I don’t doubt that legalism is a genuine threat to the Christian life. “Work out your salvation” can easily degenerate into “work for your salvation.” But we’re imbalanced creatures given to violent swings from one extreme to another and as such the fear of legalism can be just as dangerous as its true form. Speaking from personal experience, Christian parents are particularly susceptible to oscillating from legalism to laxness as they wrestle to lay hold of the elusive “law of liberty” (an oxymoron for the culture and, sadly, for many in the church) on behalf of their children.
But wrestle we must. Scripture doesn’t afford us the opportunity to choose law or grace as we raise our children–it must be both. Precisely how law and grace can coexist is a discussion for another time but I take it that Paul speaks of this paradoxical harmony when he commands(!) us to bring up our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4) yet not in such a way that we cause them to “lose heart” (Col 3:21). In the words of one commentator, “There should be firm guidance, not servitude.”
On this notion of firm guidance I came across a great quote by B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) in a piece entitled “Is the Shorter Catechism Worthwhile?” (ht: Voddie Baucham). The passage concerns the Westminster Shorter Catechism but that’s not the reason I offer it here. My interest is the larger point behind the statement which is that parents shouldn’t shirk religious instruction just because the learning involves work:
No doubt it requires some effort whether to teach or to learn the Shorter Catechism. It requires some effort whether to teach or to learn the grounds of any department of knowledge. Our children – some of them at least – groan over even the primary arithmetic and find sentence-analysis a burden. Even the conquest of the art of reading has proved such a task that “reading without tears” is deemed an achievement. We think, nevertheless, that the acquisition of arithmetic, grammar and reading is worth the pains it costs the teacher to teach, and the pain it costs the learner to learn them. Do we not think the acquisition of the grounds of religion worth some effort, and even, if need be, some tears?
Requiring our children to carry the “burden” of religious instruction isn’t legalism. Be faithful to your calling. It’s OK if it makes them cry.