Why should I require my child to obey when his obedience will never save him? This is an honest question that you may have asked yourself, especially if you are a parent who believes that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We know that no one will be saved through works of the law and, because of this, it is logical to question whether we should command our children to obey. We are often concerned that requiring obedience of our children will turn them into self-righteous Pharisees. Not only this but we know that apart from divine intervention (i.e. regeneration), our children’s hearts are not inclined to godly obedience; therefore, requiring obedience of unconverted children often seems like an exercise in futility.
As we consider this question of obedience, I’d like to introduce you to Benjamin Keach, a seventeenth-century pastor who had much to say about children. He wrote numerous books for children and preached multiple sermons directly addressed to children. Though he may not have the final word as we seek to answer this question, Keach’s understanding of believers’ children can help us as we think through the expectations we set concerning our children’s obedience.
In his writings and sermons, Benjamin Keach instructed children in godly living and didn’t distinguish between converted and unconverted children since godliness, for Keach, is not optional. It is important to note that Keach did not deem godliness as a means to justification, but rather he believed that godliness is a necessary fruit of justification. He said: “You must first have Union with [Jesus Christ], before you can bring forth Fruit to God; you must act from Life, and not for Life.” His understanding of godliness as a fruit of justification did not nullify his insistence that Scripture commands sinners to be holy and to do all they can to reform their ways. While Keach believed that every attempt at achieving holiness apart from Christ falls short, he had no problem proclaiming to sinners: “Tis your Duty to reform your Lives, and leave your abominable Sins, which often bring heavy Judgments upon you in this World, and expose you to eternal Wrath in the world to come.” 
Keach emphasized the necessity of regeneration before one could call upon the Lord and be justified, yet he had no problem training unconverted children in godly living. Although the child would not be saved apart from faith in Christ, Keach did not give any leeway to ungodliness. He exhorted children to a life of godliness because the alternative is a life of sin. In one of his children’s primers he writes: “If thou give way to Sin and the Devil in thy youth, and are accustomed to sinful ways it will be more hard for thee to repent and break those evil habits, Can the Ethiopian change his Skin, or the Leopard his Spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil, Jer 13.23.” Keach’s persistence in calling children to a life of righteousness is a common theme in his instruction for children, since a life of sin creates habits that are difficult to change, and because “Satan will not easily quit his hold, especially where he hath had long and quiet possession.”
As Keach instructed children to flee a life of sin, he provided specific directives for sins which are common to childhood and youth, such as lust, immodesty, and pride. Lust is the “bosom-sin” for young males, and cleaving to this sin will cause one to be “given up to unbelief and hardness of Heart; so that they sin without any remorse of Conscience, and perish eternally.” Keach exhorts young females to “be content with modest Apparel” and to refrain from that “which is inconsistent with Modesty, Gravity, and Sobriety, or is not according to Godliness.” And both young males and young females are prone “to [being] taken with pomp and vain-glory!” Since children are given to sin (and to those sins in particular), Keach calls them to flee from sin, for youthful sins will not be passed over. It is misleading to think that Christ would wink at a child’s sin. God hates all sin, including those sins committed by children. In order to reinforce the reality that even the sins committed in one’s youth will one day be brought before God in judgment, Keach references Ecclesiastes 11:9-10 which reads:
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
These words from Scripture led Keach to teach the necessity of fleeing sin in one’s youth because sin hardens, and God will not look past sins committed in childhood.
Keach also understood the danger of cultivating a childhood steered toward earthly pleasures in the stead of godly obedience. He believed that “Godliness deprives us of no lawful Delights and Pleasures that others enjoy,” because “That Pleasure which is had in a sinful way, will have bitter Sauce in the end.” The life of sin is not sweet and delightful as it may sometimes seem; instead, it is the life of godliness that brings “Soul-satisfying Good” that will abide “when all the Things and Enjoyments of this World will be bitter.” Earthly enjoyments are not only bitter but are also “Soul-defiling, Soul-debasing, nay Soul-damning Pleasures. They bring Shame and Confusion sometimes here, and Eternal Shame and Ruine hereafter.” Keach maintained that pleasures should be considered in terms of “lawful, or sinful,” because “religion debars no man or woman of any lawful comforts or delights of the world: but if you mean sinful, it is true, the grace of God will utterly spoil them.” These sinful pleasures “are the devil’s bait to catch fools, and destroy souls.” While children are often deceived into thinking that a life of godliness will deprive them of pleasure and delight, Keach declares: “O there is Pleasure, Child, and Profit too, in God’s Ways! No sweetness like Divine Sweetness!”
Along with Keach’s call for children to flee sin and earthly pleasure, he also exhorts them to leave childish ways. After a sermon directed to children in which he told them that Christ will not overlook a child’s sins, Keach posed the following question: “Do young people think God sent them into this world to pick straws, or to gather cockle shells? God overlooks indeed childish things in babes, who are not come to understanding; but when capable to discern between good and evil, they ought to consider wherefore God sent them into this world.” Here, Keach makes a distinction between babies who have no understanding and children who are capable of discerning between good and evil. For those old enough to discern between good and evil he exhorts them not to waste their time with childish ways “in Games and Sports, and silly Toys,” for if children are focused on “Vanities, Toyes, and Trifles, of a Child-hoods State,” their hearts will not be concerned for their souls. Keach was concerned that children would waste their youth on vain things when God, in fact, commands them to give the “best of their days to him” instead of spending “the primest of [their] Days in Sin.”
Not only does Keach call upon children to flee sin, earthly pleasures, and childish ways, he also calls them to a life of godly obedience. Keach’s writings contain frequent admonitions to obedience. He understood the need for children to “learn to fear and serve [God].” A child’s need for a heart change does not nullify Scripture’s commands for believers to teach their children obedience; and the sooner obedience is understood, the better. Keach constantly implored children to obey the commands of Scripture, especially those that are addressed specifically to children, like Ephesians 6:1-2 which reads: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise).
Keach illustrated the obedience and honor children ought to bestow upon their parents in a poem titled “Advice to Children.” This poem begins by calling the child to wake up and pray for God’s grace and blessing; once his morning prayers are concluded, he is to go downstairs and show both honor and obedience to his parents:
And when down Stairs, Child, thou dost go,
Salute thy Parents, Brothers too,
And thy dear Sisters; let them see
How to behave themselves by thee….
…And when to Prayer thy Parents go,
Down on thy Knees, joyn with them too.
In those good Prayers which they do make,
And by them good example take.
When at th’ Table thy Parents sit,
What they command, see thou do it:
Whether to sit, or otherwise,
To wait at Table, till they rise.
Let not thy Tongue at Table walk,
A Child’s unwise to chat and talk….
This poem illustrates a child’s duty to honor his parents, as Keach calls upon the child to greet his parents and join them in prayer. The child displays honor by willingly submitting to them and learning from their example. This honor is also extended at the dinner table as the child respects his parents by carrying out their commands, sitting with them until they rise, and refraining from talking too much.
Likewise, in one of Keach’s sermons to children, he preached: “Be obedient to your parents in all things in the Lord. Disobedience to parents is a most abominable evil.” This same command is implied in another sermon Keach preached on John 10:27. Applying this text of Scripture he explained that “[Christ] knows your Behavior in all Relations you stand in one to another,” including a child’s relationship with his parents. He adds: “As also how Children carry it to their Parents in honouring them, and obeying them in all things in the Lord; all is took notice of by Jesus Christ.”
While Keach frequently appealed to Ephesians 6:1-2, he also consulted other passages of Scripture to further his imploration that children honor and obey their parents, such as Proverbs 13:1, which speaks of the wise son who hears his father’s instruction; Proverbs 15:5, which speaks of the fool who despises his father’s instruction; and Psalm 34:11, which provides the foundation for the youth’s obedience. According to Keach, children are called upon to “fear God, and learn to do those things that pleaseth him whilst thou are young.”
Benjamin Keach did not hesitate to exhort believers’ children, converted or not, to flee sin and to obey the commands of God. As Scripture declares, children are “to [be brought up] in the fear and admonition of the lord; they are not to be brought up for the devil, by indulging them in any evil way, to gratify their inordinate lusts and desires.” Children should be trained in the ways of God, not only when they are converted, but always, because God commands it. Because of this, let’s strive to be faithful in our parenting as we call our children to a life of godly obedience, while at the same time urging them to call upon the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.
Austin Walker, The Excellent Benjamin Keach, 369.
Benjamin Keach, The Marrow of True Justification, 37.
For an example of the importance of regeneration in Keach’s theology of the child, see: Keach, Instructions for Children, 25-26.
Keach, The Child’s Delight, 14.
Keach, Gospel Mysteries Unveil’d, 3:366.
Keach, The Glorious Lover, 226, Keach, Instructions for Children, 33-34.
Ibid., 53, 55.
Keach, Gospel Mysteries Unveil’d, 3:390.
Keach, Instructions for Children, 47.
Keach, Instructions for Children, 46-47.
Keach, Gospel Mysteries Unveil’d, 3:352.
Keach, Instructions, 53. Keith Thomas observes that children in Early Modern England often collected shells or pebbles, played with toys such as tops, hoops, rattles, balls, trumpets, and Jack-in-a-boxes, and girls, particularly, were fond of dolls. Girls would play games of weddings and births, while boys would compete with one another in running, hiding, and chasing. Keith Thomas, “Children in Early Modern England,” 58-61.
Keach, The Progress of Sin, 72-83 (the page numbering goes from 72 to 83 instead of 73).
Keach, The Child’s Delight, 14.
Keach, Instructions for Children, 29, 30. Keach often references Proverbs 8:17 and Matthew 6:33 in his instruction that childhood and youth are to be given in service of God. See Keach, The Child’s Delight, 13, 15.; Keach, The Travels of True Godliness, 57.; Keach, The Progress of Sin, 120.; Keach, Gospel Mysteries Unveil’d, 3:366.
Keach, The Child’s Delight, 16, 17-18.; Keach, Instructions for Children, 8-11, 17.; Keach, Gospel Mysteries Unveil’d, 3:397.
Keach, The Child’s Delight, 15.
In one of his sermons to children Keach quotes Matthew Mead, his childhood pastor, who preached on early obedience, saying: “The earlier the Yoke of Christ is taken up, the easier it will be.” Keach, Gospel Mysteries Unveil’d, 3:366.
Keach, Instructions for Children, 51-52.
Keach, Gospel Mysteries Unveil’d, 3:397.
Benjamin Keach, A Golden Mine Opened, 103.
Keach, Delight, 15, 16; Keach Instructions, 8-11.
Keach, Gospel Mysteries Unveil’d, 3:394.