It’s amazing how Christians can take a doctrine as beautiful as grace, and turn it on its ear so it becomes a burdensome law. I know I’ve done it and I see others falling into this trap all the time.  Legalism can be tricky.  It is easy to escape one form of legalistic thinking only to fall into another form.  Some legalisms even look a lot like grace.

For example, I’ve heard this basic conversation,  in various shapes, but always with the same underlying pattern.

“You know, I’ve just had so much trouble with my six-year-old. You wouldn’t believe how stubborn he is. I can’t get him to listen to me at all! If I tell him to come to dinner he just screams ‘no’ every time and locks himself in his room. I really just don’t know what to do.”

Ladies will commiserate, trading stories of how their children too, are demanding and disobedient.  They all seem burdened with parenting.

Someone will then brave a solution. Has she tried stickers? Essential oils? Taking away video time? Is her child eating refined sugar? Maybe she should just leave him locked in there.

Several of these suggestions might be temporarily helpful, but my heart saddens because none of them are directed at the heart. None of it points to Christ, only toward outward actions. They are telling her how to raise a pharisee, clean on the outside, dead bones within. I fear for these ladies.  What will their children be like in ten years? Yet, I already know if I  share from the Bible, I will be considered legalistic.  I offer my solution anyway.

“Have you tried pointing your son to God’s law?  You could teach him the verse, ‘Children obey your parents.’  Of course, the end goal is to point him to Christ, but he might not be interested in that if he doesn’t see where he has gone wrong. You could explain that he will receive a spanking, or some other consequence, because he has disobeyed. None of this should be in anger or in a spirit of adversity, of course, but in gentleness, knowing that we are all in this sin thing together.  Then you might pray with him and ask God’s forgiveness.  Of course, after forgiveness comes celebration.  Hugs and snuggles and happy assurances of God’s generous forgiveness are in order. Isn’t it wonderful how he forgives even when we don’t deserve it?  Aren’t Jesus’ mercy and grace beautiful!”

Silence. (Crickets chirping.)

“Um…It would probably be a good idea to follow this all up with lots of fun training periods where you make a game out of coming.  That’s how I did it with my own kids. I would stand on one side of the house and call, “Come here!” My kids knew to run to me and they would get swung around and hugged with lots of praise, ‘Look how well you’re obeying! Jesus is helping you!’ I’d repeat this from different areas of the house throughout the day.”

They stare at me blankly and I realize I should have gone about this in a much more Socratic way. They continue where they left off.

“It’s just a stage, he’ll grow out of it.”

“And after all, (comforting eyes), all we can really do it pray.”

“You know,” another adds authoritatively, “All the experts just say to give them more control and than they won’t grasp for it.”

I hesitate, because this is partly true, but it still doesn’t reach the heart, so I try again, hoping to push for feedback. “Of course, they want control in this situation because they want to be God rather than bowing down to God.  So, no matter what you decide, you always need to point him to Christ.”

Finally, they voice their disagreement, “You know, we need to be careful. We don’t want to become legalistic.  The Bible really doesn’t say that much about parenting, and even the verses we have are up for interpretation.  It’s so easy to just make a check list and think if you follow it, your kids will be saved.”

Another agrees,  “And after, all, a six year old can’t really understand much anyway.  You can talk to your kids till your blue in the face, but only God can change them.  Just ignore his behavior. Give him grace.  He’ll grow out of it.”

Their grace-based parenting is really legalism is disguise. I recognize it because  I was once a bit  legalistic myself.  And like them, I was convinced I fully got the grace thing.  I belonged to the scheduling, “blanket time” kind of legalism, but it’s really the same thing.  Thankfully, God put wise, older ladies in my life, who gently pointed me in a more balanced direction, while my kids were still fairly young.

Although I doubt they would word it this way, they are attempting to avoid legalism by not taking God’s law too seriously. In their minds, grace equals permissiveness. Avoiding the law, though, does not avoid legalism.  The pharisees were not wrong because they loved God’s law too much.  They were wrong because they found their own self-righteousness in it. When they realized they were not keeping it perfectly they would change it so that they could keep it.  It is possible to do this in the name of grace.  Also, it is not possible to be truly law-free.

All of our kids act up and all parents have to make decisions about discipline and rules.  If we  are avoiding God’s law,  we are getting the rules from somewhere else.  These ladies had already made up their mind that their kids could not obey the Bible, so like the pharisees, they replaced God’s law with more attainable rules. Often mothers follow the spirit of the age to find these rules.  Instead of “Children obey your parents, for this is right”, it’s “Eat organic, avoid red dye, gluten and caged chickens.” or “Don’t have too much screen time.” Parenting magazines will give dozens of ways to avoid conflict, rather than expecting submission. All these things can be useful at times, just like blanket time, scheduling, or baby-wearing can be useful, but they do not convict of sins, therefore they do not show children their need for a savior. They do not reach the motivations of the heart.  Trying to get rid of God’s law in the name of grace is just another form of legalism because we always replace it with something else, and that something else will not lead to Christ like His law will.

God’s law is the only law that perfectly reflects our Creator, and it is His image we are being conformed to. Unlike much of the agnostic pop-psychology influencing our magazines and college classes, it is God’s law that understands exactly who our children are. God’s law is what our children need, not just for its perfect fit, but also because it is unattainable.  We cannot keep it and we are therefore reminded constantly of our need for mercy.

Legalism is not “trying to obey too much”.  It is trying to obey for the wrong reasons.  If you are obeying out of a spirit of guilt, fear or pride than you have probably fallen into the pharisee trap.  However, if you are obeying because you love God, you see His law is a beautiful reflection on his character, and you want to be more like Him, that is a good thing.  If you are obeying because you see that your sin is separating you from others and you want to be able to love others better, that’s exactly what the law is there for.  Jesus summarized the whole law into two commandments; love God, love others.

So, ladies, if you want to avoid legalism in you parenting, embrace God’s law.  Bind then on your fingers. Write them on tablet of your heart. When you and your children fail, don’t worry.  There’s no need for legalistic pride or anger-from child or parent.   Jesus has you covered. When you succeed, thank God.  He’s the one working through you. The law is the school master that brings us and our children to Christ.  Without God’s law, why should our children think they need mercy or grace?