Are you creating little legalists?

In the last post we discussed the difference between a be good/feel good theology of parenting and a Gospel-centered theology of parenting. Moving beyond a be good/feel good theology for family discipleship doesn’t mean that behavior is not important. In Romans 6:1-4, the Apostle Paul calls out the absurdity of using grace as a license for sin. In Titus 3:8, we are reminded that those who have believed in God should “be careful to devote themselves to good works” (ESV). So we should teach children to behave, but we must teach them why they should behave. And we have to be careful not to tie God’s approval of them to their behavior. If we aren’t careful, the danger is that we can create little legalists.

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It has been said that children can get their concept of who God is from their parents, especially fathers. This theory makes sense and it should make every parent pay close attention to how they treat their kids, especially in situations that call for discipline. I also believe that parents reveal much of their own beliefs about God by the way they parent. In other words, Christian parents are apt to create little legalists if they are big legalists.

C.J. Mahaney gives a very good definition of legalism as, “seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God” (The Cross-Centered Life, Multnomah, 2002, p. 25). Mahaney helps us to understand that legalism is seen in our view of justification, or what it takes to be saved. Basically, if you believe that God is pleased or displeased with you because of your works, then you are a legalist. You are justified in God’s eyes based on Christ’s work, not yours. Sanctification, on the other hand, is the process through which God transforms us by our active dependence on Him as we devote ourselves to good works. As Mahaney says, “Justification is our position before God. Sanctification is our practice” (32).

We should communicate this in our parenting. We can easily give kids the impression that our love for them is wrapped up in their behavior. Consequently, we give them the impression that God’s love is wrapped up in their behavior. When this happens we are creating little legalists.

So, how can we keep from creating little legalists? Here are some guiding questions to help:

1. Do I believe God’s approval of me is based on my work or Christ’s work? Is this evident in my prayers?

2. Do I communicate to my child that my approval of him/her is based on his/her performance or behavior?

3. When I correct my child for misbehavior, am I careful to make sure the child knows of my love for him/her in spite of behavior?

Take some time today to pray through your answers to these questions. Talk with your spouse about it. Then take some time to assure your kids of your love and the Father’s.