From fear to freedom: Freeing our Children from Legalism or Raising Sons of Sarah
An American wouldn’t have written the Bible’s commands to the church the way they are. We don’t see warrior images or anything aggressive at all. It’s not like a football game. We see the Church commanded to do quiet Word and Sacrament ministry that excludes most of the aggressive directions many want the church to go today.
Individuals are told to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”
1 Timothy 2:1-3 says “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”
How are we going to do that and change the world? That’s a good question.
In Titus’ church in Crete, we get the answer. Paul tells Titus that life-change takes place along generational lines. Older men set a sound example (2:2) and older women do the same, also teaching (3:3) the next generation of women to love their families. The younger women are to marry and follow their husband’s leadership, and those same young husbands are to be the very model of hard work, dignity, and respectful language (2:6-7). To whom? Husbands model to their families, their wife and children. And that process repeats as the husbands grow older, the wives grow older, and the children grow up into young adults—they are all busy growing the faith in those around them so that in the next generation, there will be more and more faithful and the message of Christ will never be quenched by its enemies and the world will be changed, family by family. That’s in Titus 2.
Pastor, I always thought that the purpose of the church was to do evangelism, and if you heard that, you are partially right, because evangelism is exactly what I’m describing here. But it’s bigger than evangelism, evangelism is never excluded from generational ministry.
Here’s how Paul says it to Timothy, ministering in Ephesus, at the very end of Paul’s life.
Timothy 2:1-2 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
How do we change the world? In Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering, it’s Generational Ministry— Paul (generation 1) teaches it to Timothy (generation 2) who entrust the gospel to other reliable men (generation 3) who will be qualified to teach others (generation 4).
This Biblical norm sets up next section of Galatians we have before us today.
Today we look much earlier in Paul’s ministry, at the very beginning, in his first letter written to the citizens of the region of Galatia, not too far from Ephesus. This is from Galatians 4 starting at verse 21.
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
Paul is saying here, look, one more reason to reject legalism and other additions to the gospel is it will send your family into slavery and we see in the next section, kicked out of the church. If you want your children, if you want your family to live like slaves, under the harsh heavy yoke of legalism, then go ahead, side with Hagar, side with the Judaizers, side with man’s opinions over God’s Word, and have them be sons of the slave woman.
But if you want your children to live like freemen, like sons, like bold men and women of God, then connect them with the covenant God made with Abraham, and they’ll be no one’s slave. They will be stars in Abraham’s sky, more than you can count and free to shine forever!
Our mission is to pass on the message to faithful men and women, who will in turn pass on that message to children and converts who will then repeat the process by evangelizing and discipling the next generation. That’s how Paul told Titus, Timothy, and all the churches to change their church and promote the message of the Gospel, which can change our world. And we can’t do that if we enslave our families to legalism.
There are many reasons why I see families fall apart and drift away from church. It’s always sad. It’s never simple. One reason, Paul says, is that we often use rules, really just opinions about what is best, but opinions that are not found in the Bible, and that enslaves churches and families. Instead of the plain truth of Scripture, the gospel and all the orthodox, obvious truths of Scripture, sometimes we make our family run on opinion, and that leads to ruin and slavery.
So parents, how can we, in our modern context, do our best to make sure our children are free from legalism? How do we teach them to be respectful, to be godly young men and women, to understand honoring their father and mother, and yet not become little legalists with hateful hearts who can’t wait to be free from church and from parents and authority?
Let’s make sure we understand legalism first.
Legalism afflicts most religions. Legalism is the adding of new presuppositions and practices to a faith to make that faith more exclusive or less available to "outsiders" who do not think, act, or believe as do the "true" believers. Just as in Paul’s day, it sets up a class of those who do these new rules and those who do not.
Christian legalism is seen in many groups who add rules and regulations and principles to orthodox, simple, Christian practice. When I was growing up, only bad people danced. Only bad people played with regular cards, but you could play Rook because that wasn’t with a regular deck of cards, which represented gambling. And there were rules in the home that didn’t make a lot of sense and certainly weren’t in the Bible.
The best definition of legalism is one from the mouth of Jesus [in Matt. 15:9]: But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men".
With Jesus’ own definition from Matthew 15:9 ringing in our ears, taking the opinions of men and making them into Christian dogma, then what can we do? Two ways:
1) Make certain that the rules and regulations for your home are based firmly in Scripture. You may read a book about fathering or mothering that may recommend spanking your kids three times a day, make sure it’s in the Bible. You may see a youtube video that tells why women should never work outside the home, no matter what. Make sure that if this is going to be a rule in your home, it is based firmly in Scripture, either explicitly or implicitly. If it takes lots of big words and more than 15 minutes to explain, then perhaps you should not make it a major violation of the rules of your home because Biblical or not, your children won’t understand it and will grow bitter because of arbitrary-feeling rules. That will keep you from making simple opinion into the law of God in the eyes of your children. It will keep you from turning them into legalists.
2) Make certain your children understand that your love for them is not conditioned upon their behavior. If they get older and want to turn away from the faith, want to be dishonest and disrespectful, then you can lovingly plan a going away party for them. That’s the loving thing to do for them and your family. But when they are young, make certain they understand that your love for them is a model of Christ’s love for them, and what they do or do not do doesn’t change your committed relationship of covenant-love with them.
Many parents don’t know any other way but to scold and threaten their children. But Ephesians 6:4 says to parents, do not exasperate your children. And Col. 3:21 says to fathers to not embitter children, for it will discourage them from following Jesus. When we place arbitrary rules in place for them to win our love and affection, it confuses and embitters them. Model Jesus’ kind love for your kids and it will be very hard for them to become legalists. Make your love and affection conditional upon their behavior, and almost 100% of the time, they will grow up to be hard-core legalists who feel they have to leave home and church to get free from all bitterness and anger they feel towards parents and a God who disapprove of them every time they fail. I can’t tell you, without tears and sorrow, how it felt to be raised in a home like this.
3) Parent the child’s heart. Their external behavior is valuable and important because whether good or bad or apathetic, it tells you about the heart, and that’s what God has told us to focus on; promoting godly external behavior is not the first goal of parenting. It’s barely in the top 5. This is why the father, speaking to his son in Proverbs 3 says “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments.” And in chapter 23, he says, “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.”
I can’t talk about this any more because it’s very emotional for me and all I can say is please, please, leave all excuses behind and do not rely on rules to do the hard work of parenting your children. It will not build generational ministry, it will not build a spiritual legacy for your family, it will turn your generations into Hagar’s children and they will flee from you the first chance they get because they needed the Gospel and you gave them arbitrary rules that may have sounded religious, but were not from Scripture. They needed eternal truth and you gave them man’s opinion. They needed to be close to you and you pushed them away when they wouldn’t follow your rules that were not in the Bible. Let's finish up Galatians 4:
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
Here Paul calls on the Galatians to do church discipline, to cast out the legalists from among them because what they are teaching is destructive to the Gospel and the community. Paul had already judged them; they were guilty of destroying the gospel of grace by lifting up the opinions of men about ceremonial laws and feast days and surgeries and adding them to the gospel, by making these traditions and opinions have the same importance, be on the same level, as the Gospel.
But today, we aren’t going to hold church court. We are going to hold heart court. Parents, we know we are a mixed bag. We sometimes parent by grace, turning our children into confident joyful and free people who love Jesus. Sometimes we parent by law, using our authority to make them do what we want, even if it’s just our opinion and not found in Scripture.
How do we repent? We make sure our rules are based on Scripture, our love is unconditional in the sense that it is patterned by God’s covenant love for his people, and we parent the heart first and foremost, using behavior to show us what God needs to do in the heart, and then pray and discipline and disciple based on that information.
I can sum this all up. Follow Paul’s warning today and show your children the freedom of the Gospel, not the slavery of law. Show them Jesus. In all you say and do, from your devotions to your demotions. And by God’s grace and the power of his Holy Spirit, they will love him and be grateful to you for introducing him to their Savior.