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.


What motivation do we have for good works?

Titus 3:1-8:

[1] Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, [2] to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. [3] For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. [4] But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, [5] he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, [6] whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, [7] so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. [8] The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.

Apart from verses 4-7, the motivation for good works would be to make God happy, appease his wrath, feel good about ourselves, or impress other people. But because we have experienced the goodness and kindness of God, because we have been saved according to mercy (not by works), because the Holy Spirit has washed and renewed us, because we have been justified by grace, because we are heirs according to the hope we will inherit in glory, we can do good. God loves us, therefore we obey. This is the gospel. Man-made religion says, “I obey so that God will love me.”

We can do good because our status with God remains 100% secure and unchanged even when we fail to do a good work. We are freed from the pressure of having to do more good than bad. We are freed from the burden of the law weighing down our shoulders.

That is motivation for me to do what God created me, in Christ Jesus, to do (Eph. 2:10). If you don’t see or feel that, and if you think grace gives you a free license to “do whatever you want,” then you don’t really understand grace. People who play the “I-can-do-whatever-I-want-card” with grace have not tasted too much of grace; they have tasted too little. Indeed, they may not have tasted any at all.


A New Year to Remember the Old Story

Many people are taught to believe the Bible is a book of rules with a bunch of stories about many heroes who are used by God because they are good people. That could not be further from the truth.

With this new year, as you begin your Bible reading plans and start resolutions, remember the simple, old, gospel truth of Scripture:

The Bible is not a book of rules, but rather one rule: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. The Bible is not a book of stories, but rather one story: God redeeming a people for himself. The Bible is not a book of heroes, but rather one Hero: Jesus Christ, who kept the rule on our behalf and brought us into the story through his life, death, burial, and resurrection.

Happy New Year to you. Would this new year be a perfect year to remember that the old, old story will never, in fact, grow old.


“Wedding Dress” by Derek Webb


The Importance of Conversion in the Church

Scripture is clear in teaching that we are not all journeying toward God–some having found Him, others still seeking. Instead, Scripture presents us as needing to have our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, our spirits given life. We can do none of this for ourselves. The change each human needs, regardless of how we may outwardly appear, is so radical, so near our roots, that only God can bring it about. We need God to convert us…I fear that one of the results of misunderstanding the Bible’s teaching on conversion may well be that evangelical churches are full of people who have made sincere commitments at some point in their lives but who have not experienced the radical change that the Bible calls conversion.”

– Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 113.