How do we balance law and gospel with our children?
Balancing law and gospel is a main tenet of Christian parenting. I often wonder, though, what that actually looks like. So that was my challenge for these authors. Show me! Show me what it looks like to balance law and gospel with our children. I’m excited to share this column with you, because I think that Emily and Dan really delivered by sharing some great examples and practical ideas.
I’d love to hear what you think. Did these articles hit the mark for you? Were you able to apply one of their ideas to your parenting repertoire? Heart to heart is here to support you, so let us know how we’re doing. Comment on the articles themselves at forwardinchrist.net or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No effort is more worthwhile than raising our children to love and trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And there is no other parenting task that makes us realize how much we need Jesus. Children learn primarily by example, and they’re always watching us. I never feel my sin so keenly as when I hear my ungracious words and sharp tone of voice mimicked from my children’s mouths. That is not what I wanted to teach them, but that is what they learned from me.
Showing children the right way to act is only half the battle. It’s just as important that we show them unwavering Christlike love when they fail, just as God shows us. To help our children understand this concept of law and gospel, we must be honest about our own sinfulness. One of the most meaningful examples of law and gospel we can show to our children is being willing to acknowledge our own faults when we sin against our children and ask them to forgive us.
But that hurts our pride. We don’t want to admit to our children when we’re wrong. We want them to think that we’re strong and unflappable and that we don’t make mistakes. But that’s not true. We’re sinners, just like they are. We need God’s grace and forgiveness every day of our lives, just like they do. When we’re authentic with our children about our sinfulness and weakness and our need for a Savior, we give them a powerful lesson about what it means to live as a Christian.
Our children are sinners too, and we need to expect that they are going to sin—and often against us! When they do, we must be careful not to make matters worse by adding our own sin to the mix with responses that
• take their sin personally (“How could you do this to ME?”),
• overreact (“You’re grounded for life!”),
• heap excessive guilt on them (“Do you realize just how badly you behaved?”), and
• shame them (“You’re so stupid! What’s wrong with you?”).
We simply show them their sin, encourage repentance, guide them to better choices and actions, and assure them of their forgiveness. Younger children may not fully understand what’s happening in this process, and older children may not appreciate what the process involves, but the consistent example we set for them will be powerful.
But above all, we LOVE them—not just when they’re easy to love but especially when it’s difficult. Just as God loves us unconditionally, we reflect that same love to our children, not because they deserve it, but because “he first loved us.” Our children are our youngest brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are walking together along the narrow path to heaven. We want our children to know not only how much we love them but also how much God loves them.
When we’ve taught them that, we’ve taught them what’s most important.
Emily Gresens Strey and her husband, Johnold, have four children ranging in age from 2 to 12.
What a privilege it is for us as parents to use God’s law and gospel with our kids. It’s a blessing that the Holy Spirit has called us to faith and given us the motivation to delight in God’s law and look for ways to demonstrate our love and thanks. Law versus gospel . . . what a balance as we parent our children at any age!
I have to admit that my natural tendency is a more law-based parenting approach. I thought I’d never use the line, “Because I’m your father and I said so,” but I have. Whenever I get to that point in a conversation with one of my kids, I stop and ask myself if what I am requiring is because of my own selfish desire to have things a certain way or if I am really providing a way for my kids to demonstrate their thankfulness for Christ.
Here’s an example. As I child, I grew up eating at the kitchen table with my family for every meal. When my kids wanted to eat in the family room together, I had a litany of responses.
“No. We eat at the kitchen table because that’s where people eat.”
“No, we’ll spill and stain the carpet.”
Then after these and other responses didn’t seem to satisfy anyone, I pulled out, “Because I’m your father and I said so”—as if that response instantly created satisfaction. It was more like forced obedience.
Obeying parents is a great way for children to show their love for God. I have also found that too many moments like this can frustrate kids, and their delight in the law can fade.
Let’s face it. Eating at the kitchen table is really my own desire to do things the way I did in the past. Can we eat together in the family room? Yes, of course—and we now do. Sometimes we even eat outside on the patio. Where we eat is no longer the requirement, but my kids understand that what I appreciate is the time together. Being together is a way they can demonstrate their love for me and for God. The rule itself is gone, but their understanding of the motivation behind the rule is what brings me joy.
My natural law-way-of-thinking can easily show itself in my parenting. Teaching responsibility quickly can become another selfish rule on my part and cloud the opportunity for gospel-motivated behavior.
As a parent of two awesome kids, I rely on the example of how my parents balanced the law and gospel with me when I was a child. You may recall a previous article when I shared a story from my childhood about driving our new garden tractor into a clothes pole. The grace-filled reaction of my father was imprinted on me. I recently had the opportunity to pay that forward.
My 14-year-old daughter asked if she could pull our car into the garage. It was literally only 15 feet. What could go wrong in 15 feet?
After a complete lesson on driving safety and the rules of “right pedal is go; left pedal is stop,” she sat in the driver’s seat and slowly moved the car forward. Just at the point where the pedal on the left should be used, the pedal on the right was selected instead. Thankfully she only hit the gas slightly, and the car managed to stop after crushing our garbage cans against the front wall.
My first inclination was to get angry. I just told her which pedals to use! However, I knew she was scared. I knew she felt bad. What she needed right then was not a healthy dose of the law and a stern reaction from her dad. It was a mistake; it was not intentional; she was sorry. My reaction was the same as my dad’s reaction when I was her age—nothing but encouragement. The law part of my parenting was done already. Now it was time for the gospel.
Are the muddy boot prints tracked along the kitchen floor an accidental act of a child on her way to an emergency bathroom trip? Or are they an intentional expression of disobedience that expresses an attitude that she doesn’t care about the rules in the house? Each has its own opportunity for the parent to emphasize the law in one case or the gospel in another.
Here’s my personal formula for balance:
1. Remember my natural tendency. I know I lean more heavily on the law, and I know I don’t always put the best construction on an act. Because I know this about myself, I hit my STOP button so I don’t get angry right away.
2. Communicate. After I pause, it’s time to find the facts. It’s time to communicate with my child and find out what happened.
3. Law. Is the particular situation in need of a more law-focused approach? Reinforce the rule? Time for a consequence? Do I need to emphasize the law to have a better appreciation of the next step?
4. Gospel. Is the particular situation prime for a grace response? Perhaps the child already knows she is wrong and already knows consequences will be coming, but she just needs to know you still love her and is forgiven because Christ forgave us.
5. Repent. The last step is to ask God for forgiveness when I skip one of the other steps above and blow it! When I miss the chance God gives me to demonstrate law and gospel in my parenting, I remember the undeserved act of love he showed me by sending his Son to satisfy the requirements of the law for me and by giving me the free and perfect gift of grace.
Let’s delight in our opportunity as parents to demonstrate our love for God by using the law and gospel as we handle everyday situations in our home. We are helping our children understand the need for their Savior and bringing them the assurance of their salvation and the knowledge that they are loved by us and their heavenly Father.
Dan Nommensen and his wife, Kelly, have a teenage daughter and a pre-teen son.
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Author: Multiple Authors
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017
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