In this wonderful book, Children of the Living God, Sinclair Ferguson carefully discusses the new birth, the glory of adoption, and the ramifications of living together in God’s family.
Regeneration “means to come to share in the risen life and power of Jesus Christ, and to enter into vital fellowship with him” (p. 18). This is the work of God, and no one else can do it. When He does it, He displays the nature of His power — which is infinite. “It is no easier for God to give you a new birth than it is for him to give it to the worst man who ever lived” (v. 21).
“There are, then, two dimensions to our sonship. The first is re-creation (or regeneration); the second is adoption, God’s acceptance of us into his family” (p. 26).
Adoption “is not a change in nature, but a change in status” (p. 36). We are men before God does this, and we are men after. But before God brings us into His family, we are members of another kind of family, with a usurping alien father. The devil is our father, using all the gifts and faculties that God gave our race to hasten the day of our damnation. When someone is truly converted (which is not the same thing as joining the church), he is adopted by a new Father, and his status changes completely. His old faculties are still operational, but they are pointed in a different direction entirely, devoted to a new love.
When we are brought into God’s family, we are being changed into human beings. So with that being the case, what were we before then? The answer is that we were “wreckage of human” — and headed toward the abyss, the outer darkness, where our status would finally become “ultimate wreckage of human.”
A story is told of a fellow who was mugged in an alley by a band of thugs, and he put up a ferocious fight. After about fifteen minutes, they got him down on the ground, and found just two dollars in his wallet. “Two dollars?” one of them said. “You put up that fight for two dollars?”
“Well, no, actually. I thought you were after the $500 in my boot.”
One of the most precious possessions a government has is its moral legitimacy. When they have it, taxes are paid, for the most part, voluntarily. Any society requires force for the outliers, but is not held together at the center by force. When the ruling elites start to opt out of this societal bond — “laws are for the little people” — there is usually a time lag, but the “little people” do catch on. When they catch on, the whole thing spirals down into chaos.
One of the central techniques that is used by despots for divesting themselves of moral legitimacy is the technique of governing through arbitrary administrative law. A free people live under laws passed by legislatures in which they have freely chosen representatives. The prerogative of passing such laws may not be transferred. So if you chafe under rules and regs that spew forth from all the alphabet agencies, then you are not free. It doesn’t matter that you are currently not being harassed. No despot can torment all his slaves simultaneously.
Now when you find yourself in this situation — as we do — there are two aspects to it, represented in this situation by the two dollars in your wallet and the five hundred in your boot. When a government has lost its moral legitimacy, the fact that you actually do pay your taxes on the two dollars (which comes to three dollars) needs to be understood as principled acquiesence, and not as a statement on your part that what they are doing is legit. It is not.
At the same time, there are those who have studied these things in depth, and who have seventeen reasons for denying the legitimacy of the IRS, and nine of them are pretty good. They live in a cabin high in the mountains of western Montana, where they study Blackstone by candlelight, late into the evenings. These are the fellows who tell the thugs in single-spaced typewritten letters that they have no right to the five hundred in their boot.
“To think that having ‘all grace’ except for persevering grace is somehow reassuring is to have a wildly skewed sense of priorities. ‘Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?’ How is God’s withholding of perseverance not a refusal of grace? If we say that the grace was forfeited by those who subjectively resisted his work in their lives ‘too much,’ then why did God withhold from them the gift of ‘not resisting too much?’” (Against the Church, p. 187).
Before getting into the appropriate Christian response to the tyrannies of the arbitrary administrative state, we have to set aside a particular objection that can be marshaled from the Bible. Not only can it be marshaled, let us acknowledge that it frequently is.
When I say that Christians should stand for liberty, and I do, and I say that they should work and pray for it, and that preachers should preach with this in mind, the objection comes back that this is not what Jesus did, and this is not what the apostles did.
What I want to do here is highlight what this objection is actually doing, which is ignoring the cumulative flow of history. It is treating the strategies employed by God, Jesus, and the apostles as a fixed constant, when it is their faith and demeanor that is actually the fixed constant. If we lock down on the strategies, we will refuse to alter anything based on where we are in history. But this is like insisting on punting because St. Paul was fourth and long. Yes, I might reply, but we are third and inches.
I don’t really care that the early church punted a lot.
So it is quite true, and perfectly obvious, that Paul never organized a political party, never wrote a letter to the editor decrying the Stamp Act, never picketed a slave market in Charleston, never opened a crisis pregnancy center, and so on. But the fact that he never did such things does not mean that we shouldn’t. Neither does it preclude our obedience to his teaching requiring us to do things he never did.
I trust that a number of you remember the audio publication St. Anne’s Pub. Well, their reboot now has liftoff, to mix a metaphor, and this edition in on Legacy — an interview with me, my father, and my son. It was a fun business. If you want it, and why wouldn’t you?, you can go here or click the image.
“A hermeneutical rule of thumb (and quite a good one, I might add) is that unclear verses should be interpreted in the light of the clear ones. But however wise this is — and it is wise — we also have to distinguish between verses which are unclear, and verses that are excruciatingly clear but which conflict with the received interpretation” (Against the Church, p. 185).
“Not only do we speak biblically when we call the baptismal font the laver of regeneration (which it certainly is), we also speak biblically when we say of multitudes who have been presented at that very same font, that they are vipers, sons of the devil, unwashed pigs, whitewashed tombs, blind guides, tares planted by the enemy, unfruitful branches and clouds without rain — in short, unregenerate” (Against the Church, p. 183).