Some passages of Scripture have so much packed into them that you have to spend a little while thinking before you can see how gracious the Lord is! "He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved." (Eph.1:5-6). These verses have divided churches and arguments have raged as they are at the heart of the Gospel. The word "destined" bears much thinking. If we are destined are we still free to choose? If we are not destined to be saved is there any hope for us? In order to help answer this enigmatic question it’s worth considering Christ’s own manner with people in the way He invites their free response – yet simultaneously knows what they will do. For example when the disciples of John are prompted to follow Jesus, He turns to them and says: "What are you looking for…Come and see….Come with me." (Jn.1:37-43).
Philip finds Nathanael who doesn’t believe the Messiah would come from Nazareth, but when Jesus saw him coming to Him, He remarks: "Here is a real Israelite; there is nothing false in him!" The surprised Nathanael replies: "How do you know me?" Jesus then tells him exactly where he was when Philip came to get him. Amazing! God knows our hearts and everything about us – yet all choices are still to be made by ourselves. Omnipotent God could force us to love Him, but that wouldn’t be a genuine relationship and the question: "What do you want me to do for you?" – is at the heart of the way the Gospel is offered. Grace has to be reciprocal.
Similarly the phrase adoption as his children causes us to stop and take a deep breath. To be adopted is to be given the privilege of being heirs with Christ; children of the promise "based on what he had decided from the very beginning." (Eph.1:11). This is a high theology of humanity as it is possible to have. Human beings are precious indeed. Psalm 8 emphasises our dignity: "What is man that you think of him; mere man that you care for him…yet you crowned him with glory and honour…(vs.4-5). Part of our relationship with God is as Creator and our obedience to Him who made us. Yet we can only be adopted because of Christ and the necessity of the reality of the Christmas event. Let the Word speak for itself. The Incarnation is part of God’s plan. In His wisdom and insight the plan of salvation was completed by one thing – not the birth of Jesus – but His death. For by His sacrifice: "We are set free and our sins are forgiven." (Eph.1:7).
Through Jesus we can know God as He did in the most intimate way possible which is why He taught us to pray to "Our Father" – so although God is beyond human words and understanding, knowing Him as "Father", nevertheless, gives us pleasure and helps us understand the type of relationship He desires with His wayward children. He delights in us, in our wholeness, healing and in our destiny fulfilled. The atonement made on the cross was one of reconciliation – and it was made for every human being – however it is limited to those who choose to recognise the spiritual blessings we have received in Christ. The nature of this "heavenly spiritual blessing" is fundamentally the new relationship with the Creator of all things.
But we also need to note verse 4: "…that through our union with Christ we would be holy and without fault before him." This too is our destiny. To be made in the likeness of Christ – for the image of God to be fully restored in us – as we allow His Holy Spirit to cleanse, sanctify and renew us. As in today’s text: "The Spirit is our guarantee and assurance of the salvation we have received." (v.14). But destiny isn’t quite the same as inevitability. Once again we’re caught up in the complexity of human language seeking to deal with divine grace and it’s reciprocal nature. Blessed assurance Jesus is mine – says the hymn, which is of course true, but it doesn’t give us carte-blanche freedom from persevering in the faith. Hearts can so easily become empty and shallow if we avoid daily confession, prayer, going to church and the responsibility that comes with discipleship. Faith needs to be lived out so we can show others the glorious grace that God has freely bestowed on us. Read what Paul writes in chapter 3 of this epistle…(verses 7-12)…
What a privilege, a blessing, to be a servant of the Gospel. Christian faith as adopted sons and daughters is like light. You can’t put light in a box. Light is what drew the Wise Men to their epiphany. Light dispels the darkness, gives justice to the oppressed and freedom to those enslaved by death. Paul says that he preaches the Gospel so that the wisdom of God’s salvation might be made known everywhere – and this is our vocation too. To help people understand the great mystery of God’s revelation to His people. And if the Gospel has truly set your heart on fire then you can’t help but tell people. Yet faith has become such a personal matter that we are extremely reluctant to speak about it sometimes. Telling another person about Jesus Christ seems as socially acceptable as asking them about their personal hygiene. So, in an effort to be polite and respectful, our faith becomes something private, something we do in church on Sundays with like-minded believers. In a sense we’re hiding the light of the life-changing Word.
So does this mean that we should go out into the streets proclaiming the Gospel to strangers? Maybe. Sometimes occasions lead to an opportunity to do this. Last bank holiday I was in a shop and an assistant asked my children what "Santa had bought them for Christmas." My 8 year old daughter said, "We don’t believe in him" – to which startled eyes looked at me remarking, "Oh are you JWs?" So I joined the conversation explaining that we were Christians who celebrated the birth of Jesus as the greatest present any of us can receive. 10 minutes later I was still talking to her about faith, church and the Gospel.
And you simply leave it with people. I don’t buy into hard-sell religion. But where there are openings we should always be prepared to give a reason for the hope we have. This is evangelisation. And the URC are calling for us to "explore evangelism" this year as part of the on-going V4L process. The major way we share faith is through co-operating with the Holy Spirit. As Paul says: "In union with Christ and through our faith in him we have the boldness to go into God’s presence with all confidence." (Eph.3:12).
Maybe you won’t have a chance to talk with others about your faith this week. But you know that the Word of God dwells in your heart. And sometime soon, a friend, or colleague or neighbour, or a total stranger, or a shop assistant, will ask you, "What is faith in Jesus Christ all about" – and for a moment you will bring His love for that person into their life. Then without being pushy, when the conversation concludes, remember to pray for them that one day they too maybe be destined by God’s eternal purpose and grace – for adoption as an heir of salvation – as a child of God – who is the answer to the needs of the human soul. Grace and peace to us all. AMEN.