On Sunday, the team responsible for our weekly children’s ministries gathered for a BBQ and celebration of God’s goodness over the past year. As part of our time together, we discussed some quotes from Samuel Williamson’s book, “Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids? How Moralism Suffocates Grace.” For those of you with children at Grace, don’t worry: our Sunday School isn’t destroying them! But Williamson argues that when we get Sunday School wrong – and it’s easy to do – it has the potential to destroy our children’s faith. Let me explain why.
We started our time on Sunday discussing the following quote from Williamson:
Several years ago I met with a woman distraught by her son’s rejection of Christianity. She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.” She wondered why he rejected Christianity. I wondered why it took him so long.
Without any context or detail, it’s impossible to know exactly why her son rejected Christianity. Her words, however, are very telling. She talks about teaching her son about the heroes of faith but doesn’t say anything about teaching him about God. She taught him about faithfulness, goodness, purity and obedience from the Bible, but she doesn’t say anything about teaching the gospel. She talks a lot about good morals, but she doesn’t mention anything about grace. In fact, to the degree that her words accurately portray what she taught her son, she was actually giving him a different religion. She was teaching him moralism not Christianity. Moralism teaches the commands and morals of the Bible without the grace and help of God.
Williamson explains the distinction like this: “The message of the gospel—the entire storyline of scripture—is God’s loving pursuit of people who run from him as fast as they can and who live lives unworthy of his love. That’s why it’s called grace. But our Sunday school lessons teach us to be good little boys and girls, and God will love us and use us. It’s the total opposite of the gospel. It’s a counterfeit of the worst kind.”
Christianity is not just imitating Abraham’s faithfulness, Joseph’s goodness, David’s purity or Esther’s obedience. In fact, when we look closely at the Biblical characters we find that Abraham wasn’t always so faithful, Joseph wasn’t always so good, David wasn’t always so pure and Esther walked a long road before she finally learned to obey God. That’s not to say that teaching morals and commands is wrong. It’s obviously a good thing but those commands need to be put in a gospel framework for them to be called Christian.
I contrast the gospel with moralism in three ways:
- Morality looks for human heroes to imitate but the gospel presents a divine hero to save us. The hero of the Bible is Jesus not Abraham, Joseph, David or Esther. The gospel says that everyone has sinned and so even our heroes are flawed. The best a human can do is point us to Jesus. Biblical characters sometimes show us how people can be used by God, how people can by changed by God or how much people need God but the point of their lives is never for us to just imitate them or try and understand their lives outside of God’s intervention. God is the hero of every story.
- Morality sees good works as the basis of our standing with God but the gospel sees the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as our only hope for salvation. While evangelical Christians have often been quick to make this distinction in explaining how someone is saved, they have often got it wrong when explaining how to walk with God.
- Morality looks to human effort as the path to growth and blessing while the gospel looks to God’s grace to live the Christian life. It’s no use teaching children that they’re saved by grace and then motivating them to live the Christian life with guilt, duty and obligation. If we do, they’ll rightly conclude that we’ve done a bait and switch. The gospel teaches us to live the Christian life with the power that God provides: His faithfulness, His patient forgiveness, His presence with us, the power of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of the Word of God, the support of God’s people, and the help that He gives us in prayer.
Williamson summarizes the gospel hope with these words:
The wonder of the gospel is not the love of the beautiful; it’s when Beauty kisses the Beast. The Beast isn’t loved because he has changed; the Beast is changed when he is loved. Joy doesn’t come when he’s loved for his beauty; joy overwhelms him when he is loved in his hideousness. If the Beast were loved for his beauty, it would be an unbearable burden. Any day he might be scarred, and soon he will certainly be a wrinkled old man. Let’s teach the wonder of the gospel. Let’s show our kids that God loves us … simply because he loves us. In our beastliness. That he loves us before we are good.
Our Sunday School teachers are working hard to make sure they train children in the grace of the gospel and not just morality and obligation. If you have children, I’d invite you to do the same. May we raise a generation of believers who have experienced what can happen when Beauty kisses the Beast!
In awe of Him,