One of the main objections I hear when I talk about good-news teaching is that it sounds soft on sin and the need to obey God. When I say that teaching absolutely free grace in Jesus leads us to obey him out of gratitude, from the heart, people sometimes think it sounds like I’m saying we don’t have to obey unless we feel like it.
That’s not true at all! We must daily say no to sin even if that sin feels good at the moment—and sometimes it does. Good-news teaching helps obedience rather than working against it. Since many people struggle with this question, I thought I’d offer twelve answers to the objection that teaching God’s free grace leads to lax obedience.
1. Unless our hearts are in it, we haven’t fully obeyed God in the first place.
If we’re happy merely to manage a reluctant sort of good behavior, we’re aiming too low. God commands us to obey from the heart (Deuteronomy 30:2). He says repentance must come from the heart (1 Kings 8:48). He tells us to forgive from the heart (Matthew 18:35). And Jesus said the great and first commandment is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matthew 22:37). When teaching helps kids to obey gladly, out of heartfelt gratitude rather than under compulsion, it isn’t being soft about God’s law but rather very serious about it. It’s setting the bar high—where God sets it.
2. Obedience that’s grounded in love overcomes how we feel at the moment.
It’s a mistake to think that love-based obedience is captive to feelings. Consider the people you love. Even if you love them dearly, sometimes you don’t feel like serving them—but since you love them you’ll serve them anyway. Love harbors a desire that goes beyond how you feel at the moment. Believers who love God have a lasting, underlying desire to obey him, even amid temptation and mixed feelings. That’s the nature of love.
3. The suspicion that saved people use grace as an excuse to sin has too small a view of salvation and grace.
If the only thing God did for us was to forgive us—then okay, maybe grace would make us think we could sin as much as we like. But in Romans 6, Paul explains that even though we enjoy God’s grace, we don’t go on sinning because that grace includes much more than forgiveness. We’re joined to Christ. We’re alive in him and growing spiritually. Due to this, we have a new model for obedience that’s rooted in the Spirit’s work in us. When kids learn a view of salvation that includes delight in the grace of “a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9), there’s no worry that teaching such grace might lead them to think sin is okay.
4. Knowing we’re surely saved can’t lead to lax behavior if we understand how grand our future happiness will be.
Another thing we know if our view of salvation is big, like it should be, is that we’ll be overjoyed one day to be completely free of sin. The better we understand the beauty of this—and are sure it’s coming because God is gracious—the more we’ll want to overcome sin in this life. Kids gripped by grace have a taste of heaven. It makes them hungry to live like heaven-bound people now.
5. The idea that God’s grace might let us get away with sin is not how reborn people should think.
Paul also says in Romans 6 that our new life has a new attitude. The old attitude that asked, “How much can I get away with?” belongs to our old, worldly lives. We’re set free of that. It should no longer occur to us to obey just enough to avoid punishment. If your teaching panders to that kind of thinking by avoiding grace, you’re using the old, worldly motives instead of alive-in-Christ ones. Christians obey because they’re sold out to Jesus. The law-based mentality does the minimum to get by; a love-based mentality does the most it can. Which is a fuller obedience?
6. It’s not possible for us to do godly things consistently unless our hearts are captivated by God.
We might bring ourselves to resist a sin here and there when it’s easy, when we’re feeling extra-determined, or when others are watching. Most of the rest of the time, however, our hearts win out—we serve what (or whom) we love. The only way to become a more consistently obedient person is to push out sinful loves by replacing them with a bigger love for God.
7. We can’t really obey God if we’re unsure of his pleasure toward us.
If we aren’t convinced he actually loves us, forever and unfailingly, everything we do for him will only be a scheme to impress him and try to earn or keep his love. That’s manipulation, not obedience. We’ll actually be doing our acts of “obedience” for ourselves—and to save ourselves. Such selfishness and misplaced faith isn’t godly behavior.
8. Knowing God’s grace lets us get serious about God’s law without falling into despair.
A teacher who fails to teach God’s grace has to be careful not to push kids too hard to obey, because they can easily get either discouraged or proud. It’s easier when kids are sure of God’s grace no matter what. Then a teacher can be much more forceful in urging them to obey. There’s less worry that even very hard teaching about obedience will lead to despair or self-righteousness. More grace allows harder teaching about sin, not softer teaching.
9. To become more effective at fighting sin and at obeying, we must focus on believing the good news.
The most fundamental of all the good works God requires is belief: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). Unbelief is at the root of all other sin. Unless kids learn to strengthen their belief in Jesus by hearing and responding to the good news, their fight against sin will have a lousy strategy. They’ll struggle with surface sins while ignoring the heart—and get nowhere. The good-news strategy is far more serious about whole-life obedience than an approach that just takes pot shots at certain visible sins.
10. Unless our good works spring from belief in Jesus, they aren’t even actually good.
Faith is so central that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Elsewhere, the Bible says, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). When kids learn about and believe the gracious rewards that are ours in Jesus, they’ve laid the mandatory foundation for true obedience.
11. God means for his kindness to motivate us to obey.
Sure, there always are some people who presume that God’s forgiveness comes easily and take their sin lightly as a result. However, when Paul addresses this problem, he doesn’t say that the solution is to stop teaching grace. Instead, he explains that grace is designed to have the opposite effect: “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). God’s kindness, when properly understood, leads to repentance. Kids see how richly his love has reached down to them—with the compassion of the cross—and are compelled to hate sin like he does.
12. Our experience agrees with what the Bible teaches: people who love God’s grace also love to obey him.
I have never, ever met a kid who was powerfully gripped by grace and, as a result of appreciating so fully how God loves him in spite of his sin, went around doing all kinds of sin just because he knew he could get away with it. That doesn’t happen. A true appreciation for grace always brings humility, which makes kids willing to be obedient. We ought to expect this based on passages about grace such as Titus 2:11–12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” The kids I know who truly have joy in Christ fit that passage. They obey happily, even when they think no one’s looking. It’s the kids who feel pressure who end up living a double life—who put on a godly image at home or church but sneak around sinning at other times.
Maybe you’ve read all this, and you still hesitate. Maybe teaching that much grace still just feels wrong.
Well, of course it does. The good news is ridiculous by the world’s sensibilities. It violates all we know about how to force sin-trapped people to comply.
But we are no longer trapped; we’re free in Christ. We who have felt the power of the good news know that we’re most eager to obey when we’re most delighted with Jesus. Although we still struggle with sin, we’re destined to worship eternally with the best of motivations, and by God’s grace our lives today already display some of that wonder.
Excerpted from Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids © 2014 by Jack Klumpenhower. Used with permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids
In this transformative resource for youth workers, children’s ministry teachers, parents, and VBS volunteers, Jack Klumpenhower teaches how to discover the gospel connections in every Bible story. Show Them Jesus is an instruction manual for teachers of kids and teens written by a lay Bible teacher with thirty years of experience.