Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over 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 had rejected Christianity.
I wondered why it took him so long.
Here Is How We Destroy the Gospel Message
Look at almost any Sunday school curriculum and you’ll find the following:
- Abraham was faithful, and God made him the father of a nation. So be faithful like Abraham.
- Joseph was a good little boy (unlike his “bad” brothers), and God made him prime minister of Egypt. So be good like Joseph.
- David had a pure heart (unlike his brothers), and God made him king of Israel. So have a pure heart like David.
- Esther was an obedient girl. God made her queen of Persia, and she saved God’s people. So be obedient like Esther.
- Finally, if we fail to be good, Jesus will forgive us. (This comes as a PS tacked onto the end.)
What’s so bad about these Sunday school lessons?
Nothing really. Except that they lie about God, they lie about these “heroes of the faith,” they lie about the Bible, and they lie about the gospel. Oh, and they create “younger brother” rebels and “older brother” Pharisees. Apart from that, they are pretty good.
Is the gospel our central theme, or is it a PS tacked onto the end?
The Gospel Is More Than Good Morals
We need moral people. In a world where darkness expresses itself in everything from petty theft to genocide, healthy morals enable us to peacefully coexist. And that is good. Essential, even. It just isn’t the gospel.
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis shows how all the major religious thinkers share similar moral values. He quotes from ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Hindu, Greek, and Jewish writings. Despite the wide gulfs of geography, time, and culture, there is an amazing consistency in moral wisdom concerning fidelity, honesty, mercy, and justice.
And that is the point: Most religions believe in mostly the same moralities. So what distinguishes Christianity?
We need the gospel. And the gospel exceeds mere morality.
The Gospel Storyline
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 if we are, then God will love us and use us. It’s the total opposite of the gospel. It’s a counterfeit of the worst kind.
The Inside Out of the Gospel
The wonder of the gospel is not the love of the beautiful; it’s that 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 in any case he will soon be a wrinkled old man.
So why do we burden our children with the unbearable load of “being good little boys and girls like the heroes in the Bible”? We wouldn’t load a pack mule with the burdens we place on our children.
There’s Gotta Be a Better Way
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. That his love isn’t vague sentimentality but cost him his most precious treasure in order to turn us into his prized possession.
That the storyline of the Bible is God’s search-and-rescue mission to find the dying Beast and kiss him into joyous life. Let’s teach our kids how:
- Abraham was an idol worshiper, and God loved him and pursued him;
- Joseph was a narcissistic boy, and God loved him and pursued him;
- David was a murdering adulterer, and God loved him and pursued him; and
- Esther had sex outside of marriage with a non-believer, and God loved her and pursued her.
Our heroes weren’t loved because they were good; they became good because they were loved.
We may believe in the innocence of youth, but our children know better. They see the children in the schoolyard (and they see us at home!). They don’t need the counterfeit gospel of pack-mule moralism. They need the kiss of the Beauty.
Maybe we do too. After all, it’s what the Bible really teaches.
This post is an excerpt from my book, Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids. People in the world often reject Christianity simply because they can’t distinguish it from mere morality.
The world needs morality–oppression thrives when consciences are abandoned–but we need more than morality alone. We need the gospel of grace. A gospel that has largely been lost amid the dos and don’ts and preoccupations of religious culture.
Join thousand of other readers who have delighted in this short, story-filled, thought-provoking book on grace.
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The book is accompanied by a twelve week Study Guide, filled with questions for reflection and exercises for growth; perfect for small groups or personal meditation. To download free Study Guide, Click Here (or on the image to the left).
Click here for a PDF of commonly asked questions about this book: Frequently Asked Questions
You hit the bullseye again on this article. In our shamed based society the Gospel is more and more compelling in the message that we are enough:). Jesus came to give us the truth of God’s love for each of us and show us how to walk in that love. Eph. is my favorite book of the Bible because it talks so much about grace, the depths of God’s love, and how abundant our lives can be if we walk with that.
When was the last time that Eph. was taught in Sunday School?
Have a blessed day!
Awesome, all I can say is awesome.
Thank you! All I can say is, Thank you!
Sam, I always enjoy your postings and learn something from them. But this one? Wow! It is so spot-on and well said. Legalism (living by actions in order to gain love) is so destructive, but living out of knowing we are loved makes all the difference in the world – it is the true Gospel message. Thanks!
It IS the gospel, but we forget. There is something inside us that wants to “deserve” his love; and the moment we start talking that way, we start trying to earn it.
The hardest thing about Christianity is … humility.
God can make the little of us great; but he won’t use the greatest until we become little.
Love that image of Bible Bullets. No, wait, maybe I don’t like it. Well, you know what I mean.
In the end, we need to teach kids the gospel, but in the final analysis, they simply need to meet God. Hopefully when they do, he won’t be too unrecognizable from our descriptions.
I did meet God through faith in Jesus as a child.
If anyone is caught in the deception of “saved by works” I pray that God speaks to them and delivers them, like he did me.
God was unrecognizable to me through the descriptions (not the actions) of some “stunted in faith,” believers I’ve known.
Jesus knows his sheep and they hear his voice. I cavort on the edge of the pasture sometimes, but his voice always gets my attention.
Just another take on descriptions in 3rd paragraph. Just another way to see it.
Love the article, couldn’t agree more. Remember having a discussion with some of the older people at my church about this subject when I was a kid. Basically pointed out how spectacularly awful the ‘heroes’ in the Old Testament were and getting the, “Well they were great people for their time.” and showing that wasn’t true by the Law they were supposed to follow. Got told by my own mother I must be listening to demons for suggesting David was a terrible human being and the whole Bath-Sheba thing was just one mistake in a long line of horrible things he did before he finally grew up if you really dig deep into the narrative.
Then when I started teaching adult Sunday School as an young adult and people ten years my senior were asking me how to study their Bibles, what the difference between the old and new testament was, basic stuff like that (when the pastor finally left the room),I tossed the curriculum out the window and tried to help with, you know, real issues, well let’s say it wasn’t pleasant. Been gun shy about going back for a while.
Anyway, great post, loved it. Keep up the good work!
Great story, and sad. I think it is essential that we tell the truth of biblical characters, if for no other reason than the Bible does so. It doesn’t mean we have to exaggerate their wrongdoings (frankly, there is no need), and it also doesn’t mean we ignore what they did right. We just tell it like it is.
But I think it’s also worthwhile to mention the changes God makes. For example, Paul (in Phil 3 and elsewhere) describes all his previous “great works” and then calls them rubbish.
What kind of person will belittle his own good deeds? A person changed by the gospel. Paul doesn’t say good deeds are bad (like James, he’s day faith without works is dead); he just says deeds done without a spirit-changed heart aren’t worth a hill of beans.
And a final note- I was raised in the church, and had the painful experience of watching my church friends from childhood walk away from the church. Most of those who left were the kids who only had sporadic attendance in youth group and Sunday school and AWANA. The kids who grew up and decided to stay in church are not surprisingly all the same ones who, like me, weren’t allowed to do any extracurricular activities that would have had schedules that pulled me away from time at church.
I also was raised in a good church, but I saw faithful attenders fall away, not just the sporadic attenders.
And I don’t mean to say that it was always the teacher’s fault. Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear.
In the final analysis, it isn’t our attendance or faithfulness; it is God’s faithfulness that we need. having said that, faith without works is dead. But so is works without faith in HIS faithfulness.
Hi Grace (and I love your name, Grace!),
I’m glad you have a great curriculum. I actually had a great childhood Sunday school (though it was decades ago) and I also taught Sunday school. I am not opposed to Sunday school. I like it.
Although, I had a great experience as a kid (way too long ago), I see this moralistic perversion all over the place.
The truth is, a gospel changed heart will teach the gospel out of the most legalistic curriculum and a moralistic heart will teach moralism out of the most gospel curriculum.
We need to examine our hearts. How much do we come to God from a sense of “Thank you God that I’m not like ….”
I think the greatest temptation for mature believers isn’t sensuality (though it’s a temptation); it’s moralism. Like the Galatians, it’s easy to begin in the Spirit and end in the Flesh.
Who has bewitched us?
Keep on teaching Grace (did I say I like your name?).
My favorite verse, the one that I put in my head for my own children and before any Sunday School lesson I give, is Matthew 3:17. This is how I want to speak to my children. Before any miracle, before any followers are called, before any ministry or teaching: this is my beloved child, in whom I am well-pleased. And when I have fallen short and failed, this is the verse that brings me back to try again knowing that I am loved with or without my accomplishments and activities, successes and failures.
Oh, my goodness! You had me with this article, until you said Esther had sex outside of marriage with a non-believer, and God loved her and pursued her! You seriously put her “actions” on the same level as David’s murder and adultery and all the other actions you listed? What sin did she commit?? Do you not realize she was forced to go to the king? I do believe that is rape! It wasn’t a choice she made. There is a huge difference!
Thank you! I was more than a little upset about that point too.
While it’s likely there was sex involved, that’s never stated explicitly either. For all we know, Esther pleased the king by delighting him with her wit, kindness, and personality as well as beauty.
If there was sex, Esther and the others were never given an option, they were rounded up to be trot out before the king one by one until he picked a bride.
Even with David, before the murder and adultery, he pursued God with his whole heart. He made terrible mistakes along the way, but one thing you can say for David is that he was constantly trying. And when his sin was pointed out to him, he both repented AND paid a price for it.
Thanks for sharing.
I believe we should all strive to live selfless lives for God. I hope that my article does not in anyway detract us from living all out for God and forgetting ourselves, taking up His cross and following Him.
My only point is to move us from Moralism (which focuses on our deserving God’s favor) to Grace (which focuses on God’s love for us even when we don’t deserve it).
If my comments about David and Esther distract us from that principle: THROWN THEM OUT!!!!!!!!!!!! Please, let me not be a stumbling block.
My only request is that we remember the whole of scripture, that grace is God’s free gift and not something that we “earn.”
Thanks for commenting, and thanks for disagreeing with me. We need each other!!
Hi P. C.,
That line was a hard line for me to write. Among my top heroes of Scripture, Esther stands in the top five. I grew up thinking the exact same as you do. I’ve changed my mind, but I might be wrong. I don’t want to be dogmatic about this point. But I also don’t want to ignore what believers have thought and taught for thousands of years.
First, when we think of the gospel, it is always God’s initiative and human’s response. God doesn’t choose us because we are great; we become great through his choice.
This is fundamental to our understanding of God an of ourselves. Like God calling his people Israel in Deut. 7:5, “. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the Lord loves you.”
If we believe that God only chooses the “good” people, we will either despair (because we honestly recognize our own faults) or we will become arrogant (when we see others who don’t live as virtuously as we do).
God didn’t choose Esther (or Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene) because of their greatness. He chose them to show his own greatness in making them great.
Also, there is a fantastic commentary on Esther written by Karen Jobes that I HIGHLY recommend. It is inspiring and thought provoking: http://www.amazon.com/Esther-Application-Commentary-Karen-Jobes/dp/0310206723/
Again, I don’t mean to disparage Esther. Only to say that it is God’s greatness not our (or any human’s) greatness that is the point of the gospel.
Thanks for commenting.
Thanks for comments.
Let me just add this. I believe–I STRONGLY believe–that Esther handled herself far better than I would have.
And in the final analysis, she DID address the king in a way that opened herself up to banishment or even death. She said, “If I perish, I perish.” That was bravery and courage in a situation I can’t even imagine.
I’m not disagreeing with the point you are making. I do believe that you could have made your point without misrepresenting Esther’s situation. I’m not saying that anyone is good, but to use the example that Esther had sex outside of wedlock to show how people are not good, is a misrepresentation of her situation. The reader would assume that Esther had some form of sinful intentions by having sex outside of wedlock. I find it very hard to come to that conclusion by reading her story. I do not disagree with the point of your article, or what your intentions were in using the examples you used. I disagree with using Esther’s situation to make your point when your point was already valid by using the valid examples. I find it troubling when people use scripture out of context to make a point that other scriptures already make. I find it hard to believe that Esther was somehow responsible for the situation she was in. This is problematic because to blame the victim of a crime for the crime itself just doesn’t make sense to me. Again, you had proper examples to make your point in the first place. We all know that Esther was human and not sinless, but to use her rape to show that she is not perfect conveys the idea that the victims of crime are somehow responsible. My main issue is how scripture is being used.
His points are contradictory.
Definitely NOT teaching my children David was a murderer, Abraham was an
idol worshipper, etc. That’s not how the Lord describes them in the
“Hall of Faith” (Heb 11). The Lord calls those the writer mentioned
“a great cloud of witnesses” not adulterers, liars, murderers, etc. The
writer is saying, instead of teaching your kids that Abraham was
faithful, teach them that he was an idol worshipper but God still loved
him. With that logic, couldn’t you conclude if you taught your
child(ren) that way that they WOULD leave the church to DO “bad” things
PURPOSELY with thought in mind “but God would still love me and show me
grace”? That is not how the Lord
instructs us to teach them. He said to teach them HIS ways, when we sit
down and rise up. Paul said, “follow me as I follow Christ”. Jesus
said, “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect”. The writer article are DEAD wrong.
Hey I liked the article, but I feel if must point this out–Esther is not a rebel. If what happened her happened today, it would be sex trafficking. She was forcibly removed from her home and forced to have sex (what we call rape nowadays ) with the leader of the not so free world. Esther was living a nightmare! Any curriculum that says she is a rebel and not a victim trivializes rape and sexual abuse. Please — this is a crucial point–don’t miss it.
Wars and power bring out great atrocities in people. In World War II, there were acts of rape, murder, and brutality. There were also conquered people who collaborated. No one blamed the victims of rape for being raped, but citizens were furious with the collaborators.
I think the book of Esther paints her as a collaborator. This does not minimize the brutality of a world that I cannot imagine; though it may mitigate it some.
The book of Esther takes place fifty years after the Jews are allowed to return to Israel; but some of the Jews did not return, many because they liked the life in Persia. Many question why they didn’t return.
I admit that I can’t prove Esther’s collaboration, though the book strongly hints at it; but you can’t prove Esther’s innocent victim-hood either.
If she was raped; the good news is that we are not bound by past victimization. If she collaborated, the good news is that our past bad deeds do not disqualify us for God’s great work.
Unfortunately this is so often true. I wish I could say that the preaching from our pulpits was different, but many times it isn’t, which is why parents don’t recognize this error for what it is. The Bible isn’t about good morals. The Bible is about Jesus from beginning to end.
I think we don’t want to see “Jesus” in scripture because it reminds us of nothingness. If we see rules and plans and goals, then we have something we can do; we can be superheroes!
I know this is an older article but I hope you guys are still keeping this blog up! This is such a great topic because it’s not the program of Sunday School but the watered down Gospel like you said. Keep spreading the good news and God bless!