Does Teaching the 10 Commandments Make Kids Legalists?


Does Teaching the 10 Commandments Make Kids Legalists?

By April 15, 2015June 18th, 2021No Comments

Some teachers post the Ten Commandments to make a statement about moral values.

Others, to nag students into obedience.

My reason is altogether different.

Every year I keep a running list on the wall of my Sunday school classroom.

I call it “the longest list in church,” and it’s a list of the many ways Jesus is better than anything or anyone else.

Every week, following that Sunday’s lesson, the kids and I add at least one thing we learned about Jesus that fits the list.

This practice reminds me to keep teaching about Jesus, no matter where in the Bible the lesson comes from, and it reinforces for the kids the many ways Jesus is so very good.

This is probably the sort of routine you’d expect from a teacher like me who’s trying to be “gospel-centered.” It focuses on the good news about Jesus.

But there’s a second list we’ve also put on the wall a few times now that may surprise you.

Every two years I teach through Genesis and Exodus, and when we reach Exodus 20 we put up a list of the Ten Commandments.

That’s right.

Not the gospel, but the law.

Having taught how God saved his people from Egypt and made them his covenant nation at Mount Sinai, I take time to teach this summary of godly behavior which God wrote on two stone tablets.

I try to teach these commands in some depth.

We discuss not only what each commandment says not to do, but also the positive equivalent of what to do.

And as Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, we spend time thinking about the ramifications of keeping each commandment in the heart.

When all this is done, I give the kids a poster board and have them draw pictures of several ways they might keep each commandment. Those hand-made posters go on the wall as our list.

Of course, I know that the Bible often makes a distinction between the gospel (the good news of how God saves us in Jesus) and the law (God’s rules about how we should live).

How then does teaching these commands fit the gospel?

For starters, the reason I teach the gospel in the first place is because it’s the theme of the Bible, so it wouldn’t do for me to teach through the Bible and skip over a key passage like the Ten Commandments.

I spend time there because I’m being faithful to the emphasis the Bible itself gives to the commandments.

But more than that, good gospel teaching requires it.

Besides the useful reason that society runs better when people keep the commandments, there are two other reasons why we who teach the gospel also need to teach the law.

We teach God’s commands because they lead us to Christ.

There’s no good news without bad news.

One reason I make sure my class studies the commandments in depth is that I want to leave no doubt that God’s standards are utterly holy and purely good.

I want my students to realize that they have no hope of pleasing God except through Jesus. I want them to run to him, the only person who’s ever kept that law in all its beautiful perfection.

We teach God’s commands because they show us how to live.

The distinction between gospel and law doesn’t mean the two have no connection.

Just as the book of Exodus moves from the rescue in Egypt to worship at Sinai, the gospel wouldn’t be complete if we who know Jesus didn’t begin right now to worship and obey God in gratitude, preparing us for the day when we’ll do so fully.

My students are saved to serve God, with the Spirit’s help, and the fact that it starts now is part of the good news.

Although with God’s law it’s always true that we are commanded to obey (he’s our Lord, after all), I try to emphasize the privilege and honor in it.

I say, “Look how we can be thankful. Look how we can begin to live now like the holy children our Father created us to be. Look what glory there is in these commands. God is so good to give them to us!”

So the Ten Commandments show the beauty and glory of Jesus, who lived them. And they show the beauty and glory of who we are becoming in Jesus, and who we will be one day.

Is there a risk that my students might become legalists?

That they might latch onto the commands and try to earn God’s favor by their obedience or be weighed down with guilt when they fail?

Of course, there is, because we’re always tempted not to believe the gospel. But to skip the commands is to teach a gospel that’s too small and weak.

I don’t want to do that.

To guard against legalism, I try to make the point that keeping God’s commands is not a burden but rather a glad outgrowth of faith in Jesus—even when it’s hard and means dying to selfish desires.

To help my students make that connection, I teach the Ten Commandments along with Titus 2:14. “(Jesus Christ) gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (NIV 1984).

I even print that verse and tape it to the wall above the Ten Commandments posters.

But the main reason I don’t worry too much that the Ten Commandments list might turn my students into legalists has to do with the list on the other wall—the longest list.

I know I can teach God’s commands if I, first of all, teach his loving salvation, week after week, all the time.

So I’ve taught those kids to hope in Jesus, not in themselves.

I’ve reminded them that only Jesus saves.

I’ve stressed how they enjoy God’s approval only in Christ.

I’ve pounded this home again and again and again, and then some more.

Because the more I teach about Jesus and make sure those kids are well-grounded in the good news of absolutely free salvation – the more forceful I can be about also teaching every commandment.



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Jack Klumpenhower

Jack Klumpenhower

Jack Klumpenhower, the son of a missionary pastor, is a television news writer by trade but a Bible teacher by passion. Married with two children, Jack is a freelance writer living in beautiful Durango, Colorado.