Tim Keller says that you can take people out of slavery more easily than you can take slavery out of people. As the Israelites walked out of Egypt, they carried a more severe bondage with them in their mindsets, in their hearts, in their patterns of behavior. Though free, they did not yet have a freeman’s frame of mind. Soon they were begging to go back (Exodus 16:3).
The same can be said about children of God as it pertains to our new identity in Christ. More easily are we taken out of orphanhood than the feeling of orphanhood comes out of us.
Although God has transferred us from the domain of darkness, placed us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, and given us the Spirit of adoption as sons — all of his good pleasure — yet we can still imagine ourselves dressed in spiritual rags, waiting for our unconvinced Father to determine whether his choice to have us was the right one. Although we are adopted, cleansed, given a new name, a new identity, a new Spirit, we can still think like orphans, feel like orphans, behave like orphans.
“Too many believe, as I once did, that they cannot please him by what they actually do in faith.”
And certain theological misunderstandings and slogans can cement our misperception. Doctrinal errors and scriptural disproportions can add to the sense of alienation we already are inclined to feel. Or at least it did for me. We can believe lies about ourselves (or pretend that half-truths are whole-truths) that keep us orphans at heart when God the Father did not spare Christ to make us sons and daughters. The following are a few such falsehoods.
‘I Am a Beggarly Orphan’
Martin Luther declared on his deathbed, “We all are beggars, this is true.” Indeed, we all are in need of God’s mercy and provision; apart from Christ we have nothing. Yes, and amen (John 15:5).
But how easily might this expression of humility distort if masquerading as the whole. “Beggars” is not the best summary of the Christian life. In Christ we are no longer beggarly orphans, dirty and clothed in rags, raising our bowls up to God wondering if he might be willing to give us just a little more stew. In the Son, we too now are sons and daughters of the King. God has given us authority, he says, and power as his children through the new birth (John 1:12–13).
No more are we in the fields feeding the pigs (Luke 15:16). By the gracious act of our better Elder Brother, we’ve returned to our heavenly Father, and he ran to meet us, to welcome us home. We have already tried our clumsy posture of penitence, telling him we are happy to be merely a hired servant, a hardworking orphan — and he would not have it. His steadfast love quiets our mutterings about our unworthiness (as if our worthiness ever prompted his love in the first place). We were never worthy to become children of God, but his adopting us makes us worthy to be called children of God and to live as full sons and daughters.
To refuse the ring, the robes, the fattened calf is not humility; it is an afront to the Father’s grace. He has not invited us into the party to incessantly remind the guests that we are really only beggars, after all. This, if taken as the main theme of our Christianity, dishonors our merciful Father. With Mephibosheth, we can wonder that God has found us as “dead dogs” and bestowed such favor upon us (2 Samuel 9:7–8), while also acknowledging that, by pure grace, we are no longer the same dead dogs he found. When our Father calls us sons and daughters, sons and daughters we are.
‘All I Do Is Displease God’
We also might presume to think that if God is pleased with us at all, it is only because of Jesus’s perfection, and nothing we can say or do. Certainly, God is never pleased with us apart from our Elder Brother, for Christ alone wins us his full favor (Romans 4:5). But once acquitted by his finished work on the cross, and declared righteous in him, it is wrong to think that we stand unseen, never able to do anything to please our Father. Too many believe, as I once did, that they cannot please him by what they actually do in faith.
“Although we are adopted as children, we can still think like orphans, feel like orphans, behave like orphans.”
One familiar text about filthy rags appears to prove this, when used as a slogan: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Consider, however, that Isaiah is sent to minister to a rebellious, hard-hearted, adulterous Israel (Isaiah 6:9–13); he is not speaking to the bride of Christ. His hearers worshiped foreign gods, while their hearts warred against him. None of them called upon the Lord (Isaiah 64:7). Their “righteous deeds” were filthy rags because rebellion and idolatry characterized their lives. Their occasional good would not bribe God’s favor.
It’s still true that those who walk by the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:8). But Christians walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh (Romans 8:9). We are told that what we do from faith in Christ’s finished work does please God. Let that sink in. And this is a reason to pursue holiness.
It pleases God when we war with sin and live holy lives (Hebrews 13:20–21). It pleases God when we spend time in his word and increase in the knowledge of his Son (Colossians 1:10). It pleases God when we obey our parents for his sake (Colossians 3:20). It pleases God when we present our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). It pleases God when pastors teach the word faithfully (1 Thessalonians 2:4). It pleases God when, instead of constantly complaining about them, we pray for the kings and presidents (1 Timothy 2:1–3). It pleases God when we share our earthly goods with others (Hebrews 13:16). It pleases God when we keep his commandments (1 John 3:22) — and much more.
When we pursue purity over pornography, peace over anxiety, love over harshness, we please our Father. Yes, he is displeased by our sin, and he delights in the God-planned, Spirit-empowered, Jesus-exalting, faith-filled, human-acted good works of his children.
‘I Am Destined to Fail’
Finally, believing that you can please God is useless if you believe that you are destined to eventually leave Christ for old sins. If you spy out the land, and your unbelief sees giants of temptation on the horizon that you “could never defeat,” you will not stay to fight them for long. Past lives of sin can haunt today’s resolves, convincing us that we will eventually “do it again” and return to the lifestyle we now hate.
To bolster this learned helplessness, some cite Jeremiah saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) We are set up to fail, they conclude, by having sick hearts at the center of who we are. But this, as well, is no longer true of the Christian. Amazingly, God gives us new hearts with new power to obey him and walk in his ways.
The people Jeremiah addressed did have hearts that were sick and deceitful, stubborn, idolatrous, and sin-engraved (Jeremiah 17:1). But Jeremiah spoke of a coming day when God would cut a new covenant with his people, one that included the promise of new hearts that have God’s law written on them (Jeremiah 31:33) and would fear God forever and do not turn away from him (Jeremiah 32:38–41).
“Don’t believe the lie that you have to live a barely-saved, mostly-depraved, orphan-behaved Christian life.”
This new people, with these new hearts, is called the church. For every child of God today, he takes out our stony hearts and replaces them with hearts of flesh that are sensitive to his instruction (Ezekiel 36:26). If you are a Christian, you have a new heart that is not your old corrupt one. You are not yet the sinless person you will be, but you really are a new creation, with a new center, a new identity, a new heart. Although you still war with the unredeemed part of you called the flesh, the citadel is not overrun with the enemy. We do “the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6). And God gives us his Spirit to guarantee it.
In Christ you don’t only have the status of son or daughter of the king, but you have access to divine power to fight and conquer any sin in your life and live in holiness (2 Peter 1:3). Don’t believe the lie that you are stuck living a barely-saved, mostly-depraved, orphan-behaved Christian life. You are not destined to fail. You aren’t chosen to continually displease your Father.
If we are his, we now are genuine, beloved, adopted children of God, who need more of the orphan taken out of us every day, until we finally see him and all lingering doubts die away.