My Unbelieving Dad Helped Me See Jesus – The Gospel Coalition

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I wouldn’t be the Christian I am today if it wasn’t for my father. Plenty of people express this sentiment, but I’m different. My dad isn’t a Christian.
When I was new to the faith, I went through a season where I held this against him, angry that he didn’t bring me to church as a child to experience Jesus’s grace. But it turns out you can’t give others—including your children—what you don’t possess. As I’ve seen this truth, the Lord has melted my grievances into gratitude.

My dad isn’t a Christian. But, by earthly standards, he did a pretty stand-up job of raising my brother and me.

Common-Grace Catechesis

Even evil people want to give their children good gifts (Matt. 7:11). My dad, being better than most, hoped to see his boys’ lot in life turn up a little better than his own.
As a Christian, I know the importance of catechizing my children. In God’s common grace, my dad intuitively knew its importance as well. What does it look like for someone outside the Christian faith to catechize his children? I don’t know where my dad picked up this tool, but during our bedtime routine, he’d use the familiar question-and-answer format to train us. Each night, he’d ask, “Who loves you, buddy?” My brother and I knew the correct answer: “Daddy.”

I wouldn’t be the Christian I am today if it wasn’t for my father. Plenty of people express this sentiment, but I’m different. My dad isn’t a Christian.

I wouldn’t be the Christian I am today if it wasn’t for my father. Plenty of people express this sentiment, but I’m different. My dad isn’t a Christian.
This simple ritual left a deep impression on my heart. As I’ve grown as a Christian, my dad’s reminder has helped me avoid common obstructions to seeing God as my heavenly Father (Matt. 6:9).
This common-grace practice didn’t only help me see God as loving. It also helped me grasp the bigger picture of God’s story. A loving Father made us for a meaningful relationship with him, but we fell tragically short of his glory.

Cracks in the Foundation

Dad did everything in his power to support my brother and me, but like every person who lives this side of Eden, I’m a sinner (Rom. 3:23). My teenage years were filled with parties and rebellion. Dad did his best to discipline me and control the damage, but at age 18 my pride and ego led me to assert my “legal independence” in a chest-thumping display of autonomy. I told Dad, “I’ve had enough of you and your rules!”
I left with no intention of going back. For the better part of three years, I ignored and avoided my dad.
When I look back on the fallout, I can’t help but notice the connection to the biblical story. I was an atheist, angry at a loving God, and I projected that anger onto my loving earthly father. I was estranged from my heavenly Father (Eph. 2:12), and I was living out the biblical drama in real time by choosing to estrange myself from my earthly father as well.
During that time of estrangement, I met Jesus.

Coming Home

The Bible attributes a peculiar ministry to Jesus’s forerunner, John the Baptist. It was foretold John would “turn the hearts of fathers to the children” (Luke 1:17). This is a reversal of one of the most tragic parts of our fallenness, and John ushers in this reality as he makes way for Jesus.

Each night, he’d ask, ‘Who loves you, buddy?’ My brother and I knew the correct answer: ‘Daddy.’

Each night, he’d ask, ‘Who loves you, buddy?’ My brother and I knew the correct answer: ‘Daddy.’
After my conversion, I became gradually aware of the ways I needed to submit to Christ in my life. As I was discipled and learned my way around the Bible, I couldn’t shake my guilt over breaking the fifth commandment by dishonoring my father (Ex. 20:12). The Spirit convicted me and led me to repentance.
Like the younger brother in Jesus’s parable, I practiced my pitch for how I’d get Dad to take me back (Luke 15:18–19), but just like that young man, I discovered I didn’t need to earn my keep. Now that I’d finally come to my senses (v. 17), the father who’d forgiven me for crashing his Jeep not one or two but three times was again ready to welcome me home.

Connecting the Dots

I wish I could wrap up this story by saying, “Then God used me to lead my dad to Christ.” But it wasn’t that simple. Jesus didn’t work on my timeline. My dad’s story isn’t over. (He’s 57 and people’s jaws hit the floor when he shows them pictures of his eight grandkids. “You look barely old enough to have children, let alone grandchildren.”) I pray he too will soon see his need for a Savior and be reconciled to our heavenly Father.
As people across our country celebrate their fathers, I reflect with gratitude on the gift mine has been. I know many people don’t relate to my story. Some have lost their fathers, or don’t know their fathers, or have experienced the range of father issues that plague our world.
I’ve heard countless stories of dads who have inflicted wounds on their children and discouraged them from spiritual growth. For every Dale Ralph Davis, there’s an Eli (1 Sam. 2:22–25). This is a stinging reminder that all creation still cries out for redemption (Rom. 8:22). The fall is real and deeper than we can fathom. May Jesus draw near and provide his gracious comfort to those who grieve this Father’s Day. May those who’ve had poor examples of fathers find family in the church who’ll give them a less fuzzy picture of what God is like.
But if you have a dad who did his best to love you despite his lack of faith, honor him. We certainly want to share eternity with our dads (I hope you’ll pray for mine), but our longing for our unbelieving fathers’ salvation shouldn’t keep us from celebrating them now for the earthly good they’ve done.
FD Cropped 2The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?
Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.
Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!
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Sean Nolan is the planting pastor of Engage Albany in Albany, New York. A native to the area, he is married with four children. You can follow him on Twitter.
While the 18-to-30-year-old time frame is the period when people are most susceptible to dechurching, the cause doesn’t seem to be secular higher education.


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