By Harris Franklin Rall
Jesus had accused the Pharisees of binding upon men's shoulders burdens that could not be borne. But if the demand of the law was hard, was not the demand of Jesus still harder? The law required certain deeds and gifts; Jesus went back of all this and demanded that the last thought and the last motive should belong to God. It was not enough to refrain from murder; there must be no anger, no bitterness in a man's heart, no impure desire in his soul. Love for friends and family was not enough, nor any single gift or deed of service; a man's whole life must be under the sway of the spirit of love, and he must show that continually and toward all men. All the rules of the Pharisees become petty and easy compared with this. No wonder the disciples exclaimed, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus demands that which is impossible for man. Sonship, in the sense of Jesus, no man can give to God. So we come to the other side of Jesus' teaching: sonship is a gift. God gives to men that sonship which he asks of them.
Grace As The Law Of God's Life
Grace in the Old Testament.—The law of God's life is grace; such is the message of Jesus. The Old Testament was not without its vision of Jehovah as a gracious God. "When Israel was a child [that is, when he was insignificant, helpless], then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt" (Hosea 11. 1). "In all their affliction he was afflicted," writes the Isaiah of the exile, "and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old. ... I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite" (Isaiah 63. 9; 57. 15. Compare Psalm 103. 314). But all this had been obscured by the idea of God as lawgiver and judge. Men felt that when they had earned the right by their obedience, then God would treat them as sons, then he would receive them at his table in the Kingdom. God's presence and fellowship were a reward which men must first deserve. God's justice was the rule of his life, and justice was of this legal kind.
Grace in Jesus' Conduct and Word.—As elsewhere, Jesus here went back to the prophets. Better said, Jesus looked into his own heart. He knew what God was from the spirit that was in himself. That spirit he knew to be God's Spirit. When he received sinners and ate with them, he was setting forth God's way. That is why he told the parable of the forgiving father, which we have called the parable of the prodigal son. To be gracious and merciful is the very heart of God, it is the rule of his life. When Jesus served men and healed men, when he poured forth the wealth of his love and truth for the humblest and neediest, he was simply showing forth God's heart and acting in God's way. He did not, like the scribes, simply tell men what to do, or announce judgment. He went after men. He set himself in mercy to seek and to save the lost. Here too, he declares, he is only showing forth God. God is the Father who is ever watching for his children to turn to him, and going forth to meet them on the way (Luke 15. 1, 2, 11-32).
Sonship Is Gift as Well as Task.—Here, then, is the second meaning of sonship. The first meaning of sonship as studied in the last chapter is moral likeness to God, with which alone God can be satisfied; that is God's demand and man's task (Matthew 5. 45-48). In this second meaning, as considered in this chapter, sonship is the loving fellowship with himself into which God graciously takes men; sonship is God's gift (Luke 15. 20-24). And as we study this further, we shall see how task and gift are one.
What Is Sonship As A Gift?
Christian Forgiveness.—This gift of sonship involves forgiveness first of all. We must, however, get Jesus' idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness with men often means simply crossing off a debt, canceling a charge. It is looking backward and wiping out the past. With Jesus it means nothing less than God taking a man into the fellowship of a son despite the sins that had separated. Forgiveness means the gift of sonship, the gift of life. God never merely forgives sins, he forgives the sinner; that is, he takes him to himself. With God forgiving and giving always go together.
The Gift of Fellowship.—The end of forgiveness is thus fellowship, and fellowship is sonship. It is not a part of sonship, it is sonship itself. One may say it is not a part of religion, it is the whole of religion according to Jesus. The life with the Father as son is God's great gift to man, is man's great privilege and end. Prophet and psalmist had seen something of this (see Psalm 23); but never had it been seen so clearly, and set forth so simply and beautifully. God has many good gifts, but there is none like this gift, in which, indeed, all others are wrapped up. He is willing to give himself! Here is the wonder of Jesus' teaching. He showed men the God high and lifted up. He taught men reverence. He showed men, indeed, that there was nothing else to be feared beside this God who had all things in the power of his hand. And then he taught men to look up to this same mighty God and say, "Abba, Father." He made them feel this God coming into their own lives, mercifully calling them, willing to walk with them, ready to share every least sorrow, willing to give every good gift.
The New Meaning of Religion.—Here is the thought of religion with which Jesus has blessed the world. religion, then as now, was filled with many things. It meant a great institution, with its priests and sacrifices. It meant a sacred book with many commands. It meant endless rules that one must always be studying and keeping. All these Jesus brushed aside. To look up and say, "Our Father"; to look out and say, "Brother"—that is religion. To have a heart filled with love, the love that is utter humility and trust before God, and boundless good will toward men—that is religion. And all this may be put into the one word—"fellowship": to live as a son with the Father and with one's brothers. All faith is here, all needed doctrine. All trust is here, and peace. All confidence and joy are here, all service, all righteousness. Church and Scripture and creed and form—all of these we need. But they are the handmaids of religion, not religion itself. Religion is to live the life of a son with the Father, in the spirit and by the grace of Him who has shown us what both Fatherhood and sonship mean.
The Power Of A New Life
The Problem.—And now we face the problem with which we began. What about the demand of God? Fellowship with God does not mean simply taking his gifts. To walk with God means to be like God. Of what use is it that God shall call us sons when we are not sons? Is the God of Jesus indifferent to holiness; can he look upon sin with allowance? How, then, can he receive sinners as if they were sons? And of what help is it that he invites us to come to him?
The Answer.—The answer seems a paradox, but the Christian knows its truth: God receives us as sons in order that we may become sons. The trouble has been that we have looked at the relation of God and man under terms of law and business: so much credit and so much due. Jesus turned from mart and court and took the home. The world is God's house and men are his family, his children. They are not servants working for him; they are sons being trained. The father does not say to his boy, "First become true and strong in character, and then I will associate with you." He takes the boy into fellowship with himself in order that the boy may become like himself. The friends of a certain Roman once asked him why he dined with his slaves. "I dine with some of them," he answered, "because they are worthy, and with the rest that I may make them worthy."
The Transforming Power of Fellowship.—Now we see, with Jesus, the deeper meaning of this fellowship. It is not a reward: it is God's method of training men. The only way to help people to be good is to live with them. The only way to lift up human life is to give life. That is the work of the teacher; it is not to give ideas, but to give something of oneself. That is the highest task of a father or a mother: to live with one's children and to give oneself to the children. Clothing and food and shelter and school advantages which money purchases can none of them take the place of fellowship between a father and his boy, in which a father gives his affection, his ideals, his spirit to that boy. That way Jesus went. He lived with men, and there was no other way to save men except this way of fellowship. We rightly put the cross at the center, but the death of Christ would have had no meaning but for the life that went before. And the glory of that life and death is the conviction which it brings us, that through him we look into the heart of our Father. God is no mere power dwelling on high, handing down his command to men. He is the Presence, dwelling near us in love, walking with us in fellowship. The heart of our lesson is this idea of the transforming power of fellowship. That is the way God gives life to men, that is the way he makes men over. God asks of us the spirit of love. We cannot make it; we can only open our heart to it. And so he gives us what he asks.
Sanctification.—It may profit us to look at the word "sanctification" and see the place of this doctrine in Jesus' teaching about sonship. There are two simple meanings for the word "sanctification." It means, first, belonging to God, and, second, being made over into the likeness of God. The thought of sonship, or fellowship, as Jesus pictures it, throws light on both of these, and includes both. Sonship means belonging to God, or sanctification in the first sense. The son is one who has given himself to the Father, who belongs utterly to him in all trust and love and obedience. But it is upon the second question especially that light is thrown. It is, of course, always through the Spirit of God that men are made over, or made holy in life. But how does God's Spirit come and how does his Spirit work? We answer, in and through the fellowship which we have with God as his children. It is in the fellowship of children, in the practice of love and trust and aspiration and obedience, that God gives us his Spirit. And it is thus that the life of men is made over; it is thus that we grow as sons into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit.—And here the doctrine of the Holy Spirit becomes more clear. It is not some magic power or strange presence for which we pray when we ask God for his Spirit. We are asking simply for his presence, for this fellowship which alone can transform our life. The presence of the Holy Spirit involves this fellowship with God on the one hand, and a Christlikeness of temper and life on the other.
Other Aspects Of Sonship
Sonship and the New Birth.—What we have been considering here is what the church has called regeneration, or the new birth, though we find neither of these names in the first three Gospels. The third chapter of John speaks of the new birth, or the birth from above (John 3. 3, margin). We cannot always be sure in reading the fourth Gospel whether we have the words of Jesus or the evangelist's interpretation of Jesus' message in his own language. But the truth brought out in John 3 is the same teaching of Jesus that we have been considering. What John says in mystical phrase the other Gospels give in simpler speech. When God receives men in forgiveness as his sons, he puts in them the spirit of sonship. This spirit of sonship is the life from above, the new birth. So Paul understood it (Galatians 4. 5, 6; Romans 8. 9, 14, 15).
The Secret of Sonship.—In a passage of wonderful beauty Jesus points out what this fellowship means and how men may enter upon it (Matthew 11. 25-30). This spirit of sonship is his spirit. He has the secret of this fellowship, it is his own life, and he longs in his love to give it to men. The secret is not open to human wisdom, the clever cannot find the way. But children may find it, the humble and eager. They need only come to him. And they would come, if they only knew the peace and joy of that life as he knows it. And so, in words that have lured the hearts of men in all the centuries since, he speaks his invitation: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
The Scope of Sonship.—The questions have often been debated, Is God the Father of all men? Are all men children of God? A large part of this controversy has come from failure to understand what is meant by Fatherhood and sonship. Fatherhood, in Jesus' sense, means the spirit of grace and good will toward men. This spirit God shows toward all men, evil and good (Matthew 5. 45). He is, therefore, the Father of all, not only in the lesser sense that he has brought forth all men in his image, but in this high and absolute sense of his character. Because it is God's character that makes him Father, he will always be a Father to all men. It is different with men. There is the lesser sense in which all men are sons of God. God has made them all in his image, with the capacity for knowing and loving him, and all belong to him. But in the higher and truer sense, as Jesus uses the word in Matthew 5. 45, men are sons only when they are like God in character. They must have the Father's spirit to be the Father's children. It is character that makes sonship just as it makes Fatherhood. Men must love as God loves in order to be sons of their Father. Using the words, then, in this higher sense, we may say that God is the Father of all men and that men are to become his sons.
Directions For Study
Scripture references: Luke 15. 1, 2, 11-32; Matthew 11. 2530; John 3. 1-16.
Review the main points of the last two chapters. Note carefully how Jesus' idea of God as Father determines all his other teaching. The last chapter gave the heart of Jesus' teaching about ethics; here we have the heart of his thought of religion.
Read again the story of the prodigal son with one question in mind: What does it tell about the character of God and the way he receives men? State the narrower and the larger meaning of forgiveness.
With this same parable before you, consider what this restored sonship meant to the boy: (1) a gracious gift, the fellowship and friendship of his father; (2) a great demand, to live up to the spirit of this home and the character of such a father; (3) a great help, the love and sympathy of his father as a help to lead the new life. How far is all this true of a man's life with God?
Read Matthew 11. 25-30 and consider the transforming power of fellowship. Find illustrations of this in the home, and in the person of friend or teacher or pastor. Are men ever helped apart from some such personal touch? How does Jesus himself give such personal help to his followers? Note that his great promise here is that he will lead men into that fellowship with God which was his own strength and joy.