Thursday, 11 May 2017

Adoption and Justification

In God’s gracious plan of salvation, adoption is one of several important features which together indicate the greatness of his grace. Adoption for a believer occurs at the commencement of his Christian life. Yet since it is not the only benefit that occurs then, we have to note the order in which several simultaneous aspects of salvation occur.

Before a person is adopted, he has to be regenerated by the Spirit and then given the status of justification by God. When that person is regenerated, he trusts in Jesus and at that moment, because he has done so, he becomes right with God. To be right with God is to say the same thing as to be justified.

Justification involves two benefits. One is that believing sinners are forgiven all their sins and the other is that the righteousness of Jesus (his perfect life) is reckoned by God to be theirs. Those benefits mean that they have a permanent standing before God as the Judge and once given is theirs forever.

If the act of justification described the only benefit God gives to a sinner when he or she trusts initially in Jesus, it would be an amazing display of divine grace which ensures that they will be God’s people always. Yet we can, and should, ask if God does more.

It has been pointed out that justification restores sinners to the place of righteous servants. As unregenerate sinners, they had failed to serve God and lived for sinful masters, whoever and whatever they were. Once those sinners have been justified, the perfect life of service that Jesus lived is now accounted as theirs and as a consequence they are regarded as having a life of perfect service. Wonderful grace is all we can say!

In addition to justification, which deals with their status as fallen servants, God also adopts those believing sinners into his family, which deals with their status as lost sons. Sin had estranged them from God and they lived outside his family. In his grace, he brings them into it at the start of their Christian life and from then on they have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God (as our catechism puts it).

When I was converted, I was told that I now was a member of God’s family. I accepted that gladly, although it would be years before I realised that in showing this level of grace the Lord lifted his people to the heights. What happens on those heights? We probably know, but we will think about some of them in future blogs.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Forgiveness and prayer

What was the first thing I was conscious of when I became a member of the family of God? It was that my sins were forgiven. I had received pardon from God. The one who was now my Father had declared that I was forgiven. How did I know that was the case? Because he stated so in his Word. 

Not that my name was mentioned there specifically. Even if my name had been mentioned, how would I know it was me that was described? After all, many others have shared my name, and if it was mentioned in the Bible, would I know for definite that it was me? It is far better to know that whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

Why were my sins forgiven? The answer is straightforward: because Jesus took my place on the cross. I had realised that because the Son of God became a man and went to the cross to pay the penalty for my sins I could be forgiven. That realisation was a tremendous discovery. Of course, millions of others have made the same discovery and found themselves in the family of God.

I also discovered that I wanted to talk to God about everything. It was not that I only spoke to him during times set aside to pray. Instead, I wanted to speak to him automatically, freely, as it were. This happened when I was walking along the road, sitting on a bus, reading a book. Those conversations, which were not oral, were not interruptions. Later on, I discovered that Paul thought it normal for Christians to pray without ceasing. 

I think that we pray more often than we think we do. The Bible mentions all kinds of prayers and types of praying. But the Christian life, in one way or another, begins with prayer because we ask God to forgive us, and it continues by prayer.

This was a basic lesson to learn. Forgiveness and prayer go together. We can talk to God as our Heavenly Father because he has forgiven us for the sake of Jesus, his Son. It is inevitable that we will learn many other things about life in the family of God, but we should never move away from this incredible reality that we can speak to our Heavenly Father because we have been forgiven. Hopefully we are speaking to him now.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Entering the family of God

A long time ago, I was not a member of the family of God, although I was brought up in a family in which God was honoured. The issue that kept me out of his family was my sin. Among those sins was the sad attitude that I did not want to be a member because I foolishly imagined that all God offered was a set of rules that inhibited life and led to boring experiences. I could not deny, however, that many Christians I had come across seemed very happy and content.

Still, there was a longing within me for satisfaction. The more things I tried, the more empty life seemed. Of course, this was subjective, but humans are subjective creatures. I needed to find out why nothing seemed to satisfy. To cut a long story short, eventually I realised that the problem was that I was looking in the wrong places for meaning. It was not until I realised that the problem was in me that real progress could be made.

I discovered that I was a sinner. This was not because I compared myself to other people and somehow worked out that I was worse than them. Instead, God taught me through various means that the problem in my life was me and he did this over a period of time by showing to me things like my selfish motives, my misplaced desires, and my foolish words. The problem basically was that I was the centre of my life.

During that time, many Christians spoke to me about life in the family of God. They pointed out to me that my sins could be forgiven, that my life could be guided by the Holy Spirit, that Jesus would speak to me through his Word (the Bible), that I could look forward to a heavenly home, and many other things besides. Thinking about those things made me realise that life in the family of God was far better than any other set of experiences. 

So what does one do then? I did what the Bible says we should do in order to become children of God. John describes the process as receiving Jesus, which is a way of saying that he is offered to us freely. In the gospel, he tells us that we can have a real relationship with him, the living Saviour. The relationship we have with him takes place in the family of God.

Not everyone has the same experiences before they enter enter the family of God. Perhaps no one has exactly the same experiences as another. What matters is that we come into the family of God.

I don't know the date when I entered the family of God. That lack of detail does not bother me. What I will say is that what I was told about life in the family of God is true, that having him as my Heavenly Father and being numbered among his children is the greatest blessing that a person can have.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Robert Bruce and the Lord's Supper

Robert Bruce (c. 1554-1631) was an Edinburgh minister and his sermons on the Lord’s Supper, when published and grasped, became a crucial source in Scottish Presbyterianism of discovering the meaning of the Lord's Supper. In the main he followed the view of Calvin. We need help in understanding what takes place at the Lord's Supper and Bruce's comments should help us. Here is a summary of what he said.

Four purposes
For Bruce, the Lord’s Supper had four purposes. First, it was ‘appointed chiefly for this end, to represent our spiritual nutriment, the full and perfect nutriment of our souls; that as he who has Bread and Wine lacks nothing for the full nourishment of his body: so he, or that soul, which has the participation of the body and blood of Christ, lacks nothing of the full and perfect nourishment of the soul.’

Second, the sacrament is an act of witness both to hostile onlookers and to fellow Christians. It was instituted in order ‘that we might testify to the world and to the princes of the world, who are enemies to our profession; that we might openly avow and testify to them our Religion and our manner of worshipping; and that we might also testify our love towards His members our brethren’.

Third, the sacrament is designed to provide spiritual medicine, to help those tempted to fall or who have already fallen. It was instituted ‘to serve for our special comfort and consolation, to serve as a sovereign medicine for all our spiritual diseases, as we find ourselves either ready to fall, or provoked to fall, by the devil, the flesh, or the world; or, after we have fallen and are put to flight by the devil, and would fain flee away from God; God of his mercy, and of His infinite pity and bottomless compassion has set up this sacrament, as a sign on a high hill, whereby it may seem on every side, far and near, to call them again that have run shamefully away: and He clucks to them as a hen doth to her chickens, to gather them under the wings of his infinite mercy.’

Fourth, the sacrament is an occasion for thanksgiving: ‘render to Him hearty thanks for His benefits, and that He has come down so familiarly to us, bowed the heavens as it were, and given us the body and blood of His own Son; that we might render unto Him hearty thanks, and so sanctify His benefits to us.’

Visible and invisible things
Bruce claimed that there are both visible and invisible things in the Lord’s Supper. The visible things are the bread and the wine. The invisible things are signified by the bread and wine; what is signified is Christ, ‘in this respect, that His body and blood serve to nourish my soul to life everlasting’. It is not just the benefits of Christ’s death that are signified, but also the person of Christ from whom these benefits come.

In the sacrament of baptism, the fruits are forgiveness of sins, mortification of sins, and the sealing of adoption, but the substance out of which these fruits grow is the blood of Christ. Similarly, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the fruits are growth of faith and increase in holiness, but the substance out of which they grow is the body and blood of Christ. Christ is to the soul what bread and drink are to the body. Bread must be eaten before hunger is relieved and drink must be taken before thirst is removed; so Christ must be taken at the Supper before his benefits are experienced.

According to Bruce, the bread in the Supper has a power given to it by the institution of Christ, whereby ‘it is appointed to signify His body, to represent His body, and to deliver His body’. This power remains with the bread as long as the Supper lasts.

For Bruce, it was essential that the ceremonies of breaking the bread and pouring the wine should be done, because they signified what had happened to Christ. Similarly, the distribution, and giving and eating, are essential, as they signify the ‘applying of the body and blood of Christ to thy soul’. Bruce even says that to leave one of them out perverts the whole action.

Real contact with the risen Christ
Because the conjunction between the elements and Christ is secret and spiritual, he must be received by faith. Bruce recognizes that faith does not receive a greater Christ in the Supper than it does from the preaching of the Word, but he does say that it receives Christ better in that the receiver obtains a greater and surer hold of Christ through the sacrament. This happens each time a person takes part in the Supper.

In addition to faith, Bruce argued that the Holy Spirit must be involved in giving Christ to the believer. He notes that the believer has a title to the body of Christ and the blood of Christ, a title that is not negated by their being physically distant, in heaven. Faith is the cord that covers the distance between the believer and Christ and couples them together. Bruce uses the illustration of the sun — we cannot touch the sun, yet are conjoined to it by its rays. The sun is like Christ, and the rays are his virtue and power flowing from his body. These are conveyed to the believer by the Holy Spirit, whom Bruce also likens to a ladder joining the believer and Christ.

Children of God

In the Bible, there are various ways in which the idea of sonship is used. Angels are called sons of God in the book of Job, and they could have this title because they are dignified creatures of God. Humans also are termed sons of God by creation, and still retain some features of this relationship because they are made in God’s image. Israel as a nation was regarded as a son of God because they had been brought into a special relationship with him. Rulers are also called sons of God, and they are so named because they hold positions of authority under God’s overall control. 

Christians are sons of God because they are members of his family. Even with regard to this relationship the New Testament uses at least two pictures to explain it. One is connected to regeneration and the other is connected to adoption. By regeneration, they are given life and by adoption they are given status. 

There is also a third way that the New Testament mentions and that is connected to the idea of transformation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that his disciples should behave in certain ways in order to be recognised by others as the children of God.

Those ways of explaining what it means to be children of God are not contradictory. Instead they are complementary. We need to keep the three of them in mind when we think about what it means to be children of God. One way of doing so is to use three words – life, liberty and likeness.

We have already mentioned that regeneration describes how sinners receive spiritual life that marks God’s children. Adoption points to the liberty they have, because the idea behind adoption in those days was adoption from slavery. A slave was selected by a wealthy patron to be his heir and he moved from bondage to freedom. Transformation points to likeness, and the pattern to which they are being moulded is that of Jesus, the perfect Son.

In succeeding posts, we will consider some aspects of life as the children of God.