. Give them the Bible, the whole Bible, even while they are young.
Here are some important applications for us as parents.
1. We are responsible to see to it that our child read and learn the Bible. We must direct them to read all of it reverently and regularly. Now let me ask, Do you read all of the Bible reverently and regularly? If not, how do you expect your children to come to love and know the Word of God?
2. Also, make sure you build into their little lives the habit of reading Scripture. Set aside time for them every day to read the Bible and pray. Give them direction on how to do it, and do not be afraid of applying loving pressure to counteract their innate laziness in this regard.
3. Think about the important ramifications of this statement that Ryle makes: "Any system of training which does not make a knowledge of Scripture the first thing, is unsafe and unsound." Does the education you are giving your children make the knowledge of Scripture the first thing?
4. Let me also emphasize Ryle’s insistence that children can learn these things. We certainly must teach them gently and in a manner suited to their inexperience. Nevertheless, it would be a great mistake to deprive them of this teaching under the pretence that they are too young.