Two ways to tell if a devotional is legalistic

It's easy to teach kids to be good. But the Bible is something so much more beautiful than the set of rules we've turned it into!

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. This post may contain affiliate links. See my full disclosures, Terms of Use, and privacy policies on my "privacy" page. I never recommend a product I don't love.

Finish the following sentence for me…

Christianity is not about religion, it’s about __________________.Did you say “relationship”?If so, you WIN!DING DING DING! You may pass GO and collect $200 (your cheque is in the mail…promise….)

“Christianity is not about religion, it’s about relationship” is probably something you’ve heard over and over in your Christian life. And it’s true!

One of my favourite Old Dead Preacher Guys is Andrew Murray, and in a devotional called “Daily in His Presence”, he writes this fabulousness:

In Romans 7 we have an image of an ordinary Christian doing his best to fulfill the requirements of the law and to live by them, yet never succeeding because of shortcomings and failures.

In Romans 8 someone is described who knows that he lives in Christ Jesus and is dead to sin and alive for God. By the Spirit of God, he is free of the hold which sin and death have on him.

Friends, we can only follow God by the grace which he gives through his Spirit.It’s the only thing that makes me want to follow him, and it’s the only thing that makes me capable of following him.

I know this. And I bet you know this.

So why do we teach our children otherwise?

When we read our children devotionals that tell them to stop lying / grumbling / cheating / sinning, or to be more respectful / loving / obedient / generous / good and then quote a verse at them to prove our point, we are preaching LAW.

Do you see it? Does it make you a little agitated?

You can’t see me right now, but my hands are shaking. Why? Because I am SO convinced that as Christian parents we have lost sight of the relationship we want our children to have in favour of the ease of the religion that makes our children behave.

I’ve done it myself; the devotional that I used to recommend to our preschool parents was full of law. I was recently reading an elementary-age one to my kids at breakfast time, and it kinda felt like I was reading something dirty to them!

I’m sure you’re familiar with the kind:

“Share with your brother! Jesus wants you to. There’s even this nifty story in the Bible about a little boy sharing his lunch! Be like him.”
“Here’s a fictional story about a kid complaining. Stop complaining! Jesus wants you to. He never complained so you shouldn’t either.”
“This girl is being mean to her friend. Jesus doesn’t like that. Make good choices. Here’s a verse about being kind.”

It’s gotten to the point that I have put devotional books in the recycling because I didn’t even want them to go to the secondhand store. I don’t share this to be judgy, but as a reminder to us that we need to be SO careful how we share God’s Word with our children.

What message do we want our kids to get?

That Jesus wants us to be good?

Or that Jesus DIED so that he could be our best friend forever, and that through the Holy Spirit working in us, we begin to exhibit fruits of the Spirit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

The funny thing about fruit is that you can’t force it to grow. You plant your roots down deep into God’s Word, and HE makes the fruit grow. And in the case of your child, you encourage him to plant his roots down deep into God’s Word, and God makes the fruit grow in his life. We can make them aware of what the fruit looks like, but we can’t force them to grow it.

Friends, our children can only follow God by the grace which he gives through his Spirit.

It’s the only thing that makes our children want to follow him, and it’s the only thing that makes our children capable of following him.

Not a devotional.

So now you may be feeling convicted, or convinced, or both, and you wonder how to go from here. First off, here’s how to discern if a devotional is moralistic.

Here are two ways to tell if a devotional is legalistic/moralistic:

1. Scripture is an afterthought. Got a long chunk of text with an itty-bitty little verse at the end that proves that the moral of the story is God’s honest truth? In the pastoral world, that’s called proof-texting. If it’s not ok in a sermon, it sure isn’t ok for my kids.

2. It tells your child how to behave in a certain situation. This is a dead giveaway. The Bible doesn’t really work like that. Do you follow Jacob’s marital patterns or cover your head when worshipping? I thought not. (And if you do, I bet there’s other parts of Scripture you don’t follow literally) This type of devotion follows the line of thought that the Bible is a manual or a rulebook for life. Yes, the Bible does give us wisdom for life, but it is definitely not a “let’s-copy-that-holy-guy-over-there” book. In fact, often it functions more as a “what-not-to-do” book. 🙂

So now that you know how to assess the books on your shelf, you may find yourself recycling one or two…or twelve. With what can you replace them? Here are four “Scripture-first” options for children.

Ages 3-6

I wrote this devotional book for a reason: I had such a struggle finding materials for young children that weren’t moralistic…so I wrote my own! But let me tell you why you should use this devotional with your kids.

1. It will take your littlest ones deep into God’s Word in a way that is completely accessible for them. It’s fun, it’s simple, it opens up conversations and gets them to store God’s Word in their hearts and minds.

2. It will not tell your kids what to do in situations, but will allow them to come to their own conclusions based on God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and the gentle leading of a parent.

Here’s some recent feedback from a parent:

” Well I’ve now learned that pretty much all our devotionals for kids were pretty moralistic based. Maybe that’s why it was like a chore for them. I am truly loving your book. The kids are seriously learning and retelling the stories, having fun, and applying lessons to their lives! Well H is applying. G is retelling lots and adding horses to the stories 🙂 But I have never seen H love devotions and “get it” so well before. I’m so impressed. And thankful! I’m sad that I didn’t spend more time looking for better material when [my older kids] were little. I just used what we had and thought it was ok, but the kids didn’t enjoy. But they loved their bibles and just sitting and chatting about Jesus. I think that’s what your book facilitates.”

Check out this book at


Ages 6+

This book sometimes makes me tear up when I read it to the boys. It’s written by the same woman who wrote “The Jesus Storybook Bible”, and the short theological thoughts coupled with amazing illustrations have helped my children remember the deepest of concepts. It is best read to children that have the ability to think somewhat abstractly (ages 6+), but the depth of our inability to be “good” and of God’s rescuing love is just as apparent on the pages of this book as it is in her Storybook Bible. I can’t recommend it enough.

Check out this book at

Ages 4+
This is another recent favourite of mine. It helps children understand the power and significance of 40 of the names of God, illustrating each of God’s names and attributes through a Bible story and a short devotional. My friends, this one is powerful.
Check out this book at

If you work in Children’s Ministry in any form, please read this post by another blogger about how this kind of moralistic thinking affects our kids from a Children’s Ministry perspective (rather than a parenting perspective). It is pure gold, and gives a good view of how this kind of moralistic thinking will affect our kids in the long-term.

If you are currently using a devotional book for your kids that you can confidently say is relationship-based, not law-based, please post it in the comments section for others to check out!

* This post contains affiliate links. That means I get paid a (very) small fee from Amazon for posting links to their products on my blog. It doesn’t mean that I get paid by the author to endorse a book; all recommendations are my own choices.