Help! I’m Raising a Legalist

This article is part of the Help! series.

Good Intentions

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever opens with this dire judgment: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” The book’s narrator then quickly runs through a list of just what made the Herdman kids so bad, saying, “They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain.” Later, the narrator also introduces Alice Wendleken, who wants very badly to play Mary in the church’s Christmas pageant. Alice plays Mary in the pageant every year “because she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and most of all, so holy-looking.” This year, though, Alice is stunned when she ends up losing the part of Mary to Imogene Herdman. Alice starts keeping a list of every naughty and irreverent thing the Herdman kids do, hoping that someone will realize how bad they are and kick them out of the pageant and out of the church.

Charlie and the Preschool Prodigal

Ginger M. Blomberg

 This TGC Kids book retells the story of the prodigal son in an engaging and easily understandable way, spurring thoughtful discussion between parents and children ages 3–7 as they learn about sin, grace, and the unconditional love of God. 

As Christian parents, we want our kids to do the right things. Some of us have found, though, that in trying to avoid raising Herdmans, we are inadvertently raising Alice Wendlekens, kids who follow the rules not out of love but for control. How do we teach our children to be discerning, both to recognize and to do right, but at the same time to show God’s love and care for the imperfect people around them?

Law

It is vital for us to teach our children what is right, but it is also vital for us to examine our goals in teaching. An old comedy skit said, “Parents don’t want justice; they just want quiet,” and, oh boy, has that been true for me sometimes. I am sorry to say, I have sometimes taught my children the law because I just wanted them to act decently and not embarrass me at church.

But why did God give us his law? For one thing, he knows what is best for us, and he has revealed rules in his word to teach us to act in ways that may seem hard but will usually be for our good and the good of those around us. If we avoid lying, then most of the time people will trust us more. If we honor our parents, we are likely to have a good relationship with them.

Much more importantly, though, God gave us the law to reveal his character. Our God is holy, just, and good. He cares about people who are marginalized by society. He hates when innocent people are harmed. He loves when people do right and are kind to each other. His law teaches all these things about him.

In teaching us about God’s character, the law (and Israel’s history of trying to follow it) also shows so clearly both our need for God and our separation from him. Paul says in Romans 7:13 that through the law, “sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandments might become sinful beyond measure.” We need there to be goodness and justice in the world. We also need a way to get to it. God’s law shows the standard of his character and also how far we are from reaching it.

We want to teach our kids to follow the law, in the sense that we want them to know and do what is right. As Christian parents, and really just as humans, most of us want our kids to know enough to be happy and to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” (as non-theological lawgiver Benjamin Franklin advises). But as people baptized by water and Spirit, the most important purpose of teaching our children the law is to show them God’s character and their need for God’s grace.

Grace

The law is a teacher, a guide, and a road to lead us to grace. The Bible states clearly that God is good (Ps. 118:1) and that we can never be good enough to approach God (Rom. 3:23) or to save ourselves (Eph. 2:4–5). We can only be saved by grace, “not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).

If a judge were to tell a man condemned for stealing, “You know what? The law doesn’t matter. You are guilty, but I am setting you free. Just keep what you took and walk away,” that is not true grace because it is not just. It merely transfers the punishment from the criminal to the victims. Grace is when the law, the crime, and the consequence are clear, but the judge pays the penalty himself, which is in some ways what God did for us. It is important to teach our children to live according to God’s law, but when they inevitably fall short, we have opportunities to both enforce the law by teaching them just consequences but also to point them to God’s Son who satisfied God’s justice by bearing the consequences of our failure himself. When we as parents fall short, we can teach our children about goodness by apologizing to them and teach them about grace by telling them how God’s love gives us the courage to confess our own failures and need for him.

Learning the law and teaching it to our children shows us how very good God is. But trying to save ourselves or our children by doing good all the time is an impossibly heavy burden that separates us from God and from others. When we rely on our good works rather than God’s grace for our temporal or eternal security, we are acting as legalists. That’s a frightening position to be in, and a lonely one, because it’s a weight only God can carry. Kids (and adults) who feel like they have to be right all the time tend to look good, like they have it all together. But in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Alice Wendleken was insecure in her own status and out to attack anyone who didn’t measure up. Without the law, grace is cheap. Without grace, the God’s law is crushing. Praise God, he has given us both.

Without the law, grace is cheap. Without grace, the God’s law is crushing. Praise God, he has given us both.

Legalists and Prodigals, Law and Grace

In some ways, Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son tells almost the same story as The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. There’s a really naughty kid in the parable, and he does tons of really bad stuff. Then there’s also a kid in the story who is so holy-looking. But he’s a legalist who keeps a record of what the naughty kid has done and compares it to his own good deeds.

In the parable, the younger son tries to create his own path away from his father to find fulfillment, but he ends up in misery. Ultimately, he returns home defeated, but before he even says a word, his father goes to him and embraces him. The younger son apologizes, and the father holds a big feast to celebrate his return. The older son, the legalist, stands outside the feast. The father goes to the older brother as well and invites him to come to the party. The older son is full of resentment, recounting his own good deeds and his brother’s bad deeds. He misses the point that the father had to come to them both and that he is just as in need of grace as his lawless younger brother. Jesus ends the parable without us ever knowing whether the older brother joins the feast.

Our kids tend to drift toward acting like the prodigal younger brother or like the legalist older brother because all of us have a natural bent to try to save ourselves, either through rejecting the rules or through obeying them. Timothy Keller introduced me to this idea in his book The Prodigal God. Keller says, “The hearts of the two brothers were the same. . . . Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using their father for their self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake.” The only way out of the trap of saving ourselves, the only way to escape being a prodigal or a legalist, for ourselves and our children, is through God’s grace.

The Feast

I would be sorry to give away the beautiful ending of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, but suffice it say that Imogene Herdman has an overwhelming revelation of God’s goodness and grace. So does Alice Wendleken, who suddenly realizes that maybe what happened at Christmas was not really as pretty and tidy as she imagined.

By teaching our children both law and grace, we can help them see the tragedies of both legalism and prodigalism. We can show them the beauty of God’s goodness and mercy through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son who loved us and paid the penalty for us. Once we see God’s grace to us, we can extend it to others in love.

Because of the grace and goodness of our Lord, we and our children can live in community with God and with each other. We can turn away from legalism and join the fellowship of the feast, and we can teach our children to do the same.

Ginger M. Blomberg is the author of Charlie and the Preschool Prodigal.



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