Grace and Obedience: A Double Standard?

Recently I shared one of my favorite articles on discipline by John Piper. It received a mixed review by the GCM audience. I was intrigued by the various responses because they showed that Christian parents are definitely not all on the same page.

The difference boiled down to this: If the gospel is all about grace, should we “force” our children to obey? Isn’t that legalism? Are we sending a mixed message?

If you are pursuing gospel-centered parenting in your home, you need to know the answer. Let’s break it down into some of the questions/comments that arose.

1. God commands children to obey their parents, but does He really command parents to enforce it?

The simplest answer is: Yes. When you read scripture (especially Proverbs) you will see that discipline is not optional for parents. It’s a command. “Do not hold back discipline from the child (Prov. 23:13).” If we are commanded to discipline that must mean there are certain standards we are to enforce. We don’t wait until we think we can do it perfectly. We don’t wait until we have lots of energy and spare time. We dive in, trusting God to give us wisdom.

2. Only Christians can truly obey. Why should we require our kids to do something they are unable to do?

First, there is a very subtle difference between requiring obedience and expecting obedience. If we parent according to a biblical worldview of man’s natural sinful condition, we actually expect our kids to rebel against our rules – often! It should come as no surprise when they disobey. We know what is in their hearts. But that doesn’t mean we stop requiring them to obey. We set the boundaries, make the rules, and then stand ready to lovingly discipline when they disobey. We don’t excuse their sin just because we know it is inevitable. Just the opposite! We prepare for it. What a blessing to have this insight into their hearts before they can even say their first word.

Second, scripture teaches that everyone is accountable to God’s law, not just Christians. Romans 1:20 says the whole world is “without excuse.” In the Old Testament the whole tribe of Israel was bound to obey God’s law even though they were not all saved. We hold our kids to God’s standards not because we assume they are saved, but because we are teaching them something about God and about themselves. God is holy. We are not. God is all-powerful. We are dependent on Him. Therefore, He deserves our obedience.

3. “Disciplining your kids seems like lording it over them. Won’t that exasperate them?”

First, the possibility that we could frustrate our children with too much discipline is not a reason to stop disciplining altogether. Second, just because our kids don’t like our rules doesn’t mean we have “exasperated” them.

That being said, are there ways to discipline without being a bully? Yes. The best way is to set rules according to biblical principles rather than personal preferences. For example, with four little boys running amuck, I decided to give up on pristine carpets. Sure I would love perfect carpets, but I decided there were enough other rules that I had to enforce and I didn’t want to burden them. What hills do you die on? My husband and I constantly have to evaluate if our rules are all about making our lives easier or about biblical principles of safety, thoughtfulness toward others, love, and respect. When I’m tempted to make rules for the sake of making me look better in public I have to reevaluate those rules in light of what’s really best for my kids, not what’s best for me.

4. How do we teach obedience without being legalistic?

This is a question every gospel-centered parent should wrestle with. Obedience and grace are not mutually exclusive. We tend to associate obedience with legalism because we make it all about ourselves. Obedience has never been all about us. It is always supposed to point us back to Christ. Legalistic obedience says, “This is who I am.” Gospel obedience says, “This is who Christ is.” A watching world (and our watching children) should see our obedience and think, “Who is their God? What did He do for them that makes them want to act that way?” There have been times in my life when unbelievers have made comments like, “You’re such a good person.” I squirm when I hear that because I know I’m not. But what they are really seeing (without even knowing it) isn’t that I’m good, but that I serve a good God. That’s what we want our kids to see, too. Whereas legalistic obedience seeks to earn salvation and favor, gospel obedience is fueled by love and thankfulness. 

When I saw the responses to the discipline article my heart was moved for the moms who were so afraid of failure they didn’t even want to require it – of themselves or of their kids. The gospel sets us free from that fear. The church we used to attend said this on the church sign: “What God requires Christ provides.” We can dive confidently into the life God has called us to knowing that every last stroke of the law has been perfectly fulfilled by Christ on our behalf. When we fail (daily) we run to Jesus and love Him more than ever for the righteousness He gives us. When I feel burdened by my sin that’s when God wraps me with robes of righteousness and says, “It is finished.” There is nothing I can do that will add to or take away from His work for me. It’s our sin that drives us to Christ. If we shrink back from disciplining our kids we turn their eyes away from the Savior.

If you struggle to explain the beautiful relationship between grace and obedience to your kids, take a look at this sample conversation:

“I know why you disobeyed. You have a sinful heart, just like I do. God is holy. He never sins. We obey God because He made us and He loves us. He deserves our obedience. When we sin, our actions don’t match who God calls us to be. The way we live shows who our master is. I know that you will still sin and mess up sometimes. I will, too. That’s because there is only one Person who obeyed perfectly – Jesus! Whenever we sin we can confess it to Him and He will cover our sin with His perfect life. What a great trade, huh? Jesus takes our sin and gives us His goodness. That makes me want to love Him with my whole life!”

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