Sadly, I was not clear about the difference between moralistic behaviorism and gospel-centered application. It seemed easy to say, “Stop sinning and start obeying.” Discipline issues were equally simplistic: “Stop acting like that and start behaving.” Kids need to learn obedience, right? And we need kids to obey for our own sanity. I was inclined to twist the beauty of the gospel of grace into a subtle deception called moralism. I needed to learn three things:
1. Moralism cannot reach a child’s heart.
It’s not hard to use Bible characters to teach a moral lesson. With the Bible character as the subject of the lesson, we can teach kids that they need to be righteous like Noah, faithful like Moses, and obedient like Abraham. Kids figure that if they live like these heroes of the faith they will earn God’s love.
But when we try to make kids into good rule-keepers, they decide one of two things. Either with pride in their hearts, they believe they have earned God’s favor. Or they see they will never be able to keep the rules and conclude there’s no use trying.
Truth: Moralism can only produce pride and fear in the heart of a child.
Moralism ends up making children think their relationship with God depends on them. If they are good enough, they win. If they blow it, they lose. Moralistic teaching breaks down when we read that Noah gets drunk, Moses gets angry, and Abraham lies. We may try to hide the fact that each of these guys struggled with sin, but the Bible doesn’t. God never says that good behavior is a prerequisite for His love.
2. Manipulation cannot reach a child’s heart.
If we simply want kids to obey, manipulation usually works. Kids respond to, “I can’t believe you would do that after what we just learned about Jesus.” Or “You should be ashamed of the way you are acting.” Or “Look at those people—you know the ones who ________ (insert the sin of your choice).” As if to say, “You better never be like them.”
Even worse, we use God to manipulate. “God is not pleased with you when you do that.” “It makes Jesus sad when you act like that.” “If you want God to be pleased with you, you will read the Bible, go to church, and obey your parents.”
We can easily manipulate kids because God has wired them to want to please us. Their behavior may change temporarily, but we are damaging their hearts. The only lasting and effective life changes happen from the inside.
Truth: Manipulation can only produce guilt, shame, or anger in a child’s heart.
No matter how hard kids work to keep clean on the surface, as they see their sin, they will think God can’t possibly love them. We twist the gospel when we imply that God’s favor depends on their behavior. Life changes are real when they come from the heart.
3. We reach a child’s heart for Christ through the gospel.
The gospel is the most important truth for us to teach a child. Paul emphasizes this in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
Gospel-centered teaching says our behavior can never be good enough to make us right with God. Before we deserve it, God reaches out to us in grace and mercy. He forgives those who turn from sin and trust in Jesus. We receive His mercy instead of punishment for sin because God’s justice was met through the death of His dearly loved Son on the cross. Jesus lived FOR us. Jesus died FOR us. Jesus was raised FOR us. Jesus’ resurrection power gives us a new heart, a new mind, and new desires to live for God.
Gospel-centered teaching says God uses people who are weak and broken. Bible characters are imperfect. God did not choose Noah, Moses, and Abraham because of their character but because of His grace. God knows who we are. His love for us doesn’t change when we fail. His plan and His promises prevail in spite of our imperfections.
Truth: God reaches a child’s heart with the truth of the gospel.
Moralism and manipulation harden a child’s heart. But the gospel is God’s message of love and grace that transforms the heart of a child. Gospel-centered teaching wasn’t just for the Bible Study Fellowship children’s program. Something happened in my own heart as I became more amazed with the truth of God’s love and grace.
Joy and freedom are found in the discovery that God uses our weakness for His glory. He uses our brokenness to reveal His grace. This is a message of hope, not only for our children but for us all. As messed up as your life may be, there is hope. The gospel tells us this is true. To teach the truth of the gospel is to reach a child’s heart for Christ.