1 John 3:1 “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!”
I want to consider some of the privileges that characterize the children of God.
1. THE PRIVILEGE OF ACCESS TO OUR FATHER.
That’s the glory about membership of any human family, that the child has the right of access to its father. Its father may be enormously important; of course he may be a pauper, but he may be President Obama; he may be a slave; but he may be Bill Gates. There may be a chasm in status and influence and wealth between the father and the son, but still the child has the right to go and talk to its father. He has his father’s private telephone number and he knows that he can call his father at any time. I’m not unconscious of the great ethical force of that, that it is our responsibility as fathers to be accessible and available to our own children. That is the way it should be.
Time and again in the New Testament that is one of the foremost emphases to be found when the Bible discusses a believer’s privileges: “Being justified by faith we have peace with God:” and furthermore, “We have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand.” We have the right to go to God and say, “Abba, Father . . .” We have the comfort and certainty of knowing that we have a Mediator with God, a great High Priest and by him we can go with boldness to the throne of God. We may feel the need for the contemporary church to be exalting and magnifying the name of God because, as is commonly said, “Our God is too small.” So we’ll tell people earnestly, “He is our Father in heaven. Our Father is so glorious. Angels hide their eyes at the sight of our Father. Our Father is a consuming fire. Our Father is light and in him is no darkness at all. Our Father is holy, holy, holy. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of our Father.” Yet, having said all that, we have peace with this Father. God bids all of us welcome, from an apostle to the smallest Christian child. The chief of sinners who has trusted in the blood of Christ is welcome. God tells us to come with boldness to him. Welcome! Come and say, “Dear Father . . . loving Father . . . Abba Father.” Come with the expression of your sins. Come with your deepest longings to him.
Sometimes aren’t we guilty of coming with such limited desires? Do we measure God’s willingness to receive us by our own deserving, by how holy we think we’ve lived in the past days, by our own merits? We have a marvelous picture in Ephesians 3 of the boldness of the true child of God who comes to its Father and asks God for blessing, and these are the terms that are used, to be blessed “ . . . exceeding abundantly above all that we are able to ask or even think.” Sometimes we stagger at the extravagance of our proposals; we desire blessing on Sunday . . . great blessing . . . conversions . . . many conversions . . . in all the gospel churches of the town . . . in all the churches of the Principality . . . of the British Isles . . . of Europe . . . of the world . . . a great revival . . . all Israel saved . . . the fulness of the Gentiles coming . . . the latter day glory . . .” The devil mocks our prayers; he says that we are far too bold and too presumptuous. “Small, modest petitions,” the devil says, “for you in your small corner and me in mine. Don’t get too big for your boots,” but the apostle says, “If you can put language to them then God can grant them. If you can think them . . . if you can envisage them . . . if you can conceptualize them, then God can grant them.”
John Newton surely got it right, as he did on so many pastoral subjects;
“We are coming to a King, large petitions with us bring,
For his grace and power are such none can ever ask too much.”
Indeed your expectations should be that God would grant above what we can ask, in fact that he can grant abundantly above what we ask, but Paul stretches the resources of the Greek language far to the north, south, east and west . . . “exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or even think.” We have the right to go to this holy Father and tell him of the mean and sick things we’ve done. We’ve got the right to go to him with the little things that cause us anxiety. We have the right to cast our burdens on his holy omnipotent shoulders and leave him to handle them. We have the right to tell God what we cannot even share with our husbands or wives. How sad it is that this, so often, is a neglected privilege. I say what characterizes a son is this, that he goes to his father and he talks to him.
I wonder how often does God the Father say to God the Son about some of you, “You know that son . . . that boy there . . . he never talks to me . . . he never comes to me and tells me how things are.” Many of us pastors have had the experience of a father coming to us and asking us about his own son, “Do you know what’s on John’s mind, because I don’t know? He tells me nothing.” How many children of God are there that never tell their Father what’s on their minds, perhaps because they are afraid, maybe there is a barrier of guilt, maybe even they are doubting the rightness of doing this, maybe because of the folly of thinking that they are able to handle it. I say that this is a terrible reality in our circles.
You may belittle what I am saying, that it is so banal, and very ordinary and commonplace, but I take you back to mighty theological facts and remind you again of the eternal Sonship. “The Word was with God.” That is the pattern of our sonship. We too are God’s children, and so we are with God, though it is not so much with God as towards God. The Word was towards God. He was facing him, in all the depths of his personality; he was exposing all that he was to all that God was. He was holding back nothing and shielding nothing from God. That was the natural gravitation of the eternal Word. “I hide nothing from you; I have nothing to fear in you; you know and love me exactly as I am, and I love you exactly as you are.” The Word was towards God, and that is the model of our sonship too. All the glory of heaven lies in that great ‘withness’. In the relationship of Father and Son there is confidence; there is openness; there is illimitable access; there is being as near to God as you can be. Nearer, still nearer, close to your heart; draw me my Saviour how precious thou art. What kind of heaven will it be if there will be nothing for us but an access to the God whom we have shunned in time? We won’t appreciate that will we? Because heaven is all about the centrality of God, and the omnipresence of God, and the divine glory filling every part of it. It is all about being with this living personal God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, being absent from the body but present with him. I am interrogating you as to whether you are present with him now? Are we only rarely with him week by week? So that is the first great privilege of sonship, we have the right of access to God. We have the right to go to him and talk with him and unburden our hearts freely, and discuss every possible thing with God, all our fears and concerns, all our problems and longings.
2. THE PRIVILEGE OF PROVISION FROM OUR FATHER.
Again it is something that is part of the definition of parenthood, that the parent provides for his children, and that he provides according to his own resources. Now that great fact is built into the Lord’s prayer. “Our Father . . .” and what is the first petition, the great sign of a son’s dependence on his heavenly Father? We go and we say to him. “Give us th
is day our daily bread.” We ask God for that because our Father provides the needs of his children. The great definitive word on this theme was written by Paul at the very conclusion of his letter to the Philippians; “My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phils. 4:19). “All you need . . .” how mind-blowing . . . how breathtaking that is. “All you need . . .” God will supply it. Not all your desires, not all your imagined ones, but your needs, as God himself will judge. That is why the church father Augustine prayed to God in those marvelous terms, “Lord, give what thou dost command; then command what thou wilt.” In other words, you can send me on any mission . . . you can ask me to bear any burden . . . you can command me to climb any mountain . . . you can set before me any river to ford . . . you can bring any temptation into my life . . . you can ask me to endure any pain, provided that you give me the grace you’re asking me to display; just as long as you supply all my needs for what lies ahead.
God has said that he will supply all our needs, and not only that but that he will do this “according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” So here again is the apostle with his mighty intellect, and his artillery of words, and his ability to stretch language to the very limit of its resources, and he’s done this again here. How glorious will be God’s provision of our needs? Unimaginably glorious. It will cover all our needs, and it will do so according to the riches of God. In other words, it will reflect not our expectations, nor our deservings, not even the stringency and urgency of our situation, but what we receive is going to reflect the resources of God, but Paul goes beyond that. It is going to reflect the glorious resources of God, those reservoirs of glory that angels can survey in all their infinite fulness in heaven. Then the apostle goes even beyond that. You think, “Well, he can’t go beyond that,” but he does. Paul says, “The riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” There is that astonishing price that Christ paid, and I am saying that our heavenly ather will meet the needs of all his children not only according to the intrinsic glory of Christ in his person, but according to the incalculable value of the price that Christ paid for the salvation of the church. Our Father will so meet our needs that in doing that he will be discharging his debt to his Son, the one who bore our sins and rendered his Father such tremendous service.
As we look today at our own problems and the mountains and rivers and temptations and pressures facing us we often ask, “How in the world am I possibly going to cope?” We lie awake some weeks thinking of the responsibilities of the days ahead, tossing and turning. At those times let us come right back to our heavenly Father’s promise, My God shall supply all your need according to all his riches . . . all his resources in glory. How do you measure them? By this standard, by everything that Christ has deserved by his obedience even to the death of the cross. The mnemonic of the word ‘grace’ is Great Riches At Christ’s Expense. Ours the great riches; the bill all paid for by Christ. What Christ deserved to get for his life and death we get, while he got what we deserved.
Many of us have known days when we’ve cried to God for the impossible, and there have been those insidious words echoing around our minds saying, “Ah, that would be too good to be true.” It is all so unbelieving. I have stood in the midst of desolation; every door seemed to be locked; I have said, ‘No way out from this.’ Yet I have prayed for the impossible, and my heavenly Father in the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus has heard and answered me. I have this pervasive feeling that the Lord’s people are so pessimistic; they are expecting the worst; they are always in trouble. The glass is always half empty; they are always bracing themselves for resignations from church membership, and that the new people who arrive are not going to stay. We’re forgetting the glory of our Father’s love, and the marvel of our Father’s provision. We forget that the children of God ought to expect to receive that which is commensurate with the rewards given to God’s holy child Christ Jesus.
So we have the privilege of access, and we have the privilege of provision, and then this:
3. THE PRIVILEGE OF OUR FATHER’S CHASTISEMENT.
I may put it more broadly. God the Father has assumed responsibility for the education of his children. Here is the syllabus, the Bible. Here is God’s clear object in our education, that he will conform us to the image of his Son. Now that is God’s great aim in all the lessons he is going to teach us, and teach us he will. He has made up his mind. He will teach his children in the preaching of the word. He will teach us in the great lessons of providence. He will teach us in temptation and trial. He will teach us by correction and chastisement.
In the famous chapter twelve of the letter to the Hebrews the writer tells us that we have had fathers of our flesh – an earthly father for every member of the congregation – and some of them chastened their children according to their pleasure. Some of you were abused; you were beaten when the mood took the father. It was arbitrary; they felt like it; they were short-tempered men; they were sometimes under the influence of drink; they chastised us for the pleasure and power it gave them. It was all their whim! Wicked men! Not God our Father! “But he for our good.” There are times in our lives when God stands in the way, like the angel standing before Balaam as he rides on defiantly on the back of his donkey. He is resisted by the Lord. There are times when God stops us in our tracks as he stopped young Arthur Pink. Pink’s father saw his young son drawn into spiritualism and returning home late at night from séances. His father was deeply concerned about him and resisted his son, and so one night waited up until his son returned home. He appeared in the hallway and he said to Arthur Pink these words very gravely; “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is death.” It was an arrow in Pink’s heart and he went to his room and did not leave it for a day or more as he brought his rebellion and his dalliance in spiritualism to the holy God and turned in repentance to the Lord. The father of Pink was like our heavenly Father. There are the great words in the book of Revelation; “As many as I love I reprove and chasten.”
Our Father doesn’t do this easily or eagerly. The order is so significant: I reprove and I chasten. In other words, he tries to do it first through the word of warning. It is a word of admonition from Scripture, from the pulpit, from a concerned Christian friend, but sometimes they will not hear and he must go beyond verbal rebuke and verbal warning and he must chasten. He does not inflict willingly. I believe that God does it as reluctantly as any human parent corrects his children. He takes no pleasure in it, but he will brace himself for it and he will do it.
It is in that context I suggest to you that the New Testament uses that great concept, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” God’s chastisement is divine chastisement. Behind it is all the holiness of God himself, and that is a terrible thing, and Moses himself experienced it, and David experienced it, and Jonah experienced it. Paul especially experienced it. “There was given,” he says, “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me.” Why? “Lest I be exalted above measure.” What a marvelously frank admission! He felt the rising of pride. How pr
one he was to feel good about himself. He was tempted to smugness, to a feeling that he was God’s gift to the church, that he should be appreciated and honoured. What a snare! He saw the wisdom of God in deciding to send a thorn that really hurt and humbled him. One that he longed should be removed. How useful he would be without the thorn. How much more he could do for his Father in heaven without it. “Take it away! Please remove it! I’ll be far more useful without it.” God’s reply was, “My grace is sufficient for you.” You can cope, Paul. You will do all I want you to do with this thorn. There were the two voices speaking to Paul, one telling him what a mighty ministry he had. The other voice was telling him how prone to pride and sin he was. He was an earthen vessel, a mere clay pot and wasn’t to forget it. Every virtue he possessed and every victory won were through the sufficiency of grace.
I don’t need to dramatize it. I don’t believe that all the sufferings of God’s children are chastisement. I don’t believe that those who suffer most are those who need it most. God has other reasons for permitting pain than the reason of chastisement. Sometimes we suffer because like all men we are in Adam, and in Adam all men are dying men. We stand in solidarity with a fallen and sinful community. There are the common sufferings of groaning humanity. Sometimes God’s children suffer because God has great lessons to teach us about compassion. We are told that God’s only begotten Son learned sympathy and compassion through the things that he suffered. He learned it by experience, the great way of learning it. There are a number whom God calls to a specific pastoral and counseling ministry through the things they themselves suffer. There is a certain kind of vicarious suffering which many Christians know – I use the phrase carefully – I don’t mean in a substitutionary or propitiatory way, but they go through the depths of human anguish and the humiliation of human failure in order to be able to comfort others with the comfort wherewith God comforts them. Joni Eareckson had an operation for cancer last month. You would not think that God would permit one of his children to become a paraplegic and then in top of that to get cancer, and this has been the experience of this eminent servant of God. She has accepted this thorn in the flesh with her customary composure. “I have been able to sympathize with paraplegics and now I will be able to understand and sympathize with those who have cancer,” she said.
But let me go back to my main point, beyond calamity, there is this chastisement which is God’s response not simply to our sin, but God’s response to our obstinacy, to our refusal to let go of our sin, to our playing with it, our trifling with it, our clinging to it so defiantly that God at last says, “I have rebuked . . . I have reproved . . . I have pleaded . . . I have expostulated . . . I have warned that child of mine, but he will not let it go. He is destroying his soul. He is not progressing towards conformity towards the image of my Son, in fact he is moving in the opposite direction.”
Then with the utmost caution and wisdom God sends a thorn, a chastening, a deprivation, a pain, a bout of ill health, a heart ache. All I can say today it that every Christian conscience present knows whether he or she has heard the voice of divine reproof. You know whether you stand today in the peril of the chastisement of the living God. The unbelieving world can, I think, sin this side of judgment with impunity. The psalmist says of the wicked, “They are not in trouble as other men.” No. But then they were not God’s children. It does not bother us much if we see other men’s families misbehaving. We might rebuke them but we don’t . . . we can’t chastise them. I saw a woman in the late stages of pregnancy standing in a car park just a few weeks ago sucking on a cigarette, drawing in the smoke, and a man was watching her very pointedly, staring hard at her from his white van, the window down, as she smoked. Finally he shouted out to her, “Don’t smoke.” She totally ignored him, staring ahead and breathing in another lung full of tobacco smoke – within weeks of giving birth to a child. He rebuked her, but no further. We can do more with our own children when they are defiant and rude and stubborn and say bad things to their mothers. We may chastise them when they refuse to say sorry and we do so for the love we have for them and the desire we have that they should think of other people, and be considerate and sweet children. So it is with God. Our Father is going to educate us; our Father is going to change us; our Father is going to make us loving, good men and women. He has made up his mind. That is another great benefit of being the children of God.
4. THE PRIVILEGE OF BROTHERLY RECOGNITION.
To every one of the Lord’s people we must say, “My brother! My sister!” There was an incident in the life of the Russian writer Tolstoy during a time of famine. Tolstoy met a beggar who stretched out an empty hand for money. The author reached into his pocket for money to find that he had none at all. Tolstoy was embarrassed that he had raised the beggar’s hope by putting his hand in his pocket and he blurted out, “Please don’t be angry with me brother, I don’t have any money at all.” The beggar said, “Oh you’ve given me something; you’ve called me ‘brother.’”
Christians address one another in the New Testament as ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’ Paul says to the church in Rome, “I beseech you therefore brethren . . .” Let me remind you something absolutely fundamental, so obvious we forget about it. Peter’s four mighty, brief exhortations, “Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king” (I Pet. 2:17). And again, “all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble” (I Pet. 3:8). How simple and yet think of the effect in a local church of every brother taking that seriously. Again the writer to the Hebrews says, “Keep on loving each other as brothers” (Hebs. 13:1). Paul expostulates with the Christians in Corinth because they were taking one another to court! Paul is shocked, “But brother goes to law with brother” (I Cors. 6:6). How different the congregation in Thessalonica. Paul can say to them, “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other” (I Thess. 4:9).
So the Scriptures consider Christians to be a family. We are family; my brother and my sister and me. We are identifiable, a separate family entity with a cohesion and with commonalities. The Puritan John Own says that the family of God is like a peasant going into the forest and gathering wood for his fire. He picks up various branches, they come from all kinds of trees, oak and ash and sycamore and pine. How is he going to get them home? One is thick, another is thin; one is long and another is short; one is straight while another is crooked. What does he do? He binds them with a cord and so they are secure and he takes them home. This is the way Christ works in the church. How can such different people possibly live together as one family? Only if they are bound together by one cord of love
In other words, we have a Father who cares and provides and exercises some authority over us. We have a shared birth, and the same Elder Brother. We all speak the same language even down to little phrases and sayings peculiar to the family. We have a shared history, a family tree that goes back to our great grandfather Abraham. We have a special knowledge, family occasions pe
culiar to us, ritual and activities that have meaning to us alone and each one enters into unique obligations and privileges. Our pedigree does not matter; the pre-Christian past is unimportant; the denominational label is cosmetic. If we are Christians then we are in the household of faith and the family of God.
We may move away with our job, or go off to college; we may travel on holiday, but wherever we go we will find ‘family.’ We will search out a Bible-believing congregation where we will meet our brothers and sisters. We will talk the same language, share the same values, delight in the same encouragements. We feel at home. Those outside the family of God find it hard to settle down; they have no roots.
When we meet a brother or sister in trouble there is a concern for them. We will write to them; we will call them; we will show we care. We do so out of love for our Father; we are concerned about the family name. In other words love does something. There is a visible response. It has little to do with the lovableness of the brother. Quite often the brother is quite unlovable, and yet we think of Christ loving us when we were yet sinners, how he took the loving initiative and so we act. We don’t wait until they change. We continue to greet them and say, “Good morning,” though they might never reply. We continue to love as brothers.
For every one Christian in a congregation who complains, “There’s no love in this church,” there are ten loving Christians. There is a lot more love among the family of God that we sometimes recognize. You see it on the big scale; if there is an earthquake in Haiti then Christians will give millions and send many volunteers to help in the work of rebuilding. On the small scale there are all sorts of service rendered to new mums and dads, to the elderly and to those suffering from Parkinsons. Christians care for one another and do a great deal for one another and it never makes the headlines. Brotherly recognition is a reality in the church.
There are some super unbelieving families in the world, and some of you come from such grand families. You wish your parents and brothers and sisters believed God. You belong to such a happy family, but there are also many families at loggerheads. I read this letter written to an agony aunt in a newspaper asking for advice, “My two grown sons in their thirties fight so much it’s been impossible to have them to family parties. They don’t get along with their sister. She barely speaks to them. It’s not worth all the hate that’s been generated. Any suggestions?” That was the mother’s letter. This was this one sentence answer: “Those stubborn fools will probably stay mad until there’s a death in the family.”
Why are we a united and loving family as Christians? Because someone in our family has died, God’s own Son, and because of that death there is hope for us. We have all been reconciled to God and pardoned of our sins through him, and so given grace to be reconciled to one another. So when God tells us, “Keep on loving one another as brothers . . . love the brotherhood of believers” then we know that our Father never commands us to do anything that he fails to give us directions how, and provides the ability to do it. You are able to love your brothers and sisters with a pure heart fervently. Your problem is not lack of resources to do this; it is your failure to avail yourselves of those resources. You must appropriate the meekness and gentleness of your great High Priest.
You think of the great contrast in the parable of the Prodigal Son between the father’s attitude to the younger son’s return and the attitude of the older brother, the moralist, and he couldn’t make head or tail of his father’s joy. He can’t understand how this lad got past the farm gate! He can’t imagine why his father didn’t send him away saying, “Go back to your prostitutes! Go back to the pigs!” The older brother couldn’t understand free forgiveness. He had no comprehension of how such a prodigal could be taken back into the family and loved, with no precautions and no probation. The father was taking the most appaling risks because this man might renege. He might bring new disgrace; he might return to the far country. There was no guarantee that his repentance was permanent. He stands before his father in protest and he moralizes. He wouldn’t have let him back. He’d have kept him, at least, in the servants’ quarters. He’d have given him work to do. He’d have said, “Earn your spurs.” He’d have watched him, and tested him, and judged him. That is how many men would act and judge and speak. They’d say, “You can’t welcome a sinner without safeguards. . . you can’t welcome sinners without precautions . . . you can’t give them the right to the family table . . . you can’t leave that man alone with the father. It can’t be done. It is indecent.”
That is how the human heart works. It invents purgatory. Before God welcomes a man into his presence Rome says that man must be purged and washed and purified for maybe thousands of years before he becomes fit to enter the presence of God. You know when Saul of Tarsus was converted that God alone was the only one who believed he was saved. The thought of the change in him being genuine was incredible to most Christians: “We have heard by many of this man, of the damage that he has done to the church in Jerusalem, and now we are being asked to welcome him as our brother?”
Someone walks into a church and he sits with us and says he is converted. Well, is he? And sometimes we as Christians take it upon ourselves to test, we put obstacles in the way to see what he’s made of. We are not prepared to have a feast, and yet the Father is extending to this man his own welcome. We say, “He has a past and we know it.” So we keep him at arm’s length. We might even complain, in our moralism, that we’ve never had a feast in our honour. We’ve never been rejoiced over and made a fuss of.
How different is God! He comes, and he runs, almost as if he is afraid that the man’s nerve will crack at the last minute and give up the attempt to be reconciled to his Father. God runs to anticipate any change of mind. God runs out of the sheer joy in his own heart that this filthy one, this lost one, this worst one, this ultimate one is coming home! It means for you and for me today, that we can never say, “The likes of a man like me can never be saved. We’re so unique, so extraordinary, so guilty, so depraved, so far gone – how could we be saved?” Because in this man we meet the worst possible scenario; we meet the most abandoned, the most dissolute, the most wretched and hopeless. The man with the worst reputation everywhere, on that farm and in the nearby village . . . the scoundrel, the waster of his inheritance and God accepts him! It’s an argument from the greater to the lesser. Here is the fool in his poverty and filth coming to the house of his father and here is his father running to meet him, and wherever you or I stand today in the depths of our own abandonment, and hypocrisy, and intellectual arrogance, whatever wreckage we have left behind us in our human immorality, from wherever we are, from where you are, there is a road to God, and there is an assured welcome from our Father into his sonship, into adopting grace, into the family of God.
August 9 2010 GEOFF THOMAS