Sunday, February 08, 2015

S7. God adopts us as his children; we are born to new life.

This is the seventh post in a unit on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished units on Christology and Atonement.
God adopts us as his children and we are born to new life.

1. Adoption is one of the New Testament images Paul uses to describe what happens especially to Gentiles when they believe. In adoption, God takes those who were not his children and makes them his children. While it should have gone without question that Jews would remain God's children, Paul was distressed to find that the Jews in his day largely did not believe (Rom. 9:2). Many of them were cut out of the tree, even though they were natural branches (Rom. 11:17-24).

Nevertheless, God called him to be a minister to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:7-8; Rom. 11:13). He became a minister of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). Now non-Jews could also become sons and daughters of God. "In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus"(Gal. 3:26-28).

Paul uses this adoption language, interestingly enough, of both Jew and Gentile. Jews were adopted as God's children long ago (Rom. 9:4). Now non-Jews could be adopted as well. But each individual, whether Jew or Gentile, needed to be adopted now (Gal. 4:5). The key to adoption, as we saw in the previous article, is the Holy Spirit. "You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:15-16).

Adoption is of course a metaphor, an image to help Paul's churches conceptualize their new identity in Christ. His churches would have understood the metaphor in terms of adoption in that day. Here it is significant to note a key difference with today. We almost always adopt individuals when they are children. But in the ancient world, adoption was often done as adults. For example, Julius Caesar adopted his nephew Augustus, who later became emperor, so that he would become his heir. In some cases, an adopted child might be considered more the child of the adopter than biological children, because they were chosen.

We thus should not in any way minimize the image of God adopting us as his children. Adopted children were every bit as much the children of a father in the ancient world as biological children. And so of course it should be today.

2. Paul goes on in Romans 8:17 to say that if God has adopted us as children, then we are his heirs, "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him." In fact, Paul shifts the imagery in Romans 8:23 to speak of our adoption taking place at the point of resurrection. In that verse, he speaks of the coming moment when our bodies are "redeemed" from their current enslavement to corruption in this world and they are transformed to become like Christ's resurrection body. We will explore this aspect of adoption in a later article.

3. The New Testament not only uses the image of adoption when it speaks of those who become God's children. It also uses the images of new birth and regeneration. Those who were not alive become alive, and those who were dead come back to life.

Probably the best known use of this metaphor is in John 3, where Jesus is talking to Nicodemus. "You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again'" (John 3:7, NIV). [1] "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6). The kind of birth Jesus has in mind is thus not physical birth, but a spiritual birth. Note that this image of the Spirit as the beginning of a believer's life fits neatly with Paul and Acts, where receiving the Spirit is the key moment in becoming part of God's people.

"If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17). [2] Titus 3:5 says, God "saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit." Note again the association of the Holy Spirit with regeneration, along with baptism as the outward sign of the work the Spirit does in the heart.

1 Peter 1:3 similarly says, "By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." Not only hope, but the believer now should "walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). The new life is not just some fiction. It is a changed life, as we will explore further in the next article.

4. Although we will discuss baptism in a later section on the sacraments, it should be mentioned here in this section on salvation. Baptism is the use of water to symbolize the washing of the sins of an individual. When practiced by immersion, it symbolizes the death of the individual to sin and then the rising out of the water to new life (Rom. 6:4).

Arguably, baptism is not an essential element in the passing from death to life. In Acts 10, Cornelius receives the Holy Spirit and is now part of the people of God before he is baptized. Similarly in Acts 8, the Samaritans are baptized and are not in the people of God because they have not received the Holy Spirit. [3]

Nevertheless, baptism is a normal element in conversion. It is the consistent pattern of the New Testament that those who become believers be baptized. There is thus every reason to include it in the process of conversion and no reason not to practice it. See the later article on baptism in the section on the Sacraments. [4]

5. Several of the passages above hint and what may have actually been the key feature of crossing from death to life for Paul himself. Romans 6:4 associates baptism both with our death and our new life. But a key phrase in this regard is that we are buried "with Christ."

For Paul there is a kind of mystical union that takes place between us and Christ when we become Christians. The Holy Spirit is surely the mechanism for this "mystical participation" in Christ. By way of the Spirit, Christ is in us (Rom. 8:10). And yet, in some way, we are now in Christ as well.

First, we die with Christ. "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:19-20). We are buried with Christ (Rom. 6:4). We are dead to sin (Rom. 6:2, 11). "If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17).

We are incorporated into the "faithfulness of Jesus Christ," that is, his faithfulness to death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). Although the expression, "the faith of Jesus Christ," is a matter of debate among Pauline scholars, many are sympathetic to the sense given it in the Common English Bible (CEB): "We are born Jews—we're not Gentile sinners. However, we know that a person isn't made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law" (Gal. 2:15-16).

Galatians 2:20 in the CEB is even more intriguing: "The life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me." This translation tries to capture what may very well have been another double entendre for Paul. We are both justified or declared right with God on the basis of our human faith, yet the only way this is possible is by our inclusion within the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

"In Christ" is a far more common expression in Paul's writings that anything like justification. Paul arguably employed justification language when he was sparring with his opponents, but his more natural language is that of being incorporated into Christ.

So just as we have died with Christ, we also rise with Christ. We rise with Christ to a newness of life (Rom. 6:4), just as he rose from the dead. This is not just the resurrection of our bodies in the future. This is a change of life for us now on earth. We no longer let Sin rule in our bodies, because we have died with Christ to Sin (Rom. 6:2-3, 12). The power of the Spirit has broken the power of Sin over the believer (Rom. 8:2).

When a person receives the Holy Spirit, they are born again, born of the Spirit. They are dead to sin because they have died with Christ. They rise like Christ to new life. They are born again. In Christ, they now walk with a newness of life.

Next Sunday: S8. The power of the Spirit breaks the power of Sin.

[1] It is quite possible that Jesus in John wanted his audience to hear a double entendre with the word "again." It can also mean "from above," as the NRSV translates it. The kind of second birth Jesus has in mind, therefore, is a birth from above.

[2] Some people get upset with translations like this one, since they have grown up with a translation like, "he is a new creature" (KJV). Certainly we are welcome to debate interpretations, but it is only ignorance that gets upset at this translation, for the Greek simply says, "If someone in Christ, new creation."

[3] As tempting as it is to mention the thief on the cross, he really does not apply because he is before the arrival of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. He is still in the age of the old covenant.

[4] When 1 Peter 3:20 says that Noah's family were "saved by water" and then goes on to speak of baptism saving us by this washing, it should be taken as a metonymy. A metonymy is when something associated with something else is substituted in language for that other thing. So baptism here is not the actual action that saves us but it is very closely associated with what literally saves us, namely God's forgiveness and his filling us with the Holy Spirit.

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