Rev. Chip Hammond
I try hard to be a good dad. There are a myriad of things that go into parenting, but the work of fatherhood can be broken down into two broad categories: love and instruction/discipline. "Love" without instruction/discipline is not really love at all. It is just a silly sentimentalism that produces spoiled, self-indulgent children. Instruction and discipline without love, however, do not produce better results but rather resentful, angry, exasperated children, who are often exceedingly adept at looking obedient while their hearts are elsewhere.
It is a fine balance. It is tempting for dads to give in to children when they want to do things that are not really good for themselves or others and justify it by pretending that "I'm being loving." It is also tempting for dads to discipline harshly with the justification that "this is for their own good" when it is really to vent your own anger, or indulge your own selfishness.
I think I'm a pretty good dad. I try to be consistent, but I confess I slip, fall, sin and fail. I am trusting God that the overall trajectory will prove more important than the lapses I have from time to time. I work hard at the task, so it's hard to hear that I'm "evil" in it. Jesus said, "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him" (Mt. 7:11).
Please understand what Jesus is saying here, dads. He's not saying that no matter how hard you try, you are a bad dad. He's saying that compared to God, who has set himself to be our Father, you are "evil" by comparison. Jesus isn't trying to discourage those doing the hard job of fathering (not merely procreating) kids. If you are working hard to be a good dad, Jesus' point is made all the more clear. It's not about how rotten a dad you are, but rather about how great a Father God is to his children. No matter how accomplished a dad you are, you are a rank amateur compared to God.
God's love for us and his instruction/discipline of us are always perfect, and never at odds with each other. We have been created for God's glory (Is. 43:7, Rev. 4:11), but because He is the Creator, his glory is achieved through providing for our good.
The fall of man was complex. Western Christianity has tended to look at it as "the breaking of law." Eastern Christianity has tended to look at it as the effacing of the image of God. There is truth to both of these aspects, but Luther pointed out that both of these missed a bigger context. The fall was occasioned by distrust in the God who made us and loved us.
The temptation of Satan amounted to saying, "God's holding out on you. In order to gain his glory, He's depriving you of being like him. He can't be trusted." The woman, and then the man, bit. Sad irong. Wanting to become free we became slaves. Slaves to sin (Rom. 6:20) and slaves to fear (Heb. 2:15).
That's why the gospel is "good news." It's not as much about "heaven someday" (although that's true) as much as it is about a restored relationship with God, and being able to live free right now. Free from the tyranny of sin. Free from the tyranny of the Law, which was codified because of our sin. Free from the fear of death and judgment. Free from the legalistic expectations of ourselves and others. Free from trying to justify ourselves before God, or before idols. "So if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed" (Jn. 8:36).
Jesus once told a parable of two sons (Lk. 15:11-32). Preachers often just call it "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," because it's too close to home to speak of the other son. The "older brother" in Jesus' parable, was the Pharisees, those righteous and religious people who were careful to stay in the Father's house and careful to obey his Law. The parable is, in fact, mostly about them. They needed to repent, not of their profligacy, but of their righteousness. Of their righteousness.
Unlike the prodigal, their actions weren't wrong, but their attitude was exactly the same. Both sons distructed their Father. The younger son was simply more forthright about it. "Father, I don't want you anymore. I can do better on my own. Give me my inheritance and don't interfere with me any more." The older son stayed in the Father's house, and did his duty, but with enormous resentment. "All these years I've slaved for you." That's how he viewed his obedience - not as sonship, but as slavery. "You never gave me [so much as] a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends" - You held out on me.
The Pharisees viewed their careful obedience as bondage and slavery. They resented it because they did not believe the Father's love. They thought their obedience should justify them before the Father, and so they were "entitled," and were hopping mad when they felt they didn't get their entitlement. And so, when they thought that God might not notice, they gave in to their real desires (e.g. Mt. 23:14).
This is the danger that you and I face - a distrust of God. A tendency to seek our own justification through legalistic righteousness, such that "God owes us." And we're mad when He doesn't deliver. The older brother was wrong. All that his Father had was his, but he never asked. And so often "we have no because we ask not" or ask with wrong motives (James 4:2-3).
We can never be justified, never gain God as our Father, by our works - we don't become sons that way. Rather, the Only-begotten Son, who alone has inherent claim to sonship, condescended to make us sons. He has made us free.
But this freedom is not a liberty from obedience to our Father. It is freedom for obedience, not our of fear, or self-justification, but out of love and delight. Paul says, "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship" (Rom. 8:15).
Do you live the gospel? Or have you given in to that great temptation that plagues us all to return again to a spirit of slavery? The same spirit was at work in both brothers.
For some, that spirit will take a prodigal turn. We break the Sabbath, we give up assembling together on the Lord's Day.
We may even do it claiming "liberty" in Christ. But at heart is the belief that God is a tyrant who wants to enslave us rather than a Father who wants the best for us. We don't trust Him when He directs our paths.
For others, that spirit will take a legalistic turn. "I'll do my best to keep your Law. Where I fail I'll impose my own law on myself (and others) to make up for it. I will brutalize and demonize myself in order to make a martyr of myself. I don't want your 'love' or your bloody charity. I just want my due, as is fitting for any hard-working slave to expect from a just master." This latter-spirit is such a prevalent temptation in the Church, Galatians and Colossians are dedicated to correcting it.
But we are not justified by our own righteousness. We are received as sons because of Christ's righteousness, because He is the Son, and we need to repent if we think the motivation of the Father to receive us as sons is anything other than his free grace and love.
"So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir" (Gal. 4:7). If you get hold of the gospel in your heart you will be free. You will know that God is a loving Father who wants the best for you. Obedience to God will not be a thing to be distrustfully avoided or distrustedfully obeyed. Your pharisaic self-imposed legalism as a way to bargain with God will go away. As one who has been freely received as a son, you will not be judgmental and self-righteous in regard to others (Rom. 15:7). You will rejoice when the Prodigal, who has squandered his inheritance with prostitutes and still stinks of pigs comes home, and you will join in the dancing.
If the Son shall make you free you shall be free indeed. Christ came to deliver you from slavery and make you a son. Are you living like it?