Help! I’m Raising a Legalist

Written by Ginger M. Blomberg |
Sunday, January 21, 2024

By teaching our children both law and grace, we can help them see the tragedies of both legalism and prodigalism. We can show them the beauty of God’s goodness and mercy through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son who loved us and paid the penalty for us. Once we see God’s grace to us, we can extend it to others in love.

Good Intentions

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever opens with this dire judgment: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” The book’s narrator then quickly runs through a list of just what made the Herdman kids so bad, saying, “They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain.” Later, the narrator also introduces Alice Wendleken, who wants very badly to play Mary in the church’s Christmas pageant. Alice plays Mary in the pageant every year “because she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and most of all, so holy-looking.” This year, though, Alice is stunned when she ends up losing the part of Mary to Imogene Herdman. Alice starts keeping a list of every naughty and irreverent thing the Herdman kids do, hoping that someone will realize how bad they are and kick them out of the pageant and out of the church.

As Christian parents, we want our kids to do the right things. Some of us have found, though, that in trying to avoid raising Herdmans, we are inadvertently raising Alice Wendlekens, kids who follow the rules not out of love but for control. How do we teach our children to be discerning, both to recognize and to do right, but at the same time to show God’s love and care for the imperfect people around them?


It is vital for us to teach our children what is right, but it is also vital for us to examine our goals in teaching. An old comedy skit said, “Parents don’t want justice; they just want quiet,” and, oh boy, has that been true for me sometimes. I am sorry to say, I have sometimes taught my children the law because I just wanted them to act decently and not embarrass me at church.

But why did God give us his law? For one thing, he knows what is best for us, and he has revealed rules in his word to teach us to act in ways that may seem hard but will usually be for our good and the good of those around us. If we avoid lying, then most of the time people will trust us more. If we honor our parents, we are likely to have a good relationship with them.

Much more importantly, though, God gave us the law to reveal his character. Our God is holy, just, and good. He cares about people who are marginalized by society. He hates when innocent people are harmed. He loves when people do right and are kind to each other. His law teaches all these things about him.

In teaching us about God’s character, the law (and Israel’s history of trying to follow it) also shows so clearly both our need for God and our separation from him. Paul says in Romans 7:13 that through the law, “sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandments might become sinful beyond measure.” We need there to be goodness and justice in the world. We also need a way to get to it. God’s law shows the standard of his character and also how far we are from reaching it.

We want to teach our kids to follow the law, in the sense that we want them to know and do what is right. As Christian parents, and really just as humans, most of us want our kids to know enough to be happy and to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” (as non-theological lawgiver Benjamin Franklin advises).

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