The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
The fact of Jesus’ death for us is an objective truth that should grip us and reassure us. Was I wanted? Most definitely, yes. The cross has proven that!
Our family is soon to enter into birthday season as we celebrate four of our children’s birthdays in four weeks. Lots of presents, lots of cake, and lots of opportunity to show our children they are loved. One family tradition we have developed is to always tell the birth story on someone’s birthday.
They never tire of hearing the story of the long labour and sudden arrival, or the perfectly timed birth, or the emergency home birth after the midwife said we were not in labour, etc. Why is this tradition so appreciated by our children? I think it is because it speaks to two unspoken but deep questions within each child. Was I wanted? Do I belong?
Whether a child entered their family by birth or by adoption, these deep questions truly matter. They are also important for all of us as Christians. How did I come to be in the family of God? Was I wanted? Do I belong?
In Galatians 4:4-7 we find two emphatic answers to these questions. Paul was writing to new believers who were being drawn away from the true gospel to a non-gospel that put the focus back onto their own performance. First, Paul answers whether God wanted us or not? Was it an accident that we came to be in God’s family? Absolutely not.
At just the right time, when humanity was fully exhausted in its efforts to self-save, God sent forth his Son into the world to redeem us and to give us the full rights of sonship! We see that Jesus was born of woman, just as God had predicted back in Genesis 3:15. We see that Jesus was born under the law – that is, he came to where we were. Jesus was, of course, a Jew and so was under Jewish Law, but all humanity is under the law described in verse 3 – the elementary principles of this world. We all live under a system where performance determines success. It is the way of the fallen world. Jesus came all the way to us.
Jesus came to us on a mission to pay a price. He came to redeem us and buy for us the privilege of adoption as Sons of God. There could be no higher privilege, and there could have been no higher price. As Christians we must never think we have moved on beyond the glorious love revealed and proven on the cross at Calvary. The fact of Jesus’ death for us is an objective truth that should grip us and reassure us. Was I wanted? Most definitely, yes. The cross has proven that!
But this objective assurance is not the whole story. Sadly, many Christians have allowed the Christian gospel to be reduced to just this objective reality. God sent his son into the world to redeem us and to change our status, but God knows we need something more.
Think of the prodigal son for a moment. He returned home knowing that his father was a better employer than the man he had been working for. His plan was to get employed and work his way out of the situation. But then his father rocked his world by showing amazing grace to him. The father ran, embraced him and dressed him in the status of a son – the special robe, the sandals, the signet ring. Oh how that son must have been amazed as he sat at the feast wearing the proof of his undeserved status!
But there was something else. I can’t help but think he must have touched the side of his face and neck too. “My father kissed me…” The prodigal knew the status he had been given, but he also experienced the assurance that he belonged. God knows we need that too. God knows your tendency and mine to drift from that place at the table and revert to our old plan A – to work and perform so that we can earn what is already freely ours. God knows that our flesh would prefer to have God as an employer than a Father, and that we will often trust the status change while drifting from the fullness of sonship.
So back to Galatians. God sent his Son into the world to redeem us and to change our status. And because we are sons, God also sent his Spirit, not into the world, but into our hearts, to change our experience. How easily we diminish the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. Jonathan Edwards saw that tendency and wrote in A Treatise on Grace of the Trinitarian nature of salvation. He wrote of how in a transaction the price paid must equal the value of the good purchased. Here is the logic:
Since God the Father paid the ultimate price (His Son), and the Son paid the ultimate price (His life), then what is purchased must be of ultimate and equal value. Yes our salvation is infinitely valuable, but salvation is Trinitarian, so where does the Spirit come in? Too easily we fall into thinking that the Spirit is the mail man delivering the wonderful gift. A postman? A courier? Surely not! Galatians 3:14 tells us that Christ died so that we could receive the promised Holy Spirit. Really it is only the Spirit that is equal in value to the price paid at Calvary. And that is the blessing of Galatians 4:6-7.
God sent the Spirit into our hearts so that from deep within we could know the cry of the Son – “Abba! Father!”
As I write this I am sat on a plane returning from some special days with ELF folks in Hungary. When I get home my almost five year old will experience something that reassures her that she belongs in our family. Her status is certain right now, but in a few hours I will hold her and kiss her and squeeze her tightly in an Abba embrace. This is not a continual experience, but it does happen and it does her good (me too!)
Likewise as Christians God wants us to know not only that we were wanted – the cross has proven that objectively. God also wants us to know that we belong – the present tense change of experience that is ours because the Spirit of God witnesses within our hearts that we now have the Son’s relationship with the Father.
As we enter into another year let’s stop and reflect on Galatians 4:4-7. Let us return to the foot of the cross and worship God for His love demonstrated so powerfully there. And let us be sure to thank God for the Spirit too, that His love is spoken into our hearts. We need both the reality of the cross and the experience of closeness to God. Let’s be sure that we don’t reduce our adoption into a mere status change and then start to pressure ourselves to earn God’s favour this year. How easily we revert to the prodigal plan, but instead may this year be a year where all our ministry flows out of our ongoing close relationship to God, our Abba.
You were wanted. You do belong. May life and ministry flow as we rest in the wonderful answers to these deepest of questions!