Sunday, April 04, 2010

Have you heard the good news?

Now the promises were made to Abraham
and to his offspring… who is Christ.
Galatians 3:16, ESV

GOOD MEN WOULD WISH IT were true, said Blaise Pascal. Words that could be said of many things. England winning the World Cup. Peace on earth, or just in your household. Family or fame or fortune. There are a great many things in this world that we long for, some of them noble some of them ignoble, some of them realistic, some of them entirely unrealistic.

Pascal was talking about Christianity. He believed that in Christianity we have a story that is both persuasively cogent and attractive to the heart. Few would argue with him, but looking at some Christians you could be forgiven for thinking that being a Christian is no more than a necessary evil. Whilst it may provide some inconvenience in life it’s useful to those wishing to avoid hell and have a pleasant voyage into eternity.
In pointing the finger at these ‘some Christians’ I’m inevitably pointing three fingers back at myself. I know all to well how easy it is to have a functional Christianity that is, on balance, worth running with. I’m quick witted enough to be able to recount the facts of Christianity on demand and to inform others of how they too need to believe.

We offer Pascal’s wager and suggest that it’s the safe bet to go with Jesus. If there is no god then what’s lost, if God is there then everything is to be gained. Pascal, as we’ve already seen, didn’t think Christianity was just a safe bet. He places his wager because he knows mere intellectualism moves nobody, and none of us come at Christianity in neutral. We come with hearts that are opposed to Christ because they’re more devoted to serving self and other gods.

We need a new and living heart, where God dwells by his Spirit. But, this is no mere solution to a mathematical problem. This will be nothing less than our re-creation, our resurrection, a revolution of life. The means by which we are ‘born again’ is the attractive and persuasive communication of the good news about Jesus to the human heart, in the power of the Holy Spirit invariably through the words of a human being.

Holiday firms don’t sell their products by how good the journey will be, they show us the beaches, the blue skies and the luxurious bedrooms we can expect. What is offered to us in the gospel is no product. The means is the cross and resurrection of Jesus - and when you see what the great purpose of God makes possible by this it's no wonder Christians boast in this.


The good news of Jesus isn’t an offer of forgiveness, or hell-avoidance, or right standing with God. The good news about Jesus is the offer to us of life in the fellowship of the Triune God. In the gospel God offers us himself, and that is very good news.

When God turns his attention to you, what does he make of you?
You might answer this question in all sorts of ways. Here’s three possible ways, each of them contains truth and yet misses something.
  • Some would say “I’m a sinner”. God looks on me and is unhappy with me. I’m miserable about this but there’s nothing I can do about that. Such a Christian knows that it’s right to be a Christian and in the end things will be better.
  • Others would say “I’m a forgiven sinner, saved by grace”. This is a happier state of affairs, our failings remain very much with us but we know God to be gracious to us as we sin. Such a Christian experiences the Christian life as a struggle and is relieved that God is who he is.
  • Others still would say “I’m a saint who sins sometimes”. God has been very gracious to me, but he is nonetheless disappointed with the way I’m handling being a Christian. Such a Christian knows themselves to have been reborn as a new person but can’t help but be weighed down by their sin.
We need to take our question and ask it more specifically.

When God the Father turns his eye to you, who does he see?
In his most excellent letter to the Christians in Galatia Paul addresses a church where the attractiveness of Christianity is being marred and deformed. What can he say to win them back? As is the way of all good Christian teaching there is no innovation, but simply a penetrating reminder of what they already assent to, painted on the canvas of the human heart by the paintbrush of the Holy Spirit.

“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith”
Galatians 3:26

Contrary to popular belief, a Christian isn’t someone who believes the right things or behaves in the right ways. A Christian is defined by a familial relationship. A Christian is a son of God. It’s all about relationship.

Once upon a time, a deceiving brat called Jacob was desperate to inherit blessing from his Father. His older, twin, brother, however was the firstborn and in his culture that meant he would receive a double blessing. Jacob was determined and ruthless. He began by conning his very hairy brother. He saw that his brother was ravenous with hunger after a hard day at work, and so persuaded him to trade his birthright for a bowl of red stew. To complete the deal he dressed himself in animal skins so that to the touch of his blind father he’d seem to be his brother. And, deceptively and unjustly, he succeeded.

For the Christian a similar game of dress-up has occurred. This isn’t a con initiated by the desperate believer but a blessing conferred by the gracious father.

Every Christian has ‘put on Christ’. Every Christian is clothed with Christ, clothed with his righteousness because they’ve been baptised into Christ. That’s language that isn’t about dunking you into water but about what baptism represents. Jesus’ baptism was his death and his being raised. This happened to Jesus. And it’s happened to someone who has become a Christian. It’s not just a lifestyle choice or preference to become a Christian, its death to everything that came before and resurrection to a whole new existence.

Those who believe in the death of Jesus are immersed into his death and resurrection and clothed with Jesus. And the emphasis there isn’t on the word believe but on his death and resurrection. Not an ounce of this is earned or something I can take credit for. It’s all a gift from God based on what God has done. The one with Jacob and the hairy clothing was a con. The one with me dressed up as Jesus isn’t, it’s called union with Christ, and it’s the heart of what it means to be a Christian. To be dressed by God the Father in God the Son.

God previously promised to Abraham that ‘Abraham’s Offspring’ would inherit everything. Paul labours the point that this is a singular offspring (Galatians 3:16). Jesus gets everything. This seems like bad news for the world. God is not giving inheritance to lots of people, only to his one and only son whom he loves. The Christian imagines themselves in a desperate situation. If only Jesus inherits, then what of me?

The only hope would be to be ‘in’ Jesus. And that is exactly what happens to the one who has faith in Jesus, who dies with him and rises with him. The identity of the Christian is ‘in Christ’.

One of the many implications of this is that all kinds of sectarian divisions disappear, there’s no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. There is just Christ. Every Christian in Christ, and if we are in Christ then it’s not that we’re related to Jesus, we are ‘Abraham’s Offspring’. Which is to say, as far as the God the Father is concerned, the Christian is Jesus, the son of God.

We all dress to say something about who we are. Whether to convey a particular image of ourselves, or to fit with our occupation. Christianity goes further than saying you are what you wear, you are who you wear.

This being the case, when God the Father turns his eye to the Christian, what does he see? Who does he see? When God the Father looks at me, he sees his Son Jesus and treats me accordingly. The Son has been loved by the Father from eternity past, sharing in the Father’s glory. God the Father is unfailingly committed to his Son, and so he is to the Christian. So he is to me, so he is to you.

This however is only half of the story. It’s good but there is better.

When God the Father turns his ear to you, who does he hear?
The Father sent his Son into the world, at exactly the right time so that this ‘adoption as sons’ could be widely received. He sent his Son, so that we might receive adoption as sons, and because we are sons something unprecedented happens. God has sent the Spirit of his Son (God the Holy Spirit) into our hearts. God comes and makes his home in his people.

This is of course the story of the whole Bible. In Eden man and God walk together until man gives his heart to another and is consequently and tragically exiled from God, the way barred by angels. Still, from time to time, some walk with God, like Enoch and Noah and Abraham. Many years later when God rescues his people from slavery to be his son he establishes a dwelling place with them – a tent in the middle of their camp. Yet still an angel embroidered curtain bars the way to God, and the same is true when that tent becomes a temple in Jerusalem. The curtain only comes down when God comes again to walk among us, the Son sent to walk our streets and breathe our air. In the moment of his death the curtain of the temple is torn down and the way to God is opened wide. From there forward man and God can once more live together, by the Holy Spirit setting up his home in the human heart, a foretaste and deposit of an eternity where man and God once more dwell together.

The Holy Spirit is particularly named the Spirit of his Son (Galatians 4:6) because of his ministry in the Christian.

‘God sent the Spiirt of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father”’

When Paul writes of the Christian relationship to the Father in his magisterial letter to the Roman Christians he tells of how we can cry, like Jesus, to the Father – “Abba”. That is not what he says to the Galatians. He tells them that the Spirit is talking to the Father.

This means that when, and whenever, God the Father turns his ear to the Christian he hears the words “Abba! Father!” What does he conclude? Nothing less than that this person looks like my Son, and sounds like my son, and so I consider this person to be my son. And if a son then an heir (4:7), together with all God’s diverse people, inheriting in Jesus.

Christians find themselves not in possession of a get out of jail free card, but caught up into the relationships of the members of the Triune God. In the Son, with the Spirit of the Son in their hearts, considered by the Father to be his son. And this is no legal fiction but the realisation of the perfect and eternal purpose of the Father’s grace in his Son by the Spirit. His design is that the Christian might know him, just as his beloved Son does - joined to Christ, found in Christ - and in the gospel this is accomplished - we die with him, we rise in him. Everything in him. Is it good to be a Christian? Yes.

A Christian is someone in Christ. Good men would wish that this were true, and it is. 

8 comments:

  1. Love it. Thanks for writing that Dave. It was good food to enjoy.

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  2. A bit of a big/long meal for a blog, but figured I might just get away with it...

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  3. Best thing I've read in a long while. A long meal well prepared, presented attractively and separated into courses is perfectly manageable, and indeed more enjoyable than a snack - as was this. :)

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  4. Snacks are fun and help keep you going, but you can't live off them.

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  5. Thanks for the post. It's really encouraging to be reminded that God sees us in the same way that he sees Jesus. Are you able to say anything on how this changes (if at all) when we do sin? Is there a difference between God seeing us as sons and God seeing us as Jesus? Are you saying that both are true or just the former?

    It seems to me that there is a difference between saying that God sees us and treats us as sons and God see us and treats us as he treats Jesus. If he sees us as sons, then when we are disobedient he will treat us as disobedient sons (although not as enemies). However, if he sees us as he sees Jesus then when we are disobedient he will treat us as if we had never been disobedient.

    I'm not quite sure what the answer is to this as the Bible seems to say both that we are in Christ and also that God disciplines us for our good (unless the problem is that I'm thinking of discipline too much in terms of punishment rather than training). I'd welcome you thoughts on this.

    Thanks, Kevin.

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  6. Continuing on from last comment, in the Mortification of Sin John Owen talks about what happens when a Christian repents and about the relationship that he can enjoy with God after repentance. Owen writes that God will sometimes make the repentant believer wait a while at the door of the family house before letting him back in again to enjoy full fellowship again. Therefore Owen is saying that the Father does treat us differently to how he treats Jesus. On the view that the Father always treats believers in the way that he treats Jesus, then he treats us as Jesus even when we are in acts of disobedience. However, on Owen's view, the Father doesn't treat us as he treats Jesus when we are disobedient, and he doesn't even treat us as he treats Jesus from the moment that we repent, but he only begins to treat us as he treats Jesus after we have repented and have been kept at the door of the house for some time. I would love to believe that Owen is wrong on this point, but it's not an area I have certainty on yet.

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  7. I'd gladly talk about that. Obviously here I'm arguing from Galatians and Paul has plenty to say about sin in the rest of the letter.

    Briefly...

    1. In the account of Paul's correction of Peter (Galatians 2), I think the implicit unspoken defence by Peter is "I'm adding law so that I wont sin" to which Paul says two things...
    a) law will only prove you a transgressor.
    b) you sinning doesn't mean Jesus approves of it.
    And further that the life you live in the flesh is no longer your real life - that life died and the life you now live is lived by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you. I.e. Don't worry about not sinning, get on with living with your confidence and your attention on the cross of Christ, otherwise you'll void it. It's not that the Father is ignorant of our sin, but his desire is our faith in his Son, in whom we now live. So in the face of sin don't dwell on sin, look again to Christ's meaningful death & resurrection... because to do otherwise is to get out of step with the gospel which is a path towards condemnation.

    2. We are to live by walking by the Spirit and if we do this we wont indulge our sinful nature. But given we have a crucified sinful nature and the Spirit we will from time to time not do what we want. I.e. we'll sin. The remedy is to repent not to add law. It's not that the Father is ignorant of our sin, but having sent his Son he wants us back walking by the one in whom we live. So in the face of sin don't dwell on sin, look again to Christ's meaningful death & resurrection... because to do otherwise is to get out of step with the gospel which is a path towards condemnation.

    3. When one sins, the church should practice restoration of the one who sins, with gentleness. The goal is to get walking again. It's not that the Father is ignorant of our sin, but having sent his Son he wants us back walking by the one in whom we live. So in the face of sin don't dwell on sin, look again to Christ's meaningful death & resurrection... because to do otherwise is to get out of step with the gospel which is a path towards condemnation.

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  8. xhzicc writes of this post: "With lyrics from Galatians, positioned to a melodic phrase by Luther, arranged by Reeves, kicked off with an intro by Pascal: but all of Christ"

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