Life Theology

God Loves His Little Pharisees and Prodigals

Part 2 in a 4 part series. View series intro and index.

In my last post, I made the point that in raising children and teaching them the Bible, the goal is not to make them nice kids who obey the rules. All people, including our children, are sinners who need a Redeemer who will rescue and deliver them from God’s wrath. No amount of rule keeping will make us right with God. If we truly believe that, it should drastically alter the way we raise our kids and instruct them at home and in church.

At the risk of over-generalization, most kids probably fall into two categories. On one hand, we have law-keeping Lewis. He is a good boy who loves always doing what Mommy and Daddy tell him to do. He stands a little taller when he obeys, especially when his sister does not. Speaking of his sister, she’s rule-breaking Rachel. Rachel knows that she can’t stack up to Lewis, so she makes her own rules. She cheats during games, shirks her chores, and scowls at Lewis for always being Mom’s favorite.

Does this sound familiar? The parable of the two sons in Luke 15:11-32 might ring a bell. The point is not mainly that Rachel (the younger brother in the parable) is an awful, sinful child. Likewise, the point is not mainly that Lewis (the elder brother in the parable) is a proud, self-righteous child. The main point is that God offers grace and redemption to both of them because both need it. You might give Lewis five gold stars for minding manners and doing chores, but you and I both know his heart is just as crooked as Rachel’s. If we are content with Lewis’ “obedience,” calling him a “good boy” and Rachel a “bad girl,” we end up raising a legalistic person who thinks they are accepted by God because of their merit, and Rachel learns this false theology in the process.

Now we can see why turning a Bible story into a moral lesson is dangerous. The apostle Paul thought he was the most moral man in the world, yet it amounted to garbage (Phil. 3:1-11). God does not require morality. The law was given to show our sin (Rom. 3:20). And the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-8)—which includes the “golden rule”—was given by Jesus to pull the rug out from under the Pharisees who thought the law was only about the letter and not the heart. God demands perfect obedience, including motive and intention. Only Jesus provides that (see Phil. 2:8; Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). Perfect obedience is something neither Lewis nor Rachel can accomplish on their own.

Jesus’ perfect righteousness establishes our goodness before God, and our motivation for holy living. As Elyse Fitzpatrick writes in Give Them Grace:

Raising good kids is utterly impossible unless they are drawn by the Holy Spirit to put their faith in the goodness of another. You cannot raise good kids, because you’re not a good parent. There is only one good Parent, and he had one good Son. Together, this Father and Son accomplished everything that needed to be done to rescue us and our children from certain destruction. When we put our faith in him, he bestows the benediction upon us: ‘These are my beloved children, with whom I am well pleased’ (see Matt. 3:17)” (p. 50).

What do we as parents put our hope in then? The grace of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ for us! You might say, “That’s hard! My kids will go haywire if they hear about grace!” Really? Have you gone haywire because of God’s grace? If so, you don’t understand grace. I have heard it said before and I agree: I have never met a person who has been so captivated by God’s grace that they feel they have license to do whatever they want.

How does this all play out in children’s Bible lessons? We’ll tackle that in the next post.