From bondage to adoption

art 01During Lent I have been revisiting some of John Wesley’s key sermons, in which he lays out ideas that have become central to the way Methodists understand our faith. Today I want to share his thoughts about the shift that occurs in our relationship with God as we are led toward being “born from above” (John 3:1-10), and as we grow toward maturity.

New life in Christ, Wesley taught, is not a simple matter of having faith or not having it; it’s a matter of growing toward maturity in faith, a maturity measured by “the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The relationship we have with God, if we’re born from above, is changed from one of bondage, like that between servant and master, to one of adoption, like the relationship between child and parent. And like the relationship between child and parent, if our relationship with God is healthy, it grows and matures, it changes and deepens as it develops.

We begin life in the natural, “unspiritual” human state (1 Cor. 2:14) into which everyone is born and in which some live their whole lives. In the second state of life, we come to live under the spirit of bondage and fear – under the law, as some describe it. We may be servants of God, and we may be “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34), but we cannot yet be called children of God. The third state of relationship with God – and we can be in more than one state at a time – is marked by the spirit of divine love in which we are living under grace. Let’s take a closer look at them.

The first state of relationship with God is the natural human condition. The scripture looks at this as a kind of spiritual death or pre-life, in which the voice of God says simply, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead” (Eph. 5:14). Our inner life, the soul, is asleep. Our spiritual senses are not yet awakened and active, and we’re unable to recognize spiritual good or evil. The eyes of our understanding are closed and sealed, leaving us unable to see anything of the world and life of the Spirit, and we grope through life as if “through the darkest valley” (Ps. 23:4).

Because in this state we’re naturally asleep, in some sense we feel at rest, with little or no anxiety about the life we call eternal. We easily follow our natural inclinations and appetites and may even feel happy and satisfied, but we’re spiritually dead. We have the form of life without the substance of life. We’re not without God, however. God is already at work in us before any sign of God’s work can be seen or felt. “No one can come to me,” Jesus said, “unless drawn by [God] who sent me” (John 6:44). God’s grace is already at work in us so we can respond.

The second state of relationship with God is life under the law. Here we awaken spiritually, perhaps suddenly, perhaps by slow degrees. The veil is removed from our understanding; we see the real condition we are in; and we realize “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). A soul-deep hunger begins to stir, and we start to hunger for God like “a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). The pleasant dream of our natural state disappears, and we begin to feel the anguish of a wounded spirit. Like prodigal children, we come to our senses, realize how much of our life has been lost or wasted, and decide to return home to God (Luke 15:11-32).

We make resolutions, decide to do better, adopt rules for spiritual living, and try to pattern ourselves after Jesus. Perhaps we ask, “What would Jesus do?” We think the healing of our broken lives depends on living the right kind of life. We’re convinced that if we live well here, we will gain the reward of a place in heaven. The theme of our living is expressed in the words of the hymn, “‘Are ye able,’ said the Master, ‘to be crucified with me?’ ‘Yea,’ the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow thee.’”

But the fear remains that if we fail, our place in heaven will become our place in hell. And fail we will. We discover we will follow Jesus to the death as long as it’s not our death. We may claim, like Peter, that we will never deny or desert Christ (Mark 14:27-31), but in some defining moment we will deny Christ (Luke 22:56-61), and like all of the first disciples we will flee back into the arms of the world (Mark 14:50).

We continue to feel a burden we cannot shake off. We long for liberty, empowerment, and love, but we remain in bondage to sin and the law and in fear of the consequences of that bondage. We wait for the time when God will answer the deep cry that we echo from St. Paul, “Who will rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24).

The final state of our relationship with God is life under grace. Our cry of helplessness and surrender is the door that leads from bondage to life under grace. Through that door we can move from a life built around religious or spiritual rules to a free, authentic, and original life, the mature life one of my seminary professors described as one of “genuine, honest-to-God, graceful eccentricity.”

When we pass through that door, we leave behind both the power of sin and our guilt as sinners, and we can say with Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20). The prison door is opened and we are free, not only to struggle against sin but to prevail, not only to fight but to overcome, so that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of [God], so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

Today we hear again Paul’s challenge to us: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5). Paul doesn’t want to know whether you’re sincere; he wants to know something more practical: Are you living in the faith? Examine yourselves with these questions, Wesley urged: What is the ruling principle of your life? Is it the love of God? Is it the fear of God? Or is it the love of the world, of pleasure, of gain, of ease, of reputation? Or is the whole idea foreign to you, so that you can’t imagine what it means?

The Spirit of God doesn’t wait around until you’re ready for it. There are times when the Spirit intends to be heard and will be heard. It may be heard as fear, as regret, as dissatisfaction, as yearning. All of those voices are ways in which God is saying, “I have something better for you.” So “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [let’s] press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).

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