Paternity, Prepositions, and Painful Prayers
This week while taking a wonderful class in apologetics, I came in the assigned reading to a soul-nourishing statement from Francis Schaeffer, one with loads of import for apologetic methodology. In his 1968 lecture entitled “Death in the City,” Schaefer reflected on the weaknesses of evangelical preaching in his day and said, “I am convinced that one of the great weaknesses in evangelical preaching in the last years is that we have lost sight of the biblical fact that man is wonderful” - cited in Christian Apologetics, Volume 2: From 1500, William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, eds. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), p. 554.
Fifty two years later, ours is a time in which much "evangelical" preaching essentially tries to flatter people into the kingdom. In Reformed circles especially, we might be so wary of such practice that we pull hard with rhetorical violence in the other direction, and preach "total depravity" in such a way that leaves hearers feeling not only convicted of sin, but divested of any sense of their inherent value and dignity, feeling that humanity in general and they as particular humans are not wonderful - they're worthless. What is often said to balance the "bad news" of our sinfulness with the "good news" of the gospel, is that despite our worthlessness, God loves us in his Son and calls us, based on Christ's worthiness, to repentance and faith and entrance into the kingdom. But is this approach really biblical? Or does it do serious damage in the name of explicating the doctrine of human depravity?
What follows is a re-post from a few years ago, but which I thought of when I read Schaeffer's powerful words. While Schaeffer was, as he so often did, giving us cultural analysis, my words are a humble attempt to get at the pastoral and deeply personal nature of the issues involved.
Worthless. Disgusting. Useless. What would you think of a father who describes his children with these words? And what if this father encourages his children to describe themselves and one another the same way, especially when speaking to him? Such “fatherhood” deserves the deepest contempt and its victims the deepest compassion. Stunningly, it is this contemptible version of fatherhood which some Christians attribute to our Heavenly Father; even more stunningly, they consider this attribution a biblically based act of praise.
Perhaps you’ve heard a pastor say something like this as he leads the congregation in corporate prayer: “Lord, we’re just worthless sinners, filthy beggars, but thank you for loving us in your Son.” If you are a Christian, perhaps you’ve prayed this way about yourself. Surely such words are intended to express a serious, biblical understanding of God’s holiness and our unworthiness as sinners to be His children. But the attempt falls short by failing to recognize the extent to which sinners are radically remade in Christ. God’s saving grace recreates us in Christ, altering not only our affections and attitudes, but our essential identity – our ontology, if you like (Ezekiel 36:26-27, 2 Corinthians 5:17). Think of it: God’s children are ...God’s children!
A good father’s heart boils when his children are treated with less dignity than they deserve. A good father, even when punishing his children for bad behavior, never regards them as anything less than his children; he does not ridicule or insult them on the level of their personhood. His children need not beg for his attention; he is glad to give it. And they must never think of themselves as worthless in his sight! A good father gives his life to affirm his children’s worth and to provide for their well-being. These basic dynamics of fatherhood find their perfection and source in God the Father’s relationship to His children in His unique Son, Jesus Christ.
The Apostle John writes to believers: “Behold what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! And so we are ... Beloved, we are God’s children now …” (1st John 3:1a-2a). A truly exalted view of God leads to an exalted view of those for whom He gave His only begotten Son. Self-degrading, breast-beating prayers like the one mentioned above may mean to remind us of what we are in and of ourselves, apart from God. But that’s the problem with those prayers: they forget that we are no longer in and of ourselves! We are no longer apart from God!
Over and over in his letters, Paul references our indestructible bond with God by way of powerful prepositional phrases, powerful because they have the Lord Jesus as their object. Believers are “in Christ”, “in the Lord”, “in Him”, “for Christ”, “through Christ”, and on and on! What’s more, the Bible often describe Christians with the same words it uses to describe Christ Himself, not to imply an essential equality with Christ, but to express an essential change wrought in Christians. The Christian is one whose ontology has been fundamentally and forever altered. Christians are now, by definition, IN CHRIST. We are inseparable from Christ. Christ has become for us: “…wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption…” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Jesus is our righteousness! (Jeremiah 23:6). Believers are swept up irrevocably into the realm of God’s glory; heaven is our home (John 17:20-26). We are His beloved saints; we are His sons and daughters.
Ah, but do these descriptions not merely indicate our position, our standing, before God, as opposed to our fundamental identity? In other words, is it not still okay for Christians to self-describe as worthless because only Christ is worthy? Such self-descriptions keep the Christian life in balance, no? NO!
As Christians, our position in Christ is never impersonal. Our position in Christ does not hover nearby our inherent identity – our position in Christ is our identity. Yes, we have yet to experience the full blessing of our being in Christ. John writes that what we will be has not yet appeared; but then he writes, “we are God’s children now.” Paul writes in Colossians 3:3-4 that our lives are “… hidden with Christ in God,” and that Jesus “_is _our life.” Surely it is an affront to the Father who chose us for life in Christ, to the Son who is our life, and to the Spirit who brings us to life to regard and speak of ourselves as anything less than who we are –who the triune God has made us for His glory.
Increasingly within Reformed circles, there is a well-intentioned but hyper-extended emphasis on our “indicative” position in Christ to the neglect of our “imperative” responsibility to make practical progress in holiness. Sometimes, there is also a corresponding focus on the “not yet” of the Christian life which neglects the “already”, or which minimizes what’s possible in the “already.” These related imbalances suggest an unbiblical divide between our standing in Christ and our walk in Christ. This way of thinking stunts our growth in grace; it is evident, for instance, when we minimize the importance of God’s law as normative for the Christian life. God’s sons and daughters grow in His likeness as we lovingly keep His house rules (John 14:15). Passages such as Ephesians 2:8-10, Philippians 2:12-13 and 2 Peter 1:1-8 demonstrate that our position in Christ exists for the sake of our progress in holiness. As we grow up in godliness, we may find that there is much more than we realized of the “not yet” available in the “already”!
We can understand the relationship between our eternal position and our daily progress in Christ with another fatherhood analogy. Have you ever heard someone say of a boy who does or says something just like his dad would: “Wow – he really is his father’s son!” Depending on the dad, that comment may not be a compliment! Children belong to their parents legally, positionally. And as they grow, in close companionship with their parents, they increasingly bear the family likeness – attitudinally if not also physically. And in the family of families, the church, taking on definitive family characteristics is always good; it is the highest good. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.”
The Christian life is the graced process of becoming in practice what we already are in position. There is mystery and deep complexity to these truths - not the entangling, cutting complexity of a thorn-bush, but the cooling, comforting complexity of ocean waves on a warm summer’s day. It is unspeakably refreshing to contemplate the depths of our salvation in Christ, to see ourselves the way our Father sees us, the way we really are. As we grow in our understanding and application of these soothing, strengthening truths, we gain increasing victory over sin; our lives bear increasing witness to our true paternity.
If the sad, aforementioned prayers are routine for us in our relationship to the Lord, we have to wonder if we really mean them. How could we go on if our Father truly viewed us the way we sometimes describe ourselves in praise of Him? These descriptions are especially dangerous to Christians who, after times of corporate prayer and confession tinged with such terrible terms, may take these thoughts deeply into their hearts, agonizing over them while fellow church goers forget them until the following week. It is a crushing misery to truly believe that God loves not so much His people, but the positions they occupy in His household. Jesus' high priestly prayer expresses a far different reality. He asks that the world would know that the Father loves all of Christ's disciples just as He loves Christ Himself (John 17:23).
These unintentionally painful prayers also endanger unbelievers. Unbelievers need God as their Father, so they need to hear what He is really like as a Father. When we call people to Christ as Savior, we call them to adoption in God's family (Hebrews 2:11-12). Why would anyone want to be adopted by a father who derides his children? Because unbelievers also bear God’s image (Genesis 9:6, James 3:9), they have inherent dignity and worth. Descriptions such as "disgusting" do not apply. However, descriptions such as “dead in trespasses and sins....children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1ff) do apply. So, as God's children, we must tell those outside the family and remind ourselves what kind of Father we have. He delights in forgiving and adopting sinners. Our Father views His children not as worthless, but as worth the life of His unique Son; not as disgusting, but as the apple of His eye; not as useless, but as ambassadors for His Son's kingdom.
Children of God, dive deep into the depths of your Father's love for you. Know His heart more fully, and know yourselves and one another as He knows you!