A Christian is one who has God as his Father by J I Packer
The following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “Knowing God,” published in 1973 by Hodder & Stoughton.
What is a Christian? The question can be answered in many ways, but the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God as Father.
But cannot this be said of every person, Christian or not? Emphatically no! The idea that all are children of God is not found in the Bible anywhere. The Old Testament shows God as the Father, not of all, but of his own people, the seed of Abraham. ‘Israel is my firstborn son … “Let my son go”’ (Exodus 4:22f NIV). The New Testament has a world vision, but it too shows God as the Father, not of all, but of those who, knowing themselves to be sinners, put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their divine sin-bearer and master, and so become Abraham’s spiritual seed. ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus . . . you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed’ (Galatians 3:26 ff NIV). Sonship to God is not, therefore, a universal status upon which everyone enters by natural birth, but a supernatural gift which one receives through receiving Jesus. ‘No one comes to the Father’—in other words, is acknowledged by God as a son—‘except through me’ (John 14:6). The gift of sonship to God becomes ours, not through being born, but through being born again. ‘To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God’ (John 1:12 f NIV).
Sonship to God, then, is a gift of grace. It is not a natural, but an adoptive sonship: and so the New Testament explicitly pictures it. In Roman law, it was a recognised practice for an adult who wanted an heir, and someone to carry on the family name, to adopt a male as his son—usually at age, rather than in infancy, as is the common way today. The apostles proclaim that God has so loved those whom he redeemed on the cross that he has adopted them all as his heirs, to see and share the glory into which his only-begotten Son has already come. ‘God sent his son. . . to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full (adoptive) rights of sons’ (Galatians 4:4 f): we, that is, who were ‘fore-ordained unto adoption as sons by Jesus Christ unto Himself’ (Ephesians 1:5 RV). ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!. . .When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:1f).
Some years ago, I wrote:
You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s Holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. Father is the
Christian name for God (Evangelical Magazine, 7, p. 19f).
This still seems to me wholly true, and very important. Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption. It is to help us grasp it better that this chapter is being written.
The revelation to the believer that God is his Father is in a sense the climax of the Bible, just as it was a final step in the revelatory process which the Bible records. In Old Testament times, as we have seen, God gave his people a covenant name by which to speak of him and call upon him: the name Yahweh (‘Jehovah’, ‘the LORD’). By this name, God announced himself as the ‘great I AM’—the One who is completely and consistently himself. He is: and it is because he is what he is that everything else is as it is.
He is the reality behind all reality, the underlying cause of all causes and all events. The name proclaimed him as self-existent, sovereign, and wholly free from constraint by, or dependence on, anything outside himself. Though Yahweh was his covenant name, it spoke to Israel of what their God was in himself rather than of what he would be in relation to them. It was the official name of Israel’s King, and there was something of regal reserve about it. It was an enigmatic name, a name calculated to awaken humility and awe before the mystery of the Divine being rather than anything else.
In full accord with this, the aspect of his character on which God laid most stress in the Old Testament was his holiness. The angels’ song which Isaiah heard in the temple, with its emphatic repetitions—‘Holy, holy,.. holy, is the LORD Almighty’ (Isaiah 6:3 NIV)—could be used as a motto-text to sum up the theme of the whole Old Testament. The basic idea which the word ‘holy’ expresses is that of separation, or separateness. When God is declared to be ‘holy’, the thought is of all that separates him and sets him apart and makes him different from his creatures: his greatness (‘the majesty in heaven’, Hebrew 1:3; 8:1), and his purity, (‘Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong’, Habakkuk 1:13). The whole spirit of Old Testament religion was determined by the thought of God’s holiness. The constant emphasis was that human beings, because of their weakness as creatures and their defilement as sinful creatures, must learn to humble themselves and be reverent before God. Religion was ‘the fear of the Lord’—a matter of knowing your own littleness, of confessing your faults and abasing yourself in God’s presence, of sheltering thankfully under his promises of mercy, and of taking care above all things to avoid presumptuous sins. Again and again it was stressed that we must keep our place, and our distance, in the presence of a holy God. This emphasis overshadowed everything else.
A NEW RELATIONSHIP
But in the New Testament we find that things have changed. God and religion are not less than they were; the 0ld Testament revelation of the holiness of God, and its demand for humility in man, is presupposed throughout. But something has been added. A new factor has come in. New Testament believers deal with God as their Father. ‘Father’ is the name by which they call him. ‘Father’ has now become his covenant name—for the covenant which binds him to his people stands revealed as a family covenant. Christians are his children, his own sons and daughters, his heirs. And the stress of the New Testament is not on the difficulty and danger of drawing near to the holy God, but on the boldness and confidence with which believers may approach him: a boldness that springs directly from faith in Christ, and from the knowledge of his saving work. ‘In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence’ (Ephesians 3:12). ‘Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us . … let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith’ (Hebrews 10:19ff). To those who are Christ’s, the holy God is a loving Father; they belong to his family; they may approach him without fear, and always be sure of his fatherly concern and care. This is the heart of the New Testament message.
Who can grasp this? I have heard it seriously argued that the thought of divine fatherhood can mean nothing to those whose human father was inadequate, lacking wisdom, affection, or both, nor to those many more whose misfortune it was to have a fatherless upbringing. I have heard Bishop Robinson’s revealing failure to say anything about divine fatherhood in Honest to God defended an these grounds as a brilliant move in commending the faith to a generation in which family life has largely broken down.
But this is silly. For, in the first place, it is just not true to suggest that in the realm of personal relation positive concepts cannot be formed by contrast—which is the suggestion implicit here. Many young people get married with a resolve not to make the mess of marriage that they saw their parents make: can this not be a positive ideal? Of course it can. Similarly, the thought of our Maker becoming our perfect parent faithful in love and care, generous and thoughtful, interested in all we do, respecting our individuality, skilful in training us, wise in guidance, always available, helping us find ourselves in maturity, integrity, and uprightness—is a thought which can have meaning for everybody, whether we come to it by saying, ‘I had a wonderful father, and I see that God is like that, only more so,’ or by saying ‘My father disappointed me here, and here, and here, but God, praise his name, will be very different,’ or even by saying, ‘I have never known what it is to have a father on earth, but thank God I now have one in heaven.’ The truth is that all of us have a positive ideal of fatherhood by which we judge our own and others’ fathers, and it can safely be said that the person for whom the thought of God’s perfect fatherhood is meaningless or repellent does not exist.
But in any case (and this is the second point), God has not left us to guess what his fatherhood amounts to, by drawing analogies from human fatherhood. He revealed the full meaning of this relationship once and for all through our Lord Jesus Christ, his own incarnate Son. As it is from God that ‘all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name’ (Ephesians 3:14, Phillips), so it is from his manifested activity as ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:3) that we learn, in this one instance which is also a universal standard, what God’s fatherly relation to us who are Christ’s really means. For God intends the lives of believers to be a reflection and reproduction of Jesus’ own fellowship with himself.
Where can we learn about this? Chiefly from John’s gospel and first epistle. In John’s gospel the first evangelical blessing to be named is adoption (1:12 NIV), and the climax of the first resurrection appearance is Jesus’ statement that he was ascending to ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God’ (20:17 NEB). Central in John’s first epistle are the thoughts of sonship, as the
supreme gift of God’s love (1 John 3:1); of love to the Father (2:15 cf; 5:1-3) and to one’s Christian brothers and sisters (2:9—11, 3:10—17, 4:7, 21) as the ethic of sonship; of fellowship with God the Father as the privilege of sonship (2:13, 23f); of righteousness and avoidance of sins as the evidence of sonship (2:29, 3:9f, 5:18); and of seeing Jesus, and being like him, as the hope of sonship (3:3). From these two books together we learn very clearly what God’s fatherhood implied for Jesus, and what it now implies for Christians.
According to our Lord’s own testimony in John’s gospel, God’s fatherly relation to him implied four things.
First, fatherhood implied authority. The Father commands and disposes; the initiative which he calls his Son to exercise is the initiative of resolute obedience to his Father’s will. ‘I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.’ ‘I have (completed) the work you gave me to do.’ ‘The Son can do nothing by himself.’ ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me’ (John 6:38; 17:4; 5:19; 4:34).
Second, fatherhood implied affection. ‘The Father loves the Son.’ ‘The Father has loved me. . . I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love’ (5:20; 15:9f)
Third, fatherhood implied fellowship. ‘I am not alone, for my Father is with me’ ‘The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him’ (16:32; 8:19).
Fourth, fatherhood implied honour. God wills to exalt his Son. ‘Father … glorify your Son.’ ‘The Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father’ (17:1; 5:22f).
All this extends to God’s adopted children. In, through, and under Jesus Christ their Lord, they are ruled, loved, companied with, and honoured by their heavenly Father. As Jesus obeyed God, so must they. ‘This is the love of God’—the God ‘that begat’—‘that we keep His commandments’ (1 John 5:1, 3, KJV). As God loved his only-begotten Son, so he loves his adopted sons. ‘The Father himself loves you’ (John 16:27). As God has fellowship with Jesus, so he does with us. ‘Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3). As God exalted Jesus, so he exalts Jesus’ followers, as bothers in the one family. ‘If any man serve me, him will my Father honour’ (John 12:26 KJV) ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am,’ to see and share the glory which Jesus enjoys (John 17:24 NIV). In these terms the Bible teaches us to understand the shape and substance of the parent-child relationship which binds together the Father of Jesus and the servant of Jesus.
A formal definition and analysis of what adoption means is called for at this point. Here is a fine one, from the Westminster Confession (Chapter XII):
All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption: by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him, as by a father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.
This is the nature of the divine sonship that is bestowed on believers, which we are now to study.
1. ADOPTION: THE HIGHEST PRIVILEGE
Our first point about adoption is that it is the highest privilege that the Gospel offers: higher even than justification. This may cause raising of eyebrows, for justification is the gift of God on which since Luther evangelicals have laid the greatest stress, and we are accustomed to say, almost without thinking, that free justification is God’s supreme blessing to us sinners. None the less, careful thought will show the truth of the statement we have just made.
That justification—by which we mean God’s forgiveness of the past together with his acceptance for the future—is the primary and fundamentalblessing of the gospel is not in question. Justification is the primary blessing, because it meets our primary spiritual need. We all stand by nature under God’s judgment; his law condemns us; guilt gnaws at us, making us restless, miserable, and in our lucid moments afraid; we have no peace in ourselves, because we have no peace with our Maker. So we need the forgiveness of our sins, and assurance of a restored relationship with God, more than we need anything else in the world; and this the gospel offers us before it offers us anything else. The first gospel sermons to be preached, those recorded in Acts, lead up to the promise of forgiveness of sins to all who repent and receive Jesus as their Saviour and Lord (see Acts 2:38; 3:19; 10:43; I3:38 f.; cf 5:31; 17:30f; 20:23; 22:16; 26:19; Luke 24:47 NIV)
In Romans, Paul’s fullest exposition of his gospel—‘the clearest gospel of all’, to Luther’s mind—justification through the cross of Christ is expounded first (chapters 1-5), and made basic to everything else. Regularly Paul speaks of righteousness, remission of sins, and justification as the first and immediate consequence for us of Jesus’ death (Romans 3:22-26; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Galatians 3:13 f.; Ephesians 1:7; etc.). And as justification is the primary blessing, so it is the fundamental blessing, in the sense that everything else in our salvation assumes it, and rests on it—adoption included.
But this is not to say that justification is the highest blessing of the gospel. Adoption is higher, because of the richer relationship with God that it involves. Some textbooks on Christian doctrine—Berkhof’s, for instance—treat adoption as a mere subsection of justification, but this is inadequate. The two ideas are distinct, and adoption is the more exalted. Justification is a forensic idea, conceived in terms of law, and viewing God as judge. In justification, God declares of penitent believers that they are not, and never will be, liable to the death that their sins deserve, because Jesus Christ, their substitute and sacrifice, tasted death in their place on the cross.
This free gift of acquittal and peace, won for us at the cost of Calvary, is wonderful enough, in all conscience—but justification does not of itself imply any intimate or deep relationship with God the judge. In idea, at any rate, you could have the reality of justification without any close fellowship with God resulting.
But contrast this, now, with adoption. Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love and viewing God as father. In adoption God takes us into his family and fellowship, and establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the father is greater.
This point has never been better put than in the following extract from The Doctrine of Justification, by James Buchanan:
According to the Scriptures pardon, acceptance and adoption are distinct privileges, the one rising above the other in the order in which they have been stated. . .while the first two properly belong to (the sinner’s) justification, as being both founded on the same relation—that of a Ruler and Subjects—the third is radically distinct from them, as being founded on a nearer, more tender and more enduring relation—that between a Father and his Son. . .There is a manifest difference between the position of a servant and a friend—and also between that of a servant and a son. . . .A closer and dearer intimacy than that of a master and servant is said to subsist between Christ and His people ‘Henceforth I call you not servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends’ (John 15:15); and a still closer and dearer relation is said to exist in consequence of adoption; for ‘Thou art no more a servant, but a son, and an heir of God through Christ’ (Galatians 4:7). The privilege of adoption presupposes pardon and acceptance, but is higher than either; for, ‘To as many as received Him, to them gave He power’—not inward strength, but authority, right, or privilege—‘to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name’ (John 1:12). This is a higher privilege than of Justification, as being founded on a closer and more enduring relation—‘Behold! what manner of love the Father hath bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God’ (1 John 3:1 NIV) (op. cit., p. 276 f).
We do not fully feel the wonder of the passage from death to life which takes place in the new birth till we see it as a transition, not simply out of condemnation into acceptance, but out of bondage and destitution into the ‘safety, certainty, and enjoyment’ of the family of God. This is the view of the great change which Paul sets out in Galatians 4:1—7, contrasting his readers’ previous life of slavish legalism and superstition in religion (verses 5 and 3, cf. 8) with their present knowledge of their Creator as their Father (verse 6) and their pledged benefactor (verse 7). This, says Paul, is where your faith in Christ has brought you; you have received ‘the adoption of sons’ (verse 5, KJV); ‘you are no Longer a slave, but a son, and if a son then an heir’ (verse 7, RSV). When Charles Wesley found Christ on Whit Sunday, 1738, his experience overflowed into some marvellous verses (‘The Wesleys’ Conversion Hymn’, Methodist Hymn Book 361) in which the transition from slavery to sonship is the main theme.
Where shall wondering soul begat?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer’s praise?
O how shall I the goodness tell
Father, which thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God,
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
Blest with this antepast of heaven!
Three days later, Charles tells us in his diary, brother John burst in with ‘a troop of our friends’ to announce that he too was now a believer, and ‘we sang the hymn with great joy’. Had you been there, could you sincerely have joined in? Can you make Wesley’s words your own? If you are truly a child of God and ‘the Spirit of his Son’ is in you, Wesley’s words have already drawn an echo from your heart; and if they have left you cold, I do not know how you can imagine that you are a Christian at all.
One more thing must be added to show how great is the blessing of adoption—namely, this: that it is a blessing that abides. Social experts drum into us these days that the family unit needs to be stable and secure, and that any unsteadiness in the parent-child relationship takes its toll in strain, neurosis, and arrested development in the child himself. The depressions, randomnesses, and immaturities that mark the children of broken homes are known to us all. But things are not like that in God’s family. There you have absolute stability and security; the parent is entirely wise and good, and the child’s position is permanently assured. The very concept of adoption is itself a proof and guarantee of the preservation of the saints, for only bad fathers throw their children out of the family, even under provocation; and God is not a bad father, but a good one. When one sees depression, randomness, and immaturity in Christians one cannot but wonder whether they have learned the health-giving habit of dwelling on the abiding security of true children of God.
2. ADOPTION: THE BASIS FOR OUR CHRISTIAN LIFE
Our second point about adoption is that the entire Christian life has to be understood in terms of it. Sonship must be the controlling thought—the normative category, if you like—at every point. This follows from the nature of the case, and is strikingly confirmed by the fact that all our Lord’s teaching on Christian discipleship is cast in these terms.
It is clear that, just as Jesus always thought of himself as Son of God in a unique sense, so he always thought of his followers as children of his heavenly Father, members of the same divine family as himself. Early in his ministry we find him saying, ‘Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3:35). And two evangelists note how after his resurrection he called his disciples his brothers. ‘The women hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. . .Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”’ (Matthew 28:8-10). “‘Go … to my brothers and tell than ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news’ (John 20;17f). The writer to the Hebrews assures us that the Lord Jesus regards all those for whom he has died, and whom he makes into his disciples, as his brothers. ‘The Son does not shrink from calling men his brothers, when he says, “I will proclaim thy name unto my brothers. . .“ and again, “Here am I, and the children whom God has given Me” (Hebrew 2:12f NEB). As our Maker is our Father, so our Saviour is our brother, when we come into the family of God.
Now, just as the knowledge of his unique sonship controlled Jesus’ living of his own life on earth, so he insists that the knowledge of our adoptive sonship must control our lives too. This comes out in his teaching again and again, but nowhere more clearly than in his Sermon on the Mount. Often called the charter of God’s kingdom, this Sermon could equally well be described as the royal family code, for the thought of the disciple’s sonship to God is basic to all the main issues of Christian obedience with which the Sermon deals. This is worth showing in detail, especially since the point is so rarely given its proper weight in exposition.
2.1 Christian Conduct
First, then, adoption appears in the Sermon as the basis of Christian conduct. It is often remarked that the Sermon teaches Christian conduct, not by giving a full scheme of rules and a detailed casuistry, to be followed with mechanical precision, but by indicating in a broad and general way the spirit, direction, and objectives, the guiding principles and ideals, by which the Christian must steer his course. It is often noted that this is an ethic of responsible freedom, quite different from the tax-consultant type of instruction which was the stock-in-trade of Jewish lawyers and scribes in our Lord’s day. What is less often noticed is that it is precisely the kind of moral instruction that parents are constantly trying to give their children—concrete, imaginative, teaching general principles from particular instances, and seeking all the time to bring the children to appreciate and share the parents’ own attitudes and view of life. The reason why the Sermon has this quality is not far to seek: it is because it is in truth instruction for the children of a family—God’s family. This basic orientation comes out in three all-embracing principles of conduct which our Lord lays down.
Number one is the principle of imitating the Father. ‘I tell you: Love your enemies .. . that you may be sons of your Father in heaven … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:44f, 48). The children must show the family likeness in their conduct. Jesus is here spelling out ‘Be holy, for I am holy’—-and spelling it out in family terms.
Number two is the principle of glorifying the Father. ‘Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’ (5:16) It is a fine thing for children to be proud of their father, and to want others too to see how wonderful he is, and to take care that they behave in public in a way that is a credit to him; and similarly, says Jesus, Christians must seek to behave in public in a way that brings praise to their Father in heaven. Their constant concern must be that which they are taught to voice at the outset of all their prayers—‘Our Father. . . hallowed be your name’ (6:9).
Number three is the principle of pleasing the Father. In 6:1-18, Jesus dwells on the need to be a single-minded God-pleaser in one’s religion, and he states the principle thus, ‘Beware of practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1 RSV). Such ‘reward’ is not, of course, a mercenary matter—it will be a reward within the family, an extra-love-token such as parents love to surprise their children with when the children have tried specially hard to please. The purpose of our Lord’s promise of reward (verses 4, 6, 18) is not to make us think in terms of wages and a quid pro quo, but simply to remind us that our heavenly Father will notice, and show special pleasure, when we concentrate our efforts on pleasing him, and him alone.
2.2 Christian prayer
Second, adoption appears in the Sermon as the basis of Christian prayer. ‘This, then is how you should pray: Our Father. . . .’(6:9) As Jesus always prayed to his God as Father (‘Abba’ in Aramaic, an intimate family word), so must his followers do. Jesus could say to his Father ‘you always hear me’ (John 11:41), and he wants his disciples to know that, as God’s adopted children, the same is true of them. The Father is always accessible to his children, and is never too preoccupied to listen to what they have to say. This is the basis of Christian prayer.
Two things follow, according to the Sermon. First, prayer must not be thought of in impersonal or mechanical terms, as a technique for putting pressure on someone who otherwise might disregard you. ‘When you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (Matthew 6:7f) Second, prayer may be free and bold. We need not hesitate to imitate the sublime ‘cheek’ of the child who is not afraid to ask his parents for anything, because he knows he can count completely on their love. ‘Ask, and it will be given to you. . .Everyone who asks receives. . .If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!’ (7:7-11).
Not, indeed, that your Father in heaven always answers his children’s prayers in the form in which we offer them. Sometimes we ask for the wrong thing! It is God’s prerogative to give good things, things that we have need of, and if in our unwisdom we ask for things that do not come under these headings God, like any good parent, reserves the right to say ‘No, not that; it wouldn’t be good for you—but have this instead’. Good parents never simply ignore what their children are saying, nor simply disregard their feelings of need, and neither does God; but often he gives us what we should have asked for, rather than what we actually requested. Paul asked the Lord Jesus graciously to remove his thorn in the flesh, and the Lord replied by graciously leaving it and strengthening Paul to live with it (2 Corinthians 12:7 ff). The Lord knew best!—and to suggest that because Paul’s prayer was answered this way it was not answered at all would be utterly wrong. Here is a source of much light on what is sometimes miscalled ‘the problem of unanswered prayer’.
2.3 The life of Faith
Third, adoption appears in the Sermon as the basis of the life of faith-–that is, the life of trusting God for one’s material needs as one seeks his kingdom and righteousness. It is needless, I hope, to make the point that one can live the life of faith without foregoing gainful employment—some are called to do this, no doubt, but to attempt it without specific guidance would be, not faith but foolhardiness—there is a big difference! All Christians are, in fact, called to a life of faith, in the sense of following God’s will at whatever cost and trusting him for the consequences. But all are tempted, sooner or later, to put status and security, in human terms, before loyalty to God’s call; and then, if they resist this temptation, they are at once tempted to worry about the likely effect of their stand—particularly when, as happened to the disciples to whom the Sermon was first preached, and as has happened to many more since, following Jesus has obliged them actually to forfeit some measure of security or prosperity which they could otherwise have expected to enjoy. On those thus tempted in the life of faith, Jesus brings the truth of their adoption to bear.
‘Do not worry about your life,’ says the Lord, ‘what you will eat or drink; Or about your body, what you will wear’ (Matthew 6:25). But, says someone, this is not realistic; how can I help worrying, when I face this, and this, and this? To which Jesus’ reply is: your faith is too small; have you forgotten that God is your Father? ‘Look at the birds of the air . . . your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’ (verse 26). If God cares for the birds, whose Father he is not, is it not plain that he will certainly care for you, whose Father he is? The point is put positively in verses 31—33. ‘So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?”. . .Your heavenly Father knows that you need (these things). But seek first his (your Father’s) kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’
‘We might have a crash,’ said the small girl anxiously, as the family car threaded its way through traffic ‘Trust Daddy; he’s a good driver,’ said Mummy. The young lady was reassured and relaxed at once. Do you trust your heavenly Father like that? If not, why not? Such trust is vital; it is in truth the mainspring of the life of faith, which without it becomes a life of at least partial unbelief.
3. WHAT OUR ADOPTION SHOWS US
In an earlier chapter, we saw that the thought of propitiation, which appears verbally only four times in the New Testament, is none the less fundamentally important, as being the nucleus and focal point of the whole New Testament view of the saving work of Christ. Something similar is true here. The word adoption (the Greek means ‘instating as a son’) appears only five times, and of these occurrences only three refer to the Christian’s present relation to God in Christ (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5); yet the thought itself is the nucleus and focal point of the whole New Testament teaching on the Christian life. These two concepts, indeed, link together; were I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.
Nor is it only in the four gospels that the thought of our God-given sonship, ‘our fountain privilege’ as John Owen calls it, is set forth as controlling thought and life. The epistles, too are full of it. We shall be drawing our evidence chiefly from the epistles as we move on now to show that the truth of our adoption gives us the deepest insights that the New Testament affords into five further matters:
First, the greatness of God’s love;
Second, the glory of the Christian hope;
Third, the ministry of the Holy Spirit;
Fourth, the meaning and motives of what the Puritans called ‘gospel holiness’;
Fifth, the problem of Christian assurance.
3.1 God’s love
First then, our adoption shows us the greatness of God’s love.
The New Testament gives us two yardsticks for measuring God’s love. The first is the cross (see Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:8-10); the second is the gift of sonship. ‘Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God!’ (1 John 3:1 RV). Of all the gifts of grace, adoption is the highest. The gift of pardon for the past is great: to know
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood,
Sealed my pardon with His blood
is a never-ending source of wonder and joy.
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Who like me His praise should sing?
So, too, the gift of immunity and acceptance now and for the future is great: when once Charles Wesley’s ecstatic epitome of Romans 8 becomes yours—
No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim the crown, through Christ my own—
your spirit takes wings and flies, as some who read this chapter will surely know. But when you realize that God has taken you from the gutter, so to speak, and made you a son in his own house—you, a miraculously pardoned offender, guilty, ungrateful, defiant, perverse as you were—your sense of God’s ‘love beyond degree’ is more than words can express. You will echo Charles Wesley’s question
O how shall I the goodness tell.
Father, which Thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God.
You are not likely, however, to feel, any more than he did, that you know how to give it an adequate answer.
In the ancient world, adoption was a practice ordinarily confined to the childless well-to-do. Its subjects, as we said earlier, were not normally infants, as today, but young adults who had shown themselves fit and able to carry on a family name in a worthy way. In this case, however, God adopts us out of free love, not because our character and record show us worthy to bear his name, but despite the fact that they show the very opposite. We are not fit for a place in God’s family; the idea of his loving and exalting us sinners as he loves and has exalted the Lord Jesus sound ludicrous and wild—yet that, and nothing less than that, is what our adoption means.
Adoption, by its very nature, is an act of free kindness to the person adopted. If you become a father by adopting a child, you do so because you choose to, not because you are bound to. Similarly, God adopts because he chooses to. He has no duty to do so. He need not have done anything about our sins save punish us as we deserved. But he loved us so; he redeemed us, forgave us, took us as his sons and daughters, and gave himself to us as our Father.
Nor does his grace stop short with that initial act, any more than the love of human parents who adopt stops short with the completing of the legal process that makes the child theirs. The establishing of the child’s status as a member of the family is only a beginning. The real task remains; to establish a genuinely filial relationship between your adopted child and yourself. It is this, above all, that you want to see. Accordingly, you set yourself to win the child’s love by loving. You seek to excite affection by showing affection. So with God. And throughout our life in this world, and to all eternity beyond, he will constantly be showing us, in one way or other, more and more of his love, and thereby increasing our love to him continually. The prospect before the adopted children of God is an eternity of love.
Once I knew a family in which the eldest child was adopted at a time when the parents thought they could have no children. When their natural-born children arrived later on, they diverted all their affection to them, and the adopted eldest was very obviously left out in the cold. It was painful to see, and, judging by the look on the eldest’s face, it was painful to experience. It was, of course, a miserable failure in parenthood. But in God’s family things are not like that. Like the prodigal in the parable, we may only find ourselves able to say, ‘I have sinned . .. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men’ (Luke 15:18f). But God receives us as sons, and loves us with the same steadfast affection with which he eternally loves his beloved only-begotten. There are no distinctions of affection in the divine family. We are all loved just as fully as Jesus is loved. It is like a fairy story—the reigning monarch adopts waifs and strays to make princes of them—but, praise God, it is not a fairy story: it is hard and solid fact, founded on the bedrock of free and sovereign grace. This, and nothing less than this, is what adoption means. No wonder that John cries, ‘Behold, what manner of love . . !’ When once you understand adoption, your heart will cry the same.
Nor is this all.
3.2 Christian Hope
Second, our adoption shows us the glory of the Christian hope.
New Testament Christianity is a religion of hope, a faith that looks forward. For the Christian, the best is always yet to be. But how can we form any notion of that which awaits us at the end of the road? Here, too, the doctrine of adoption comes to our help. To start with, it teaches us to think of our hope, not as a possibility nor yet as a likelihood, but as a guaranteed certainty, because it is a promised inheritance. The reason for adopting, in the first century world, was specifically to have an heir to whom one could bequeath one’s goods. So, too, God’s adoption of us makes us his heirs, and so guarantees to us, as of right (we might say), the inheritance that he has in store for us. ‘We are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ’ (Romans 8:16f). ‘So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir’ (Galatians 4:7). Our Father’s wealth is immeasurable, and we are to inherit the entire estate.
Next, the doctrine of adoption tells us that the sum and
substance of our promised inheritance is a share in the glory of Christ. We shall be made like our elder brother at every point, and sin and mortality, the double corruption of God’s good work in the moral and spiritual spheres respectively, will be things of the past. ‘Co-heirs with Christ … that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:17). ‘Now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him’ (1 John 3:2)
This likeness will extend to our physical being, as well as our mind and character; indeed, Romans 8:23 speaks of the bestowing of it on the physical side as itself our adoption, clearly using the word to mean the conveying of the inheritance which we were adopted to receive. ‘We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’ This, the blessing of resurrection day, will make actual for us all that was implicit in the relationship of adoption, for it will introduce us into the full experience of the heavenly life now enjoyed by our elder brother.
Paul dwells on the splendour of this event, assuring us that all creation, inarticulately yet really, is looking and longing ‘in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed, For. . . the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’ (Romans 8: 19ff). Whatever else this passage may imply (and it was not written, let us remember, to satisfy the natural scientist’s curiosity), it clearly underlines the surpassing grandeur of what awaits us in the good plan of God.
When we think of Jesus exalted in glory, in the fullness of the joy for which he endured the cross (a fact, let it be said, of which Christians should think often), we should always remind ourselves that everything he has will some day be shared with us, for it is our inheritance no less than his; we are among the ‘many sons’ whom God is bringing to glory (Hebrew 2:10), and God’s promise to us, and his work in us, are not going to fail.
Finally, the doctrine of adoption tells us that the experience of heaven will be of a family gathering, as the great host of the redeemed meet together in face-to-face fellowship with their Father-God and Jesus their brother. This is the deepest and clearest idea of heaven that the Bible gives us. Many scriptures point to it. ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and see my glory’ (John 17:24). ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’ (Matthew 5:8). ‘We shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2). ‘They will see his face’ (Revelation 22:4). ‘Then we shall see face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). ‘And so we will be with the Lord forever’ (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
It will be like the day when the sick child is at last able to leave hospital, and finds father and the whole family waiting outside to greet him—a family occasion, if ever there was one. ‘I see myself now at the end of my journey, my toilsome days are ended,’ said Bunyan’s Mr. Stand-fast, as he stood half-way into Jordan’s water, ‘the thoughts of what I am going to, and of the conduct that waits for me on the other side, doth lie as a glowing coal at my heart. . .I have formerly lived by hear-say, and faith, but now I go where I shall live by sight, and shall be with Him, in whose company I delight myself.’
What will make heaven to be heaven is the presence of Jesus, and of a reconciled divine Father who loves us for Jesus’ sake no less than he loves Jesus himself. To see, and know, and love, and be loved by, the Father and the Son, in company with the rest of God’s vast family, is the whole essence of the Christian hope. As Richard Baxter put it in his poetical version of the covenant with God which his wife-to-be ‘subscribed with a cheerful will’ on April 10th, 1660:
My knowledge of that life is small;
The eye of faith is dim:
But it’s enough that Christ knows all;
And I shall be with Him.
If you are a believer, and so an adopted child, this prospect satisfies you completely; if it does not strike you as satisfying, it would seem that as yet you are neither.
3.3 The Ministry of the Holy Spirit
Third, our adoption gives us the key to understanding the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Pitfalls and perplexities regarding the ministry of the Spirit abound among Christians today. The problem is not in finding correct verbal labels, but in knowing what it is in experience that corresponds to the work of God to which the labels refer. Thus, we are all aware that the Spirit teaches the mind of God, and glorifies the Son of God, out of the Scriptures; also, that he is the agent of new birth, giving us an understanding so that he indwells, sanctifies, and energises Christians for their daily pilgrimage; also, that assurance, joy, peace, and power are his special gifts. But many complain in puzzlement that these statements are to them mere formulae, not corresponding with anything they recognise in their own lives.
Naturally, such Christians feel they are missing something vital, and ask anxiously how they may close the gap between the New Testament picture of life in the Spirit and their own felt barrenness in daily experience. Then, perhaps, in desperation they set themselves to seek a single transforming psychic event whereby what they feel to be their personal ‘unspirituality barrier’ may be broken for good and all. The event may be thought of as the ‘Keswick experience’, or ‘full surrender’, or ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’, or ‘entire sanctification’, or ‘sealing with the Spirit’, or the gift of tongues, or (if we steer by Catholic rather than Protestant stars) a ‘second conversion’, or the prayer of quiet, or of union. Yet even if something happens which they feel able to identify with what they were looking for, they soon find that the ‘unspirituality barrier’ has not been broken after all, and so move on restlessly to something new.
Many are caught in these toils today. What help is needed here? we ask. The light shed by the truth of adoption on the ministry of the Spirit gives the answer.
The cause of such troubles as we have described is a false, magical type of supernaturalism, which leads people to hanker after a transforming touch as from an electric impersonal power that will make them feel wholly free from the burdens and bondages of living with themselves and other people. They believe that this is the essence of genuine spiritual experience. They think the work of the Spirit is to give them experiences that are like LSD trips. (How unhelpful it is when evangelists actually promise this, and when drug takers equate their fantasies with religious experience! Will our age never learn to distinguish things that differ?) In fact, however, this quest for an inward explosion rather than inward communion shows deep misunderstanding of the Spirit’s ministry.
For the vital truth to be grasped here is that Spirit is given to Christians as ‘the Spirit of adoption’, and in all his ministry to Christians he acts as the Spirit of adoption. As such, his task and purpose throughout is to make Christians realize with increasing clarity the meaning of their filial relationship with God in Christ, and to lead them into an ever deeper response to God in this relationship. Paul is pointing to this truth when he writes, ‘Ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father’ (Romans 8:15 KJV). ‘God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son intoyour hearts, crying’—that is, prompting you to cry—‘Abba, Father’ (Galatians 4:6 KJV).
Just as adoption itself is the key thought for unlocking, and the focal thought for unifying, the New Testament view of the Christian life, so a recognition that the Spirit comes to us as the Spirit of adoption is the key thought for unlocking, and the focal thought for integrating, all that the New Testament tells us about his ministry to Christians.
From the standpoint provided by this focal thought, we see that his work has three aspects. In the first place, he makes and keeps us conscious-–sometimes vividly conscious, always conscious to some extent, even when the perverse part of us prompts us to deny this consciousness—that we are God’s children by free grace through Jesus Christ. This is his work of giving faith; assurance, and joy. In the second place, he moves us to look to God as to a father, showing towards him the respectful boldness and unlimited trust that is natural to children secure in an adored father’s love. This is his work of making us cry ‘Abba, Father’—the attitude described is what the cry expresses. In the third place, he impels us to act up to our position as royal children by manifesting the family likeness (i.e. conforming to Christ), furthering the family welfare (i.e. loving the brethren),and maintaining the family honour (i.e. seeking God’s glory). This is his work of sanctification. Through this progressive deepening of filial consciousness and character, with its outworking in the pursuit of what God loves and the avoidance of what he hates, ‘we are transformed by the Spirit of the Lord in ever-increasing splendour into His own image’ (2 Corinthians 3:18 Phillips).
So it is not as we strain after feelings and experiences, of whatever sort, but as we seek God himself, looking to him as our Father, prizing his fellowship, and finding in ourselves an increasing concern to know and please him, that the reality of the Spirit’s ministry becomes visible in our lives. This is the needed truth which can lift us out of the quagmire of non-spiritual views of the Spirit in which so many today are floundering.
Fourth, and following on from what we have just said, our adoption shows us the meaning and motives of ‘gospel holiness’.
‘Gospel holiness’ is no doubt an unfamiliar phrase to some. It was Puritan shorthand for authentic Christian living, springing from love and gratitude to God, in contrast with the spurious ‘legal holiness’ that consisted merely in forms, routines, and outward appearances, maintained from self-regarding motives. We have here just two short points to make about ‘gospel holiness’.
First, what has already been said shows us its essential nature. It is simply a consistent living out of our filial relationship with God, into which the gospel brings us. It is just a matter of the child of God being true to type, true to his Father, to his Saviour, and to himself. It is the expressing of one’s adoption in one’s life. It is a mater of being a good son or daughter, as distinct from a prodigal or black sheep in the royal family.
Second, the adoptive relationship, which displays God’s grace signally, itself provides the motive for this authentically holy living. Christians know that God ‘predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself’, and that this involved his eternal intention that ‘we should be holy and without blame before him in love’ (Ephesians 1:3 f KJV). They know that they are moving towards a day when this destiny will be fully and finally realised. ‘We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2).
What flows from such knowledge? Why, this, ‘Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself just as he is pure’ (verse 3). The children know that holiness is their Father’s will for them, and that it is both a means, condition, and constituent of their happiness, here and hereafter; and because they love their Father they actively seek the fulfilling of his beneficent purpose. Paternal discipline exercised through outward pressures and trials helps the process along: the Christian up to his eyes in trouble can take comfort from the knowledge that in God’s kindly plan it all has a positive purpose, to further his sanctification.
In this world, royal children have to undergo extra training and discipline, which other children escape, in order to fit them for their high destiny. It is the same with the children of the King of Kings. The clue to understanding all his dealings with them is to remember that throughout his life he is training them for what awaits them, and chiselling them into the image of Christ. Sometimes the chiselling process is painful, and the discipline irksome; but then the Scripture reminds us—‘The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son: Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons … No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it’ (Hebrew 12:6f, 11). Only the person who has grasped this can make sense of Romans 8:28, ‘All things work together for good to them that love God’ (KJV); equally, only he can maintain his assurance of sonship against satanic assault as things go wrong. But he who has mastered the truth of adoption both retains assurance and receives blessing in the day of trouble: this is one aspect of faith’s victory over the world. Meanwhile, however, the point stands that the Christian’s primary motive for holy living is not negative, the hope (vain!) that hereby he may avoid chastening, but positive, the impulse to show his love and gratitude to his adopting God by identifying himself with the Father’s will for him.
This throws light at once on the question of the place of God’s law in the Christian life. Many have found it hard to see what claim the law can have on the Christian. We are free from the law, they say; our salvation does not depend on law-keeping; we are justified through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. How, then, can it matter, or make any difference to anything, whether we keep the law henceforth or not? And since justification means the pardon of all sin, past, present, and future, and complete acceptance for all eternity, why should we be concerned whether we sin or not? Why should we think God is concerned? Does it not show an imperfect grasp of justification when a Christian makes an issue of his daily sins, and spends time mourning over them and seeking forgiveness for them? Is not a refusal to look to the law for instruction, or to be concerned about one’s daily shortcomings, part of the true boldness of justifying faith?
The Puritans had to face these ‘antinomian’ ideas, and sometimes made heavy weather of answering them. If one allows it to be assumed that justification is the be-all and end-all of the gift of salvation, one will always make heavy weather of answering such arguments. The truth is that these ideas must be answered in terms, not of justification, but of adoption: a reality which the Puritans never highlighted quite enough. Once the distinction is drawn between these two elements in the gift of salvation, the correct reply becomes plain.
What is that reply? It is this: that, while it is certainly true that justification frees one for ever from the need to keep the law, or try to, as the means of earning life, it is equally true that adoption lays on one the abiding obligation to keep the law, as a means of pleasing one’s new-found Father. Law-keeping is the family likeness of God’s children; Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, and God calls us to do likewise. Adoption puts law-keeping on a new footing: as children of God, we acknowledge the law’s authority as a rule for our lives, because we know that this is what our Father wants. If we sin, we confess our fault and ask our Father’s forgiveness on the basis of the family relationship, as Jesus taught us to do—‘Father . . . forgive us our sins’ (Luke 11:2, 4). The sins of God’s children do not destroy their justification or nullify their adoption, but they mar the children’s fellowship with their Father. “Be holy for I am holy’ is our Father’s word to us, and it is no part of justifying faith to lose sight of the fact that God, the King, wants his royal children to live lives worthy of their paternity and position.
Fifth, our adoption gives the clue we need to see our way through the problem of assurance.
Here is a tangled skein, if ever there was one! This topic has been in constant dispute in the Church ever since the Reformation. The Reformers, Luther in particular, used to distinguish between ‘historical faith’—what Tyndale called ‘story-faith’, that is, belief of the Christian facts without response or commitment—and true saving faith. The latter, they said, is essentially assurance. They called it fiducia, ‘confidence’—confidence, that is, first in the truth of God’s promise of pardon and life to believing sinners, and second in its application to oneself as a believer. ‘Faith’, declared Luther, ‘is a living deliberate confidence in the grace of God, so certain that for it one could die a thousand deaths, and such confidence … makes us joyous, intrepid, and cheerful towards God and all creation.’ And he attacked ‘that pernicious doctrine of the Papists, which taught that no man knows certainly whether he be in the favour of God or not; whereby they utterly defaced the doctrine of faith, tormented men’s consciences, banished Christ right out of the Church, and denied all the benefits of the Holy Spirit’.
At the same time, the Reformers recognised that fiducia, the assurance of faith, could exist in a person who under temptation felt sure that it did not exist in him, and that he had no hope in God. (If this sounds paradoxical to you, be thankful that you have never been exposed to the kind of temptation that makes this the actual state of your soul, as it was on occasion the actual state of Luther’s, and many more in his time.)
The Roman Catholics could make nothing of this: in answer to the Reformers they reaffirmed the standard medieval view, that though faith hopes for heaven it can have no certainty of arriving there, and that to claim such certainty is presumption.
The Puritans of the next century made a point of teaching that what is essential in faith is not assurance of salvation, whether present or future, but vital repentance and commitment to Jesus Christ. Often they spoke of assurance as if it were something distinct from faith, which the believer would not ordinarily experience unless he specifically sought it.
Wesley in the eighteenth century re-echoed Luther’s insistence that the witness of the Spirit, and the assurance resulting, is of the essence of faith, though he later qualified this by distinguishing between the faith of a servant, of which assurance is no part, and the faith of a son, of which it is. He seems to have come to think of his pre-Aldersgate Street experience as the faith of a servant—one on the borders of full Christian experience, seeking salvation and following on to know the Lord but not yet assured of his standing in grace. Like all later Lutherans, however —though not like Luther himself! —Wesley held that assurance relates to present acceptance by God only, and that there can be no present assurance of persevering.
Among evangelicals the debate continues, and continues to bewilder, too. What is assurance? And whom does God assure?—all believers, some, or none? When he assures, what does he assure of? And by what means is assurance given? The tangle is formidable, but the truth of adoption can help us unravel it.
If God in love has made Christians his children, and if he is perfect as a Father, two things would seem to follow, in the nature of the case.
First, the family relationship must be an abiding one, lasting for ever. Perfect parents do not cast off their children. Christians may act the prodigal, but God will not cease to act the prodigal’s father.
Second, God will go out of his way to make his children feel his love for them, and know their privilege and security as member, of his family. Adopted children need assurance that they belong, and a perfect parent will not withhold it.
Paul in Romans 8, the classic New Testament passage on assurance, confirms both inferences. First, he tells us that those whom God ‘predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers’—those, in other words, whom God eternally resolved to take as sons in his family, alongside his only-begotten—‘he called … justified … glorified’ (Romans 8: 29 f). ‘Glorified’, we note, is in the past tense, though the event itself is still future; this shows that to Paul’s mind the thing is as good as done already, being fixed in God’s decree. Hence Paul’s confidence in declaring, ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will separate us from the love of God’—the electing, redeeming, paternal love of God —‘that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (verses 38 f).
Second, Paul tells us that here and now ‘the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs’ (verses 16 f). The statement is inclusive: though Paul had never met the Roman, he felt able to take it for granted that if they were Christians, then they would know this inner witness of the Spirit to their happy status as sons and heirs of God. Well did James Denney once observe that whereas assurance is a sin in Romanism, and a duty in much of Protestantism, in the New Testament it is simply a fact.
We note that in this verse witness to our adoption is borne from two distinct sources: our spirit (that is, our conscious self), and God’s Spirit, who testifies, or bears witness with our spirit, and so to our spirit. (This point is not affected if, with the RSV, we re-punctuate, and render, ‘When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit. . .’ What it means then is that the filial cry, and the filial attitude it expresses, is evidence that the dual witness is a reality in the heart.)
What is the nature of this dual witness? Robert Haldane’s analysis, which distils the essence of more than two centuries of evangelical exposition, can hardly be improved upon. The witness of our spirit, he writes, becomes a reality as ‘the Holy Spirit enables us to ascertain our sonship, from being conscious of, and discovering in ourselves, the true marks of a renewed state.’ This is inferential assurance, being a conclusion drawn from the fact that one knows the gospel, trust Christ, brings forth works meet for repentance, and manifests the instincts of a regenerated man.
But (continues Haldane) to say that this is all that is signified by the Holy Spirit’s testimony, would be to fall short of what is affirmed in this text; for in that case the Holy Spirit would only help the conscience to be a witness, but could not be said to be a witness Himself .. . The Holy Spirit testifies to our spirit in a distinct and immediate testimony, and also with our spirit in a concurrent testimony. This testimony, although it cannot be explained, is nevertheless felt by the believer; it is felt by him, too, in its variations, as sometimes stronger and more palpable, and at other times more feeble and less discernible. . . Its reality is indicated in Scripture by such expressions as those of the Father and the Son coming unto us, and making their abode with us—Christ manifesting Himself to us, and supping with us—His giving us the hidden manna, and the white stone, denoting the communication to us of the knowledge of an acquittal from guilt, and a new namewritten, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. ‘The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us’ (Romans, p. 363).
This is immediate assurance, the direct work of the Spirit in the regenerate heart, coming in to supplement the God-prompted witness of our own spirit (i.e. of our own self-consciousness and self-knowledge as believers). While this dual witness can be temporarily clouded through divine withdrawal and satanic assault, every whole-hearted Christian who is not grieving and quenching the Spirit by unfaithfulness ordinarily enjoys both aspects of the witness, more or less, as his abiding experience; as Paul’s present tense (‘testifies with our spirit’, ‘beareth witness with our spirit’ (KJV) makes clear.
So the truth about assurance comes out like this: Our heavenly Father intends his children to know his love for them, and their own security in his family. He would not be the perfect Father if he did not want this, and if he did not act to bring it about. His action takes the form of making the dual witness that we have described part of the regular experience of his children. Thus he leads them to rejoice in his love. The dual witness is itself a gift—the crowning element in the complex gift of faith, the element whereby believers gain ‘feeling knowledge’ that their faith, and adoption, and the hope of heaven, and the infinite sovereign love of God to them, are all ‘really real’. Of this dimension of faith’s experience one has to say, as Mr.Squeers said of Nature, that it is ‘more easier conceived than described’—‘more easily felt than tell’t’, as a Scots lady is supposed to have put it, rather more grammatically and whimsically; yet all Christians ordinarily enjoy it to some extent, for it is in truth part of their birthright.
Being prone to self-deception, we do well to test our assurance by applying the doctrinal and ethical criteria which 1 John provides for this very purpose (see 1 John 1:3, 29; 3:6—10, 14, 18-21; 4:7 f, 15 f; 5:1-4, 18), and by this means the inferential element in our assurance will be strengthened and the vividness of assurance as a whole may vastly increase. The source of assurance, however, is not our inferences as such, but the work of the Spirit, apart from as well as through our inferences, convincing us that we are God’s children and that the saving love and promises of God apply directly to us.
What, then, of the historic disputes? The Romanists were wrong: viewed in the light of adoption and the fatherhood of God, their denial of both preservation and assurance becomes a ludicrous monstrosity. What sort of a father is it that never tells his children individually that he loves them, but proposes to throw them out of the family unless they behave? The Wesleyan and Lutheran denial of preservation is similarly mistaken. God is a better father than this denial allows for: he keeps his children in faith and grace, and will not let them slip from his hand. The Reformers and Wesley were right to say that assurance is integral to faith; the Puritans, however, were also right to lay more stress than either on the fact that Christians who grieve the Spirit by sin, and who fail to seek God with all their heart, must expect to miss the full fruition of this crowning gift of the double witness, just as careless and naughty children stop their parents’ smiles and provoke frowns instead. Some gifts are too precious for careless and naughty children, and this is a gift which our heavenly Father will, to some
extent at least, ho1d back if he sees us to be in a state where it would spoil us, by making us think our Father, did not care whether we lived holy lives or not.
4. THE GREAT SECRET
It is a strange fact that the truth of adoption has been little regarded in Christian history. Apart from two nineteenth-century books, now scarcely known (R. S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, R. A. Webb, The Reformed Doctrine of Adoption), there is no evangelical writing on it, nor has there been at any time since the Reformation, any more than there was before. Luther’s grasp of adoption was as strong and clear as his grasp of justification, but his disciples held to the former and made nothing of the latter. The Puritan teaching on the Christian life, so strong in other ways, was notably deficient here, which is one reason why legalistic misunderstandings of it so easily arise. Perhaps the early Methodists, and later Methodist saints like Billy Bray, ‘the King’s Son’, with his unforgettable approach to prayer—‘I must talk to Father about this’—came closest to the life of sonship as the New Testament depicts it. There is certainly more to make of adoption in Christian teaching today.
Meanwhile, the immediate message to our hearts of what we have studied in the present chapter is surely this: do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Saviour is my brother; every Christian is my brother too. Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true. For this is the Christian’s secret of—a happy life?—yes, certainly, but we have something both higher and profounder to say. This is the Christian’s secret of a Christian life, and of a God-honouring life: and these are the aspects of the situation that really matter. May this secret become fully yours, and fully mine.
To help us realise more adequately who and what, as children of God, we are, and are called to be, here are some questions by which we do well to examine ourselves again and again.
Do I understand my adoption? Do I value it? Do I daily remind myself of my privilege as a child of God?
Have I sought full assurance of my adoption? Do I daily dwell on the love of God to me?
Do I treat God as my Father in heaven, loving, honouring, and obeying him, seeking and welcoming his fellowship, and trying in everything to please him, as human parents would want their child to do?
Do I think of Jesus Christ, my Saviour and my Lord, as my brother too, bearing to me not only a divine authority but also a divine-human sympathy? Do I think daily how close he is to me, how completely he understands me, and how much, as my kinsman-redeemer, he cares for me?
Have I learned to hate the things that displease my Father? Am I sensitive to the evil things to which he is sensitive? Do I make a point of avoiding them, lest I grieve him?
Do I look forward daily to that great family occasion when the children of God will finally gather in heaven before the throne of God, their Father, and of the Lamb, their brother and their Lord? Have I felt the thrill of this hope?
Do I love my Christian brothers and sisters, with whom I live day by day, in a way that I shall not be ashamed of when in heaven I think back over it?
Am I proud of my Father, and of his family, to which by his grace I belong?
Does the family likeness appear in me? If not, why not?
God humble us; God instruct us; God make us his own true children. (225-260)