By Linda Rex
For whatever reason, probably mostly due to the family dynamics and church legalism I grew up in, I struggled for years with a deep sense of being unwanted and unloved. My personal history has been filled with the struggle to fill these empty places—as many others around me have struggled as well. This journey often led me into unhealthy relationships or situations, though I will be the first to admit that God graciously kept me safe so many times when I deserved painful consequences for my choices.
I was born to two parents who cared deeply about God and wanted to live their lives according to what they understood God required of them. They were careful about what they ate, believing they needed to keep the old covenant commands regarding clean and unclean meats, and that as caregivers for the temple of the Spirit, their bodies, they needed to only eat the healthiest, organic foods and drink the cleanest water. Part of this concern about health led them to choosing to give birth to me at home with the assistance of a midwife.
The facts of my birth, though, were that I was a breech birth—a long and difficult process that the doctor had to help with. Mom really struggled and was in grave danger during the process. I was eventually born, with the umbilical cord rapped around my neck and my body blue from lack of oxygen. My dad told me years later that I was laid aside so they could tend to my mom—I was not expected to live.
I think sometimes we live our lives as though we are babies God has tossed aside and given up on. We somehow believe God has his attention elsewhere, with more important things to tend to than us. We impute to God some indifference or coldness which is not in his heart at all.
In fact, our view of God and ourselves very often reflects the important relationships in our lives. If our parents were indifferent or cold, we may believe God is indifferent and cold. If our parents were controlling and had unreasonable expectations for us, we may believe God expects more from us that we could ever give, so why even try? In our refusal to be controlled, we may give ourselves over to substances and/or relationships which eventually begin to control us.
Our experiences as children and teens impact us in greater ways than we often realize. The ridicule we experience about our clothes or poverty may drive for years our determination to never be considered less than ever again, and so we become successful, well-to-do adults. The loneliness we felt as an isolated, unloved child may drive us to be a social butterfly who never wishes to be alone or without a partner—even though many of our relationships may be shallow and transient, at least we’re not abandoned or isolated.
What we believe to be true about ourselves often works at such a deep level within our soul that unless we take the time and make the effort to examine these things, our brokenness can become something which sabotages or undermines whatever good may be happening in our lives. In Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, the authors explain how these wounds from the past may drive us to be successful and effective adults, but if they do not find healing within the reality of our new life in Jesus Christ, they will trip us up or cause us to have a major failure later in life. (1)
Many leaders today, both secular and Christian, are reaping the consequences of not dealing with the truth of their brokenness and need for redemption. We need to accept the reality that we are broken people with flaws and wounds. We are utterly dependent upon Jesus to redeem, restore, and renew us. Every moment of every day, we need his transforming power at work in us and in our lives. We need to not be afraid to do the hard work of looking inside and allowing ourselves to be the needy, hurting, and broken people we really are, because God loves us and has already redeemed and forgiven us.
Remember that baby, laid aside so the doctor could attend my mom? A few years ago, I had a dream that was so incredibly vivid I have been unable to forget it. In the dream, the baby I was laid there alone and forgotten. But all at once, I saw this man there. He was loving, kind, and compassionate, like a heavenly Father or a gentle Savior. He walked over to the abandoned, forsaken baby, and picked it up and held it. Broken, but beloved. Set aside, but chosen. Given up on, but believed in and held.
In spite of what we may believe about ourselves, and in spite of what others may believe about us or say about us, the truth is, we are loved. We are chosen. We are held. Broken we may be—but God determined before we were even born that we were his and would be his forever. And he never breaks his promises, for he is a faithful, loving Abba, a tender-hearted Dad, a loving Father. You are his, and he is yours. Both now and forever.
Thank you, Abba, that even though we may believe we are forgotten, forsaken, and unloved, we are in reality remembered, held, and beloved. Remind us again, Holy Spirit, of who we are and that we share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with our heavenly Father. Give us courage to face our brokenness and to bring it to you, Abba, that we may be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Yes, you have been with me from birth; from my mother’s womb you have cared for me. No wonder I am always praising you!” Psalm 71:6
(1) McIntosh, Gary L. and Rima, Sr., Samuel D., Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction. Grand Rapids, MI (Baker Books, 1997).
By Linda Rex
This morning I was browsing social media as I was finishing up my morning exercise routine. I was touched by a friend’s post which described a very painful and difficult circumstance they were going through. My heart went out to them and I wished there was some way to help. But there wasn’t.
My go-to response, of course, is to pray. This can seem such a feeble response when often people need some real tangible assistance in difficult circumstances. But for those of us who do pray and count on prayer as our go-to response, this is actually the most powerful and effective thing we can do when encountering a life tragedy, struggle, or difficulty.
This week there was another mass shooting, this time in my home state of California. No doubt, there will be more cry for effective gun laws, and, which I think is more to the point, more focus on getting veterans the help they need when they are struggling with PTSD and other post-conflict issues. But all the laws we can write do not change or heal the human heart. We live in a society which seeks to regulate human conduct from without by laws or by social pressure, and to heal broken human beings with social programs and medication.
This is the struggle we have in our world today—a society in which each feels free to do whatever they want according to their conscience and desires, but often without concern for the others who share this world with them or for the creation either. I keep being brought back to the basic fundamental description of how we are to live as human beings—of what we have been created for. As made in the image of God, we are meant to live as unique yet equal individuals in a unity which reflects that of the Father, Son, and Spirit—created for this divine relationship with God and one another. Jesus described it as loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Our struggle to exist together in this world to day is due to our refusal to acknowledge there is an ultimate Source which defines our existence and which gives us direction for our lives. We want to have control over our existence and our decisions, and not allow anyone to infringe on our preferences or our space. Somehow we think that submitting ourselves to someone, most especially to God, limits us in some way, and deprives us of our ability to be all we can be.
In reality, our greatest struggle lies within ourselves. We are broken and wounded, and all these things affect how we handle life, and how we treat one another. When Jesus said that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, I believe he was pointing out our need to be fully integrated as human beings, with all of us being fully devoted to our Abba. He knew the human proclivity to create inner silos, where the good parts of us are separated from the bad parts of us, and where our inner divisions become a space for the evil one to enter and cause destruction and despair.
To be fully integrated within ourselves by necessity means that God needed to reform our humanity after his image—we had rejected our humanness as God had meant it to be. Jesus, when he walked on earth, lived in intimate relationship with his Abba. He said that he and his Father were one. Jesus lived fully focused on that relationship, seeking out his Abba in the midst of trouble and stress, and drawing upon his strength and power by the Spirit to deal with the issues he faced in his life.
In spite of how he was treated and the uniqueness of his personhood as the God/man, Jesus stayed fully integrated to the end. He, by the Spirit, held fast to the truth of who he was as the Son of God and the Son of Man. Jesus did not have a good side and a bad side, but was simply the Word of God in human flesh—the One who became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in him. He came to redeem our humanity and give us a new life by the Spirit which in him is fully integrated within itself and in relationship with God and others.
As I was reading the lectionary scriptures for Sunday, one of the passages from the book of Ruth popped out at me. We read in Ruth’s story that her mother-in-law Naomi, who lived for a time in Moab, had lost both her sons and her husband, and so sought to move back to her home town of Bethlehem to rebuild her life. Ruth, being a Moabitess, was considered a Gentile but she embraced Naomi and her faith, and went with her back to Bethlehem.
Ruth was in a very difficult position, but it seems that God kept his eye on her. She went to glean grain after the harvesters, which was what poor people did back then, and she ended up in the field of someone who was in her extended family, a relative named Boaz. In due time, Naomi told Ruth she should invoke the levirate law of that day and ask Boaz to redeem her property and by extension give her the children she did not have by her first husband so her property would stay in the family. So Ruth courageously did as her mother-in-law instructed, not knowing what the result would be.
Boaz’s reaction is interesting. When she appealed to him to exercise his right of redemption, he told her he couldn’t—there was someone closer who could. But he said he would see that this was done, either by himself, or by the other who was more closely related to her. Then he sent Ruth home. When Naomi heard how it went, she said, “Wait, my daughter, until you know how the matter turns out; for the man will not rest until he has settled it today.”
A lot of times we think and act as if God is indifferent to our suffering and our struggles. We may believe he shouldn’t be bothered with the little details of our lives, or that he’s not really willing to intervene in our difficult circumstances. When we lose dear ones, we often believe God doesn’t care about us any more—why else would he let them pass away? In reality, we need to see God as the One who will not rest until he has settled the matter today—immediately, as promptly as he possibly can. It may not be according to our time schedule, but in God’s time schedule, he is treating it as urgent, as needing his immediate attention.
Secondly, God is the one who has the right of redemption. He is as closely related to us as he could possibly get in the Person of Jesus Christ. He took on our humanity, reintegrated it with its Creator and within himself as God in human flesh, and took it with himself through death and resurrection, so we each could have new birth—a new life in him. God in Christ is to us a restorer of life and a sustainer in our youth and old age—no matter where we are in life, he is our Redeemer.
The cry I am hearing in the media today, social and otherwise, is for a redeemer. Humans such as political leaders often try to fill this role, and we temporarily give them our allegiance. But in reality, none can do what our Redeemer does—they cannot change or heal the human heart, nor can they transform people’s lives or give them divine redemption. There is no one like our God, who saves! We pray because we have a Redeemer who will not rest until he has healed, restored, and renewed. We pray because we know and trust he is faithful, gracious, and loving, and he will finish what he has begun in us.
Only God has the capacity and the heart to heal someone from the inside out. Only Jesus, the divine Physician, can change someone’s heart and desires into what they ought to be. Only the Spirit, our Comforter and our Peace, can work transformation in human beings, bringing them into Christlikeness.
Our participation in all of these things is to, like Ruth, place ourselves at Jesus’ feet and ask him to exercise his right of redemption on our behalf, to wait patiently for him to move in our circumstances and in our lives, and to embrace the relationship offered to us and to faithfully live within it for the remainder of our days. Our participation includes learning to live and walk in truth, to be integrated within ourselves so that we, in Jesus and by the Spirit, are loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We have every reason to hope—for he is ours and we are his, and he will be faithful to the end. This is why we turn to him, believing he will not fail us. And this is why we pray.
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love, and for giving us your Son to redeem us. Thank you for sending your Spirit to renew, restore, and heal us—transforming us by your grace and love into the very image of your Son, and so to reflect your likeness. We desperately need a move of your Spirit in our world today. We need you to heal, restore and renew all this we have broken, and to transform human hearts by faith. We trust you will not rest until this is accomplished. Show us how we can participate with you in your mission, and to passionately do so as you lead us, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’” Ruth 4:14-15 NASB
by Linda Rex
Last week I did my best to come up with a blog to post, but due to my involvement with vacation bible school (VBS), and other family and work responsibilities, I found myself drawing on empty when it came time to write. But I would like to share what stood out in my mind from our work with the young people in the Old Hickory community.
The topic of our VBS last week was the armor of God. At first, when we were reviewing the curriculum at one of our planning meetings, I and others were struck by the emphasis it had on our human efforts to put away sin and defend ourselves against Satan’s attacks. Our challenge was to revise the curriculum in such a way as to put Jesus Christ as the foundation and center of it rather than our own human efforts.
It is my personal belief what is lost in most discussions and devotions about the armor of God is the reality that each part of the armor is in essence Jesus Christ himself. Even the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, points us to the living Word, Jesus Christ. To separate each part out individually as if it stands on its own is to miss the point of this whole passage.
Paul starts out this section of scripture by saying, “…be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” God’s might is our might, his strength our strength. In Jesus by the Spirit we have the capacity to resist evil and the evil one. It’s not something we have to figure out or do on our own.
We need to beware of any way of looking at scripture which casts us back upon ourselves, as if we are capable of resisting or overcoming evil on our own, or are responsible to do so. Trying to overcome or resist evil on our own by keeping the law or doing lots of good deeds is basically human religion. And such a religion does not save us—rather it can enslave us and bind us to unhealthy and unfruitful ways of living and being.
What Paul seems to be saying here in Ephesians 6 is we have an adversary who is always scheming against us, and there are forces of evil at work which impact our lives on a daily basis. But we have a simply divine outfit laid out on the bed for us—we just need to put it on and stand firm in Christ, while resisting the devil’s efforts to deceive or distract us.
Salvation isn’t something we have to make sure we run to the boutique and buy, but rather something Christ has already done in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have been delivered from sin and death by the Son of God, who was victorious over them. But there is an action we do—we pick up the helmet of salvation, and we put it on. We experience a change in our mind and heart—we repent and turn away from our self-centered ways of thinking and being, and we turn to Christ. We stop trusting in our human efforts to save ourselves and start trusting in Christ instead. We put on Christ.
The thing is, the helmet of salvation isn’t something you take off and put back on. Salvation just is, because Christ has done it and won’t go back on his action of taking our humanity on and redeeming it. So we just receive this gift and live in the truth of it from now on. Our decision to live in the reality of our salvation in Christ does not alter whether or not Jesus saved us. It merely enables us to enjoy all the benefits of what he has done for us and in our place, and what he is doing today by his Holy Spirit. It is life-transforming.
This theme of putting on Christ can be found throughout this whole discussion about the armor of God. When we put on Jesus Christ, we are wrapping around ourselves the truth of who God is and who we are in him. Jesus is our belt of truth. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—we draw our being and life from him as the One through whom and by whom all things were created. As made in the image of God, through the Spirit we reflect Jesus Christ, the One who is both God and man—he is our perfected humanity. The truth about our existence is found in him. Whatever lies may be said to us or we may believe need to be held up against this plumbline, recognized for what they are, and discarded. The truth of our being, which is found in Jesus Christ, orients us toward our true north, our heavenly Father, in every area of our lives as we live and work in community with others.
The gospel of peace—how the Word of God took on our humanity to bring us peace with God and peace with one another—is the story of our lives. This good news, who is our Savior Jesus Christ, has transformed our lives, and we spend our existence sharing this good news with others. We don’t hold grudges or refuse to forgive people’s slights against us because we are living in the reality of and sharing with others the immense gift of grace given to us from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. All the human barriers we place between ourselves are removed in Christ, because he has made us one in himself, taking on our humanity and redeeming it. Because Christ is our life, we walk in him in the Spirit, in this path of grace and peace he has walked before us, in our place and on our behalf.
As we put on Christ as our footwear, we also put him on as our righteousness. Jesus is our right relationship with God and one another. God has reconciled to himself all things in Jesus Christ. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are brought up into the very life and being of God himself, at one with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and in Christ, made at one with every other human being. We put on Christ by living in the truth of our reconciliation and our right relationship, by being truly reconciled with God and one another, because of Jesus’ finished work.
Even when it comes to faith, we are reminded to turn to Christ for the faith we need when we are being assaulted by the lies of the evil one. The one weapon the devil uses against us over and over again is the lie which says God is not good and is not trustworthy, and he does not really love and care about us. When these lies begin to overwhelm us, we need to draw upon Christ’s perfect faith. Jesus trusted his Father implicitly, even when he hung dying on the cross and it seemed to his human mind his Father had forsaken him. Jesus’ perfect faith caused him to trust his Father even at the very end of his suffering—this faith is ours. All we need to do is ask—to pick up the shield—to put on Christ.
So we have put on Christ, and it seems it is not enough for us just to have our armor on. God also gives us an offensive weapon—the sword of the Spirit. The capacity of the word of God to penetrate down to the core of our being is made possible through the living Word, Jesus Christ, by his gift of the Spirit from the Father. It is Christ at work in us by his Spirit which transforms us and enables us to effectively live out and share the gospel of peace. It is the Spirit of truth at work within which enlightens us and enables us to see and walk in the truth who is Jesus. Any faith or righteousness which may well up within us is the work of the Spirit, who writes God’s ways on our minds and hearts, gives us the heart to obey, and enables us to live in accordance with the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.
The centrality of Christ to this entire discussion on the armor of God can be clearly seen when we start and begin with Jesus as the One who is the Word of God come into our human flesh. This can be a comforting and encouraging study when we do it this way. It’s not up to us to do this battle with the enemy all by ourselves. Rather, it is a battle Jesus already fought and won, and he shares his decisive victory with us as we respond to the Spirit’s work, and put on and use the divine outfit he created for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus Christ is our mighty warrior, and we get to participate by the Spirit in his perfect deliverance against sin, evil, and death. What a blessing!
Dear Abba, thank you for giving us, in Jesus and by your Spirit, total victory over evil, sin, and death. Thank you for giving us this perfect armor to wear, and the sword of the Spirit to wield. Grant us the grace to daily put on Christ and to respond fully to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, and in the world around us. May we trust in you fully, resting in Christ, and drawing upon the Spirit each day. Amen.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10–17 NASB
By Linda Rex
When I was growing up, I believed I had very few relatives. I vaguely remember meeting my grandparents when I was little and a couple aunts and uncles and cousins on occasion, but the first time I recall meeting any significant number of my relations was when I was thirteen. Even then, I had no grasp of what it meant to be a part of an extended family with all the relational dynamics that go with it.
It wasn’t until I began dating my husband to be and I married into his family that I began to experience what it is like to be a part of an extended family who lived within the confines of a small community. I remember on drives around the local area, they would point out a significant number of relations of theirs, whether near relations or shirt-tail relations, and they would tell me a little about each of these relatives’ particular story. I was amazed to see who was related to whom and found myself quite nervous about possibly saying the wrong thing to the wrong person and creating a relational and community disaster in the process.
This type of community and family situation is much like the one Jesus grew up in. In Nazareth, no doubt, everyone knew everyone else, and their relationships were all intertwined as children grew up together, married and had children who repeated the process. In his day the family and continuation of the family line were of paramount importance. As the elder son he had responsibilities to his family which he was expected to fulfill, and part of those involved having a sense of loyalty to his family and a commitment to their goals and expectations.
However, early on, beginning with his experience at the temple when he was twelve, we see Jesus beginning to differentiate between his relationship with his parents and his family, and his relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. He may have helped his mother with the wine supply issue at a local wedding, but he did so in such a way that reminded her and others of who he was as the Messiah. It must have been very hard for Mary to have her dear son draw this kind of a line in her relationship with him, but we see from early church history that eventually she understood and accepted the reality of who he really was.
Jesus’ family was not always supportive of his ministry. In fact, at one point they tried to force him to come with them and said, in effect, “You are out of your mind!” Then there was the time when Jesus was speaking to the crowds and his family came to see him. Someone told him they were outside waiting to speak with him and he replied, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Talk about a slap in the face!
But he wasn’t trying to be insulting. Instead, he was making a point about the centrality of relationships to the gospel—that we are all related to the Father through him in the Spirit. He is the Son of the heavenly Father, and those who live in the same perichoretic, mutually submissive, harmonic manner in which the Father and Son live in the Spirit, are his close relatives—his next of kin.
There are benefits to being Jesus’ next of kin, you know. One of the significant reasons this is a good thing is because Jesus, being our next of kin due to sharing in our humanity, has the right of redemption.
The people of Israel understood what it meant to be a close kinsman with the right of redemption. That meant that when a person lost property due to debt or lack of heirs, the kinsman could and often would buy it back for them—it was not supposed to be allowed to go into anyone else’s permanent possession—it was supposed to stay in the family. The story of Ruth gives a good description of what it was like to have a near relative redeem your land which you lost due to not having heirs to give it to.
God created you and me to bear the image of the Father, Son and Spirit. We chose instead to define our own image of God, and to follow our own way of being instead of reflecting the Being of the living God. In many ways we did, have and still do damage to our inheritance as God’s children, and have incurred tremendous physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual consequences we seem to only be making worse as time goes along. Our debts to God are impossible to pay, both collectively and individually, especially since we refuse to quit incurring them.
It is instructive that God’s way of entering into our impossible situation was to join us with himself by taking on our humanity. He became as closely related to us as he could possibly be. He became our nearest relative by sharing with us in our human existence—joining with his creation as a creature in human flesh (John 1:14; Heb. 2:11, 14-15, 17). He even did this to the extent that God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:12). Now that is taking his kinship to us seriously!
Being fully human as we are human does not in any way diminish Jesus’ divinity. Rather, it is the tension of the two—that Jesus is both fully human and divine—that enables Jesus to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
As your closest kinsman and mine, Jesus bought back our inheritance as God’s adopted children. Running out to meet us as his prodigal children, in Jesus the Father welcomes us home and is throwing us a great celebration. All that he has is ours in the gift of the Spirit—the indwelling Christ lives the life in us by the Spirit we were created to live as we respond to him in faith.
Some of us were not blessed with big happy families to include us and to surround us with love. For many of us being a part of our family of origin has not been a blessing or a joyful experience. The miracle of God’s grace to us in Christ is that we are all included in God’s family.
And God meant for those who believe to live together in such a way that they reflect the divine life and love, and become a family of love and grace who embraces the lost, lonely, broken and needy people who are looking for a home. If God can embrace and welcome broken, sinful humanity into his family by sharing in our broken, sinful flesh, and living and dying for us, how can we do any less for others?
Perhaps it is time that we stop the “us and them” way of thinking, and start practicing the reality formed in Christ that we are all “members of one another” (Eph. 4:25) We are all brothers, sisters and mothers in Christ, children of the Father, bound together in the Spirit. We are all kinfolk. Perhaps if we believed and behaved according to the truth of who we really are as God’s beloved, adopted and redeemed children, we might find the world becoming an entirely different place in which to live.
Heavenly Father, thank you that you have given us your Son to share in our humanity and to redeem us and bring us back into the right relationship with you which you foreordained for us to have before time began. Forgive us that too often we ignore and hide ourselves away from you and from each other. Grant us the grace to live according to the truth that we are your beloved, redeemed children made to reflect your image, and that we are all joined to one another in Jesus Christ. May we love others as you have loved us, through Christ and in your Spirit. Amen.
“While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, ‘Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.’ But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, ‘Who is My mother and who are My brothers?’ And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, ‘Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.’” Matthew 12:46–50 NASB
by Linda Rex
At our last group meeting in Hermitage we talked about the concept of inclusion. We in Grace Communion International have been accused of being universalists due to our belief that God has brought all humanity into union with himself through Jesus Christ and has made his transforming Spirit available to all. The key element to this discussion is humanity’s individual response to the gift of salvation he is offering us in Jesus Christ. (For an excellent discussion of inclusion and our acceptance in Christ, see this article on the Grace Communion International website: https://www.gci.org/jesus/acceptance.)
So, how does a person respond to this gift of grace? As I was asked earlier this week: “How is the response to Jesus different from someone saying the sinner’s prayer? I thought that the sinner’s prayer was you making the decision to accept Christ and you bridging the gap between yourself and God. How is the response to Jesus’s acceptance different?”
This is a very important question and it speaks to the whole understanding of separation vs union with Christ. Saying the sinner’s prayer is indeed seen as bridging the gap between you and God, with the idea of repentance and faith bringing about a change in our position–from separation into union. It requires the process of repentance, faith, baptism, new behavior in order to be valid. Dr. Wauchope in his series on “God, the Who and Why” (there is a link for it on my blog site), explains how this method of bridging the gap between the spiritual world and our human world actually has its roots in Aristotle and the philosophers. It is as though we change the heavenly realities by our human efforts–which we know is a falsehood. Only God can change God.
So what does it mean that we respond to Jesus? Do we need to say the sinner’s prayer? I don’t believe that a particular prayer is necessary–the Ethiopian merely asked whether and where he could be baptized, and Philip baptized him. I think that is significant.
Baptism isn’t done in order to change our status with God. It is done as a sharing in Christ’s baptism, a sharing in his life and death. Peter called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins–what Jesus did when he was baptized for us in our place. He was calling them to receive the gift already given to them in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus–to participate in what Christ had already done for them.
In other words, at some point God is going to bring each of us to the point where we see that apart from Jesus, we have no hope–that without Jesus we are lost. Jesus said in his preaching–repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (ie. I’m the Messiah and I’m here bringing in God’s kingdom), and he told his disciples to preach the Word, teach the Word and to baptize and disciple. That means there is a point of turning away from ourselves and our world and our way of living and being and a turning to Christ (ie. repent and believe, and receive the gift of life in him), at which point, symbolically through baptism, we identify with Christ, acknowledging that our life is in him.
This is why when someone comes to me and says, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to be a Christian, I ask them, “Have you talked with God about this?” And then I will pray with them and encourage them to pray about their commitment to Christ and his will. And I will then talk with them about baptism as a sign of their commitment, as an acknowledgement of their participation in Christ’s finished work.
But Barth and the Torrance’s are real clear that there is a definite turning away from oneself and a turning to Christ at some point. It’s a point in time and a process where a person acknowledges their need for and reliance upon Christ and a turning away from themselves and their ways, and a turning to Christ, and a submission to him as Lord of their life. This can take some time with people and may occur well after their initial understanding at baptism.
This is why discipleship of new believers is so important. They need to come to know and rely on Jesus and to begin to live their life in him. It is his life they are participating in–the new life they live is defined by Christ’s life, not by them. A person’s response to Jesus is, therefore, not just an event in time, but a whole turning of their life and being away from themselves and to Christ throughout the rest of their life–as Jesus said, a dying to self and a living in him.
As you can see, the latter approach does not at any point bring up some form of separation, but rather says that Jesus is our life. In God, through Christ and in the Spirit, we live and move and have our being. Christ did for us in our place all that is needed–so believe it and receive it, and then live it out. It’s all in terms of participating in the life Christ made for us in our humanity as a sharing in his divinity. I think this is a much more hopeful and joyful word of life.
The following is a response to a related question, “Does the Holy Spirit work on each person individually at some level continually or is God not working with everyone yet?”:
Sometimes our inclusive language can be a little too free. Yes, we need to keep the concept of inclusion in our language. All are included in God’s life and love. That is a given. All are united with God in Christ.
But our calling and full participation in that is something the Spirit does in a unique time and way for each of us. The communion of the Spirit is a different story from our union with God in Christ. The communion of the Spirit is experienced by the body of Christ through whom God is bearing witness to the world about Jesus in the Spirit today.
It does not mean that all do not have the Spirit but rather that there is an awakening of some to the calling to bear witness to Jesus Christ as a community of faith. We want to let all people know they are included in God’s love and life. But the thing is–if a person is living and being in a way that does not coincide with how God is and how Christ is for them, then how can they fully participate in God’s love and life? There is a call to repentance–to a change of mind and heart in how we look at God and who we think he is and a turning away from ourselves to Jesus, trusting in him for life and godliness rather than in anything else. The Holy Spirit does a work in a person’s heart, mind and life that is transformational–it is real.
My friend Bob likes to say, “all are included, they just don’t know it yet.” That’s not really a bad thing to say–but there is still the call to repent and believe. Barth and Torrance say the best way to present the gospel is to say, “God loves you so much he sent his Son to live, die, rise again in your place. He’s done all that is needed for you to be reconciled to God and redeemed. Jesus Christ stands in your place, interceding for you with the Father, and he gives you his Spirit so you can share in God’s life and love. You are loved and forgiven. [ie you are included] Therefore, repent and believe.”
The gospel continues to require a call to repent and believe, even when all are included. The thing is, this repentance and this faith is taken up in Jesus Christ just like everything else–it comes as a gift from God through Christ in the Spirit. It’s not on us as humans to find something within ourselves to be able to repent and believe. Christ gives us his own repentance and faith as a gift of God through the Spirit. So it’s not all up to us–it’s all of grace. Really the only response left for us gratitude or grateful obedience, and even that we participate in with Christ. It’s all of grace.
When we think of the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, we see that because the Spirit is poured out on all, he is available to all. He is working even now in and with each person. But as far as the transformational work the Spirit does in bringing someone to faith in Christ and into the body of Christ and into the obedience that comes with faith, that is something that is unique–it is a setting apart of certain persons for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to share the gospel. All are included in the kingdom of God, but not all are willing and obedient participants.
Father, I thank you for including all in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive and fully participate in your precious gift. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mk 1:14–15 NIV