Don’t Lose Your Balance
August 28, 2018
By Todd Friel
[The following is an excerpt from chapter 7 of Todd Friel’s book Reset for Parents – How to Keep Your Kids from Backsliding]
The Ninja Warrior obstacle course ain’t got nothin’ on Christianity. To paraphrase Martin Luther, living the Christian life is like a drunken man riding a horse; he falls off one side, climbs back on, and falls off the other side. Christians need better balance than a Wallenda.
Perhaps one of the most precarious balancing acts Christians have is walking the tightrope between the law and the gospel. All of the reformers understood the perilous path of living in liberty while simultaneously striving to obey the law.
Martin Luther, in particular, brought more light and clarity to the subject than any other reformer. He preached, “Virtually the whole of the Scriptures and the understanding of theology depends upon the true understanding of the Law and Gospel.”1
Luther recognized that if you can’t determine the distinction between law and gospel, your Christian life will be a muddle, or non-existent. He was correct.
It isn’t just churches that are inclined to fall into this ditch. Parents have the ability to jump into it and never climb back out. This chapter is not about legalism per se; this is about constantly telling our kids what to do, how to think, and how to behave, without incorporating the gospel, thus reducing Christianity to mere obedience.
This is not a critique of Pharisees who create a works based salvation. A Pharisee demands that people follow a set of rules to attain salvation. This is more subtle and deceptive than that. The all law parent/pastor demands compliance without explaining our motivation to be obedient. In other words, Christianity becomes a set of rules by which a child lives. There is no other payoff for obedience other than parents who don’t yell at you.
The Law Ditch
If you have ever ordered any of the following without giving the correct motivation for obedience, then you have tumbled into the law-only ditch.
- Don’t cheat
- Don’t swear
- Don’t have sex
- Don’t smoke or drink
- Do your chores
- Obey your parents
- Be nice to your siblings
- Read your Bible
- Say your prayers
- Go to youth group
- Volunteer at church
- Put some money in the plate
If these are the only messages our children hear from Christian parents, then we are turning our kids into moralists, not Christians. This might be a good time to remind you, I am NOT pontificating as the perfect parent. I recognize that on this issue, “I have failed countless times.” I learned about the perils of confusing law and gospel after I spoke to many “backslidden” students who confessed that their Christian homes had a scant amount of gospel but truckloads of law. Let’s take a look at how this particular ditch presents itself.
Law parent: I can’t believe you didn’t straighten up your room like I told you to. Now get it cleaned up or you can find another place to live.
Law and gospel parent: Honey, let me apologize for sharing a “When I was your age” story, but . . . when I was your age, I had to be reminded constantly to make my bed. What I am trying to say is, I get you. I know how hard it can be to jump out of bed, turn around and make it.
Nevertheless, your Mom and Dad have made a house rule. When you break that rule, you are rebelling against your parents. I know I don’t need to remind you of the fifth commandment, but dishonoring us is a sin. Not only that, disobeying your parents puts you in danger.
Do you know what that means? You and I are two rebellious, commandment-breaking sinners. We need grace. We need forgiveness. We need God to intervene and rescue us. Why don’t you tell me what John 3:16 says and then these two sinners can talk to God about our sins.
Law parent: Chew with your mouth closed. I don’t want to see food after you put it in your mouth.
Law and gospel parent: Honey, do you remember when we talked about chewing ice? We concluded that ice-chewing is not a good way to love our neighbors. Would you agree that chewing with your mouth open is loveless also? Unfortunately, not loving your neighbor is a sin (Mark 12:31).
I sure can relate to that. You have probably noticed that your dad struggles to always love. I can be very selfish and thoughtless. That means you and I are guilty of the same crime; we don’t love fellow image bearers the way we have been commanded to.
If I were judged by the standard of perfect love, I would be in big trouble. And it looks like you would be too. Would you like to confess your sins with me by praying to God together?
Law parent: I can’t believe you look at pornography. You are a pervert, and no son of mine is going to act like that.
Law and gospel parent: Take a seat, son; I want you to take a look into your father’s black heart. There is a temptation common to all men, including your dad; lust is a lifelong battle.
I am certain you remember that Jesus said lust is the same as adultery (Matthew 5:28). I am ashamed to confess, but I have committed adultery in my heart too many times. I’ll be honest with you, I am glad I am not a teenager in this age of electronics. I can only imagine how many times I may have given into the temptation to look at forbidden images.
Son, I have seen your computer history. I know that you have given in to this temptation. I understand; the battle is hard, but you have not lost the war. You can have victory over this soul-destroying sin. It’s time to put together a plan to help keep you from defeat. I think the best place to start is confessing our sins to God.
Which type of approach do you typically take when confronting your child? If you are a law-only kind of parent, then you have fallen off the horse.
Primed for Anger
Our kids should not be obedient simply because we said so. Our children should happily obey because they have seen the love of God manifest in Christ Jesus. Law-only parenting focuses on obedience while overlooking motivation.
Law-only parenting sort of cleans the outside of the cup, but doesn’t concern itself with the inside of the cup. To make Christianity a Pavlovian conditioning system is to set your child up for disaster.
- They will feel your heavy yoke and never enjoy the light burden that Jesus offers.
- They will become sneaky and deceitful as they try to please you while inwardly desiring sin.
- They will grow to hate God as soon as tribulation comes their way. We tell them to not drink, smoke, or have sex, but if a tragedy happens, they will scream at God, “What’s the deal? I have been good for you. Where are you when I need you? How could you do this to me? The deal is off.”
If you are getting the impression that Christianity is against the law (antinomianism), it is not. The law is good if it is used lawfully (1 Timothy 1:8). Christians love to keep the laws of God (Psalm 119:97). Christians strive to mortify sin (Romans 8:13). Christians deny themselves, pick up their cross and exert every effort to not grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). What we are talking about here is motive.
God is interested in our external conduct, but He is far more concerned with our internal motivation. God has always been about hearts, not mere obedience.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6; ESV; emphasis added).
God has no interest in sacrifices or worship from people whose hearts are far from Him (Isaiah 29:13). What does God desire? Obedient servants who love Him and delight in obedience. God wants pure hands and a clean heart (Psalm 24:4) motivated by gratitude and love. God wants our affections.
God doesn’t want us to grind out obedience to Him. He wants us to love Him so much that we desire to be obedient. If we persistently preach a rule based system without the motivation of the gospel, we are not really helping them understand the gospel of grace. We may achieve compliance, but we will not have the joy of watching our children love God the same way we do.
Be careful when you ride the parenting horse. Don’t fall off one side or the other. Don’t become antinomian, but don’t put your children under a yoke either.
Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 111.
Todd Friel is the host of Wretched TV and Wretched Radio (wretched.org), heard daily on stations around the country. He is also the author of: Stressed Out, Reset for Parents, Jesus Unmasked, and many more DVD projects. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and three children.