Are You a New Testament Family?

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.

Parenting with the Parables – The Lost Son

Remember the context of Jesus’ first coming?  His contemporaries viewed the coming kingdom as a national deliverance from foreign oppression and personal deliverance for the righteous.  Jesus turned that idea on its head and proclaimed deliverance for the needy; the sick, the oppressed, the sinner.  The Jewish leaders expected judgment for the sinners, not redemption.  When Jesus ate with those considered “sinners,” it meant acceptance and recognition in their culture.  This coupled with His announcement that the kingdom had come to sinners led to many a protest from the religious leaders.

One of these protests is found in Luke chapter 15, “Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.  And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’  And He told them this parable, saying,…” (Lk 15:1-3).  Jesus then goes on to tell three parables to illustrate that the very thing He was being accused of is exactly why Jesus came; to rescue the lost.

The last in this series of parables is the story of the lost son, sometimes referred to as the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32).  To summarize the story, a wealthy landowner had two sons.  The younger son requested his share of the inheritance from his father so he could set out on his own.  The father agreed and the younger son took the money and headed off to a far away country.  After squandering his inheritance on loose living, the son ended up working on a hog farm in a time of famine and was in the process of starving to death.  When the son came to his senses, he said, “My father’s servants are treated so much better than this.  I will go to my father.  I will throw myself on his mercy.  I will offer to become a servant and work off the money I wasted.”  So the son returned home.

Meanwhile back at the family farm, Jesus paints a picture of a lovesick father waiting and yearning for his lost son.  When the son returns, the father sees him from afar, is overwhelmed with compassion, runs to embrace him, kisses him, and announces a feast in his honor.  He will have nothing to do with his son’s plan to pay off the debt, but instead proclaims to all who will hear, “Rejoice with me.  My son who was as good as dead has come back to life.  My son who was lost has been found.” (Lk 15:23-24).

Let’s stop the narrative right here and say, “Wait just a minute.”  Are we to believe that after squandering his father’s money and inflicting the emotional pain of leaving without a trace, that all is forgiven?  What about working off the debt?  What about some probationary period to make sure the son’s change of heart is genuine?  And is Jesus’ parable really suggesting that the attitude of this father – celebrating his son’s return with forgiveness and no thought of repayment – is a picture of how God, the Father, accepts us?

That, my friends, is the absolute unadulterated beauty of the Christian message!  When we change our minds about Jesus Christ and embrace His message, all is forgiven.  There is no probationary period.  There is no “good works” requirement of being better than my neighbor, giving to charity, or performing any acts of penance.  To our calculating and cynical minds this is too good to be true.  That is the uniqueness of the Christian message.  And this free gift is being offered to you right now.

When you strip away the media caricature of Christianity, when you strip away the uninformed biases we have heard all of our lives about Christianity, at the heart of the Christian message is the story of a lovesick Father rejoicing in and accepting without reservation the person who embraces His message of good news.  And the good news is this:  Jesus Christ died for your sin problem and offers to set you free from its penalty and its power.

Yes, it is almost too good to be true, but we believe by faith that this “beautiful unfairness of grace” is indeed completely true.  And the lesson for our children is two-fold.  It is to rejoice and be grateful in the grace that was given to them free of charge.  It is to approach God as their Abba Father without fear; completely loved, forgiven, and accepted.  And it is a call to extend that grace to others.  When our families are saturated with this grace; fear, worry, and disharmony will diminish, and joy, cooperation, and love will increase.

Parenting with the Parables – The Unmerciful Servant

In the gospels, Jesus referred to His ministry as “new wine” (Mk 2:22); not just an add-on to the old covenant, but something totally brand new.  In fact, I would say it is beyond brand new to the point of being completely revolutionary.  And one of its revolutions was the overturning of the Old Testament consequence model in favor of God’s new covenant model of love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Remember, the disciples would have been steeped in the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye model prior to meeting Jesus.  So Peter was actually being quite generous in Matthew 18:21 when he asked Jesus if he should forgive his brother up to seven times.  But Jesus trumped Peter’s attempt at generosity by teaching that our forgiveness should be unlimited and illustrates this point with a story.

As with most parables, the story begins with “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a …” (Mt 18:23).  Jesus then tells the story of the unmerciful servant who after being forgiven an insurmountable debt by the king, goes out and demands payment of a tiny debt by a fellow servant to the point of putting the second fellow into debtor’s prison.  Of course, when the king hears of this he is incensed and the first servant is rightly punished.

Jesus’ point?  We should always forgive our brother just like the king – our heavenly Father – has forgiven us.  We can also learn from the parable that the offense against us is small potatoes compared to the great moral trespass we have committed toward God and of which we have been completely forgiven.

In parenting with the parables, we used this story to demonstrate to our children the value of forgiveness.  We taught our kids how to ask, extend, and receive forgiveness.  We taught them how forgiveness is a key part of love and acceptance and how these qualities all flow together.  Forgiveness is a healing antidote to sibling rivalry.  Like the attitude of generosity that we have previously written about here, it moves us away from being prisoners of a fairness and consequence model and opens our family up to the new world of love, acceptance, and forgiveness brought to us by Jesus.

It also prepares our children for the adult world.  We live in such a victim mentality culture these days.  Someone else is at fault for my dysfunction, my situation, my circumstances, my loss; and they must somehow be made to pay for my distress.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, not only flies in the face of this mentality, but models the attributes of Christ who not only forgave his literal killers, but us His spiritual killers as well.  Our sins sent Christ to the cross and in the most generous forgiveness possible, He has pronounced us “not guilty” when we accept His sacrifice in our place.

Love, acceptance, and forgiveness brings a generosity of life to our families that is a wonderful thing.  And it is a joy-filled experience to be part of.  May it be the experience in your family today.