When Did God Become for Us?

Bethlehem Staff Devotion


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

“Be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). So, look at what God does, and copy that in your life. “Be imitators of God.” That’s an incredible statement. “Be imitators of God.” The way you look at what God does is mainly by reading your Bible, and meditating on it, and watching his ways from end to end.

There’s a focus in Ephesians 5:2 of what you’re supposed to look at, namely, his love, but I just want us to feel the force first of Ephesians 5:1: “Be imitators of God.” Imitation should be one of the categories of your relationship with him.

There are others. In fact, there are more important ones, like trust, but imitation is one of them, and don’t eliminate it. Think, “What would God do? What does God do?” It’s a dangerous category because you can’t imitate everything God does. He’s God — you’re not. Therefore, he has rights you don’t have, and that’s why there’s a focus of the text not on everything he does, but on love in particular.

Rethinking Imitation

“Be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). When you think of the category of imitation, you think, “I watch a person, and then I start doing things the way that person does them.” The next phrase, as far as my soul goes, radically alters the way I hear the first phrase.

“Bind on your heart this reality: ‘God is my Father, and I am his child.’”

He doesn’t say, “Be imitators of God, children.” He says, “As beloved children.” Suddenly the issue of imitation is not like this: “I’m watching him do it, and I will copy that.” Rather, it’s this: “I’m receiving it.”

It’s not like I’m watching the line of love proceed to people from God, and I’m supposed to get in line and go with him and love people. That’s not the point. Usually, that’s the point when we think about imitation, but that’s not the point here. The point here is, be imitators of God, as receiving it, as loved children (Ephesians 5:1).

His Love Motivates Us to Love Others

First, let’s just say it without the word beloved: “Be imitators of God, as children of God” (Ephesians 5:1). Own the reality, embrace the reality. Using the words of Proverbs 6:21, bind on your heart this reality: “God is my Father, and I am his child.” Say it to yourself over and over again, because it’s supposed to have a profound emotional effect. It’s supposed to do some really deep things that we are children of God, that he’s our Father.

Then he puts the word beloved in there: “beloved children.” There are unloved children. There are bad fathers. God’s not one of them. The word loved makes it clear. He is the Father, and the dominant relationship in this verse between Father and child is not authority — but love.

So, when you think, “Imitate God,” think, “He’s not just loving people, and I’m supposed to do what he does and love people, but he’s loving me, which evidently must mean I’m supposed to get strength from being loved by the Father to imitate the Father. That he loves me is what empowers me to become more like him.”

When Did It Begin?

A huge question for me is, When did God start loving me like this? Or, to use the phraseology of Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He is totally for us. That’s what it means to be a loved child.

And you have Hebrews 12:4–11 talking about how the Father disciplines. “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). He’s treating you like children. If there’s no discipline, you are not children, so even in the times when we’re on the brink of shedding blood, he is loving. He’s totally for us. When did God begin to relate to me that way?

Wrath Followed Election

That’s not an easy question to answer because, in one sense, God was for us in eternity because he chose us in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). So, God was for you in terms of electing love in eternity. “Well, that’s when it began. That’s when he started loving me like a father and was totally for me” — why wouldn’t I say that?

The reason we can’t say it is because of Ephesians 2:3, which says that we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” We Christians were once children of wrath. There was electing love, and then there was wrath on me — elect me. Under wrath.

So God being for me, in terms of election, means this: “I’m intending someday to be this for you, and I’m not now. I’m angry — really angry. Angry with the kind of anger that sends to hell without something happening.”

Where? Where did he start to do this? Where did he change in his orientation toward me so that he’s now not electing love, plus wrath — but totally for me? I mean totally. Not one millimeter, not one millisecond, not one micro-ounce against me. Where did that happen?

The Sacrificial Purchase

Our text has another verse that says this: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1–2). So, it shifts from Be imitators of God, as beloved children, with love coming from God, to Walk in love.

Now we know what the imitation is supposed to look like: “Walk in love,” and then he says, “as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:2). In Ephesians 5:1 you have the Father loving you, and now you have Christ loved you in Ephesians 5:2. Then you have a massive, central gospel reference: “. . . and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

So, there had to be a sacrifice so that the wrath of God would be averted onto that sacrifice and away from me, and all the requirements that have ever been made of me would be fulfilled by him. Once those two things are done, after he becomes the perfect sacrifice and the perfect, all-satisfying righteousness or obedience — is that where it changed?

No. That’s where it was purchased. That’s where it was founded. That’s where it was secured and guaranteed, but I was born a sinner, a child of wrath, and for years, various numbers of years in this group, God’s wrath was upon me.

A Decisive Declaration

But then one day, by God’s Spirit, there was a quickening of a dead, rebellious heart, and God brought to life in that moment of quickening a trust, a recognition: “I’m a goner under wrath unless I receive a perfect sacrifice and a perfect obedience that was performed for me two thousand years ago.”

At that moment, when you received Christ as your sacrifice, as your obedience, God became totally for you. Justification, I believe, is God’s effective declaration: No condemnation. Totally for you. Just. Righteous. Forgiven. Accepted. Totally loved. Totally for you.

Follow the reasoning of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good.” Now, that “all things” is what I mean by totally for you. So, something bad happens to you. From a smashed finger to a lost spouse, cancer in your body, whatever — a terrible thing happens, and at that moment, God is totally for you because of these words:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? 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? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. (Romans 8:28–33)

See, if you just put that logic together, you will have under your feet the most massive assurance. God is totally for me because he didn’t spare his own Son, because he knew me and he predestined me and he called me and he justified me and he secured my glorification. He is totally for me. Nobody can successfully be against me.

What Becomes of Our Obedience?

Now that, I think, is all implied in the words as beloved children (Ephesians 5:1). That’s what it means to be loved by God. God doesn’t love like anybody else. He had to do all of that from eternity to eternity. “As beloved children,” now, Bethlehem staff, “imitate God” and “walk in love” (Ephesians 5:1–2).

“That Christ loves me is what empowers me to become more like him.”

It raises the question, What’s the function of works of love if Christ has become our perfect obedience? If Christ has become our perfect sacrifice, and we can’t make a sacrifice that puts God on our side, and Christ has become a perfect righteousness, a perfect obedience, as Romans 5:19 says, “By the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” — if Christ has become our perfect obedience, then what becomes of our obedience? What’s the role of our obedience?

It cannot be to put God on your side, because that happened when — in that first, childlike, saving act of faith — you took him as your obedience, and you took him as your sacrifice. He became, at that moment, a perfect fulfillment of all of God’s requirements on you. So, what’s the function then of our work of love, our acts of obedience?

Pointing to Christ

Taking my cue from Matthew 5:16, the answer is, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” The point of loving each other is to display the kind of Christ we have received as our all-satisfying treasure.

What have we received? We have received a perfect sacrifice and a perfect fulfillment of all of God’s righteous demands, which means that if we conceive of our obedience as putting us into God’s favor, we obscure the very thing we’re supposed to be reflecting — namely, Christ — as our perfectly-satisfying obedience.

We must, as a staff, love each other in a way that reflects the glory of the whole work of Christ. We must love each other in a way that says, “He has totally absorbed the punishment against me, and he has totally provided the righteous demands of God on me. I cannot conceive of my obedience as in any way adding to the obedience that puts God on my side.”

Empowered by Christ

Christ enables us to live in a way that brings glory to him. If we mess this up and say that our obedience somehow adds to Christ’s work, two terrible things happen:

  1. We undercut the very power by which we can live by love — namely, having perfect obedience and perfect satisfaction, making God totally on our side, which is the only power by which you can love.

  2. We don’t glorify him for what he truly is — namely, the one who is our obedience and is our sacrifice, which is why this whole justification issue is so important.

Love is at stake, sacrifice is at stake, glorifying God and Christ for who they really are is at stake. So, let’s close with a few really practical overflows of this, because the text is incredibly practical. What does it look like at Bethlehem? What will it look like among the staff if our lives become the stream flowing down from this unbelievably precious assurance?

That’s what we’ve been talking about — assurance of salvation, the confidence that God is totally for you. His gentleness can increase, meaning, he doesn’t spank you as often, but his being for you and loving you can’t increase.

What Shape Should Our Love Take?

Here are some practical ways that it takes shape. The chapter division is unhelpful, but back up a few verses and read Ephesians 4:29–32 along with Ephesians 5:1–2. I wrote down five things that love is going to look like from these verses:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:29–32)

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1–2)

Sacrificing like Christ

Ephesians 5:2: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” So, walk in love as Christ sacrificed. There’s going to be on this staff over the coming months a lot of sacrifice for each other. If you walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up, it’s going to look like sacrifice, which means that some are going to be in situations that require of others inconvenience and pain.

I think that’s what sacrifice is. Sacrifice is not easy. It wouldn’t be called sacrifice if it was easy. Might it bring joy? Might — baloney. It will bring joy. “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” but it hurts anyway (Acts 20:35). To get up late at night or get up early in the morning or to go out of your way — let’s just be that for each other.

Forgiving like God

It’s going to be forgiveness: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). That’s the most practical outworking in the text of “Be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). As God in Christ forgave you, forgive each other. Be imitators of God. There it is, this crystal-clear application, which means that on this staff, we’re going to offend each other and then have to deal with it.

“At that moment, when you received Christ as your sacrifice, as your obedience, God became totally for you.”

Somebody’s going to say something, somebody’s going to forget to do something. Those are the two biggies probably, of the ways we get hurt: neglect and words. We don’t usually hit each other on this staff, but you can say things, and you can neglect things, and then you can feel bad.

So, let’s be a real forgiving staff. Evidently, for Paul, the key to forgiveness was Ephesians 4:32: “As God in Christ forgave you.” Now, that’s not just a model. That’s a coming-your-way forgiveness. You’re not watching him forgive Chuck, thinking, “I guess I should forgive Chuck because God forgave Chuck.”

Well, yeah. That’s true, but it’s this: “God came to me with forgiveness” — that’s the way Paul is reasoning here — “and I need to feel that so much that I think, How could I hold a grudge against anybody?” That’s the way it should feel. It should affect your marriages that way and should affect each other that way.

Acting in Kindness

Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” Kindness. Random kindness. You do that well, I think. There’s a lot of kindness on the staff, a lot of candy bars that show up or little things that happen that are just kind.

I think kindness means being helpful, practically helpful, in ways that have emotional significance. It’s not like this: “Oh, I guess I’m supposed to do something nice.” That’s not kindness. Kindness has an emotional component to it.

I think there’s a reason Paul is so negative here, in the verse just before it: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31). When we memorized that as a family, Noël made the suggestion,

No, it should be said like this: “With all malice,” not, “Malice is another component in the list.” But it should go like this: “Let all wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice.’” All that stuff is malice. It’s a summary statement. It’s not another piece. It’s a summary statement.

I thought that was sharp. I’ve got a sharp wife. I just think that’s right. “With all malice” — because malice answers the question, What’s bad about all this stuff? Because malice means this: “I have an ill will toward somebody.”

I can do it with words, I can do it with neglect, I can do it with face, I can do it with shoulders. All kinds of ways I can have ill will and can show ill will towards somebody, so kindness I think is just being underlined by saying, “And here’s the opposite. Here’s the way it doesn’t look. Just don’t do any of that stuff.” Let’s “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). With kindness.

Speaking Grace

Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Only words that build up.

They’re not always easy words. We will rebuke each other. We’ll get in each other’s face if we find any pride or sin or whatever, but our mindset will be, “I’m going to build up here. I’m going to get underneath here. I’m not going to squash them. I’m underneath, pushing up. I’m going to give life here. I’m not going to take life. I’m going to give life.” So, let’s just guard our mouths so that we use words that build up.

Being Tenderhearted

This last one is the one that probably prompted this whole devotion, although there were various routes to it. It’s the word tenderhearted. I’ll read the whole verse: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted” — there’s the word — “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God” (Ephesians 4:32–5:1). Forget the chapter break, and it’s all one piece.

I spent four hours in counseling yesterday with somebody. Counselors are the most heavy-duty people, requiring of us to deal with our hearts. Always pushing on the heart issue, not just the cognitive issue. We’re a cognitive church, big time. We love theology. We believe in the Bible. It’s a book. It must be read in English, Greek, and Hebrew, and understood. That’s a given.

More Than Thinkers

However, we’re not just that as human beings. We don’t just read, and we don’t just think, and we don’t just write. We have this reality called heart. Sometimes us cognitive types, sometimes rightly, use belittling language for the psycho folks, that they’re a little too touchy-feely for us. And some people go overboard with touchy-feely. We’re probably not in danger of that.

“As God in Christ forgave you, forgive each other. Be imitators of God.”

I, being a very cognitive type, need biblical, in-your-face illustrations that God really cares about the splagchnoi. Do you know what that translates to? Guts. Intestines. And eusplagchnoi is, good intestines. Isn’t that a strange word to put there, in how to imitate God?

It’s a loose translation, and a good one, but I just think we breeze over that like, “I’m tenderhearted.” What it really means is that, beneath the mind, beneath the body, there is this visceral feeling that causes the heaving, the tears. And it’s not just physical at that moment. It’s touching depths of personhood. Let’s cultivate that at Bethlehem.

How to Get Gutsy

Going out of that four-hour session yesterday, I’ll tell you what I took away for my job: How do hearts awaken? How do two people, talking, move from mere clarification of ideas or ministry strategies or recipes to cook or whatever down to a level where suddenly the deep — call it what you want — spirit, soul, heart, person, is being touched, moved, hurt, or nurtured? How does that happen? I’ll give you three things that were directed at me in this counseling situation.

The miracle of God in this is a given. If you want to harden yourself against being touched or touching, you can push God away. But if your heart is saying, “Yes, yes, I want to be known at that level. I want to know at that level. I want to touch and minister and awaken and affect people at that level, marriages at that level, children at that level” — if your heart agrees with what I’m saying right now, you eusplagchnos, tenderhearted, not just cognitive, then this is for you.

Take Time, Pursue Hearts, Ask Questions

It doesn’t happen on the fly, and it can’t be many. There are a few people in your life. Your spouse is where you’d start, your kids is where you’d go next, and then maybe a few others. Spend enough time with them that it goes there.

If everybody had that mindset, probably nobody would be left out. If I have to do that for five hundred or one thousand or one hundred, it won’t happen, but as a pastor, I must do it with a certain core, and I don’t know how big that core can be, but you’ve got to spend enough time and invite somebody into that.

So, when you’re spending time, you pursue the heart. Eusplagchnos. Don’t think psychology here. Think Ephesians 4:32. If you’re worried about being too touchy-feely, just deal with Ephesians 4:32: “Tenderhearted.” Eusplagchnos. Good guts. Pursue that. Pursue it. Intentionally want it. Don’t be settled with any other way. It can’t happen quickly. Give it enough time — recurring time, extended time.

And you have to ask questions. It’s just a form of pursuit. Asking questions, not just making pronouncements, and asking eusplagchnos questions, tenderhearted questions, questions that get at the heart and are trying to awaken this person to more tenderness, to touch them at a level that they haven’t been touched at.

All Christians Are Shepherds

A lot of us are parents. Even if you aren’t, you are parental in that you’re reaching children in one way or the other. This is big. Shepherding a Child’s Heart is worth the price of the book. The title is worth the price of the book, because it simply highlights what so many parents don’t grasp.

So many parents think this is a matter of behavior control, about getting this kid to hold his fork, not like this, but like this, and to say, “Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir,” and to shake hands and to say, “Hello,” and to go to bed on time and to stay in bed — and one hundred other things. That says, “If I’ve got this child doing what he’s supposed to be doing, I’ve done parenting.”

I’m just learning how better I could’ve done it, and I’m so thankful that at age sixty-one I have an eleven-year-old daughter to do it over again. That really is a big deal to me right now because if you’re sixty-one, and you learn you did it poorly, that’s that. But if you’re sixty-one, and you learn you could’ve done it better, and there she is — prove that you care about this. Prove that there is some sense of growth.

“I’m going to build up here. I’m going to get underneath here. I’m not going to squash them.”

When I, having learned from my twenty-five-year colleague David Michael to bless my daughter with my words every night, put my hand on her little cap that she wears at night, I say various words. Usually, I default to saying, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” and then I add some words to it according to what the stresses of the day were (Numbers 6:24). When I’m done, and I sing my little song, then I say, “How are you feeling?” I say, “At school today, did anybody say anything that was helpful or hurtful?”

Then this little flower opens up after eight o’clock at night. Last night we just talked about a girl in her class that she used to like, but she was betrayed. My sons never spoke to me about betrayal, but that may not be because they didn’t experience it, but because I didn’t do this sort of thing with them. So, we talked it through, about what love looks like, and it was good.

So, Bethlehem, here are the five things that all that theology should produce in us: Sacrifice. Forgiveness. Be kind — no malice. Only words that build up. Enough time, with enough people, enough pursuit, and enough questions, so that we touch the heart.