Does the above sound like a trick question? Something meant to stir up the “legalism” wars? It is not meant that way. It’s really a very important and practical question in our homes, churches, and classrooms. As parents and teachers, we should be rightly concerned with the threat of legalism in our children. It is a real danger that lurks in every human heart. Children raised in Christian homes, where they are watching their parents’ gospel-empowered sanctification, may be even more prone to equate being obedient with a means of earning salvation. Yet, no parent would simply “throw out the rules” for fear of raising a legalist. We instinctively know that our children benefit from obedience—even if it is, at times, only outward obedience.
In his article “Why Require Unregenerate Children to Act Like They’re Good?”, Pastor John Piper offers some excellent insights as to why we should require obedience even from unsaved children. And he also gives some advice about how we can use this as an important means of pointing our children to the grace of the Gospel:
1) For children, external, unspiritual conformity to God’s commanded patterns of behavior is better than external, unspiritual non-conformity to those patterns of behavior.
A respectful and mannerly 5-year-old unbeliever is better for the world than a more authentic defiant, disrespectful, ill-mannered, unbelieving bully. The family, the friendships, the church, and the world in general will be thankful for parents that restrain the egocentric impulses of their children and confirm in them every impulse toward courtesy and kindness and respect.
2) Requiring obedience from children in conformity with God’s will confronts them with the meaning of sin in relation to God, the nature of their own depravity, and their need for inner transformation by the power of grace through the gospel of Christ.
There comes a point where the “law” dawns on the child. That is, he realizes that God (not just his parents) requires a certain way of life from him and that he does not like some of it, and that he cannot do all of it.
At this crisis moment, the good news of Christ’s dying for our sins becomes all important. Will the child settle into a moralistic effort the rest of his life, trying to win the acceptance and love of God? Or will he hear and believe that God’s acceptance and forgiveness and love are free gifts—and receive this God in Christ as the supreme treasure of his life?
The child will have a hard time grasping the meaning of the cross if parents have not required of him behaviors, some of which he dislikes, and none of which he can do perfectly.
3) The marks of devotion, civility, and manners (“please,” “thank you,” and good eye contact) are habits that, God willing, are filled later with grace and become more helpful ways of blessing others and expressing a humble heart.
No parents have the luxury of teaching their child nothing while they wait for his regeneration. If we are not requiring obedience, we are confirming defiance. If we are not inculcating manners, we are training in boorishness. If we are not developing the disciplines of prayer and Bible-listening, we are solidifying the sense that prayerlessness and Biblelessness are normal.
You can read the entire article here.