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From Tim Kimmel’s chapter “The Freedom to Make Mistakes” in his book Grace-Based Parenting:

Legalistic parents maintain a relationship with God through obedience to a standard. The goal of this when it comes to their children is to keep sin from getting into their home. They do their best to create an environment that controls as many of the avenues as possible that sin could use to work its way into the inner sanctum. . . . It’s as though the power to sin or not to sin was somehow connected to their personal will power and resolve. . . . These families are preoccupied with keeping sin out by putting a fence between them and the world.

The difference with grace-based families is that they don’t bother spending much time putting fences up because they know full well that sin is already present and accounted for inside their family. To these types of parents, sin is not an action or an object that penetrates their defenses; it is a preexisting condition that permeates their being. The graceless home requires kids to be good and gets angry and punishes them when they are bad. The grace-based home assumes kids will struggle with sin and helps them learn how to tap into God’s power to help them get stronger.

It’s not that grace-based homes don’t take their children’s sin seriously. Nor is it that grace-based homes circumvent consequences. It isn’t even that grace-based homes do nothing to protect their children from attacks and temptations that threaten them from the outside. They do all these things, but not for the same reasons. Grace-based homes aren’t trusting in the moral safety of their home or the spiritual environment they’ve created to empower their children to resist sin. . . . They assume that sin is an ongoing dilemma that their children must constantly contend with.

[Children in a grace-based family] are accepted as sinners who desire to become more like Christ rather than be seen as nice Christian kids trying to maintain a good moral code. Grace is committed to bringing children up from their sin; legalism puts them on a high standard and works overtime to keep them from falling down.

Grace understands that the only real solution for our children’s sin is the work of Christ on their behalf. . . .  Legalism uses outside forces to help children maintain their moral walk. Their strength is based on the environment they live in. Grace, on the other hand, sees the strength of children by what is inside them—more specifically, Who is inside them.

HT: Sally Michael

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24 thoughts on “Grace-Based Parenting vs. Fear-Based Parenting”

  1. Michael says:

    “Grace, on the other hand, sees the strength of children by what is inside them—more specifically, Who is inside them.”

    Who’s inside an unregenerate child though?

    1. Chad says:

      My thoughts also Michael. The article says, “[Children in a grace-based family] are accepted as sinners who desire to become more like Christ.”

      But is an unregenerate child a “sinner who desires to become more like Christ”? I am genuinely asking. Or do we merely treat them like one – treating them like they are part of God’s people and the covenant community even if they are not and have no desire to be. (I am not Presbyterian but that is sort of what this sounds like).

      1. Chad says:

        Let me just add that I really liked the message of this post. I recognize that my tendency is legalistic parenting. I want to fight against that and show my children the glorious good news that Jesus Christ alone can save them from the sin in their own hearts. I resonate with that and long for that.

        I just have a genuine question – does that involve treating them like children of God even if they are not? Does that mean encouraging them to act like believers even if they are not? Just wondering…

        1. Jordan S. says:

          This is in part a paedobaptist vs. credobaptist issue.

  2. michael henry says:

    Good cop bad cop? The “good, sorry graceful, family” versus the bad?

    There are grains of truth here, but it really smacks me of the pharisee who cried “thank God I am not a sinner like that man”.

    There are internal inconsistencies such as “… they don’t bother spending much time putting fences up…” but later “… It isn’t even that grace-based homes do nothing to protect their children…”

    The problem really is simply sin. The “bad”, and call it what it is, that is indeed how it is painted, is under the same grace and struggle with sin that the “good” family is.

    Without the law, we would not know sin. What else brings us to repentance. Is not the condemnation of the “legalistic” family legalism in itself, pre supposing “this is a better way”?

    I actually agree with most of the premise. There is a tension between the law and gospel use. But his is caricature.

  3. Jeffrey Brannen says:

    I think this is a Lutheran law/gospel issue rather than a Reformed view with and emphasis on the 3 uses of the law.

  4. “The grace-based home assumes kids will struggle with sin and helps them learn how to tap into God’s power to help them get stronger.” It would be better to say, a grace-based home encourages our children to ask God to give them a new heart and spirit to trust in Christ for forgiveness of sins and to follow Christ. A grace based home encourage them to repent and believe the gospel and to ask God to give them strength to repent and believe. Children cannot tap into God’s power until they are born again and believe the gospel.

    Also, homes SHOULD include strong male leadership, rules, discipline and punishment for disobedience as the scriptures command but it should also include loving affection, reconciliation, forgiveness and a CONSTANT encouragement to trust in the gospel and to follow after Christ.

    Overall, I think these 5 paragraphs could have been worded much better, especially considering the scriptures crystal clear teaching on parenting. Maybe the book the as whole is more balanced.

  5. John says:

    “The graceless home requires kids to be good and gets angry and punishes them when they are bad.”

    This statement is worded in such a way that it evokes images of an out of control adult taking out his or her anger on a child. But if the emotive language were removed from this statement, the description would not be that far away from the way God responds to sin. He requires people to obey his law. He is justly angry at sin, and he punishes sin. If we move away from requiring obedience and punishing sin, we haven’t moved in the direction of grace. We haven’t become more godly. We’ve become less.

    “The grace-based home assumes kids will struggle with sin and helps them learn how to tap into God’s power to help them get stronger.”

    How does this work prior to the time when your child is converted?

  6. John G says:

    This view “grace based parenting” seems in my mind to be taking a good thing to the other extreme. I have skimmed the book, know people who say they embrace this view. This view doesn’t seem to be the same view that is in the book by William Farley “Gospel-Powered Parenting”(My favorite Parenting book).

    I guess I am surprised your endorsing the book, then again maybe I need to do more research.

  7. Jason says:

    I haven’t read the book so I assume Kimmel may go on to explain better the balance between faith and works. Unfortunately, this excerpt is not an accurate interpreatation of grace and is not really suited to be (hopefully) taken out of context of the surrounding text. Not a good blog entry…but I suppose there is grace to account for it. :)

  8. Jason McGrath says:

    A frustrating read, to be honest (I mean the lifted excerpt; I haven’t read the book). One of the hardest parts of parenting is the application of discipline as sinful parents. And no one wants to be the “legalistic” or “grace-less” parent. I think it would help greatly if “legalistic” and “maintaining relationship” were more carefully defined. For that matter, the entire excerpt could use more precision. Should I not bother spending much time putting up fences, keeping sin from entering the home? I understand that the author is using words like “preoccupied” and “working overtime.” But is there no place for vigilance in this area? I put up fences because I know sin permeates their being.

    Way too simplistic for the kind of help parents need today.

  9. Mike says:

    I would enjoy seeing a chart presenting how each perspective would deal with a particular situation. Maybe some like, your daughter wants to wear trendy overly tight skinny jeans. How does grace base vs. “the other side” handle the real life conversation? Anyone want to take a crack at this? I would enjoy reading it : )

  10. Kim K says:

    I think the excerpt raises some good points. It’s easy as a parent to check off the markers – no R rated movies, no tight jeans, no MTV, no friends who aren’t from our church, etc., and think you’ve raised good Christian kids. Certainly the grace-based parent may set some of the same limits. The point is, do you move beyond the markers and work on the heart condition? Otherwise you raise kids who know what Mom and Dad (and God) may expect, but they don’t know why the rules are so important.

    1. Mike says:

      Hey Kim, I have found some “legalistic” parenting focus on “the heart of the matter” I.E. helping their children see the motivation and rebellion toward God (fear of man….). This brief excerpt seems to isolate 2-camps, when there is significant degradation within the realm of parenting advice. It seems the legalistic tag is being used as a straw man (a little). I guess this is the problem when distilling information.

  11. Cody Kimmel says:

    I may have a slight bias toward the message of the book (and its author) seeing that it is written by my dad. With that said, I do want to insert a bit of perspective to help at least temper some of the criticisms of this excerpt due to a lack of appreciating the full context. Judging the statements cited on this blog before fully examining the content it is referring to seems to be an unfortunate trend of this blog…

    One of the main criticisms I read above is that a grace based parenting approach is only relevant to a regenerate heart and an unregenerate heart cannot rely on the power of God, or more specifically, parents cannot draw that out of them since it is not there. To that point, it is a strange thing for us to limit what God’s power can and cannot do. Regardless of how reformed you are, it is silly to assume that God cannot move in his power in a sinner’s heart prior to their regeneration. Also, my dad in no way believes children are born as anything but sinners. His point is that fear based parenting, one that fears the power of the world is more powerful than the God we as parents believe in is not the best way to live the gospel in front of our kids. To treat our children with grace is a way to make grace more noticeable if and when God decides to call them to repentance.

    As for the “grace gone wild” type criticism, juxtaposing this with legalism, in my dad’s other books and in this book itself, it addresses discipline and punishment as a necessary part of the grace based approach. Because of my vested interest, I may be blind. But as a decently reformed person myself, I can strongly attest to both the theological integrity and the practical strength of this approach and philosophy.

    1. Chad says:

      Thanks so much for commenting, Cody. As I mentioned above, I was definitely not trying to crucify your dad in any way. I have four children 6 and under, and I genuinely want to know how to do “grace-based parenting” well. And, honestly, now that you have contributed, I cannot think of a better person to ask about this than the author’s own child.

      So, if you are willing, how did your dad’s approach look in a very specific situation. For example, when you pushed a sibling down or in some way deliberately disobeyed a command from your parents, how did that go?

      Again, I am sincerely asking. No tongue in cheek and no sarcasm.

      1. Cody Kimmel says:

        Chad, I appreciate your honest interest in the issue and I can’t imagine the challenge of four kids six and under. I have one with another on the way and learning to apply this is already challenging.

        To give you a specific example, let’s say I said something rude to my sister and my parents either heard me say it or were made aware of it. I would have been punished immediately for it because that wasn’t tolerated. Depending on my age, that could look like a spanking or grounding or something like that. The freedom to make mistakes doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for mistakes. Discipline is a necessary part of grace.

        What my dad is meaning by the freedom to make mistakes is that a kid can make mistakes without fear of being rejected or unjustly punished or marginalized by his or her parents. The idea is treating kids the way God treats his. When I as a saved person sin, I can be disciplined, sometimes severely, but I am never in fear of being rejected by God because his love for me is dependent on his will and mercy, not my worthiness.

        Does that clarify that Chad?

  12. TG says:

    Several in this thread seem to have concerns about parenting the “unregenerate” with grace.

    It seems to me that, regardless of where Christian parents are theologically, that this –shouldn’t– be an issue. After all, if God in His plan has put your children in a home with Christian parents, can’t the parents have faith that God’s Holy Spirit is also working in their little hearts? Parents don’t need to “know” for sure if a child is “regenerate” or not to treat them as if God is at work in their lives. It doesn’t take a certain theological stance or belief about children and regeneration to believe that God is at work in their lives.

  13. Katie says:

    I loved this excerpt. It was really encouraging and I am therefore quite attracted to reading the book. I had been wondering about how to apply Grace in my parenting.

    Offering my support to the author. I personally think it is a very biblical response to parenting. And it lines up quite well with my experiences.

    Also to the editor of this blog, I have just discovered this blog, and I really enjoy the content. Very useful.

    Best Regards

  14. That’s a very illustrative blog post image. Clever JT! :-)

  15. Jack Wellman says:

    I was so blessed to go thru the Faye-Kline institute and find out what the three (at minimum) types of parents there were: The drill sergeant, the helicopter search & rescue, and the consultant parent. I was a little of all three at times. Legalism was hard for me to get away from.The Love and Logic way was supreme in straitening me out. Now, as a grandfather, the ah haw moment comes too late. Brilliant piece.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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