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Sermon: The Spirit Of Adoption

I’m back after holiday to preach tomorrow morning for the first time in three weeks. Here goes:

Romans 8:1-17

When I was in my early years at secondary school, the girls used to debate who was the dreamiest pop star. Was it Donny Osmond, Michael Jackson, Les McKeown from the Bay City Rollers, or was it David Cassidy?

In David Cassidy’s case, they would sing along with a glazed look in their eyes:

How can I be sure
In a world that’s constantly changing?

That others, such as the Young Rascals and Dusty Springfield, had charted before him with the song, was immaterial. It was David Cassidy singing ‘How can I be sure’.

While I’m not trying to suggest that we boys were too superior, given that the music wars for us at that age were between Slade and Gary Glitter, I do want to concentrate on that question: ‘How can I be sure?

It’s a question that has been asked in many ways by many people over the ages. In particular, Christians have asked it this way: how can I be sure that God loves me? Catholics would point to the sacraments as a sign. Calvinists would talk about the promises of God in Scripture – except then someone would say, but how do I know they apply to me as one of the elect, not one of the damned? So some moved on to other supposed signs of divine favour, such as wealth and prosperity.

Into this debate came John Wesley, with his particular doctrine of assurance. One thing Wesley stressed (along with such things as the promises of Scripture) was the work of the Spirit in assuring us we are children of God. And the classic passage about the Spirit revealing to us that we are children of a heavenly Father is this one in Romans 8.

So, then: in what ways does the Spirit affirm and strengthen our knowledge that we are sons and daughters of God?

Firstly, it’s a matter of being led by the Spirit:

those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (verse 14)

Let’s be careful here: language of being ‘led by the Spirit’ has been horribly debased in the church. ‘I feel led’ gets reduced to the most trivial of forms: ‘I feel led to eat a Mars bar’; ‘I feel led to wear blue jeans’, and so on. No: Paul’s point about being led by the Spirit is altogether more serious, and far removed from the frivolous use of the language sometimes found in Christian circles. For what precedes is this:

For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (verse 13)

We are led by the Spirit in order to be Christlike. The Spirit enables us to resemble the family likeness.

Most of you have noticed how much Mark looks like a redheaded version of me. When he was born, a church member jokingly told me never to take a paternity case to court, because the judge would take one look at me, one look at Mark, and throw the case out with laughter. On the other hand, when I was born, someone next to my mother in the maternity hospital looked at me and said to her, “He doesn’t look like you, he doesn’t look like your husband – what does your milkman look like?”

We expect children in some way or another to display a family likeness. One of the ways we know we are children of God is that over a period of time, we start to behave more like Jesus than we did before.

This is not to say it is easy. Nor is it to expect instant miracles. For ourselves, we may find it hard to detect the changes. I find that the key more often is that others notice the changes in us.

The story is told of a pupil at a school whose behaviour was so bad and so disruptive that the staff no longer knew what to do with him. One sanction after another had been tried. Every punishment and every incentive failed to bring about any change in him. He was as dreadful as ever.

Eventually, the Head Teacher called the boy into his office one day. He said to the young man, “We are at the end of our tether with you. There is only one thing I can think of to try, if you and your parents will agree. I want to adopt you as my own son. You will come and live with me. You will take my surname. Every time you are in trouble, it will be my name that is dragged through the mud.”

The boy agreed. His desperate parents agreed. This was the turning point in the boy’s life. Not that he became perfect, but he knew he was loved and wanted as an adopted son. For it isn’t just the fact that we take on the family likeness as evidence that we are adopted children of God, it’s also that spiritual adoption changes us. It works both ways. Being led by the Spirit is the evidence of adoption, and adoption entices us to be led by the Spirit.

All of which leads to the second strand I want to share with you this morning. If the Spirit reveals to us that we are adopted children of God, then that means we are loved by the Father. Hence Paul says in verse 15,

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, Abba, Father.

The Holy Spirit not only changes us in holiness more into the family image of Christ, nor only does the impartation of grace motivate us to live differently, the Spirit also enables us to call God, Abba, Father. Not merely reverence, but closeness: you will have heard many preachers tell you that ‘Abba’ is the word a Jewish child used to address their father in tenderness and trust. No wonder Paul goes onto say in verse 16,

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Not only in the pages of Scripture but also written on our hearts is the knowledge that we are children of God, dearly beloved children who can address him as Abba.

I have a favourite story I love to tell about this. Several years before I met Debbie, I once went out a few times with a girl whom I used to meet in London. We would have a meal and see a film together. On one occasion, she told me over the meal before the film that she had something serious to tell me. I went into pastoral mode and she said, “I’m an adopted child.”

Endeavouring to be sensitive, I adopted an expression of concern.

“No,” she said, noticing my response, “you don’t need to worry. I’m glad I was adopted. It means I know I was wanted.”

Those words have stayed with me. ‘I know I was wanted.’ I believe we can see our status as adopted children of God the same way. Being adopted into the family of God means we know we are wanted. When the Holy Spirit whispers into our hearts that we are God’s sons and daughters and that we can tenderly call him Abba, we know we are wanted. After all, God set out on a mission of love to draw us into his family. In Christ he even took on human flesh and later died for us. How much does God want us? Jesus opens his arms wide on the Cross and says, “This much.”

What does that do for us? Does it not give us the most amazing sense of security in the love of God? We do not have to be like the girl in a field pulling petals off a flower, saying, “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.” The Spirit’s testimony to our adoption through Christ as God’s beloved children gives us a rock solid hope in the love God has for us. Let us never allow ourselves to think that God only begrudgingly has us in his kingdom because Jesus won him around through the Cross. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but all that he did for us came from the Father’s heart of love for his created beings.

This wonderful love of God, then, is not only meant to be a ‘safe space’ for us, it’s more. The safety that God’s love gives us is then the jumping-off point from which we can leap into great risks of faith for him.

And that takes me neatly into the third and final point I want to make about the Spirit’s witness to our adoption into the family of God. It’s about our inheritance as God’s children. Verse 17:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs— heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Parents who care for their children will make provision for their future, as much as they reasonably can. Our wills lay that out for Rebekah and Mark, not only financially, but also we considered their care, should we die before they reach the age of majority. All being well, they will have an inheritance.

The curious thing for the children of God, though, is that we have an inheritance, even though there is no remote possibility of our heavenly Father dying! We shall inherit the glory of a resurrection body (verse 23) along with our great elder brother, Jesus. It will be our inheritance to reign with him in God’s new creation.

And that knowledge holds us in good stead now. For while the certainty of God’s love for us enables us to dare great things for him, we also know that daredevil faith leads to suffering, just as it did for Christ. Just as Christ suffered, so shall we. But just as Christ had an inheritance to anticipate and it kept him going, the same is true for us. As children of God, we have an inheritance with Christ. We have an eternal destiny in the purposes of God, and so when difficulty or opposition comes our way now, we need not keep our eyes fixed purely on the trials of the present: we can look into God’s great future and remember what our heavenly Father has willed for us – a will we inherit not when he dies (which he won’t) but when we die.

In this, we have something that not everybody has. The story is told that during Jim Callaghan’s tenure of 10 Downing Street in the 1970s, he had one particularly tortuous meeting about the Troubles in Northern Ireland with Ian Paisley. Callaghan and Paisley could not agree about anything in their conversation. Eventually, exasperated, Callaghan said, “Surely we can agree that we are all children of God?”

“No,” thundered Paisley, “we are all children of wrath.”

To our ears, that may seem a typically severe Ian Paisley statement, and in one sense it is. But Paisley was right that not everyone is a child of God. While we are all God’s offspring in the sense that we owe our existence to him, not all are adopted into his family. That happens by his grace to those who entrust their lives to him in Christ.

And when we do that, we receive the love God has been longing to pour out on all (which may be obscured by a term like ‘children of wrath’). We are adopted, because he so wants us in his family and not outside, and we can take risks because we have that great security. And we are guaranteed an inheritance that means we can cope with the setbacks and the resistance to our faithful living, because we know what the Father in his love has for us.

This is what the Spirit of adoption does, in revealing the Father’s boundless love to our hearts.

Sabbatical, Day 61: Not Perfect, Just Forgiven – Or More?

I’m going to raise a theological issue in a moment. Please don’t go away. It doesn’t require (many) long words, and it’s about an important issue in Christian life and witness. It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a year or two, but never thought a lot about. But it has come up again today while I’ve been reading Tim Keller‘s ‘The Reason for God‘, and it’s rather more important than the continued slow broadband speeds I’m trying to diagnose here. (Something like 200k speed instead of our usual 1.8 meg or so. I’m currently running a full virus check as part of PlusNet‘s faults procedure.)

So here’s the issue. What do we expect of Christian behaviour? Twenty years ago at theological college, I was in conversation with a tutor. I don’t remember the topic, but I must have expressed some disappointment about church life in a placement. He replied, “David, never forget that the church is a company of sinners.”

And I wanted to reply, “Yes, but …”. We are a company of sinners, but I don’t like that most cheddary of Christian slogans, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of unacceptable conduct. (Says he who is the chief of sinners. But I don’t want to excuse myself, either. I’m too good at rationalisation.)

The difficulty surfaced again when I read Eugene Peterson‘s book ‘The Jesus Way‘ in 2007. Much of that book is routine wonderful Peterson, but I found one part awkward. In using the example of King David’s life, he rightly trumpets the extraordinary grace of God in bringing forgiveness after forgiveness. And again, I thought, “Yes, but?” The grace of God is truly astonishing. How he picks up people like me, dusts us down and sets us on the road again is staggering.  My ‘but’ was that I wanted to read something about transformation. If it was there, I missed it. 

And that is the one area where I have struggled with Keller. There are so many riches in ‘The Reason for God’. I loved the passage on page 57 where he said that the problem with Christian fanatics isn’t that they are too serious about the Gospel, it’s that they aren’t serious enough, because they act like Pharisees rather than those who know grace. I also appreciated the fact that he tackles so many of the popular objections to faith, including the one where people rightly say that the behaviour of Christians doesn’t always compare favourably to that of non-Christians. 

Now Keller rightly says that Christianity isn’t about moralism. It is – again – about grace. He also says the Christian faith has theological resources for understanding, if not expecting this dilemma. We can expect non-Christians to live outstanding lives, because (using the Calvinist term) he bestows ‘common grace’ on all. We all have the image of God in us, however damaged, is how I would put it. On the other hand, Christians are still sinners. So in believing the best about non-Christians and the worst about Christians (something we rarely do in the church), we need not be surprised if people who do not share our faith outshine us at times.

I am refreshed by the way he consistently goes back to grace. I think he is a shining example of not shooting down those he disagrees with in some crude culture war. Yet I think non-Christians have a point about expecting Christian conduct to be better, even without misunderstanding our message as one of moralism.

I have wondered whether Keller and Peterson’s Presbyterian traditions have anything to do with this. I’m thinking of the debates at the Reformation about justification. Essentially the Reformers separated justification and sanctification, whereas the Catholics conflated the two. Thus the Reformers, in emphasising their difference from Rome, stressed justification as being by the free grace of God through faith in Christ. Sanctification, in the sense of holy living, is also by grace through faith, but the Reformers wanted to separate it out as clearly as possible in order to deny any possible thought that good works merited salvation. So I would suggest it’s possible for someone in a strongly Reformed background to end up emphasising justification (in a Protestant sense) and underplaying sanctification. Might this explain Keller and Peterson?

The weakness I can immediately see in my argument is that the theological college tutor I mentioned was a Methodist. For Methodism has a subtly different tradition here, as I understand it. Wesley was with the Reformers in preaching that sinners were saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the Cross. But he moved onto sanctification much more quickly than the classical Reformers did. If you had faith, then (as in Galatians 6), that ‘faith worketh by love’: it was evident in a new lifestyle. The new lifestyle did not save you, but it was the evidence of having received salvation. It was gratitude for salvation, not the cause of it. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work of assurance, which was more than the objective promises of Scripture that the Reformers had stressed. With a theological heritage like that, then whatever one might think about Wesley’s controversial doctrine of Christian Perfection, you will not settle for ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’

So do the likes of Keller and Peterson allow us to be too easy on ourselves, or is that just the wonder of grace? Does Wesley lead us into moral self-flagellation, or is he simply calling out the cost of discipleship? And for those of you who might know Keller, Peterson, Presbyterianism in general or Wesley better than me, have I misread them at any key point? I would be very interested to read your comments, because – as I said in the opening paragraph – this is an important issue in Christian life and witness. For it is about the nature of salvation and a proper portrayal of Christianity to the world.

As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, “I’m listening.”