As a father of three children, I want my kids to do what is right. I want them to honor and obey their mother, my wife, when she tells them to do something. I want them to respect their teachers. I want them to obey God.
But it is much more than that. I don’t just want them to do what is right, I want them to want to do what is right. That last part is so critical.
An Example from Philemon
The Book of Philemon is fun to study because it is an epistle, but with an important narrative story underneath it. In many ways, it is the best of both worlds for studying the Bible.
Philemon had a servant names Onesimus who ran away and went to Rome. In God’s providence, Onesimus and Paul crossed paths and, of course, Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus who became a follower of Jesus.
Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter which we have as the Book of Philemon. Paul’s expectation was clear: that Philemon would welcome Onesimus back as a different man than the one who had left him—Philemon would welcome Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.
We focus on Paul’s offer to repay anything that Onesimus might owe Philemon, and we should because it is a clear illustration of the gospel. But I don’t want us to miss the reason Paul was counting on Philemon’s obedience. We read about it in verses 8 and 9:
8 For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, 9 I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. — Philemon 1:8-9 (CSB)
Paul was an apostle. He could have easily commanded Philemon to welcome Onesimus back. But he didn’t. Why? For the same reasons that I have of wanting my kids to obey—Paul wanted Philemon to want to welcome Onesimus back. Paul wanted love, not duty to drive this reconciliation.
A Lesson for Life
The reason why this matters is because the want to is what often separates legalistic obedience from gospel obedience. Legalism speaks the language of have to. The gospel speaks the language of get to. The acts of obedience might look exactly the same, but the heart behind them is worlds apart.
I want my kids to want to obey because that is the fruit of love. I want their love for my wife and me to drive what they do. The win is not an empty dishwasher, but rather a vibrant relationship.
In a greater way, God wants our love of Him to drive what we do. The win is not an open Bible or frequent attender ribbons at church—not that they are bad at all—but rather a vibrant relationship.
This is what Paul wanted from Philemon. He wanted Philemon to love God enough that his love would carry over toward Onesimus as well. And if that love existed, the whatever action Philemon might take would be the right one. Love is the safety rail of our obedience.
Dear Mr. Spurgeon … While crossing the Atlantic, last September, and looking out upon its proud dashing billows and their varied forms, and thinking of the diversity in the human family, I remarked that ‘we are many as the waves, but we are one as the sea.’ ” — Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)Frederick Douglass, quoted in The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, Volume 69: Autobiography–Diary, Letters, and Records, Vol. 4, by Charles H. Spurgeon (Delmarva, 2013) [eBook].
Tips for Teaching this Week’s Session
Every week, members of The Gospel Project for Kids team offer guidance to help you as you prepare to teach every session to preschoolers and kids. Listen in as we discuss:
- The big idea of the session
- Any areas of caution or requiring additional prep time
- What we hope God will do through this session
This training is available on Ministry Grid, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and other podcast platforms.