Are we teaching grace or moralism at Christmas?


There may be no greater time for parents to both teach and illustrate grace to their children than at Christmas time. Grace is the very reason for the holiday in the first place. We set aside a special time each year to celebrate the coming of Jesus as a baby in a manger. John writes that, “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Even this is an understatement of the amount of grace given through the arrival and subsequent work of Jesus in his incarnation. Because of its sin, humanity finds itself at enmity with God and rightfully under his judgment and wrath. But this baby born 2,000 years ago came on a rescue mission so that this position could change. Christmas serves as a reminder of the greatest gift ever given to the most undeserving of recipients. It recalls the commencement of the way that God would demonstrate his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ came, lived a perfect life for us who fall so desperately short of God’s mandated perfection, and then willingly and sufficiently took our sin and shame upon himself as a substitutionary sacrifice on the cross (Romans 5:8). He initiated this plan despite our sin. What else is there to teach our children at Christmas but grace?

Nothing undercuts or distorts the message of grace more than moralism. The two ideas stand in direct opposition to one another. The two are completely mutually exclusive. The message of Christmas has long since been hijacked by moralism, though. Sure, we read the Christmas story and place our nativities in prominent places, but the focus of Christmas has begun to inadvertently preach a perverted gospel to the young hearts of our children, I’m afraid. We tell them, in essence, that the blessings of Christmas are directly related to their moral performance, only to see that they are rewarded no matter how they behave. We attempt to manipulate their obedience through threatening them that Santa is always watching and keeping a list. Children are first taught that any blessing they hope to experience is based on their behavior, or performance. But, as they grow older and ‘wiser,’ behavior manipulation and fear-based obedience is replaced with entitlement. They come to understand that it really doesn’t matter how they behave, they will always somehow end up on the ‘nice list’ and receive all or most of what they desire to have on Christmas morning anyway. So they are ungrateful for what they do receive, and selfish in response to what they do not. Entitlement has replaced gratitude to the extent that children even having the courtesy to say thank-you anymore has become a joke on consumer commercials. This hurts my heart.

My concern for this continues to grow, especially with the new elf-on-a-shelf phenomenon. I understand that this appears to be just another innocent game to most people, but what exactly are we teaching children with this little game? Is it not just further attempts at behavior manipulation? Is it not just intensifying our object lessons of desired behavior modification and thereby further eclipsing the central Christmas notion of grace?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some sort of Christmas prude. At least that is not my intention. I’m just passionate about the gospel. I’m passionate about making the message of the gospel crystal clear. I’m desperate for my children, more than anyone else, to fully and clearly understand the radical, grace-filled gospel of Jesus. I want to abstain from and even destroy anything that would present an obstacle to that. The gospel exists as the lens through which I see the world. It must be the lens through which we as parents gauge everything we do in parenting. Some will no doubt brush me off as being legalistic, but isn’t moralism and behavior manipulation at the heart of legalism?

I fall so desperately short in so many areas as a father. I can be guilty of moralism myself, especially in the way I discipline my children sometimes. My intention here is not to come across as superior. I just feel the need to speak into what I perceive as potentially very dangerous cultural trends around this time of the year. Each year around this time, I desire for my children’s hearts to be captivated by the extravagant love and grace of Jesus, not shackled by the need to perform in order to attain a spot on the coveted nice list. I want them to understand that because of our sin, none of us could ever earn a spot on that list. That is why Jesus came! He earned our spot for us! Only through faith in him are we made righteous before God. Through faith, he is our righteousness before the Father, despite our record of being naughty. That is something to celebrate! Only that can truly bring us the joy and peace we sing about each year!

When my kids wake up on Christmas morning, I want them to experience grace, not entitlement. I want them to experience the lavish love that mommy and daddy have for them, despite the fact that they don’t deserve it. I want to give them gifts, not because they have earned them by being ‘nice,’ but because I love them and I love to bless them. I want them to know that it is mommy and daddy who has sacrificed to bless them in that way, not some mystical man they do not know, granting their wishes because either they have behaved properly or are entitled to it. I want them to be captivated by a baby who came so that we might have life despite our sin that should earn us death, not trying to perform for a small, plastic elf that reports to the gift-giver. All in all, I want to demonstrate the gospel of grace to them during this season. I want to celebrate Jesus in that way. What better way to do that than to put grace on display? You see, Christmas should not be an opportunity for us to just make our kids happy. It should be the most incredible opportunity in a calendar year to point them to their absolute greatest need: reconciliation with God through Jesus. That is the gospel. That is the heart of Christmas. And only that can provide for them what I want most for them: true and enduring joy.

We play the Santa game at our house…to a certain extent. We watch the movies, sing the songs and read the books. But we do so while remaining extremely clear with our kids as to what is fun for play and what is reality. I’m not advocating any kind of a silly boycott. All I am urging parents to do is to take a look at everything you do at Christmas through the lens of the gospel. Does there exist anything that might possibly hinder your children from truly understanding the gospel? Are there any elements that could bring confusion to them about the reality of Christmas and of what God has done for us through Jesus in order to rescue us? Does any aspect of it promote moralism or entitlement? Are there any traditions you could begin to include that would help make the gospel the greatest thing you endorse? You might be surprised at what the gospel lens exposes, as I continue to be each and every year.

I Married my bride, Erin, in 2003. We have 3 children: Emma, Elijah, and Lydia. I have served full-time on staff at Westwood Baptist Church, in Roxboro, NC, since summer of 2006 as Pastor of Students & Discipleship. I am currently enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, pursuing my Doctorate of Education.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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