There is a rhythm to our repentance and God’s grace.
Isaiah sees God and laments his unworthiness, only to be cleansed with a coal on the lips (Isaiah 6:5-7).
Daniel is put on the ground by just an angel; he is invited to stand and called “highly esteemed” (Daniel 10:5-12).
In grief over Israel’s defeat at Ai, Joshua falls to his face, which you’d think appropriate, but God says, “Stand up! What are you doing up on the floor?”
The Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:27) and the centurion (Matthew 8:8-9) plead Jesus’ mercy, not their own merit; he grants their requests.
Peter sees a miraculous catch of fish and tries to push Jesus away out of unworthiness; Jesus merely ups his role in the kingdom (Luke 5:8-10).
Later, he says he can’t accept a foot-washing from his Savior; Jesus responds that he’d better find a way to accept (John 13:8)!
Finally, after Peter is faceplanted by the transfigured Christ’s glory (Peter gets a lot of time in the “faceplanted” category, does he not?), Jesus touches him and tells him not to be afraid (Matt. 17:6-7).
Do you see the beauty of it? The more God’s glory is revealed, the more our sin is illuminated. We are driven to our knees by a sense of our unworthiness. Yet God reaches for us. He places us on our feet.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:21-24)
The famine afflicting the son had apparently not touched his country of origin, or the father wouldn’t have had fattened calves to throw around. God’s kingdom is a place of plenty, abundance, secured against tragedy and scarcity. The full measure of this lavishness won’t be experienced until after our earthly deaths, but it’s still a stunning picture.
There’s a brickoad of symbolism here, so immediate that even commentators reluctant to spiritualize details find themselves doing so. It reveals an amazing generosity.
It also evokes, at least for me, a dilemma within modern Christianity, one that I’ve experienced in my spiritual growth.
On one hand, there’s the “safe” interpretation of each gift the father bestows upon his son, and by safe I do not at all mean incorrect. The robe evokes the imputed righteousness of Christ, compared throughout Scripture to a garment (Isa. 61:10), replacing rags of sin, becoming our covering against shame. The ring is a token of dignity and standing (James 2:2). The shoes distinguish the son from servants, who went barefoot, and equip him to carry the gospel of peace (Eph. 6:15). The fatted calf suggests the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.
If no more could be gleaned, this would be enough. Given the son’s record, the father’s magnanimity in all this is mind-blowing and deeply humbling.
But when we zoom out and glimpse the full breadth of Christ’s work throughout the New Testament, it would seem the Father has given much more.
A ring is also a token of authority, as Joseph’s ring gave him authority over Egypt, and now we must ask authority over what? Matthew 10 and Luke 1o depict Jesus’ disciples being commissioned to wield authority over foul spirits oppressing the people of Israel. They are authorized to carry out God’s desired works on earth; what are those works? Preaching the message of repentance first and foremost, but also (deep breath here) healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the leper, providing for the poor. The fatted calf? At a basic level, it could symbolize simple generosity. Blessings, miracles, great storehouses, the little gifts God offers each day. As Alexander MacLaren writes,
He had to be forgiven and bathed in the outflow of his father’s love before he could be fed. And, being thus received, he could not fail to be fed. So the message for us is, first, forgiveness, and then every hunger of the heart satisfied; all desires met; every needful nourishment communicated, and the true bread ours for ever, if we choose to eat.
Miracles, spiritual warfare, spiritual gifts, healing, answered prayers, a conversational walk with God through the Holy Spirit…
Yep. It’s the “power and promises” side of the church. Everybody freak out.
As you probably already know, these two sides of the church mix about as well as cats and dogs. The “repentance and righteousness” side insists that salvation and humility must come first (which they must – what point is there in healing, gifts, or blessings if you’re not rescued from hell?) and that the rest are dangerous or a product of that specific time (which, what?). “Don’t talk about those frivolities,” the underlying attitude goes. “God isn’t doing anything at all except bringing salvation to man. That other stuff makes the Gospel man-centered; it’s no longer about Jesus, and that is disrespectful.”
It’s true that one can get so infatuated with power and promises that he misses maturity. Not every dream will be realized; not every dream should be. We are called to suffer; we are called to come and die. But then the other side asks…if Scripture shows God offering “goodies” to his children as he pleases, why would we refuse? Is it for no reason that all the talk of “God doing great things with your life” speaks so loudly to our souls? How is it a man-centered Gospel if it’s God’s generosity being showcased? I’d think that cherry-picking Scripture, putting words in God’s mouth, and insisting on our definitions of his glory instead of his definitions, is what’s really disrespectful.
It is a dilemma. A tension exists between both sides, and impressionable learners like myself are caught in the middle. We sense truth to each, but the balance is hard to strike.
You know what?
As a guy searching for God’s truth and not claiming anything like mastery, I want to know exactly what Scripture says. No man-made traditions, denominational filters, or babies thrown out with the theological bathwater. I want the blessings and the burdens, the goodies and the godliness, alike. I want the goodies because why wouldn’t you, and I want the godliness because God is worthy of my surrender and my sacrifice. I will shoulder those burdens for the Christ who shouldered the cross. I just want to know in fullness what is offered. That is my plea, Christendom.
My church does well here. Spiritual gifts, warfare, potential of prayer, that sort of thing, are all acknowledged by our leaders but not crowed about just to get butts in pews (or bucks in coffers). Instead, holiness and missions take center stage on Sunday morning. While God’s delight in us or an oomph of inspiration get the occasional sermon, a strong sense of “it’s not about us” pervades.
I think this is right. Obedience and maturity must be the foundation for everything else. Otherwise, treats will be ruined. And in the end, if prayers are never answered or blessings never received, we have still been given far more through our salvation than the richest ruler on earth.
But if God wants to jam-pack our inheritance with gifts and delights, that’s his business; our only say in the matter is to accept or reject. The father of Luke 15 was pleased to lavish upon his returning son. Let’s let our heavenly Father set the terms for his own. Let us come to the throne acknowledging our unworthiness to even be called a son, and as he did with Peter, allow him to take it from there.