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Adopted for Life by Russell Moore

by Dan Cruver Published Oct 21, 2008

Dr. Russel MooreBelow is an excerpt from Russell Moore’s forthcoming book Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. Dr. Moore will be speaking on “God’s Joy in Adoption” for our November 1st conference.

“Novelist Wendell Berry writes about a young rural Kentuckian named Andy Catlett who liked to wander out alone by the pond so that he could “maintain at least for a while the illusion that I was no more than myself, as ancestorless as the first creature, neither the son of Bess and Wheeler Catlett nor the grandson of Dorie and Marce Catlett and Mat and Margaret Feltner.” [1] Berry’s fictional character sums up something of the rootless individualism of our era. Most of us, unless we’re forced to think about it, seem to assume that we are no more than ourselves, “ancestorless”—that the world begins anew with us.

The generations before us knew better. In the world in which the Bible was written, one’s identity was bound up with one’s ancestors, and, most immediately, with one’s father. Unlike the son who drops the “junior” from his name when he “makes it” on his own, men in the ancient near east were called “son of” all their lives. Think, for instance, of “Simon Bar Jonah,” which means “son of John.” Think of Joshua “son of Nun.” Every biblically literate child knows who Joshua is—with images of falling walls and ram’s horns blowing a trumpet call in his mind—but few of them know anything about Nun, other than that he’s part of this great man’s name. In the biblical pattern, one’s identity is summed up by the question—who’s your father, who are your people? One’s biological background does indeed matter.

To the church at Rome, the Apostle Paul spends a great deal of time speaking about biological background—writing for instance in great detail about his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3), those descended biologically from Abraham. Israel, for Paul and for virtually all of his contemporaries, was not first and foremost about political or geographic ties—but about kinship. He writes that ethnic Israel is “beloved for the sake of the forefathers” (Rom 11:28). At the same time, though, Paul reveals a Spirit of adoption that leads us to walk “not according to the flesh” (Rom 8:4). To a congregation apparently divided between ethnic Jews and “the rest,” Paul says biology matters, and biology doesn’t matter at all. He brings the flesh and the Spirit together in adoption. Even as Paul affirms the sonship of all the believers at Rome, he reminds them throughout the letter of their former life “in the flesh,” as law-breakers and rebels.

In his letter to the churches at Galatia, the apostle takes the same paradoxical stance. Paul takes on those carnival barker-like teachers who sought to convince these Gentile Christ-followers that they must be circumcised in order for God to accept them. On the one hand, he affirms that God’s promise is based on biology—those who are “Abraham’s offspring” (Gal 3:16). And yet, Paul thunders, that ancient promise itself foresaw that Gentiles would be included because God told Father Abraham “in you shall all the nations be blessed” (Gal 3:8). So, Paul contends, the circumcisers are obsessed with “the flesh,” an obsession that doesn’t lead to the new creation that flesh and blood can’t, after all, enter (Gal 5:15; John 3:5). The Galatian followers of Jesus are children of promise, their new identity is found through adoption. These new followers of Christ are told to remember that they formerly “did not know God” and instead followed after those who “by nature are not gods” (Gal 4:8).

To the church at Ephesus, Paul stakes the same claim. Even as he writes to them of their adoption in Christ, Paul recites the distance between Israel and the nations—a spiritual distance that was very real to every one of the Ephesian believers in their own personal pasts. Their problem wasn’t simply what they did in their past; it was who they were. You were “sons of disobedience,” he writes; you “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:3). You must remember, he writes, you “Gentiles in the flesh,” that you are not circumcised (Eph 2:11). You must “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).

This aspect of adoption doesn’t make much sense at first glance. If my old life is “crucified” with Jesus, then why should I remember it? If the Gentiles are “children of promise,” right along with the Jews, then why do you have to keep reminding us we’re Gentiles? If “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision” (Gal 6:15), then why do you keep bringing it up?

One barrier to our vision of the Spirit’s revelation of adoption is the way we read the word “Gentiles” in the Bible in the first place. We assume this is just some morally-neutral ethnic category—like I would check “white” on the “race” category on the driver’s license application, or you might check “African-American” or “Asian/Pacific Islander.” Those of us who are not from Jewish backgrounds almost never think of ourselves as “Gentiles” at all. It is kind of like my feeling when a Roman Catholic friend asked me my position on whether the priest should face the congregation or the altar when blessing the Eucharist; the issue doesn’t even make sense in the way I, as a Protestant, view things. We may think of ourselves as American or Australian, blue color or white collar, Republican or Democrat, or any number of other things. But “Gentile” doesn’t, for most of us, hit at the core of our identity. For most of us, “Gentile” is a safe, boring “Bible word,” something distant that we hardly ever think about except when the pastor or Bible study leader calls our attention to it in the text, usually in passing.

Imagine, though, that you live in a very different age, a land without electric lights or telecommunication. You’ve never been more than ten miles from your home, there in a seaport city called Ephesus. It’s all you’ve ever known. Your family doesn’t talk to you anymore, and you’ve lost your job. You got caught up in this foreign cult, one that teaches that this executed insurrectionist has come back from the dead. You’ll never forget your mother’s face when she asked you if it was true that you and your new friends eat human skin and drink human blood together in your meetings. When you walk to the Sunday assembly, in the upper room of a home in the city center, you pass the temple and you hear the chants, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” You used to yell those words yourself. You see one of the prostitutes walking toward the temple, passing you with a bored look in her eye. You know what it’s like to see that emotionally numbed harlot waiting on a bed for what was called “worship” with you. Things are different for you now.

Once you arrive at the house with your fellow Messiah-followers, though, things get a little uncomfortable for you, again. One of the elders reads those old Scriptures, from one of the books of Moses. It talks about how “the uncircumcised” are “cut off” from the promises of God. You squirm a little bit on the floor. You know, should anyone bother to check, that you’d never pass for circumcised. No one’s ever offered to make the cut for you, and you kind of hope they don’t.

As a matter of fact, the more you think about it, every time people like you are mentioned in the book you believe is the Word of your God, it’s always pointing out that you’re “the other.” Sure, sometimes people like you are spoken of as “strangers and aliens” to be treated well. But most of the time, people like you are the villains of the story. Your people have names like Goliath, Nebuchadnezzar, and Jezebel. Your people are the ones who keep getting their heads cut off by the good guys or drowned by God himself, in this strange Hebrew story you find yourself in. So why are you here? You’re a Gentile and your only hope in the world is in a Jewish king, one nobody’s heard from in years and one most of the Jews don’t even recognize as the real thing.

Now, imagine something else for a moment. Imagine you’re a Jewish follower of Jesus in that same Sunday assembly meeting, or that you’re an apostle of the Lord Jesus writing a letter to Gentile newcomers like the one we imagined above. Of course you’d believe the whole Bible, but wouldn’t you want to de-emphasize those texts? I mean, we sing praise and worship songs from the Psalms in our worship services today all the time, but we rarely set the imprecatory Psalms to music precisely because we don’t want to scare the “seekers” among us with songs about babies dashed against the rocks and our enemies licking the dust and so forth. You certainly wouldn’t want to point out all those passages about the uncircumcised, about the Gentiles’ doom, would you? I can imagine, instead, the kind of “recovering Philistines” support groups we might have if the gospel had first emerged in a culture like ours rather than a culture like theirs.

The apostles though, and particularly the Apostle Paul, don’t hold back. They keep referencing the sordid past of the Gentiles, both personally and corporately. Any suggestion that their ancestors might have been innocently ignorant of God is wiped away by Paul, who shows that all of them knew there is a God and knew what he expected of them, but they revolted against him and their own consciences anyway (Rom 1:18-2:16). He tells them that they all have always known that they’re not from the same stock as the stone and gold from which they make their god figurines, that’s obvious, but they did it and do it anyway (Acts 17:26-29). For thousands of years (or millions, I suppose, depending on your view of the age of the earth), God allowed the Gentile nations to “walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16), Paul preaches. This isn’t good news for them. It’s simply evidence that God doesn’t treat them as his children so he doesn’t discipline them (Heb 12:8). Because they were illegitimate, God “gave them up” both corporately and personally to whatever they wanted to do (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). God didn’t know them, and he had no future for them.

The Bible keeps bringing up this past because it’s important for the newcomers to lose any sense of entitlement. Their repentance is their recognition that their “flesh” had nothing to do with their welcome in the household of God. Jesus tells the woman from Samaria “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Why would he do that, if he actually wants to see this woman embrace the gospel? For the same reason Paul tells a largely Gentile congregation in Rome that the gospel is “to the Jew first” (Rom 1:16), and only then for them. They’re like, Paul writes, wild branches, transplanted onto a vine God’s been tending for the past several thousand years. Their life is “sapped” from the roots of this Jewish tree (Rom 11:11-36). These newcomers—newcomers like most of us—are only here because of the Jewish people, through whom they get their Bibles, their promises, and, most important of all, their Messiah (Rom 9:4-5).

The newcomers need to recognize their wild background, “lest you be wise in your own conceits” (Rom 11:25). They are here by adoption, not by “natural” reproduction. Adoption ought then to humble them, and us, down a bit.”

[1] Wendell Berry, A World Lost (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 1996), 10-11.

(HT: Gospel Driven Blog)

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