Children, Moralism, and the Gospel

I’m well aware as a parent, that I’m a major screw up sometimes. Not only do I fail in the simple walk of the Christian life, I mess up as a parent. And all too often, I mess up for reasons that most people don’t think are mess ups. I mess up by instilling in my children how they are to behave.

Now, before you tar and feather me and call me an antinomian and a heretic, let me explain. It seems to me, all too often, that we spend lots of time talking to youth and adults about how our good works can never please God apart from Christ. We caution them against pursuing a “self-righteousness” that makes obedience to the “law” the paramount. Instead, and rightly so, we focus instead on the fact that Christ has suffered and died and by His obedience, we are obedient. By His righteousness, we are righteous. It’s not about what we do, but about what He has done. Surely, we see that out of gratitude we want to strive to be holy, but we even then rightly note, that just as our salvation was a gift of God, not of works, so even the power to do good in our sanctification is a good gift from God. We’re not legalists. We don’t want people to be moral just for the sake of being moral. We want true, biblical Christians. But when it comes to children, it’s a totally different matter.

“Say please and thank you.”
“Don’t hit your brother.”
“Don’t stick your tongue out.”
“Talk nice to people.”
“Don’t be shy.”
“Be brave.”
“Don’t cry.”

These, and many other, moral platitudes have come out of all of our mouths as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. The problem is, we’re teaching a self-righteousness devoid of any power from God for success. We would never talk this way to adults. We might say, “it’s good for us to respect each other in the body of Christ and talk with decency and kindness,” yet we would caveat it with, “yet we are sinners saved by grace and we should love and forgive people even when they don’t do this.” It acknowledges the responsibility to live righteously, but acknowledges it is only by the power of God that this is possible. Yet, our children, most of them, oblivious to the requirements of the law, and not yet possessing a righteousness from Christ, are simply told to do this and that with no concern for the Gospel. We simply say things like, “it builds character,” or “they need to learn right from wrong.” These things are of course true, but without the Gospel, all we’re doing is creating moral pagans.

Elyse Fitzpatrick writes, “The sinful heart is never transformed by conformity to the imperatives but only by relationship with the One who cleanses hearts.” If biblical growth and change follows, head to heart to hands, then it does for children as well.

How do we parent or grandparent or whatever else, differently in light of the Gospel?

1) Be prepared to fail. We’re all sinners. To think that we’re somehow perfect parents that will raise perfect children is antithetical to the Scriptures. The only perfect person is the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, we place unrealistic expectations on both parents and children to be perfect, like somehow they can will to do right. Every time we look down at a misbehaving child and think “their parent is failing and needs to do xyz” or “why won’t that child behave” we’re subtly saying, “why can’t the be perfect.” They can’t. No child can. We shouldn’t expect them to. We can expect them to fail. And we should be prepared for that. Why would we expect more of our children then we expect from ourselves? Fitzpatrick writes again, “The weaknesses, failures, and sins of our family are the places where we learn that we need grace too. It is there, in those dark mercies, that God teaches us to be humbly dependent. It is there that He draws near to us and sweetly reveals His grace. Paul’s suffering teaches us to reinterpret our thorn. Instead of seeing it as a curse, we are to see it as the very thing that keeps us “pinned close to the Lord.”

2) Stop telling everyone else how to do it. No child is the same, and unless you’re prepared to spend some serious time investing in the lives of parents and their children, keep your opinions of parenting to yourself. Every time you utter that paralyzing phrase, “well, when I had small children I did…” you tell every parent their wrong, and their children will turn out like monsters. Instead, spend time with both parents and children and invest in them before you earn the right to give advice. Build up, instead of tear down.

3) Give them grace. Yes, teach your children the truth of the law. Paul says the law was given to be our schoolteacher to remind us that we CAN’T do it! Why did God give us the law? To show us that we need Christ and the Gospel! Tell your children not to hit their brother, but also remind them of the Gospel. Tell them Jesus loves them EVEN WHEN THEY HIT THEIR BROTHER (and that you do too). Teach them to love, not just to obey. Obedience will flow out of a changed heart.

4) Remind them of your failings. Their assumption that parents and grandparents are perfect, builds into them the falsehood that says only when they obey like you, will you and God be pleased with them. That’s furthest from the Gospel imaginable! While we ought to live like those godly around us, it’s only because they are living like Jesus that it’s even possible. When you get mad, apologize to your kids. When tell a lie, apologize to your kids. Explain to them that YOU need Jesus, just as much as they do. That you need Him every day, not just to get saved, but to continue living.

There’s so much else I could say on this matter, but let’s be cautious about raising or expecting others to raise moral pagans. If you have small children you are well aware of the eyes that stare into your soul who are ready to pounce on you with every criticism of how they behave, like somehow the fact that their sinners not yet saved by grace, is a direct reflection on your standing with God. Your children fail. You fail. Let’s extend grace and mercy to each other and to our small ones in our charge. Let me recommend two resources on parenting from a grace-filled approach and one on teaching the Gospel to our kids.

Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus is an excellent starting place on this topic. Sometimes you may wonder, “what does this look like practically,” and that’s where I recommend Clay Clarkson’s Heartfelt Discipline: Following God’s Path of Life to the Heart of Your Child. He helps put further “rubber to the road” on these ideas (note: I’m not sure I fully embrace his denial of spanking).

Lastly, don’t even get me started on the painful material being taught in most churches for Sunday School. More than parents ever do, we in churches often teach a rank moralism in our children’s Sunday School. Instead, teach them Jesus. I recommend highly Jack Klumpenhower’sShow them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids.This is an excellent book, for teachers, and for all people who have children, to show them how to point children to the Gospel and to Jesus in all of Scripture. His website is a treasure trove of material too.

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