My Father's Voice

Charles S. Mallie
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Jan/Feb 2004

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I acted like a child, for I was in fact a child. But as I grew, I learned to put away childish things. I grew into maturity by learning to listen to my Father's voice. He taught me who I was and why I was created. My life before I became a Christian was my life as a child. I did what pleased me. I acted out of my thoughts, my desires, and my will. But then, by God's grace, I heard my Father's voice. The harsh tone of God's law got my attention and called me to question my standing and my self-assurance. God's gift of truth made me see clearly in the law's mirror my soul's condition. It was true! I was a sinner! Then the calm reassurance of his promise led me to believe and trust that things would be all right. God had not left me to deal with my sin on my own; rather, he had taken it upon himself to deal with the guilt of my own personal rebellion. He himself shouldered the responsibility. No, more than that, he became the very nature of my offense. He who knew no sin became sin for me. Listening to his voice I learned that he had rescued me from a selfish rebellion that merited eternal torment. This was rescue of which none greater can be conceived.

Those who have heard the call of their Father, through Jesus' voice, know that our salvation rests entirely in his nail-scarred hands. It is finished! The work is done! Let me say that again. The work is done! The marriage supper of the Lamb in his kingdom which has no end has been prepared for us and our place at his table is sure. The cup of salvation has been filled with the wine of Christ's joy, which he pours out with a lavish wrist. His cup of suffering that he once prayed would be withheld has now become the cup of blessing that he freely offers.

Yes, we're saved. By grace, salvation is ours! But now what? Too often Christians find themselves saved from the terrors of hell and damnation-of trying to work out their salvation by trying to earn God's forgiveness-only to be put right back on the treadmill of doing good works to impress God and show him how grateful they are. This is really nothing more than trying retroactively to earn the gift or trying to show him that we were really worth saving after all. Let me save you a lot of time and energy: The only thing that impresses God is the blood of his Son. That's it! Nothing else! God is holy; we are not. God cannot look upon sin, but he can look upon the perfect sacrifice of his Son. So God is not terribly impressed with any of our works. Our prayers, our offerings, and our thanks are only accepted because they, too, have been redeemed by Jesus' blood. Everything we are and do is only acceptable and pleasing to God because Christ's righteousness has been imputed to us. When God looks upon you, he sees Christ. Hang on to this thought as if your life depended on it.

If you're hanging on to anything else right now, if my words are making your lips curl and your stomach muscles tighten, then I suggest going to your local coffee shop, ordering whatever soothes your nerves, and reading Romans 1 to 8 over and over again. Recite the mantra of Romans 4:5 until it is seared in the synaptic mesh of your mind. Keep in mind that belief and faith are given by God. It is created ex nihilo by the sheer power of God's Word (see Rom. 10:17).

If you can swallow the truth about what does and doesn't impress God, then you are close to getting your eyes off your own feet and fixed on Jesus, which is where they need to be to finish this race. But what does it mean to lead a God-pleasing life and what sort of biblical framework helps in making everyday decisions that both honor God and serve our neighbor?

God's Will and God's Character

The answer is not what you might think. The answer is to listen. Listen to the Father's voice. Hear his Word preached, read, spoken, sung, chanted, or whatever. But listen. Listen often, and listen carefully. Listen to what Scripture tells you about God's character. Listen to what it says about him and what he's done for you.

Yet right about now you are probably saying, "Wait a minute! How can listening to what God says about himself help me to live like a Christian?"

When I find myself thinking along these lines, I need a gentle reminder. Even when I recognize that nothing impresses God but his Son and that I need to fix my eyes on Jesus, I manage somehow to focus back on myself and what I can do and how I should do it. Do you see how clever our sin nature is? Can you appreciate the subtlety of the deception? Our drive to search for answers by looking inward is uncanny. Our inclination toward self-improvement is absolutely astounding. But it is not helpful because the direction is entirely backward. The answer to how to make wise, God-pleasing decisions is not found in more careful observation of ourselves as our favorite subject of study, but in knowing God better. The direction is outward and upward, not inward.

The key to knowing how you should act in the world is for you to know God's character intimately. The subject of Christianity is Christ, not his creation. Knowledge of the Father's will-not just for you and how you should behave but for all of creation-flows from who he is. Notice the direction. Even how we are to get along in the world is part of the order of his creation, which is an extension of his will. Very simply, what God wills and creates reflects who he is. "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Rom. 1:20). If creation reflects God's power and divine nature, then what do you suppose the Incarnation, which has its fullest expression in the atonement, reflects? In a word, grace. Again, the direction is outward-and in this case downward-from God to us.

We, as a part of the creation order, were made in God's image and likeness. Before the fall, we reflected that order. As redeemed creatures, we are now a part of the new creation, and hence reflect something of who God is, in Christ. To know, then, what lies at the center of God's personality is invaluable for those inclined to ask "What would Jesus do?" Why? Because the answer to the question "How should I then live?" depends upon how you view God, and upon how you understand his attitude of graciousness toward fallen sinners-even saved ones.

Look Outward and Upward, Not Inward

When it comes to living the Christian life-whatever that means-we will inevitably act out of what we think Christians should do. With regard to decision making, we humans tend to think in terms of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. The chief problem with this approach is that most of us tend to look inward to the moral law written on our hearts as our guide for how to live and act. So what's wrong with this? It is that it falls squarely into the theological category of law, and the law has only one purpose: to expose our sin. Even though the law is a guide for how we should live, it does not give us the ability to live as we ought. "None is righteous, no, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). That includes Christians, too. God's law tells you how you should live, but the real problem is your inability to fulfill its requirements. Too much introspection about your Christian life and you'll find yourself flirting with agnosticism. Why? Because on some deep level you will realize that you just don't measure up and it is easier to walk away from Christianity than to keep on living the lie of trying to do the right thing. How many Christians do you know who have been brought into the fold only to walk out the back door later because they didn't measure up in some way? If you focus on yourself and look inward to see how you should live, this is what you, too, may do. God's law can tear down mountains; it is surprising that those directed back to God's law last as long as they do. Christianity is not about us or our behavior, it is for us, in spite of our behavior.

We Lutherans are often accused of having no real doctrine of sanctification, but the contrary is the truth. We understand sanctification only in and through justification and never the other way around. The two are not separate; sanctification flows from justification and never stands by itself. In other words, only believers are able to live as Christ would have them. The question is, How do we do this? And the answer is, The same power in the word of the gospel that brings life to the sinner also conforms the believer to the image of Christ. Lutherans readily acknowledge that we are being conformed to Christ's image, but we understand that this regenerative power is effected by the word of the gospel, even in its material forms of bread and wine or the waters of baptism. Sanctification draws upon God's power. Its source is God's forgiveness. And its direction is, again, from him to us.

So the real trick to living the Christian life is not to focus on the Christian life, but to focus on Christ, the source of our life. To do otherwise is to look inward. If you don't understand why that is counterproductive, then you will simply trade one rule book for another. The new rule book will be filled with phrases such as "prayer life," "Christian walk," and "quiet time." None of these things is wrong in itself, but if any of them become new rules for what we should be doing, rather than reflections of our new life in Christ, the results are oppressive.

What we must constantly bear in mind throughout life is that Christ's blood is sufficient to cover all of our sins, even the ones we make as believers-in fact, especially the ones we make as believers. Keeping this in mind keeps us aware of our forgiveness, which is real release and real freedom. This is crucial because only those who are free in Christ are free enough to reflect his grace, which necessarily results in the Spirit operating unhindered in and through us. The power of the gospel is that it not only redeems your soul but also your life. If the gospel-our own forgiveness in Christ-is the center of who we are, then we will reflect this in our lives. Our lives are bound up in the gospel. This is why Christians need to hear it again and again.

Really Free

Some Christians are always looking for some sort of calculus or catchphrase to guide them through each day and help them with all of their decisions. I hear this in my own congregation, "Just give me a Christian principle I can put into practice!" I'm sorry, but life in Christ doesn't work that way. Coke or Pepsi? What would Jesus do? Boxers or briefs? What would Jesus do? Freeway or surface streets? What would Jesus do? … I don't know what Jesus would do, but I do know he wouldn't do it in an SUV! Do you see why this breaks down? The real answer to What would Jesus do? is what Jesus has already done. He died for us. He died to rescue us from the eternal punishment that our sin and rebellion deserves. He died to give us life and life more abundantly. He died to set us free.

In Christ, we are free from worrying about how our life measures up or whether we are making the right decision about this or that. Christianity is not about us, it is for us. The real answer to "How do I live a God-pleasing life?" is not about behavior; it is about being. If you are a Christian, then your life is God-pleasing because God is pleased with the sacrifice of Christ on your behalf, which you wear like a Teflon suit. There is nothing we can do to impress him. Nothing! Remember? His sacrifice is so gracious that even on our worst days-the days that we seem to make every wrong decision there is-we can rejoice that Christ died for the whole mess of it. The truth of the gospel is a radical message of forgiveness that actually saves sinners, eases consciences, and soothes souls. This is a God I would enjoy hearing more about, how about you?

But this can confuse Christians. If there is nothing we can do to impress God, then it doesn't really matter what we do, right? No, not exactly. Paul dealt with this confusion, too. When it comes to Christian freedom, there will always be those who will understand freedom as license. Are we free to sin? Here we must make a difficult distinction: We are free, and we do sin; but we are not free so that we may sin. As Paul put it, "Should we go on sinning that grace may abound? May it never be!" (Rom. 6:1-2, author's translation).

The people Paul was addressing apparently thought that there was nothing they could do to impress God, and so they went right back to pleasing themselves. Selfishness! Again, the focus is back on the self and the old sinful nature. Others thought that their salvation entailed their now obeying Jewish ceremonial laws (see Acts 15 and Galatians). Both extremes betray a confusion about who we are as redeemed creatures. Both reject what God wants reflected in our lives by turning inward and then manifesting their confusion either by carnal sin or by adopting principles that are contrary to grace.

Serving God

Many people want to serve God, but don't know how. Sometimes their confusion is honest, genuine, and really quite astute. On some level, they have recognized that God really doesn't need their help. Nothing in God needs, period. In fact, God is quite the opposite. God is a giver; he creates; he sustains; he provides; he rescues; he saves; he resurrects. He is a good gospel Dad, who likes to give gifts to his children. God gives; we receive. It is the center of who God is, this attitude of graciousness. Notice the direction: notice the source and notice the recipient. God doesn't need your help, but your neighbor might.

When Adam was created in the image and likeness of God, how do you suppose he expressed that? Adam was a caretaker; he worked the ground. He gave things their identity by naming them. He took care of Eve. He was her provider and protector, even if he did let his guard down. Adam reflected God's gracious character by giving of himself to Eve. You see this in the order of creation: Adam cared for Eve, and the expression of his care was to provide for her and to protect her. His godly character was seen in his reflecting God's character in and through his vocation as a husband.

What was true for Adam is also true for those reborn into Christ's image. Vocation is still the vehicle for expressing God's grace in our lives. What is your primary vocation? Are you father, mother, sister, brother, son, or daughter? Are you a mechanic, a nurse, a doctor, or a lawyer? Can you see how to reflect God's graciousness in your vocation? A mechanic fixes things, a nurse watches over patients, a doctor heals, a lawyer advocates-and so on. So when it comes to making practical decisions about how to serve God, you should consider your vocation. Does being the best father you can be to your children outrank climbing the corporate ladder? You are free in Christ to choose one, or the other, or both. The choices themselves are not inherently sinful when taken in isolation. Your course of action, however, should be charted according to your point of origin. Who are you? Or, better yet, whose are you? If your life is grounded in the gospel and your focus is outward on him and your neighbor, then you will reflect his grace in your life. And at day's end, the choices you have made-good, bad, and ugly-are all redeemed by Christ's blood which covers you.

So how should we-sinners called into the grace of God and redeemed in spite of our rebellion-live? We should endeavor to keep our eyes focused on what is before us, eternally and temporally. Eternally, we must be sure of our salvation in Christ. We must be free from fear. The peace that the world cannot give, and that we cannot create in ourselves, comes from hearing our Father name us as his children, who have been adopted according to the promise (see Rom. 9:8). Only then do we reflect God's grace. Temporally, our daily situations always afford us opportunities to boast of our Father's goodness, and we reflect his character when we are gracious and kind to others. The vehicle for this is our vocation.

No magic key unlocks these great treasures; it is only the gentle voice of your Father in heaven who continually reassures you of how much he loves you. So much so, that no matter what you do in this life, you will forever be his beloved child.

Tuesday, May 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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