I have a love-hate relationship with training wheels.
On the one hand, it’s the easiest way to get little kids peddling away on bicycles. I still remember the sensation of freedom on my first bike as a young child, experiencing the way in which each peddle stroke translated into a forward momentum. My love of bikes probably started there. Without training wheels, I would never have had the opportunity to experience these at a young age.
Yet on the other hand, if you’ve ever had to teach a child to graduate from training wheels to a ‘big bike’, you’ll know that in many ways, training wheels have actually made it more difficult to transition. Contrary to what many people think, fear isn’t the only reason it’s difficult. Apart from the peddling, there’s a distinct physical dynamics in play. A bike with training wheels is handled differently to a bike with only two wheels. A four-wheeler is steered from the handlebars. A two-wheeler is steered by following your line of sight and leaning into the turn. And of course central to the difference is learning that forward momentum creates balance and stability. This is something that simply can’t be learnt with training wheels.
So do I think training wheels are good or bad? Well, both. They’re good in some ways, but a hindrance in othes. In fact, the well-intended reasons for their existence (i.e. teaching a child the basics of peddling and being on a bike without the fear of falling over) become the source of their problems later on. The more that a child fears shedding the safety of training wheels, the less they are able to transition quickly to the big bikes.
I want to suggest that this is a little bit like the New Testament’s view of the Old Testament Law.
Law: Good or Bad?
Is the Law good or bad? A cursory reading of the NT, especially the letters of Paul might give you an ambivalent answer. In some ways, the Law is presented as both good and bad (as an example, read Romans chapters 7 and 8). Now why is that?
I want to suggest that the analogy of training wheels helps.
In Galatians 3, Paul uses the analogy of a ‘guardian’ or ‘tutor’ to speak of the relationship between the Law and the Christ: So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3:24–25)
I think what Paul means by that example can be helpfully understood with my analogy of training wheels.
The Law was intended to be Israel's training wheels until Christ came—it allowed Israel to learn how to have a relationship with a holy God. Yet the Law always pointed forward to a greater reality: a better way of relating to God that would be revealed when Christ came. When that happened, the training wheels were supposed to be dispensed with.
The Scary Step
However, like the problem of learning to ride using training wheels, the very way in which the Law functioned in the life of God’s people also became a hindrance once Christ came. While the Law provided the basic framework for relationship with God, it also unintentionally led to an unhelpful reliance on the Law itself. The Law, which itself is good, led Israel as a whole to think that one can be justified by the works of the Law, which is bad (see Romans 9:30-32). Relating to God in the new covenant necessitated a re-training of sorts. A new covenant Jew had to take the scary step of not relying on the works of the Law, and instead to find their relationship with God leaning solely on the grace of God through Christ.
This is why Paul is at pains in letters like Galatians to show that their desire to go back to the Law was, at the very least, quite foolish. It would be like going back to training wheels even after you’ve mastered riding without them. The Law has served its purpose in leading God’s people to Christ. Don’t regress into relying on the Law when you’ve come to the fullness of a relationship with God through faith in Christ.
Now a final word of advice. As a middle-aged man who has developed a minor obsession with cycling, if you’re wondering how to help your kids learn to ride on two wheels, forget the training wheels altogether. If your kids are little, go with balance bikes instead.
Happy reading, and happy riding!
Photos: Shannon Tompkins, dadblunders; flickr