Counsel from the Cross
- 2009 18 Aug
C O U N S E L F R O M T H E C R O S S
Connecting Broken People to the Love of Christ
What Do You See?
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.
I (ELYSE) HAVE LIVED less than a quarter of a mile from Interstate 15, one of the busiest freeways in California, for about eight years now, and because of that I’ve had firsthand experience with what is commonly referred to as “white noise.” Although this busy freeway is so very nearby, I’m rarely aware of it; its persistent hum has become background noise to me. Of course, if there is a semi rolling down the stretch near my home and the driver lets his foot off the accelerator, I’ll hear the popping of his engine, but generally speaking I don’t even know that the freeway is there. It has become white noise, and I’m glad that my brain tunes it out, because at my age I don’t need any more distractions.
While I am thankful for this innate ability to ignore unimportant, repetitive sound, I’m afraid that we don’t do a very good job differentiating between what we need to pay attention to and what can be safely ignored. To be more specific, I fear that familiarity with certain biblical concepts is liable to make them seem insignificant to us. I’m afraid that we unintentionally strip certain concepts of importance and prominence and relegate them to the category of white noise —we recognize they are there, but we just don’t pay much attention to them.
What Are You Aware Of? Please look again at the verse with which I opened this chapter, Ephesians 5:1. Now, let me ask you a question: What do you see? When you read those eight words, what were you most impressed by? Close your eyes for a moment and try to recall its message.
If you are familiar with the New Testament, you might have recognized the passage and were probably most aware of the command to imitate God, both because a command to imitate God is astonishing and because it’s not something most of us would think we have mastered. Of course, we realize that there are other words in the verse—“therefore” and “as beloved children”—but because we think we have already understood or mastered the truth that God forgave us (4:32, to which “therefore” points), and that we are his beloved children, we gloss over them. The “therefore” and “as beloved children” are white noise to our spiritual ears. We filter these words out; they have become irrelevant. And when that happens, it changes the message of the verse and, ultimately, of the entire Bible.
When all we see in Ephesians 5:1 is the command to imitate God, our thoughts will turn inward onto ourselves, our efforts, and our record. If we fancy ourselves serious Christians and all we see in this verse is our duty, then we will probably spend a few moments thinking that we need to be more conscientious about obedience. Oh, yes, yes, I can see that I need to try harder at imitating God. Or, if we are painfully aware of our ongoing failure to be godly, despair will flood our hearts and we will feel confused and overwhelmed by such a command. Imitate God? How could I ever possibly do that? I’m already such a failure! However, if you are someone who helps others apply Scripture to their lives, you might immediately think, “Now, there’s a verse I could use with so-and-so!” thereby deflecting the command off of yourself.
You see, if certain concepts in Scripture have become white noise to us, it will be all too easy to read a verse like Ephesians 5:1 and see only its obligations. I, too, can see myself using the verse to develop a list of the attributes of God and then making a plan to implement those attributes in my daily life. God is holy, merciful, righteous and just. This month I will concentrate on being holy. I’ll research what it means and then I’ll try to implement it in my life. Next month I’ll . . . Because I’m like you, if you asked me what I saw in that verse I would tell you, “We’re called to imitate God.”
Our propensity to disregard the familiar can be so very detrimental to our faith. When the rest of the verse, “therefore” and “as beloved children,” has become white noise to our spiritual ears, we will quickly gloss over it without stopping to consider why it’s there or what it’s meant to tell us. We won’t think to ask why the Holy Spirit positioned such a daunting command in the context of such familiar words. Instead, we will be quick to strip out the familiar and boil down Scripture to a tidy little take-away list of do’s and don’ts.
What actually gets relegated to this position of irrelevance is nothing less than the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, nothing less than Jesus’ accomplishments through his incarnation, sinless life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Because we are so familiar with the gospel message, it gets shoved to the periphery of our spiritual consciousness and becomes nothing more than words to be remembered at Christmas and Easter. The truths represented by “therefore” and “as beloved children” are like the constant din of the Interstate 15—unless someone draws your attention to them, they just don’t register.
When we lose those truths, what takes center stage in our awareness? We do, of course. When we lose the centrality of the cross, Christianity morphs into a religion of self-improvement and becomes about us, about our accomplishments, and about getting our act together. We become people who ask WWJD (What would Jesus do?)1 without ever considering the gospel or WDJD (What did Jesus do?). Although most of us recognize that Jesus’ work is somehow tied to our work, we don’t know quite how or why. For instance, if I asked you how the ascension informs and impacts your life today, would you be able to tell me?
To illustrate how detrimental it is to push gospel declarations out to the margins of our awareness, let’s see what “therefore” and “as beloved children” from Ephesians 5:1 tell us.
You Are Forgiven
Ephesians 4:32, the verse that immediately precedes Ephesians 5:1, reminds us of a wonderful truth: God in Christ has forgiven us. When Paul commands Christians to imitate God, he does so in light of a very specific divine action: “God in Christ forgave you.” What he is saying is this: because you have already been forgiven, you can and should imitate God. Because God has already declared that he will not hold your sins against you, you can adopt this attitude of grace with others.That’s why Ephesians 5:1 begins with “therefore”: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” The “therefore” is a gospel declaration, meant to comfort, encourage, and inform you before you get to the gospel obligation, “be imitators of God.”
You might be wondering why it is so important to hear yet again what Jesus has already done. After all, haven’t we heard that message before? Why would we need to hear it again? We need to hear it again because if we have forgotten his work on our behalf, it will skew the way we think of him, the way we think of ourselves, and the way we think of others. In addition, we will miss the emphasis on imitating God’s forgiveness that this verse is meant to communicate, not just a generic imitation of Godlike qualities but a specific imitation of his forgiveness.
How We Think of Him
If we forget God’s generous, overwhelming grace in forgiving us, we will think of him as a “hard man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] scattered no seed” (Matt. 25:24). We will have low thoughts of him. We will see him as a harsh taskmaster, exacting rigorous, impossible obedience from us and being disappointed and angry with us when we (predictably) fail to meet his expectations. We will assume that God continues to hold our sins against us and that he is tallying up all the ways in which we fail. When we fail to savor his astonishing mercy, he will morph into a satanic caricature in our minds, a Pharaoh, demanding that we make bricks without straw. In response, we will be bound to hide our talent in the ground for fear of greater failure or harsher rebuke and then grudgingly return it to him when we have to (Matt. 25:25).
How We Think of Ourselves
If we forget that we are forgiven by God because of his Son’s sacrifice, we will see ourselves as slaves trying to earn his goodwill and make up for past miscues rather than as forgiven children. We will be afraid to try to obey because we know we are bound to fail. If God is like Pharaoh, he won’t be touched by our halting efforts at obedience. We will be afraid to persevere because we’ll know that we are doomed from the start. Why bother trying? We will be void of the love for him that is meant to motivate and fuel all our attempts at obedience. We will become lazy, unbelieving servants (Matt. 25:26).
How We Think of Others
If in our sight God becomes a caricature of Pharaoh, then our brothers and sisters in Christ are nothing more than fellow slaves who had better pull their weight. If God seems harsh and demanding, unforgiving and exacting, then that is exactly how we will treat others. Forgive them for sinning against us? Well, maybe, but only after we’ve gotten our pound of flesh, and they have proven that they are really sorry and have really changed. Why would we be generous toward them when God has been so demanding of us?
When we forget about God’s lavish forgiveness, we will hate our Master, and we will oppress our fellow slaves. After all, it certainly wouldn’t be right for them to get away without meeting Pharaoh’s quota like we have to! We will demand strict obedience without forgiveness because that’s what we imagine God has demanded from us. Forgetting that we are already forgiven will rob us of those Christlike qualities of kindness, generosity, gentleness, and longsuffering. It will also rob us of the only acceptable motive for obedience: love. The gospel declaration embodied in the “therefore” makes all the difference in the world.
You Are Beloved
After reminding us of God’s mercy and forgiveness, Paul writes that we are to imitate God as beloved children. It is important that we remember that we are beloved children because beloved children function differently from houseguests or foster kids. Although guests or foster children may be welcomed into a family home for a time, everyone knows that they aren’t really part of that family. A guest or foster child knows that he doesn’t have the same access, inheritance, freedom, or assurance that a son or daughter has. He can’t just run and jump on the father’s lap and kiss his cheek and ask for treats. He knows that his position is tenuous and can change at any moment. He knows that he has to earn love and a place in the home.
God’s disposition toward us is entirely different because we are beloved. He isn’t simply tolerating us, regretting that he opened the door to the likes of us. No, we’re beloved. This is the same word that the Father employed to describe his disposition to his Son; he referred to him as beloved or as his Beloved (see Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Eph. 1:6), and because of Christ’s work on our behalf, so are we. Jesus himself said that his Father loves his people as he loves his Son (John 17:23). This is an astonishing truth. You are his beloved.
Beloved is what your heavenly Father thinks of you. Does that make you want to be near him, to learn of him, and to be like him? Of course it does. If you are in Christ, he calls you his beloved.
Not only are we beloved, but we are also beloved children. All Christians have been irrevocably adopted and given full rights as God’s sons. (In the grace of Christ, both women and men enjoy the privileged status of sons.) All the riches of grace and blessings of relationship with him are ours now; all that he has is ours by inheritance. We can rest securely knowing that he won’t ever abandon us. He is a good and faithful Father. He is devoted to our soul’s safety and complete sanctification. Because he has adopted us and made us his children, he is determined that we will be like him. We are his children; we will ultimately resemble him. He is shaping us into his image (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:24).
In light of these blessed declarations, we can boldly pursue godliness. His Spirit is in us, and he has guaranteed our eventual transformation. Because of the Son’s ongoing incarnation and the indwelling of his Spirit, we are “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.” The Son has been made like us; we are being made like him. He is the firstborn among many brothers. We are family!
How Could Those Truths Become White Noise?
If Christianity is about Christ, how does it happen that he becomes marginalized in our daily lives? How do the truths of the gospel become nothing more than insignificant white noise? Why does John 3:16 bore us? It bores us for at least two reasons, one more insidious than the other.
We naïvely press the gospel out to the margins of our faith because we have never really been taught how it’s meant to connect with our daily lives. One day I had a conversation with a dear friend who told me about struggles she was having in a relationship.
I asked her, “How do you think the resurrection impacts this circumstance?”
She replied, “I know that it should but I just don’t know how.”
I think that we all have a sneaking suspicion that the truths of the gospel ought to mean something more to us than they do, but we don’t know how to make those connections. Yes, the incarnation, perfections, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ ought to have a practical impact on our daily walk, but just how those dots connect isn’t really clear.
More insidiously, I think that we relegate the gospel to the back of our religious bus because, although we may admit our spiritual impotence with our lips, deep in our hearts we remain convinced of our own ability to live a moral life.
We also fear loss of control. It is unsettling and humiliating to realize how utterly dependent we are on having Someone Else do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: change our heart’s affections and desires. As long as I have a “list to work on,” I can keep my hands on the reins of my life and on my struggle against sin. So even though the gospel shouts to us that we are depraved, that we deserve a shameful death and an eternity in hell, that we must be given someone else’s righteousness in order to stand before a holy God, we continue to think that if we could just find the key to holy living, we’d be able to work it out. Just give me a list! Teach me the right prayer! Introduce me to the right counselor!
It’s no wonder that self-help books top the charts in Christian publishing and that counseling offices are overwhelmed. Our pride and our neglect of the gospel force us to run from seminar to seminar, book to book, counselor to counselor, always seeking but never finding some secret to holy living.
Most of us have never really understood that Christianity is not a self-help religion meant to enable moral people to become more moral. We don’t need a self-help book; we need a Savior. We don’t need to get our collective act together; we need death and resurrection and the life-transforming truths of the gospel. And we don’t need them just once, at the beginning of our Christian life; we need them every moment of every day. Let’s take a moment to think about how these truths might help a Christian sister facing a difficult crisis.
Applying All of Scripture To Life
Madeline is a hardworking, homeschooling mother of five who has faithfully worked to educate her children and train them for the Lord.3 She loves God, loves serving in the church, and loves her husband and children and their home. But the unthinkable has just happened: her eldest daughter, who is seventeen, is pregnant. Madeline is crushed when she discovers that Hannah has been living a double life. While Hannah openly professed faith and appeared to acquiesce to all her parents’ demands, she had actually schemed to arrange trysts with a Christian boy down the street.
To say that Madeline is devastated and disillusioned would be a momentous understatement. Every day she vacillates between giving up in defeat and humiliation or giving full vent to her fury at Hannah’s betrayal and lack of appreciation for all Madeline’s years of sacrifice for her daughter. Madeline is also wondering why God hasn’t upheld his part of the bargain. After all, she trained her daughter up in “the way she should go.” Why didn’t God keep her from departing from it, as he contracted to do in Proverbs 22:6? She feels betrayed, deserted, confused, disappointed, angry, and ashamed.
How would you help Madeline? What does she need to remember? Madeline needs a healthy dose of gospel truth. The gospel tells Madeline about the Lord, about herself, and about Hannah, and it also tells her about the methods and motivations of obedience.
First, the gospel informs Madeline about God’s nature. He isn’t surprised by either her own sin or her daughter’s; in fact, God is more aware of it than she ever will be. His plan to overcome evil with good was set in place long before Hannah was born, long before this world was born. Because of the gospel, Madeline can be assured that God will overcome all evil, even Hannah’s sin, with good.
But overcoming sin cost God dearly. He sent his Son from heaven to be born as a baby, to be wrapped in rough cloth, to suffer cold and hunger, to be schemed against and betrayed, and finally to be hung in humiliation on a tree, defiled by our sin (despite his own flawless innocence) and drinking down the cup of his Father’s wrath. Although Madeline feels overwhelmed by her daughter’s sins against her, she needs to remember that Jesus had to suffer for her sin, too. At the same time, Madeline needs to remember that full atonement has been made. God no longer holds Madeline’s sin against her, and if Hannah is truly his, he doesn’t hold her sin against her, either.
Madeline also needs to remember what the gospel tells her about herself. God’s love for her isn’t based on her performance or on her children’s performance. His love is based solely on the performance of his Son. She can rejoice that God doesn’t operate on a quid pro quo basis, like a cosmic vending machine that spits out treats for those who perform flawlessly. By grace alone she has been given the complete righteousness of the Son. She is his beloved child because she is in the Beloved One. The gospel tells her that her Savior, who took on flesh like hers in order to redeem her, is ruling sovereignly from heaven, never forgetting about her for one moment, never neglecting to cause all things—even her sin—to work for good. He will sanctify and keep her, even though it feels like she has been set adrift on a dark and stormy sea.
The gospel reminds Madeline that she is more sinful and flawed than she ever dared believe. She is to remember that because of indwelling sin, all people, even children who live in a perfect home, like the prodigal’s home in Jesus’ famous parable, can and do rebel. Our children are more sinful and flawed than we ever dared believe. They are just like us: willful creatures with souls that resist humble submission. No amount of external training, protection from worldly influences, or classical education will change that fact.5 Only the Spirit of God can change a human heart. Only God’s love in Christ can make us grow in love and delight in him.
Only the gospel can change how Madeline feels about Hannah and consequently how she treats Hannah. When she is tempted to wrath, self-pity, and self-righteousness, she needs to remember that the Savior had to die for her, too. As she humbles herself before the cross, she will be able to mourn over her sin as well as the sins of her children, and she will know God’s comfort (Matt. 5:4).
By faith she can war against anger, self-pity, and self-righteousness because she trusts that her struggle against sin isn’t in vain. On Calvary it seemed as though all had been lost, but Calvary isn’t all there is. There is an empty tomb. The empty tomb assures her that even though she feels hopelessly trapped by anger and self-pity, the power of sin has been broken in her life.
Then, as she experiences the enveloping comfort of the Spirit, she will be humble enough to seek to comfort Hannah, to see Hannah’s sin as no more morally repugnant than her own, and much of her self-justifying wrath will be drained. As she sees how Jesus washed the feet of sinners just like her, she will be encouraged to pick up the basin and the towel with her children again. As she seeks to imitate God to her family, she can rest in the truth that her sins are already forgiven.
The gospel will remind Madeline that she is a beloved child. Although Hannah’s sin is grievous and the ramifications of it will last for the rest of Madeline’s earthly life, Madeline can remember that when the Father looks upon her he says, “Beloved.” While walking through this earth she may never understand why God’s plan in her life had to include this humiliating trek through what, at times, feels like the valley of the shadow of death (in part because of her pride and concern about her appearance), but she can know one thing: she is more loved and welcomed than she ever dared hope. God’s love for her has determined that this sorrow is a good. She can be assured of this because she trusts that God loves her and is for her. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31–32).
When Madeline begins to doubt God’s love for her or his wisdom in bringing this trial into her life, she can remember this precious truth: the Father gave his Son to make her his own. He, too, knows what it’s like to be betrayed by his children, and yet he has made her his own. Jesus Christ has suffered with her, and although she was, in part, a cause of his suffering, still she is beloved. Madeline has been adopted. She is her heavenly Father’s child. He will never leave her nor forsake her, and even though the road she is traversing seems terrifying and gloomy, she can be assured that because of the ascension, this trial isn’t all she will ever experience. She will know light and joy and comfort and rest and everlasting love. Because this is her future, she can have the faith to persevere today.
After she has warmed her soul by the fire of the gospel, she can seek to imitate God in her home. She and her husband can extend mercy to Hannah and to her boyfriend. She can lovingly talk with her other children about sin’s folly and God’s grace. She can openly confess her own sin and talk about how God’s grace has assured her. She can even face the question of whether her own treatment of her children over the years might have tempted Hannah to secretive hypocrisy or to mistaking sexual intimacy for the genuine love Hannah’s heart hungers for.
As Madeline continues to humble herself before God’s mighty hand and trust that in the exaltation of Christ, she will be raised up over all the enemies of God’s kingdom, sin and rebellion will ultimately be squelched by his mighty power, and Madeline can be assured of this because Jesus is ruling right now at the right hand of her Father.
What does Madeline need? She needs the song of the gospel to take center stage and drown out all other voices of revenge, despair, works-righteousness, fear, and self-trust. She can have faith that through Jesus’ glorious power, the gospel will captivate her heart because she has been forgiven, beloved, and adopted.
Hearing the Song I’m thankful that I rarely hear the freeway that runs by my house, as I filter out its constant hum, but I am grieved that I so frequently ignore the gospel my Savior is singing so sweetly to me. Like you, I need to hear that gospel song over and over again because my soul is a sieve and the gospel leaks out of it, leaving only the husk of Christianity—my self-righteousness and obligations.
Do you need to hear his gospel song, too? Why not take a few moments now to enjoy these precious truths again: God has forgiven you because of Christ’s precious death in your place; you are his beloved child because of Christ’s precious life credited to you. Can you hear him singing this never-ending theme to you, his bride?
1) We all know what white noise is. Have the gospel truths of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone become white noise to you? How long has it been since you were enthralled by the thought that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son? Do you remember that God so loves you that Christ died for you (Gal. 2:20)?
2) What reactions do you have to your own or others’ sins and failures that might signal when your heart has grown deaf to Christ’s song of grace?
3) When you read Ephesians 5:1, what were you most aware of? How did you respond to the command to “imitate God”? Were you self-assured, thinking that you were already doing a pretty good job at it, or were you crushed and despairing? Were you sure that if we just told you how to do it, you’d be able to do it?
4) Aside from the command to imitate God, did you see anything else in Ephesians 5:1? If so, what?
5) How does a fuller appreciation of the gospel change the way you view
6) Summarize in four or five sentences what you have learned from this chapter. What was new? What was most important to you?
Counsel From The Cross
Copyright 2009 by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Dennis E. Johnson
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.