Teach Your Children About the Purpose of Obedience

Christina Fox
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Our obedience to God’s commands is rooted in Christ and the gospel. When we read the New Testament, we come across many commands and admonitions. These rules and instructions teach us how we are to live for God as Christians. These admonitions are never listed on their own but are always tied to the truths of the gospel, of who Christ is and what He has done. Theologians often refer to these foundational gospel truths as “indicatives.” An indicative tells us what God has done for us in Christ and who we are as a result. What then follows are the instructions or commands, what theologians call “imperatives.” An imperative tells us how to live out these truths. The imperative is rooted in the indicative. For example, Ephesians 5:2 tells us, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” We are called to walk in love (the imperative) because of what Christ did for us in His death on the cross (the indicative).

This is important for us as we read Scripture. When we come across an instruction for us to follow, we have to remember its tie to the gospel. We obey God’s rules because of who Christ is for us. We obey God’s commands in and through Christ. He is the source of our obedience. God looks at Jesus’ perfect life lived in our place. He sees Christ’s righteousness and not our sin. He accepts Christ’s payment for sin as though we paid it ourselves.

We Are God’s Children

What amazing grace! Through faith in what Christ has done, we are wrapped in Christ and His obedience. We wear His robes of righteousness. We obey out of love and gratitude for this amazing grace. But there’s even more grace! We’ve received the gift of the Spirit. He is at work in us, helping us put off sin and put on righteousness. He works in our hearts, giving us a love for God’s law so that we desire to obey it.

We are God’s children, adopted in love before the foundations of the world. Our Father is a good Father and His limits for us are good. They are also for our good. They help keep and restrain us from sin. They show us who He is so that we can honor and glorify Him. They show us how we can image Him. And they show us just how much we need a Savior.

“We are God’s children, adopted in love before the foundations of the world.”

For Christian parents, we should understand the place of God’s laws and rules in our lives. His commands for us play a significant role in our own rules for our children. They help us see the importance and necessity in setting limits for our children, for in doing so, we point them to God.

After forty years wandering in the desert, God’s people were finally ready to enter the Promised Land. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses prepared them to enter. He reminded them of everything they had learned about God and themselves. In Deuteronomy 5, he reviewed the Ten Commandments with them again. Then he taught them the importance of passing on what they learned to their children:

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:6–9)

Moses exhorted God’s people to teach their children who God is and what He had done. They were to teach them what it looks like to love Him with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. They were to teach them God’s law, and not just once, but all the time and everywhere.

I remember as a new mom reading this passage and thinking through just what it looked like to teach my son who God is and what He has done every day, all throughout the day, and everywhere we go. This passage became the hinge for discipling my children. It helped me see that God is not compartmentalized to one area of life; He is our life.

God’s Law and Our Parenting

As believers, we need to teach our children who God is, what He expects from us, and what it looks like to live for Him. We do this when we image God in the limits we set for our children. Having rules and boundaries is important. Our children need to know what is good and right to do and what is not. They need to know what is safe and what is harmful. They need us to point them to the narrow path of life and to warn them about what happens when they wander off the path. “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death” (Prov. 12:28). God’s Word teaches us the way to this path, and He calls us to teach our children as well.

We learned that one of the uses of God’s law is to restrain sin. Like us, our children are born sinners, so they need rules and limits to help restrain their sin. This is why we don’t let them steal a friend’s toy during a playdate. This is why we teach them to use their words when they are frustrated rather than yell out in anger. As parents, we also know what is good and best for them. We know what is harmful and what is not. That’s why from an early age we don’t let them touch a hot pan and why we make them hold our hand when we cross the street. That’s why we don’t let them eat what they want when they want or watch television all day long. Because we are all born in sin and have a fallen nature, if we have no rules or boundaries we will follow the desires and passions of our sinful heart. This is true for our children as well. They need us to set limits for them because they can’t do so for themselves.

Just as God does for us, we also set limits and rules to help point our children to their Savior. We teach them what God expects of them. We teach them His commands from Scripture. We teach them to obey God by obeying us. We teach them what glorifies God. But in so doing, we also teach them the gospel. We teach them who Christ is, why He came, and how His life and death paid for our sins. When they fail to obey, when they cross over the boundaries we’ve set, we show them how much they need Jesus and forgiveness for sin. We use rules and limits to help them learn to run to the cross and receive the free gift of God’s grace in Christ. We also model this ourselves when we repent for our own sin.

But we must be cautious here; it is not just having rules that glorifies God, for not all rules are the same. The Pharisees had many rules, but they did not glorify God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27–28). The Pharisees added to God’s laws. They added rules and boundaries beyond what God stated, to the point that these rules became a heavy burden for the people. These rules are what we call “legalism” today. Modern legalism is not just additional rules and boundaries, but includes those times when the Bible’s imperatives are presented without the indicative.

God’s Rules and Our Rules

When my children were young, I’d drop them off to play at a friend’s house and say something like, “Be good!” It sounds like a good thing for me to say, a reminder for them to not break the rules and risk not being invited back. But as we know, because of our sin nature, no one is good. When I tell my children to be good, it implies they are capable of doing so on their own, apart from the work of God within them. Further, if they are capable of being good, they have no need for a Savior. Perhaps I should have given them an imperative linked with the indicative: “Remember to love your friends as God has loved you.”

Legalism produces hypocrisy. Legalists focus so much on their own rules, they fail to do what God calls them to do. This means we have to be careful that the rules we set are godly rules. Our rules need to be consistent with God’s rules and seek to glorify Him. This might mean evaluating our own hearts and asking, “Is this rule for God’s glory or for my comfort?” It might mean asking ourselves, “Is this about me and my convenience or about what my child really needs?” It might mean considering our motives: “Did I implement this rule for the sake of appearance because I care about what others think?” Some rules are unnecessary and rather than help our children, they only aggravate them. Paul cautioned against this in Ephesians, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

We must make a distinction between God’s rules and our rules. Sometimes they do overlap, but sometimes they do not. There are often rules we have to make in our homes for the sake of order and peace. Put your dishes in the dishwasher when you are done. Take turns using the computer. Bedtime is at 9:00 p.m. My pastor explains to his children that there is a difference between the law of God and the rules they have in their house. Such rules do not carry the same weight as God’s law and cannot be equated with them. They are put in place because all households need rules to function. It is helpful to our children when we explain this difference.

For Further Reading:

Like Our Father

by Christina Fox

Reveal God to your children by parenting them like He parents us. Tired of all the parenting books full of strategic checklists, how-to advice,...

book cover for Like Our Father