Day 38: Legalism
To do righteousness and justice
is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.
Dads, your children have a foolish, self-centered plan to rebel against God (Ps. 14:1). So make it your goal to not merely change behavior, but to transform hearts. Grace tells them, “Jesus is your Savior,” but the law shows them why they need one. One of our sons never needed convincing that he was sinful: “Daddy, it’s so hard to be good!” Yet another son tended to be more pharisaical: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Such legalism is normal for children as you teach them to obey God’s law (Deut. 6:6-9).
God’s law, however, is only the forerunner of the gospel (e.g., Matt. 3:2). It may expose your child’s sin, but it cannot save. It may reveal his need for a Savior, but it cannot change his heart. For example, it is good to teach your child: “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (Prov. 12:22). The law says, “Don’t tell lies.” Yet the law does not exist to make your child an honest Pharisee. Instead, you reinforce God’s law until your child knows he can’t obey it. The law reveals his failure, so that failure will lead him to Jesus. Dads, train your child to recognize lying as a sin according to God’s law. Her conscience may already be at work (Rom. 2:14-15), yet God’s law brings conviction. As Paul writes, “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (7:7b). The law exposes your child’s guilt and guilt will lead her to trust in Jesus. Only Christ can give her a brand new heart which desires to keep God’s law (Ezek. 36:26-27). This good news transforms obedience from duty to delight.
Now dads, watch out for two perversions of the gospel. Some parents have too much law, whereas others have too much grace. The lawless father lets his child do whatever she wants. This child thinks herself inherently righteous because she never knows her sin. She does not realize she needs God as Savior because she views herself as god. She misses out on Jesus because she does not know the law.
The legalistic father, however, controls everything his child does. This child never learns that he is loved and thinks he has to save himself. He futilely attempts to earn his father’s favor and applies the same works-salvation to his relationship with God. He too misses out on Jesus because he does not know God’s grace (Prov. 21:3).
Instead, dads, focus on the balanced gospel and realize that how you motivate obedience is how you train the heart. Suppose one child angrily hits another. You might seek to control him with fear or threats: “Hit your sister again and I’ll hit you!”
You might offer rewards: “If you both behave for the rest of the meal, we’ll all have ice cream.”
Sometimes you tempt with comfort or pleasure: “Be nice to your sister and she’ll leave you alone.”
At other times, you resort to shame: “You’re such a terrible child. You never listen. Why can’t you be more like the pastor’s kids?”
You might even motivate your child’s heart with guilt: “What you did was very, very bad. You need to behave yourself.”
Dads, pay attention! Any time you discipline your children, you are teaching them what to love. You are training their heart’s desire by what you use for motivation. So instead of threats and rewards and shame, offer your children Jesus: “Son, that was wrong to hit your sister. Violence is a sin that so angered the holy God that he poured out his wrath on Jesus at the cross. But son, God loves you and wants to enjoy a relationship with you. He wants to forgive your sin and heal that broken relationship. Will you make things right with Jesus and embrace him as your friend? He can forgive your sinful anger, then teach you how to love your sister rightly.”
Dads, beware of both lawlessness and legalism, for discipline must always be redemptive. Instead of asking, “Is my child behaving correctly,” consider, “Has my child grown closer to Jesus?” You will not reach your child’s heart with lecture: “Why did you hit your sister?” “I don’t know.” Instead, ask questions to reach his heart: “What emotions were you feeling when you hit your sister?” “What did she do to spark your anger?” “How else could you have responded?” “Help me understand how your response seemed to make things better.” “How do you think your anger reflected trust or lack of trust in God’s ability to care for you?” By gently probing his heart, you might learn your son responded angrily when his sister took the last pizza slice. He was controlled by a selfish appetite for the pleasure of pizza, desiring comfort food instead of his sister’s well-being.
Then when you pull your son aside, you do not simply teach that hitting is wrong, but that selfishness itself is wrong: “Son, God made our bodies to enjoy delicious food, yet those desires become idolatrous when we make them our demands. Those demands then make us punish people we love. Yet God promises to forgive your selfishness if you confess your sin right now (Prov. 28:13).” As you lead your son in confession, exhort him to ask forgiveness both for his angry behavior and for his selfish motives. Every time your child sins, God graciously gives you another opportunity to address not simply behavior, but also sinful heart desires. Discipline’s redemptive purpose is to show your children that they are sinners in desperate need of a Savior.
Prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, Forgive me for my own self-righteousness as a father and my idolatrous desire for well-behaved children. Help me to recognize my own sin that tempts me to be a legalistic parent. Show me how to lovingly instruct my children according to your law, but also to see every failure as a chance to point them to the good news of Jesus. In your Son’s name, Amen.
LifeWork: Write down one way you will apply today’s Proverb.
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