Law or Grace: Which is Raising Your Child?

DISCLAIMER: This message is part of a Sermon series entitled Marriage: God’s First Ministry that evolved from a same titled Bible Study focusing upon the family dynamic as God has ordained it to perform.  One of the contributors to this series is Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl’s seminal work, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life © 2007, Eerdmans Publishing, Co. Cambridge, UK.

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“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”  Proverbs 22:6

Is your child being raised by the law or by grace?  What’s the difference?

Is one better than than the other?  What type of relationship do you think to have with them as they grow-up?  Is it too late to make a change?

One of the most challenging dilemma for a parent of a young child is when and how to apply the forces of the law or grace. I saw the struggle in my wife and I felt it first-hand within my own heart. To this day, all of my children, who are now teenagers, are very quick to remind me of a time when I exercised the law; translated by them as punishment through spankings. When this occurs, each and every time, I try desperately to search my faulty memory to counter their accusations. Or at the very least try to validate that historically painful memory – for me, not them – by reframing their act of disobedience as so severe as them warranting such corporal consequences.

At those times I wonder – why do I scramble so to justify the need for punishment? Or, why am I feeling this sense of guilt or fear of rejection at having had to deliver such a negative life-experience to my beautiful, tender, child – who also happens to have been mischievous or disobedient at the moment?

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The question arises, Did I dispense the proper amount of law? Was I too liberal with grace, simply ignoring overt acts of disobedience? I suggest that as I look at my children – and you examine yours – I ask the question: are we comfortable with our current relationships?Are our family’s examples of too much of one, and too little of the other?

 

In a recent message I asked the question, “Is Your Marriage Founded upon Law or Grace?” The goal then was to examine the origins of your marriage to locate those early moments when you became awaken to the desire to secure a relationship with the other person because of the tremendous act; or display of grace; he or she displayed towards your exposed sinfulness and brokenness. The objective was to help you either regain the losses due to recent transgressions, by remembering and reconnecting you to the very catalyst that lite the blaze of passion within your hearts. My supposition was that catalyst was grace.

If you have or plan to have children, it is important to learn the power which comes with applying appropriate levels of law and grace.  My goal, with the Lord’s leading, is to bring you to a place of commitment to choose grace over law from this day forward. And though I have not perfected the application of it – I am nonetheless, thoroughly convinced and committed to the fact that the scriptures teach; as well as Holy Spirit affirms; that this should be the aspiration for a fulfilled life of every Christian believer.

But which Law?

So let’s begin with understanding how law and grace impact little children first. It is a no-brainer that children enter into this world with a clear need to be under the restrictions of the law.  But which law? I suggest that a little child requires what some call the 1st Principle of the Law. This principle supports STOP signs and locks on cabinets. This law is implemented to remove or restrict dangers from harming the life, health and development of the small child – who would be exposed to all manner of dangers if not for such lawful restrictions.

What I find too often – and unfortunately, I myself am guilty as well – is where children are subjected to the 2nd Principle of the Law.  Trust me when I tell you that when the Second Principle of the Law is used to obtain a desired behavior, even with a small child, the effect is always destructive, to the degree that grace is used or not.  The 2nd principle is filled with restrictions which at their core diminish and destroy the very thing the law was created to prevent or create. Which is a positive behavior which benefits everyone.

Take for example you notice as you drive up towards a hill on Route 601 towards the I-26 interchange to go to Columbia, SC.  Then just was you pass the Regional Medical Center on the right you suddenly see two State Police troopers in the middle of the median as you reach the crest of the hill.

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Isn’t your first instinct to feel as though you’ve been targeted?  You feel as though whatever reason they are posted there is to bring you some bad tidings. Either in the form of a speed trap or perhaps a sobriety check point. Regardless of their unknown purpose, what matters most in those first few moments is the ‘way it made you feel’.  Accused.  As though you’d done something wrong.  As you glance downward to check your speed to ensure you’re not the next contributor to the county’s revenue raising schemes, you proceed on your way to your destination.  You continue on to your destination.

 

A few days later,  you pass the same location and there the two troopers are parked again. But this time you’re not going to I-26 towards Columbia.  You are driving only a few hundred feet beyond them to go to the Chick-Fil-A for lunch.  As you enter into the line for food, you over hear some other customers talking about a tragic accident that occurred on that very stretch of road a few days earlier.  You politely inquire of more information and learn that two students driving out of the gas station a 1/4 mile up the road were killed when a truck was speeding towards the I-26 interchange and recklessly struck the students head on and killed them both. It was clear from all evidence the truck driver was at fault. He was texting and not paying attention.

Immediately. Your entire perspective changes as to how you perceive those troopers.  Now as you pass those two state troopers – who still represent the law – you no longer feel that gut-punch that accuses you of potentially breaking the law. Now you only feel a deep sense of gratitude for the community’s awareness to provide safe coverage for yourself and others by remaining vigilant to prevent anyone else from suffering from such tragedy.

The first experience with the Troopers is like the 2nd Principle of the Law. They make you feel bad. Exposed. Guilty even if you’re not. The second experience with the Troopers is like the 1st Principle of Law. You feel grateful. Safe. Cared for.  Protected.

No child has ever grown up and confronted their parents with a story about how they hated when their parents protected them from getting hit by a car by demanding they stop and look both ways.  Nor have any every complained about not being loved correctly because their parents would not allow them to roam the streets unattended by them.  The principle of the 1st law is always going to produce a good reaction. The principle of the 2nd law is always going to produce a bad reaction, to some lesser or greater degree.

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Paul F.M. Zahl encourages us to understand and accept that these dynamics teach us a fundamental truth: that the very essence of the 2nd Principle of the Law; which may be likened to the Law of Moses  given by God for the Hebrew nation, or any man made law; has three fundamental characteristics.

  • The Law ALWAYS ACCUSES and DIMINISHES the person who is subjected under it.

  • The Law is NEVER able to MOTIVATE – ENCOURAGE – or EMPOWER the person who is subjected under the Law to accomplish what it is demanding of the person.

  • The Law in its substance is ALWAYS GOOD. But the response of the Law is always perceived as bad or negative.

The third characteristic is important to because it shows us that the Law itself is not ever bad.  It is perceived as harmful only because of the sinful nature of our hearts.  When we felt we were being accused by it – it felt as though the law was out to get us. It was bad. But when we realized it was there to protect us – without any bias towards us except to ensure our well-being – we loved it.

Small children require the 1st Principle of the Law because it ensures their well-being. But they also require a greater deal of grace.  Grace is defined as underserved love, uninvited love, love that is purely from one towards another without any solicitation from the one it is sent towards. And finally, grace is “One-way love”.

Yes, this grace is the same type of love the God gave the world by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ.  We didn’t do anything to deserve it.  Nor could we.  His love hunted us down and overwhelmed us – resulting in our deep love for Him.


The two distinct ways that children require grace to be displayed in their lives are critical to their growing and maturing as loving well-rounded teens and adults. The first is the responsibility of every parent, adult or caregiver: to provide the boundaries that protect the child from external harm.  This is the 1st Principle of the Law we discussed earlier.  Even animals are endowed with a sense to protect their young from dangers.  And though it is recognized as a law, it is nevertheless the first example of what gracious love looks like.  The small child cannot provoke or solicit the safety from the adult, yet the adult provides it graciously.

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The second way is that children need to see grace lived and expressed in their family by their parents’ marriage. It is a true statement that children who grow up in homes filled with grace-full relationships between husband and wife grow up to become grace-full adults. In other words, if the father and mother are themselves living out “one-way love” towards one another in their everyday exchanges in their own relationship that the children see first-hand, then the children also get the overflow and are they themselves raised in grace-fullness.

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When a husband and wife, father and mother are showing one another “one-way love” they are automatically not forcing anything upon the other person. The children in this type of home are then not being forced upon by either parent. No one is attempting to set up a standard for the other to meet.  There is no competition for affections or displays of manipulation for the love of the other person, including the child. When the husband is content with his wife and vice-versa, then the law that would exist to create accusations and hurt feelings no longer is present. They are showing grace towards one another. Love towards one another purely from a place of selfless giving. GRACE in the marriage produces GRACE with the children.


I was raised by two parents. A husband and wife. They were educators. They always expressed their affection for me through my ability to succeed. The only times I ever felt that I received love was when I was producing at a level of my best. When I became older and became a little less under their watchful eye, I was allowed a sense of free range to go and do whatever I wanted. Their loose parenting allowed me a lot of freedom. Some children may have just the opposite experiences. Their parents become too oppressive and controlling.  Not allowing the child to grow in a climate of trust and admiration.  Both examples are examples of when parents are not involved enough with one another. They are not living in a marriage that shows grace, so they simply set boundaries and live by avoiding one another.

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My parents existed within a spacious home, but their marriage was grace-less.  There was no hunger, or deprivation of any form.  Both the 1st and 2nd Principles of Law were clearly present.  Sadly though, for much of my childhood and adolescence I can vaguely recall them sharing a meal together.  The idea of affection was non-existent in our home.  Through the years, any disagreements they may have had, were played out on opposite sides of the living room watching the evening news.  On the other hand, punitive punishment – or the law – was very much a part of our relationship.

When I look at families today, especially when I come in contact with young parents with small children, it is evident when no grace or mercy is experienced or exchanged between the father and mother.  It is displayed publicly and privately on the child. The child therein displays it publicly the first opportunity they get. Usually the first day of school and on through their matriculation.  What those parents fail to understand is that their child will most surely grow to resent them because they simply would never have learned how to display grace – as they never received it or saw it displayed in their home.

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So then, I return to my initial question, is your relationship with your children founded upon law or grace?  The grace that diminishes the lethal impact of the law in the hearts of small children.  This grace resembles ignoring the standards that systems and many relationships try to infiltrate into a child’s heart.  It is a form of love that doesn’t become frustrated with poor performance.  It is a form of love that embraces failure while assuring the child she is not a failure.  It is a picture and type of love that erupts out of mid-air, with no tangible evidence of what provoked its appearance.  It is a form of relational love that exists between a husband and wife in the sight of their children.  It is a power of God’s very existence in the Person of Jesus Christ as He unleashes His love and affection for you.  It is the only force – on planet earth – that can diminish the accusatory, defeating, undermining, and competitive schemes of the law.

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Finally, if you desire to have a relationship with your children that is founded upon grace and not law; then learn how to display “one-way love” to those who you deem unworthy of your love, undeserving of your love, and especially those who have already accepted that they don’t want your love because of their distorted perception of themselves.   I promise you, the behaviors you want may not be readily displayed, but over time, the child that becomes a teen – who becomes an adult – will admire and love you because of the grace you displayed – not the amount of law you dispatched.

 

ΑΩ ~ Reverend A. David Griffin, M.Div.

 

 

 

 

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