October 22, 2014

Sonship

An essay by Clair Davis

The New Life churches have been just remarkable. At its Glenside 40th anniversary it is with deep gratitude to the Lord that I think back to the special ways in which the Lord blessed us. One very prominent one is in our Jack Miller’s ‘Sonship’ slogan: preach the gospel to yourself. We need to ‘remember’ what Jesus Christ has done for us and in us, otherwise we relapse into self-righteousness and pride in ourselves, or hopeless dreariness, or bored indifference. Our grand calling is to give Jesus all the glory, personally and within our church.

But what is that gospel that Jack asked us to remember? What aspect of the multi-faceted grace that the Lord gives us are we especially likely to forget? Within our Protestant heritage we are very good at remembering justification. Our Father sees the perfect obedience of his Beloved Son Jesus, and sees us in him! Jesus took upon himself God’s wrath against our sin, and gave us his own righteousness! But if that’s where we stop, aren’t we leaving the Lord out of so much of our lives?

We still struggle with our own sin. We are too prone to worship ourselves. We may be good at answering the question, what if you were to die tonight? But how are we doing with, what if you don’t die tonight and have to get up again tomorrow morning? What will you do then about this, that and the other things? With your deteriorating marriage? With deep conflict with someone that isn’t being resolved? With your own increasing boredom in reading the Bible? With the clear recognition that you think about yourself and your ‘needs’ much more that the glory of Jesus Christ?  There is the painful, frustrating, rebellious other side of our lives. We may be forgiven, and as we face death that’s good to know, but what about our lives today?

Justification is an amazing gift, but is it enough? While our Lutheran friends have seemed to believe it is, in our Reformed world we have recognized that we need more. We need the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives to transform us into the image of Christ himself. We need God’s work of sanctification, of deep change. There is the heartbeat of Reformed theology, of Reformed living. Our Puritan fathers and mothers showed us the way, with sermon after sermon, journal after journal on how we may rely upon our Lord and give our lives to him. (Use Joel Beeke’s Puritan Reformed Spirituality for a foot in that grand door).

Have you noticed how often ‘remember’ comes up in the Bible? We do a lot of forgetting. It sometimes seems like we’re all implicit Lutherans; yes, Jesus died for us on the cross and now it’s up to us to shape up, but we’re at least forgiven. Maybe no one said that but many heard it that way. But Jesus has to be there somehow! That was the 19th century Higher Life/Victorious Life/Keswick quest: let’s learn to trust Jesus for the change in our hearts for which we are so needy.  Let’s come to him in our need and trust him again, in a kind of second conversion. There were many good and fruitful sides to that. The Scots theologian John Laidlaw in his Bible Doctrine of Man told us that. My Wheaton colleague Steve Barabas in his So Great Salvation gave us one wonderful life-changing story after another. But what if you give yourself to Jesus the second time around, and still wake up in the morning with yesterday’s sins hanging over you and not having a clue what to do next? Should you try again to get your faith just right? Or should you just quit, if Jesus doesn’t want to help you what’s the point of anything? Whenever I go near Whiting NJ, where America’s Keswick was and what is now a Christian alcohol rehab place, I think of that grand vision—Jesus is there to change my heart, I can trust him for that. It’s just too bad that sounded as if it would be instantaneous and total, or not at all.

That was then. Many things have been happening since. Geerhardus Vos came to Princeton Seminary and since then we have known that Jesus is everywhere in the Bible as his story of loving his Father and loving us has unfolded. The OT, 3/4 of the Bible, is not a story of how sometimes God’s people followed him but usually not, an up and down tale without much meaning, where at least we could mine some ethical principles. I respect Vos and his successors, my colleagues Dick Gaffin and Ed Clowney. Read Ed’s Unfolding Mystery and have your heart for Jesus stretched.

Our theologian John Murray then helped us with his work on the ‘way of salvation, the ordo salutis.’ What Jesus has done for us gives us so much, so many blessings: justification/forgiveness, sanctification/change, regeneration/being born again, our faith and repentance, adoption/sonship, being united with Christ. How do all those relate to each other, that’s where Murray especially helped us, look in his Redemption Accomplished and Applied for a start. What does that list, that sequence of blessings mean? I was in his startling class when he raised his voice to the ceiling to proclaim ‘theological monstrosity’! He was talking about the notion of the new birth coming ‘before’ faith—did that mean you could be born again before you believed? That’s when his decibels went up so high. We learned from him that the sequence of blessing wasn’t the way it unfolded in your life, first regenerate than later believing. Instead he told us it was a ‘logical’ sequence, describing how it unfolded in God’s plan for us. There just was no change of heart without Jesus in it! That helped so much in understanding that old Reformation word, ‘extraspective.’  Our faith doesn’t keep checking back on itself to see how good it is—instead it looks always to Jesus and his love.

Knowing that helped with much besides. Our sanctification doesn’t come ‘after’ justification, it’s there from the beginning, ‘definitively.’  You have a changed heart already as your constant resource for further daily change! Union with Christ isn’t somehow at the end of everything, it’s the way everything else you need for life and godliness comes to you already. What Murray gave us was bound to help us understand our heart-change better and better, giving us more and more hope along the way. Sanctification is more than ‘our part’ in our salvation, it’s what the Lord himself is doing right now, as he calls upon us to join with him in glorifying his name in our lives.

I should know more of my beloved Jack Miller’s story, but this is what I do know. His ministry didn’t seem to amount to much and he did a lot of resigning. But then in Spain meditating on God’s promises made an enormous difference and gave him new hope. He preached the gospel to himself in a new way and desired to share that joy with us all. He underlined in bold that we are God’s children and he is our Father. We knew that already, that’s the way the Lord’s Prayer begins, and we say that a lot. Our Westminster Confession gave us a chapter on Adoption, unique I believe among all confessions of faith. Look at it now:

Chapter 12, Of Adoption

1. All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him, as by a father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.

So how are you at defining ‘vouchsafe’? It will be on the exam! Something like this says it: ‘to give graciously, to give as a special favor.’  The Confession doesn’t waste any words about what all that means, does it? For me it’s the ‘inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation’ that jumps off the page. We learn that adoption is ‘forensic,’ legal, a new standing before God. That tells us that it’s not how we’re doing today whether or not God is our Father, but rather about a new continuing relationship he’s given us with him.  Sometimes we experience that as ‘chastening’ as in the Confession, but he’s our Father forever.

I heard that from Jack, again and again, and it was never old stuff. I needed Jesus all the time and Jack reassured me that there he was, fulfilling my Father’s promise. Jack wasn’t always neat and tidy: he could move easily back and forth from adoption to justification to sanctification to just the assurance and joy that God loved us. He reminded me of Paul, who kept forgetting what he was talking about as he moved to yet another loving gift of God. That was new and needed to me and to many. We delighted to hear that Jesus, the Father’s gift to us, was always at our side.

That filled a yawning gap in our lives, but were there other gaps remaining? Sonship is so vitally important that it has given birth to firestorm after firestorm. Many trees had to die to supply all that paper. Were there people who made use of Sonship to put off working with those issues in their lives? I’m sure there were. That’s the thing about church history, you keep seeing old stuff coming up again, and that’s one of them. Too much Jesus, and not enough attention to God’s commandments? I know that can and did happen. But I know the answer isn’t cutting back on Jesus, it has to be working through biblically how the Savior at our side enables us to think through and work through the hard issues and sin in our lives. We have to do the Puritan thing again, do those journals, look for patterns, pray for answers, be driven by despair to deeper prayer. I never saw anything like that missing in Jack, he was a continual repenter almost to the point of predictability.

I think this is the best criticism of Sonship I know: http://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2000/the-movement-called-sonship/  I recognize many useful words in it. In our day, largely through Dick Gaffin, we have rediscovered the Resurrection of our Lord, and we delight to live out the new life that in Jesus Christ we have been given. Union with Christ is also such a valuable way to see everything, and we have just begun to mine that goldfield. Though Jack lived joy and obedience, he could have taught that combo more clearly. With my love and appreciation for Jack, now I’m trying for perspective. Ed Clowney and his Jesus were just breath-taking—but I’m not remembering his directions for a fruitful life. Jay Adams was our other preaching mentor and woefully told me of student sermons that didn’t preach the gospel but only described it. He was the mirror image of Ed: Ed did Jesus and little direction for life; Jay did direction and assumed we all knew Jesus. They were both remarkable and blessed were the students who learned from both. In my time I have heard so many pitiful sermons, most of them my own. Just as we need to love Jesus as both our Savior and our Lord, just as we are called to love him and to obey him, just as we delight in seeing Jesus everywhere in Scripture and also godly models for living—oh, wouldn’t it be a grand foretaste of heaven if Jack and Jay could have team-preached? Assuming that the days of Puritan 3 hour sermons are over, how should a sermon work today? Try 15 minutes to describe that biblical situation and how it resembles ours, then 10 minutes to know the love of Jesus and then finally 10 minutes for a Jay. How, how we can right now put feet on his love for us. My preaching career is winding down now, but O Lord, give me your blessing to do one sermon like that?  O Lord, help us to teach our people how to do that in their own Bible study, and be so delighted that they forget that they have a TV.

Jack and Sonship made all our New Lifes joyful and godly places, and so much of the Lord’s blessing has come from that. That is our heritage and we are so grateful. But joy with feet on it, that must be our goal. In my PCA I hear too much about the failings of us ‘grace-boys’ and I pray for that to move on to appreciation and also supplementation. Not love for Jesus OR obedience to his direction for our lives, but a glorious Both.

My life is so blessed! Along with Jack came Rosemarie and more recently Paul. Working with Jack back then meant working with John Julien and more closely Ron Lutz. I’ve asked Ron to help me with this, and sure enough he has another book for you my faithful students to read: ‘A very good, readable book on this subject is “The Hole in our Holiness” by Kevin DeYoung.  In a friendly and perceptive way, DeYoung gives pushback to some of the misuses of grace theology in our “gospel centered” churches.  I respect him—he is not a grumpy TR.  He makes some excellent points and calls gospel centered (i.e. Sonship) types to a more robust pursuit of sanctification/ holiness.’

Clair Davis

Clair was on the first temporary Session of the newly formed New Life Church of Glenside forty years ago. He was a Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA) for thirty-eight years and then was a Professor of Church History at Redeemer Semnary (Dallas, Texas) for five years. He now resides in Laverock, PA with his wife Carol and they attend New Life Presbyterian Church of Glenside.

Topic: A vision for New Life

Where is New Life headed?