by James Montgomery Boice
In the opening pages of A Place for You, the noted Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier tells of a young man he once counseled. He grew up in a religious home, but it was unhappy. Eventually there was a divorce. This produced unfortunate psychological symptoms in the young man’s life. He developed an acute sense of failure, first in not reconciling his parents, then in his studies, then in an inability to settle down and achieve in any area of life. At last he came to see Tournier. They talked, and on one occasion, as if summing up his thought, the young man explained, “Basically, I’m always looking for a place—for somewhere to be.”1 The need for a place is virtually universal. On the human level the principle is easy to discern. “The child who has been able to grow up harmoniously in a healthy home finds a welcome everywhere. In infancy all he needs is a stick placed across two chairs to make himself a house, in which he feels quite at home. Later on, wherever he goes, he will be able to make any place his own, without any effort on his part. For him it will not be a matter of seeking, but of choosing.” On the other hand, “when the family is such that the child cannot fit himself into it properly, he looks everywhere for some other place, leading a wandering existence, incapable of settling down anywhere. His tragedy is that he carries about within himself this fundamental incapacity for any real attachment.”2 On the spiritual level, the problem is detected in the alienation from God we feel as a result of the Fall and of our own deliberate sins. Saint Augustine once wrote, “Thou hast formed us for thyself....” That is our true place. But he added in frank recognition of our dilemma and sin, “And our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”3
God has dealt with this great problem of alienation through adoption, taking a person from one family (or no family) and placing him or her in a new family—the family of God. Sometimes adoption has been thought of merely as one aspect of justification or as only another way of stating what happens in regeneration. But adoption is nevertheless much more than either of these other acts of grace. “Justification means our acceptance with God as righteous and the bestowal of the title to everlasting life. Regeneration is the renewing of our hearts after the image of God. But these blessings in themselves, however precious they are, do not indicate what is conferred by the act of adoption. By adoption the redeemed become sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty; they are introduced into and given the privileges of God’s family.”4
Only adoption suggests the new family relationship which is ours in Christ and points to the privileges of that relationship. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:14-17).
These verses speak of adoption as a separate work of God’s Spirit through which: (1) we are delivered from bondage to the law and from fear; (2) we are assured of our new relationship to God; and (3) we become God’s heirs with Christ. Murray also writes,
The relationship is explained by the way a father in ancient times would officially adopt his own son as his legal representative and heir. As we indicated in chapter seven, in a discussion of Galatians 4:1-7, this was an important moment in the coming of age of a Jewish, Greek or Roman child. Before, he was a son by birth. Now he became a son legally and passed from the care of his guardian or trustee into manhood. Although in Christian experience regeneration and adoption take place simultaneously, adoption nevertheless emphasizes the Christian’s new status while regeneration emphasizes the newness of life.
Perhaps the words new status are not the best. What is really involved in adoption is new relationships: a new relationship to God and a new relationship to other people within the household of faith.
The new relationship to God need not have been automatic. Having justified us, God could still have left us on a much inferior level of status and privilege. Instead, he took us into his own family giving us the status and privilege of daughters and sons. So great is God’s condescension in this act of adoption that we would be inclined to dismiss it, thinking it presumption, were it not that God has made a special effort to seal these truths to our hearts. As Paul wrote, “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,’ God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:9-10).
There is a certain (unbiblical) sense in which God may be said to be the Father of all. God is the creator of all. He sustains our lives moment by moment, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28; compare vv. 24-28). On account of this we may be said to be “God’s offspring” (v. 29). But there are no privileges attached to this more general “fatherhood.” The relationship which the word properly describes is missing.
Jesus taught quite pointedly that some who thought they were God’s children were, according to his teaching, actually children of the devil. After saying, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” the Jews answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus responded, “I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me. ... If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did.” At this point the people grew angry and accused him of being illegitimate. Then in righteous anger the Lord replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (Jn. 8:32-33, 37, 39, 42-44). In this exchange Jesus put to an end the misleading doctrine that God is the Father of all and all are his children.
But it is not only that Christians have a new relationship to God as a result of his act of adoption. We also have a new relationship with one another which requires us to love each other and work together as befits brothers and sisters. Before, we were outside the family of God, each going our own way in opposition to and sometimes in only thinly veiled hostility toward each other. Now we are different: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
The attitudes that should flow from these new relationships do not always follow naturally or easily. But that is all the more reason to grasp this truth forcefully and work at the relationships. John White has put the task in these terms,
Membership in God’s family does not mean that we will be insensitive to its human faults. Indeed, we must be sensitive to them if we are to have any hope of eliminating them and improving the quality of our family relationships. But neither should we be overly sensitive to the faults of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even less should we be openly critical. We should be intensely committed to each other with a proper family loyalty and work to help each other in living the Christian life. We should pray for each other and serve one another.
Our new relationships give us new privileges. Some we have now. Some pertain more fully to the life we will enjoy in heaven. These latter privileges are described in Scripture as our inheritance. We are not told specifically what they are, though they obviously involve the possession of the life of heaven and other blessings. Our inheritance is described as spiritual “riches” (Eph. 1:18) and as a “reward” for faithful service (Col. 3:24). It is said to be “eternal” (Heb. 9:15). Peter declares that by the mercy of God “we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:3-4). Paul describes the Holy Spirit as a present “guarantee” of what awaits us (Eph. 1:14).
Prayer is the key privilege of adoption which we enjoy now. On the one hand, this is described as a consequence of our justification. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:1-2). Access means access to God. On the other hand, access is based on our adoption. Because of it we can approach God as “Father.” And only through the Spirit of adoption can we be assured that God is our Father and that he indeed hears our prayers. This is what Paul is speaking of in the verse quoted earlier. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16).
Our authority to call God “Father” goes back to Jesus Christ himself and to no less important a statement than the opening phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. “Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven . ..” (Mt. 6:9). No Old Testament Jew ever addressed God directly as “my Father.” The invocation of the Lord’s Prayer was something new and startlingly original to Christ’s contemporaries. This has been documented by the late German scholar, Ernst Lohmeyer, in a book called Our Father and by the contemporary biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias in an essay entitled “Abba” and a booklet called The Lord’s Prayer.7 According to these scholars three things are indisputable: (1) the title was new with Jesus; (2) Jesus always used this form of address in praying; and (3) Jesus authorized his disciples to use the same word after him.
It is true, of course, that in one sense the title father for God is as old as religion. Homer wrote of “Father Zeus, who rules over the gods and mortal men.” Aristotle explained that Homer was right because “paternal rule over children is like that of a king over his subjects” and “Zeus is king of us all.” In this case the word father means “Lord.” The point to notice, however, is that the address was always impersonal. In Greek thought God was called father in the same sense that a king is called a father of his country.
The Old Testament uses the word father as a designation of God’s relationship to Israel, but even this is not personal. Nor is it frequent. In fact, it occurs only fourteen times in the whole of the Old Testament. Israel is called the “first-born son” of God (Ex. 4:22). David says, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). Isaiah writes, “Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father” (Is. 64:8). But in none of these passages does any individual
Israelite address God directly as “my Father.” In most of them the point is that Israel has not lived up to the family relationship. Thus, Jeremiah reports the Lord as saying, “I thought how I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beauteous of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the LORD” (Jer. 3:19-20).
In the time of Jesus the distance between people and God seemed to be widening. The names of God were increasingly withheld from public speech and prayers. This trend was completely overturned by Jesus. He always called God Father, and this fact must have impressed itself in an extraordinary way upon the disciples. Not only do all four of the Gospels record that Jesus used this address, but they report that he did so in all his prayers (Mt. 11:25; 26:39, 42; Mk. 14:36; Lk. 23: 34; Jn. 11:41; 12:27; 17:1, 5, 11, 21, 24-25). The only exception enforces its own significance, the cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). That prayer was wrung from Christ’s lips at the moment in which he was made sin for mankind and in which the relationship he had with his Father was temporarily broken. At all other times Jesus boldly assumed a relationship to God that was thought to be highly irreverent or blasphemous by most of his contemporaries.
This is of great significance for our prayers. Jesus was the Son of God in a unique sense, and God was uniquely his Father. He came to God in prayer as God’s unique Son. Now he reveals that this same relationship can be true for those who believe in him, whose sins are removed by his suffering. They can come to God as God’s children. God can be their own individual Father.
But this is not all. When Jesus addressed God as Father he did not use the normal word for father. He used the Aramaic word abba. Obviously this was so striking to the disciples that they remembered it in its Aramaic form and repeated it in Aramaic even in their Greek Gospels and other writings. Mark uses it in his account of Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee” (Mk. 14:36). Paul also makes note of it in the verses to which we referred earlier (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
What does abba specifically mean? The early church fathers —Chrysostom, Theodor of Mopsuestia and Theodore of Cyrrhus, who came from Antioch (where Aramaic was spoken and who probably had Aramaic-speaking nurses—unanimously testify that abba was the address of small children to their fathers.8 The Talmud confirms this when it says that when a child is weaned “it learns to say abba and imma” (that is, “daddy” and “mommy”).9 That is what abba means: daddy. To a Jewish mind a prayer addressing God as daddy would not only have been improper, it would have been irreverent to the highest degree. Yet this was what Jesus said, and this quite naturally stuck in the minds of the disciples, as I have indicated. It was something quite new and unique when Jesus instructed his disciples to call God daddy.
Confidence in Our Father
This gives us assurance as we stand before God. When we approach God as Father, being taught and led to do so by God’s own Spirit, we know that we stand in a secure relationship.
Is God our Father? If he is, then he will help us in the days of our infancy, teaching us to walk spiritually and picking us up when we fall down. This is why Hosea could report God as saying, “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms.... I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love.... How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel!” (Hos. 11:3-4, 8). A God like this will keep us from falling and will present us “without blemish before the presence of his glory” (Jude 24).
Is God our Father? Then he will care for us through the days of this life and will bless us abundantly. The laws of the United States recognize that parents must care for their children. So does God. He has set down the rule that “children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children” (2 Cor. 12:14). If this is true on the human level, it is also true of the relationship of a person to God. The Lord Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.... Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt. 6:25, 31-33).
Is God our Father? Then he will go before us to show the way through this life. Paul alludes to this when he writes, “Therefore be imitators [followers] of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1).
Is God our Father? Then we shall know that we belong to him forever. We shall know that while we are being led, taught and educated for life’s tasks, nothing shall interfere with his purpose for us in Christ. We shall look forward to the time when we shall see him and be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
James Montgomery Boice held a B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Theology from the University of Basel in Switzerland. He was the pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and was the author of many books, including three volumes in the series, "Foundations of the Christian Faith". This article is taken from volume three of that same series, entitled Awakening to God.
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