Our last post about the lessons learned in the story of the lost son rekindled a spark that has been brewing in my brain for quite some time. One of the major disappointments I face in family ministry is the number of “Old Testament” families I encounter in the church; families that are not experiencing the beautiful unfairness of grace that we wrote about last time. What do I mean by an “Old Testament” family?
It is a mindset that lifts up the principles of the Old Testament as the norm for living the Christian life today. It likes the formula and predictability of the Old Testament rules. “Don’t do A, or B will happen to you. Don’t do C or you will be punished. Don’t do D or you will lose your blessing.” At its core, it is a fear-based way to live and a fear-based method of parenting. And it has no place in the lives of New Testament families.
Our poor theology that elevates the Old Testament to a par with the New is one of the drivers of this unfortunate situation. I have written many times that the Bible clearly teaches that the New Testament is far superior to the Old so I will leave it at that for now. But trust me – or better yet, trust God’s Word – on this; the old covenant has literally been “brought to an end” [Gk. katargeo] (II Cor 3:11) and deemed “obsolete” [Gk. palaioo] (Heb 8:13). I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrases the end of Hebrews chapter 8 in The Message, “By coming up with a new plan, a new covenant between God and His people, God put the old plan on the shelf. And there it stays, gathering dust” (Heb 8:13).
But we can’t leave well enough alone. We keep taking it back down from the shelf, blowing off the dust, and somehow mix it in with the new covenant in trying to live the Christian life. But when we do this, we produce a form of legalism that is not only deadly in our churches, but deadly in our families as well. No one would say, “Our family is following the Old Testament Law,” but we do that exact thing – with a hint of a New Testament twist – when we practice legalism.
And just like its Old Testament foundation, legalism is based on fear. It is obeying the rules out of a fear that your sin will find you out or God will become angry with you. It is a focus on externals driven by fear. It is a focus on things I can measure. “How am I dressed…How early did I get up to do my wisdom booklet…How hard am I working…” We are fearful that we will not measure up. Or worse yet, we look down on our Christian brother or sister because they are not measuring up. It is an Old Testament style of law-keeping through and through, and it is life-draining.
By contrast, the New Testament is life-giving with its focus on qualities and attributes that God has already given us by virtue of becoming part of His family. And it is based on love, not fear. In I John chapter 4, we learn that God in His very essence is love personified. And as His seed, love should be our essence as well. And one of love’s attributes is that it casts out fear. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (I Jn 4:18). Obedience informed by the new covenant is obedience based on identity – who we are in Christ – not based on fear of punishment.
We make a grave mistake in our parenting and our churches when we put the “wrath of God” and “children of God” in the same sentence. Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, these two phrases are never to appear together. “The wrath of God is reserved for the sons of disobedience [the lost]” (Col 3:6). It is never in the picture with God’s children. But somehow, whether direct or subtle, I see the wrath of God held over the heads of parishioners and children alike, and it is not biblical.
One reason I am so vexed by this topic is because not only is the Old Testament approach not appropriate for the New Testament family, but it is clearly not working. We have a generation of young adults raised in this legalism and because of the misguided marriage of Old with the New, many are basically throwing the whole thing out the window; unaware of the freedom in Christ and resurrection power that is waiting for them in the provisions of the new covenant.
Let me encourage you, “BE A NEW TESTAMENT FAMILY.” Tap into Christ’s life-giving, resurrection power. Train your children to obey out of a sense of identity; a sense of who we are “in Christ”. I say as humbly as I can, but also unapologetically, that this is who we tried to be as a family. We tried to practice grace at every opportunity. We tried to practice love, acceptance, and forgiveness as modeled by Christ. We tried to live out the fruit of the Spirit that God has already planted in us by the new birth. Were we always successful? No. But by God’s grace and by following His ways, we experienced a result that was joy, not fear; loyalty, not selfish ambition; harmony, not confusion in our family. Who wouldn’t want to grow up in a family like that? I know I certainly would.
The good news is that you can do this. You can be a New Testament family. You can be a family characterized by love, not fear.
Now before we go and lest you think I have just cut the Old Testament out of my Bible, be assured that it is still there in its rightful place. And it does have a rightful place. We will talk about where that is next time.