What Does the Gospel Say About Academic Honesty?

cheat or not?

Editor’s note: The recent emergence of ChatGPT will force teachers to change their evaluation strategies to ensure they are grading a student’s actual work rather than a computer-generated substitute. However, the principles that guide academic honesty remain the same because they are rooted in the gospel. We can stand firm on God’s Word as we guide our teenagers in these rapidly changing times. 

Winter break and Christmas celebrations are so close we can taste them! However, most students are facing one last hurdle of final exams and projects. Often the exhaustion of the year, the desire to be finished, and the sheer volume of work required to complete final assessments can tempt even the most studious to seek a shortcut. Whether it is the end of the semester, the final project of the year, or a simple quiz, the temptation to cheat can come for any student at any time. As parents, it’s important to remind our kids that honesty matters, the root of the desire to cheat is the real issue, and the gospel has something to say about cheating.

Honesty Matters

Thinking biblically about cheating has to be more than just remembering that God’s people do not steal and God’s people do not lie, but it cannot be less than that. A gospel-centered heart does not think less of the law, but rather chases after the life-giving guidance of the law as a good gift from God.

Thomas Chalmers once wrote of the “expulsive power of a new affection,” which was his description of a love for God so strong that it drives out temptations to sin. This is a good place to start when addressing cheating. We begin where the 10 Commandments begin. Rather than starting with “Thou shalt not,” they begin with, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2). The 10 Commandments begin with redemption accomplished. God never commands his people without first telling them how he has already loved them.

Cheating, at its core, is stealing and lying. We do not resist stealing and lying because God won’t love us if we do these things. We fight the temptation to steal and lie because we love and trust God’s goodness and want to be like him. God has redeemed his people, will never let them go, and is transforming them into his likeness more each day. God’s people are honest and pursue honesty. Resisting the temptation to cheat is an act of worshipping the truth and trustworthiness of God and loving his ways more than the ways of deceit.

God’s law is a gift he has given us to know how to live; however, if we only discuss the law, we are failing to start at the beginning. If we truly want to disciple our children, we must first get to the root of the problem beneath the action and apply the gospel there.

The Root of the Temptation

There are two general motives behind the temptation to cheat. The lesser motive would be the quest for the easy path. Some cheating is motivated by a lack of effort or desire to do the amount of work required. Sometimes, this desire for the easy path is accompanied by a sense of injustice – a sense that one should not have to do this much work. In such cases, we should call our children to delight in the sovereignty of God over time and place in making them students. We should both model and exhort an attitude of gratefulness for the gift of a life where we have access to education and the ability to spend years growing in that environment. We should call our children to be good stewards of these gifts. However, more often than not, there is a deeper motive at the root of the temptation. Cheating is often more about identity and trust.

The conflation of worth, value, and identity with our culture’s metrics-based value system permeates academics. No matter how often we tell our children that tests matter but they do not define who they are, the whole world of academics tells them that’s not true. When worth, value, and identity are threatened, the result is often fear and desperation. This fear and desperation can drive our children to reclaim self-worth by any means necessary. Before shepherding our children to love and trust God and his ways – thereby expelling the temptation to take a dishonest shortcut – our children’s identity must be firmly anchored in Christ.

What the Gospel has to say

The law says that God’s people shall not lie and shall not steal. The curse of the law is that without perfect obedience, we are condemned and cast out. The gospel says that Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf, given us his righteousness as a free gift, and removed the curse. The law remains, but the curse is gone. There is no earning love. There is no keeping in God’s good graces through performance. We are his children, adopted in Christ, who will never be put out of the family. The law remains, but we obey because of love. It is only through identity in the gospel of forgiveness and adoption in Christ that the law, the “do not cheat,” can be an act of loving God and not just a Christianized metric of performance and approval.

As parents, we need to acknowledge the pressure our children face. We need to know that a huge part of their life as students involves a constant anti-gospel of works-based value:

“You are your scores.”

“Your hope rests in what you earn.”

We must do everything we can as parents in our speech, our attitudes about our own personal metrics, and our reactions to our children’s scores to denounce the lie that we are our scores.

In getting to the root of these destructive lies, we not only disciple our children toward academic honesty, we remind them who they are in Christ. This is the gift of academics for parents and students. Tied into the entire conversation of cheating, we are gifted a microcosm of the Christian life. In practicing identity in Christ over identity in academics we are given the opportunity to fortify our children against the larger identity battles of life in a fallen world.

“Who am I?”

“Do I matter?”

“Am I loved?”

These are not just questions our children ask when they look at their scores, they are questions every human heart battles. When parents address academic honesty, we give our children a foundational gospel assurance. God’s people do not have to live under the fear of not being loved or valued because they did not score well. God’s people are free and loved forever in Christ. With a gospel-centered approach to academic honesty we have the privilege to transcend mere behavioral adjustment and truly preach the gospel to our children.

Luke Paiva has a B.A. in English and an M.Ed. from The University of Tennessee Knoxville, and is currently working on his MDiv through Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been married for sixteen years to his wife Johannah, and has four children – Jack, Benjamin, Lucy, and Grace. He began his career teaching high school English and has returned to the classroom after a decade in law enforcement. He currently teaches Biblical Studies at a Christian high school in Nashville, TN.

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