Heavenly Father, thank you that you have spoken through your living Word, the Bible. By your Spirit, help each one of us to hear that Word now, in Jesus name. Amen
If you're here for the first time this evening, can I add my own particular and very warm welcome to all the others you've already had. We hope and pray that this will become like a home from home for you. And let me begin by asking you a question which is safe from up here but which would be a bit too direct for a first conversation one-to-one. It's this: What do you think of your parents? Maybe you're away from them – really away from them, where they won't see how you live – for the first time in your life. We all have a different experience of family life. But it's an important question. What do you really think of your parents? My own father died two years ago. The more I think about him, the more amazed I am at all that he did for me. But I must admit, it took me many years to realise that I owed him anything. I all too easily took him and all he did for me for granted. How much more is that true of God, our heavenly Father? So easily, we lose sight of his love and boundless sacrifice for us. We lose sight of him.
My title this evening is 'What does it mean to be a Christian?' And for an answer to that, we're going to take a look at Galatians 4.1-7 Please turn to that on page 974 in the Bibles in the pews, and there's also an outline you'll see there on the back of the service sheet.
The truth is, we owe so much to our heavenly Father. But the heart of what it means to be a Christian is not what we should be doing for God. It's what he has done and will do for us. So what is God saying through his messenger Paul in this Bible passage to those Christians in the church of Galatia? What is God saying through him to us? Well, my first heading is this:
1. A Christian is Someone who used to be Enslaved
We'll never understand and appreciate what God the Father does for us if we don't realise what he's rescuing us from. Take a look at Galatians 4.1-3:
"I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world."
We "were enslaved", says the apostle Paul. But what is the nature of this slavery to which we are subject until God the Father sends his Son? First, we were in bondage to the law of God. Galatians 4.5 says that God sent his Son "to redeem those who were under the law", and back in Galatians 3.23 he describes how we were "held captive" under the law. This is God's law he's talking about. So don't get this wrong. The law in itself is not a bad thing. Paul makes this perfectly plain in the previous chapter, in Galatians 3.21:
"Is the law… contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not!"
The law was like a guardian, a trustee. It was God's way of protecting us, and preparing us, until he sent his Son. But the effects of the law of God are twofold: it shows us our sin; and it makes clear the hopelessness of our own attempts to justify ourselves before God. Isaiah 64.6 says,
"We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment."
We do all we can to spruce ourselves up and get rid of the dirt and look immaculate and smart – but the light of God's law shines bright on our lives and shows us to be standing there in filthy rags. Is that your experience? And worse than that, it shows us to be living under the curse of death. Galatians 3.10:
"For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.""
So we were "under the law" – slaves to the law – dirty and damned. Secondly, Paul says (Galatians 4.3), we "were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world". What does that mean? It could again refer to the law, but the word has two senses, and probably a better translation would be "we were in slavery under the elemental spirits of the universe". That fits with verse 8:
"Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods."
In other words, idolatry is a kind of slavery. We find ourselves under the authority of forces and powers that are far more than we can handle. Sinful relationships become vice-like in their grip and it becomes impossible to escape them. Desires that we naively thought we controlled become addictive. When we get what we want – or what others tell us we should want – it never satisfies, and we always want more. At first something may seem so exciting – but then the trap shuts and we have no way out. "We were enslaved". But the good news is that we were not left there, lost and hopeless. Which brings me to my second heading:
2. A Christian is Someone who has neen set Free and Adopted by God the Father through his Son
"But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons."
Christians, says Paul, have two things to rejoice in. We are redeemed; and we are adopted. First of all, we are redeemed. That was the first part of the work that Jesus was sent by his Father to do – to buy us back from that slavery; to rescue us from the trap of sin and the grip of idolatry and the curse of condemnation. He paid the price of humiliation, suffering, and death so that we could go free from all that. Jesus has done what it takes to rescue us from slavery. And he did that in order to open the way for us to be adopted.
And that is the second thing Paul says Christians can rejoice in: we are adopted as sons of God into the Father's family. By the way, you may wonder why Paul speaks of us becoming sons of God. Why not daughters as well? One thing to say in answer to that is that the term is inclusive, as is clear from Galatians 3.28. Though there are differences between men and women, when it comes to relating to God our Father, there is none. There's neither male nor female in Christ. But, in this case it is in fact appropriate to speak even of women becoming sons of God, and that's for two reasons. First, we're adopted into God's family by being united with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through faith in him. There's no other way to the Father but through the Son. Whether male or female, we identify with him. Secondly, we're all sons in the sense that we all share equally in the inheritance that in the ancient world would have gone to the male child. There's no male or female when it comes to the children of God inheriting all that their heavenly Father has in store for them. As verse 7 says:
"So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God."
We are not by nature sons of God. By nature we are slaves. But God sent his Son (verse 5) "so that we might receive adoption as sons". This is God the Father's great gift to those who believe; to those who cling to Christ like a shipwrecked sailor clings to the winch-man lowered from the air-sea-rescue helicopter. The Bible says in John 1.12:
"But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God …"
So, Galatians 3.26 says that it is "through faith" that we are sons of God. What does that mean? It means, as verse 27 puts it, that we're "baptized into Christ"; we've "put on" Christ. In other words, we identify with Jesus as the only one who can save us out of our slavery. He is our Saviour. And faith also means, as verse 29 has it, that we "are Christ's" – we belong to him. He has absolute rights over our lives. He commands and, with his help, we obey. He is our Lord. We were in slavery, but God the Father sent his Son to die for us, so that through faith in him we could be adopted into his family. How, then, does that affect our lives? That question brings me to my third and final heading:
3. A Christian is Someone who has been Given the Holy Spirit to Live in Freedom as God's Adopted Son
Look at verses 6-7:
"And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God."
What is the effect of becoming a child of God? It transforms our lives, both now and forever. J.I.Packer describes a test for whether we know what it means to be a Christian:
"If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God's child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well."
Adoption, he says, is "the highest privilege that the gospel offers". As children of God we can at any time share our needs and fears, our hopes and joys directly with the Lord of the Universe. That's how great our privilege is. And as we begin to trust in Jesus, and obey him and serve him, we are redeemed, we're adopted, and we can rejoice that we've been given the Holy Spirit. As verse 6 of our passage says:
"And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!""
It's the Spirit of God who brings alive for us all that it means to have God for our Father. Before God comes into our lives by his Spirit we're as good as dead. The Spirit makes us live and enables us to understand what God has done and teaches us to talk to him. At first we only have an inkling of how great God our Father is and how tremendous are his blessings. Bit by bit, he makes them plain to us. It's the Spirit, who opens our eyes to see all the implications of the good news of Jesus. If we have received Christ into our lives and believed in him, then we can rejoice in where we are today. We are redeemed. We are adopted. And we have been given the Spirit of God. But the future holds even more in store for us. Verse 7 again:
"So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God."
The sons of God are fellow heirs with Christ. The future destiny of every child of God is clear. And that makes all the difference to our perspective on what happens to us in the meantime. We have a hope that is not wishful thinking. It's a guaranteed certainty because it's been promised by God our Father. And he keeps his promises. What we'll have is a share in the glory of Christ. Everything he has will be shared with us. What will it be like? We don't know the details. We don't need to. But it will be a family gathering; face to face with the Father and with Jesus. In Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's Mr Steadfast stands half way into the water of the River Jordan and says:
"I see myself at the end of my journey, my toilsome days are ended. The thought of what I am going to, and of the conduct that waits for me on the other side, doth lie as a glowing coal at my heart… I have formerly lived by hear-say, and faith, but now I go where I shall live by sight, and shall be with Him, in whose company I delight myself."
C.S.Lewis, at the end of his final allegorical Narnia story, 'The Last Battle', attempts to make a start at putting into words what it will mean for the children of God to come into their inheritance. He says:
"The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."
We will never understand what it means to be a Christian unless we keep our eternal inheritance in Jesus at the front of our minds. So what does all this mean for you?
Maybe you know full well that you have been rescued by Christ out of slavery to sin and idolatry and death. Perhaps you learnt it from your parents; perhaps by some other route. But you've taken it to heart for yourself. So when the Bible talks about God sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts who calls out, "Abba! Father!", your own heart leaps in recognition; you're confident of your eternal destiny. If that's so, then be grateful to God your Father. Don't take God's goodness and grace for granted, like the privileged child who never says 'thank you' to his dad. Give thanks to God with the whole of your life.
Maybe, on the other hand – whatever your parents tried to teach you – you've lost sight of the fact that you are a child of God. You've wandered from the family home into which you were adopted. You've neglected your privileges and ignored your heavenly Father. If that's you, then it's time to come home again. The door is always open to the child of God. It's just a matter of saying:
"Father, I'm sorry. Please forgive me. I'm home again, and this time it's for good. Please take me in."
And he will.
Maybe, on the other hand, you're aware that far from being free and independent, in fact you've been living your life in slavery. You've never known what it is to be a child of God. You're beginning to see that now. But you can also see that another life is possible. And God the Father is inviting you: "Come in out of the cold. Trust me. Leave the chains of your slavery behind. Become a part of my family. Everything I have will be yours as well." Will you give no reply, but turn your back, and walk away, into the darkness? Or will you step over the threshold? However timid and out of your depth you may feel, will you say to God:
"Yes, please. I know I don't deserve it. But I believe that your Son Jesus has died for me, so that I can become your child. For the first time in my life, I'm coming home. Please take me in."?
If that's what you say to God the Father today, it's only the beginning – but it is the beginning of a new life for you. Tell a Christian friend that you've made that new start. Ask them to give you a hand as you learn what it means to be a Christian – to have God as your Father, to be adopted into his family through Jesus, and to be given his Spirit so you can live for him.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that through your Son Jesus you have opened the way for us to become your sons and heirs. Give us your Holy Spirit, so that we might know that privilege both today and for all eternity. Amen.