Yesterday my four-year-old daughter asked me the big question. No, not that question. I heard from her car seat behind me, “Dad, is Santa coming to our house this year?”
Many Christian parents of young children, like me, shudder hearing these words. We’re moved by a deep conviction as believers to keep Christ as the centerpiece of Christmas. But we also can’t help feeling the immense pressure from the media, and even friends and family, not to be our kids’ killjoy when it comes to ol’ Saint Nick. How do we deal with Santa in light of the gospel?
I am not necessarily anti-Santa. It’s entirely possible there are God-fearing families who have found creative ways to redeem him in their Christmas traditions in order to point to Christ. What I am against is any message that undermines the unrivaled depth and sweetness of the gospel of grace.
We must be clear, Santa is preaching a message, too. It’s heralded every year on television and in children’s books. On the surface it seems innocuous, but up his red and white sleeves is a worldview that fundamentally competes and conflicts with the good news of Jesus. As Christian parents we must subject every worldview that enters our households to gospel scrutiny. In that spirit, let me point out four ways that Jesus’s news outshines Santa’s this Christmas.
Pride Comes After the Presents
Santa says, “If you do good, you’ll be rewarded.”
Jesus says, “You can’t do good, but because I did, you’ll be rewarded.”
Do you want to see pride blossom in the hearts of your children? Just teach them that the good that comes their way in life is a product of their performance. If Jesus treated us like Santa does, we’d only be seeking to be moral so that we can get something from him. An obedient moment would only be an occasion for self-worship and greed.
Thankfully, Jesus offers something better. He perfectly lived the life you and I couldn’t, and gives his righteous record to us as our own. What better Christmas gift is there to offer our children this year than that? Not only is this infinitely better news than what Santa offers, but it produces in our hearts a lowly, humble disposition.
The Empty Sack of Santa’s Grace
Santa says, “If you do bad, you’re punished with coal.”
Jesus says, “You did do bad, but I took the ‘coal’ of God’s wrath for you on the cross.”
Let me address an objection here. You might be thinking, “No decent parent gives their kid coal on Christmas, no matter how bad they’ve been. Isn’t that a picture of grace?” To this, I say yes, it is a picture of grace, just not gospel grace. The grace of the gospel cost Jesus his life in order to secure our pardon. Santa’s grace pardons without payment. It’s the same as saying to a child, “It doesn’t really matter what you do after all. You’ll always be let off the hook in the end.”
The truth is our actions have consequences — eternal consequences. And God in his mercy sent Jesus to take those consequences on himself so we could receive the reward of life with him. Any worldview that doesn’t have this truth at its core competes with, and does not complement, the gospel.
No Fear of Condemnation
Santa says, “I’m constantly watching you to judge your performance.”
Jesus says, “Because of my perfect performance, you never have to worry if you’re on the naughty list.”
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Our Savior carries with him no checklist. Colossians tells us that he left that list at Calvary, “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). We never have to worry about the scrutiny of a heavenly taskmaster. In our God’s eyes, we will never again find ourselves on the naughty list.
Why Will Your Child Obey?
Santa says, “Secure my favor on Christmas by being obedient.”
Jesus says, “Because you’re accepted, you can now obey out of faith and gratitude, not fear of judgment.”
In my experience, nothing stifles what the apostle Paul calls “obedience from the heart” (Romans 6:17) more than leaning on the fear of judgment as the grounds for obedience. As John Piper has said, “The power of sin’s promise is broken by the power of God’s. All that God promises to be for us in Jesus stands over against what sin promises to be for us without him” (Future Grace).
Fear plays a part (Luke 12:5), but only faith and satisfaction in God ultimately defeats the power of sin. In God’s economy, acceptance always precedes and inspires obedience. When we teach our little ones to obey simply to avoid judgment, we give them shaky, weak, and joyless ground to stand on. This may produce nice children, but it doesn’t produce new ones.
The Happiest News of All
Every parent wants Christmas to be a happy time for their children. This Christmas, what we must contend for in our households is a worldview that produces a supreme and lasting happiness — what David calls “the fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). The joy Santa’s message offers is at best small-time, junior varsity and weak-kneed. It’s a joy that’s contingent on our own performance, that secures blessings by our own works, and that condemns us in our moral failings.
So as my kids begin to age into the Santa years, we are beginning new traditions from our childhood years. We’re lighting our living room with the gospel, and removing all competitors. We aren’t snubbing our noses at Santa; we’re simply choosing the happier news for our children to hear. You deserved nothing but coal, but God loved you so much that at his own expense he gave you the greatest gift of all: himself.