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Be Careful, Your Kids Are Emulating Your Works Righteousness

A War against Flesh

“What is wrong with you?!”

Our poor kids don’t (usually) know the answer to this question. But we do. We know they are in a war against the flesh, and we know we’re in the same war. We know that our only hope for “what’s wrong” with us is Jesus. We would attest to this truth—that sinners are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—especially as we realize the unhelpful words we’ve just said.

Oh, how we parents need Jesus to change us too.

And isn’t that the truth? If it weren’t for Christ sending his Spirit to give us new, beating hearts that love and trust him, there would be no hope for us or for our kids. Salvation comes to undeserving, dead sinners as a free gift of God, not by anything we do (Eph. 2:8–9). Yet the heart’s tendency toward works righteousness—thinking we can earn our salvation—runs deep. And if we’re not careful, it will seep out of us and into our children, leading them to potentially drown in its hopeless waters.

God Rescues Me

Kristen Wetherell

As a part of the For the Bible Tells Me So series—designed to immerse kids ages 0–4 in the gospel—this board book teaches children about the good news of the gospel and the sacrificial life of Christ.

How We Parent by Works Righteousness

Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic—or am I? The warning in Scripture is clear:

  • “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10).
  • “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
  • “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

We’re talking about a serious matter here. Grasping the gospel makes the difference between life and death. If we misunderstand God’s glorious grace, we risk our kids misunderstanding it too. So it’s worth asking, Have I taken hold of the free gift of God in Christ? And if so, am I continuing by faith as I first began (by faith; Gal. 3:3), even toward my kids? The struggle to hold fast to the gospel and walk by the Spirit in our parenting is so important and yet so difficult because our flesh (my flesh!) dies hard.

Following are several ways we might parent by works righteousness (probably without even realizing it):

We are hyper-critical toward our kids.

As parents, we are called by God to correct, discipline, and instruct our children (Eph. 6:4), otherwise we wouldn’t be legitimate parents (Prov. 19:18, Prov. 23:13–14; Heb. 12:7). There is a right and loving way to identify their sins and shortcomings, and there is a wrong and destructive way to nitpick every flaw.

What does a never-ending flow of criticism communicate to our kids? First, that we aren’t enjoyable to be around and, therefore, that God must not be enjoyable to be around either. Second, that they aren’t enjoyable to be around or valued simply because they are God’s image-bearers. Third, that when God looks at us, what he sees is mostly disappointing.

Now, is it true that by nature we fall short of God’s glory? Yes (Rom. 3:23). But when God looks at his people, he doesn’t just see our shortcomings; he sees our potential. He knows who we are in Christ—holy, blameless, amazingly justified!—and he envisions his glorious church clothed in his splendor and radiant in his beauty, finally transformed and perfected before his presence. Our identity in Jesus, therefore, has overcome and overshadowed everything else, making God’s good pleasure the banner over us and his love the final word.

What we communicate to our kids matters. Are we conveying that God is generally sour-faced and disappointed in them? Or is he full of joyful expectation over who he’s making them to be and, for this reason, that he disciplines his children in love? Are we generally encouraging our children just as much as, if not more than, we are correcting them? Are we hyper-aware of what wonderful treasures they are, or are we majoring on their flaws?

We act shocked by their sin.

Next, how do we respond when (not if) our kids disobey and rebel? Because they will. Because we do. This is the war we’re waging this side of heaven, and it will not cease until Jesus returns and makes all things new, including us (Rev. 21:4–5). A shocked response to our kids’ sinful choices—the jaw-drop, the gasp, the “What’s wrong with you?!”—will only reinforce shame and push them away rather than draw them near in hope of forgiveness and change.

If we misunderstand God’s glorious grace, we risk our kids misunderstanding it too.

Drawing near to sinners is what Jesus does; it’s why he came. And all his redeemed children bring him great joy (Luke 5:32; Heb. 2:13). From before time, God knew the rebellious hearts of men and, by stepping into time and space, he sought to remedy the very source of the problem (Matt. 11:29; Luke 5:31; John 1:12–13). Jesus is the friend of sinners. He doesn’t stand aloof or finger wag; he stoops to seek and save the lost. And as we put off shock and put on compassion when our kids sin, we will reflect the gospel of grace to them. We will draw them near, as Christ has first done for us.

We are slow to apologize.

Do we parents make a habit of saying we’re sorry to our kids? Or do we believe that admitting our mistakes means losing their respect? It’s better to save face than to appear weak before my kids, right? I’m often tempted to think this and to avoid doing what I know I should—humble myself before my children in confession and ask for their forgiveness.

The beautiful thing? They are so quick to forgive me. Just like Jesus is.

A refusal to apologize for our sins communicates that we parents have no need of a savior, that the problem of sin isn’t that bad (at least for us), and that our kids should do as we say, not as we do. But our kids can quickly sniff out hypocrisy. Instead, we want our kids to know that sin can’t simply be brushed under the rug, but must be dealt with—and it has, at the cross. We want them to see how abundant grace comes to us despite our sin as a free gift of God. It comes to us in Christ who is quick to forgive when we say we’re sorry (1 John 1:9). And in apologizing to them, we allow our kids to see this amazing grace in action.

Hope for Works-Righteous Parents

I'm sure this list could go on. I'm sure we're not even aware of all the ways we communicate a works righteousness mentality to our children. But one thing I'm sure of is this: the gospel of Jesus Christ covers all our parenting sins, flaws, and mistakes—even all of these. And that is good news for parents whose hearts are in the process of being changed by grace through faith.

Kristen Wetherell is the author of God Rescues Me.

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