A ditch runs along either side of the Narrow Road. It often seems that if we’re not in one, we’re in the other: worldliness on the left, and legalism on the right.
Our fallen nature often leads us astray from true obedience into the ditch of rule-keeping, where we make a wrong-headed attempt either to earn salvation or somehow to deserve God’s love.
Letter of the Law
What is legalism? One definition is “strict adherence to the law.” Obeying God’s commands isn’t legalism, but sometimes people gauge their standing with God by how well they obey the letter of the law, even while ignoring its spirit.
Recently, one of my young children emerged from a shower, and I, in what I consider to be a special moment of intuition, asked, “Did you use soap?” After a moment of reluctance, the child knowingly replied, “You told me to remember to use shampoo. You didn’t say anything about soap.” That is a form of legalism.
Legalism is redefining the rules of life by our terms, or in other words, elevating our reasoning above God’s Word in determining how to live. Whenever we put our thoughts above God’s, whether we deny what Ephesians 2 says about salvation by God’s grace alone or we redefine what Genesis 1 says about God’s creation of the world in six days, we start down a path of error.
Every family, by necessity, has what I call “house rules.” You may decide not to let your children drink caffeine, or stay up past 11 pm, or listen to certain genres of music. In fact, when your children are very young, you need to make most of their decisions because they don’t intuitively know what is best for them. That is why God gave them parents! House rules aren’t usually decided by biblical commands, but instead by wisdom.
Obeying Rules That Aren’t God’s Rules
The most common form of legalism is exalting strongly held preferences (house rules) to the level of biblical commands. Children need to know the difference between when something is done because we think it is best, and when something is required by God for all people.
In Genesis 3:3, Eve demonstrated this form of legalism when she misquoted God: “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die’” (emphasis added). Eve was adding to God’s actual command, but she was giving her “rules” equal weight to God’s own words.
As we take care to teach our children the difference between biblical commands and “house rules,” we will also be equipping them to understand not only what the Bible says but why we believe it.
Love Is the Motivation
Our goal is for our children to obey Christ out of a willing heart of love and appreciation. May they learn from us how to live obediently from a posture of humility and grace.