Monthly Letter, August 2022

Dear Friends,

‘Speeches that changed the world.’ It’s the enticing title of a book by Simon Montefiore.

He didn’t write these speeches, of course! He simply brought together some famous ‘speeches’ (over 50 of them) which, he argues, in one way or another, changed the course of history. In each case he gives a bit of background, but by and large his concern is simply to let the speeches .. well, speak for themselves.

And, without it ever being stated as such, he’s pointing to the power of the word: the spoken word, explicitly – but, by the very fact that he’s brought them together in a book and declares that “we should know ALL these speeches”, implicitly also the written word.

It prompted me to reflect a bit on the ‘speeches’ which have changed my world: those sermons, addresses, and messages over the years through which the Lord by His Spirit impacted my mind and heart so profoundly that my life and living was changed.

Few, if any, such ‘speeches’ have had such a great and significant effect upon my whole experience, as a couple of conference addresses which Sinclair Ferguson gave at an annual January gathering of the Crieff Fellowship almost 40 years ago. The year was 1984 and while those January gatherings in Crieff are invariably hugely refreshing, truly inspiring and rich in the spiritual fare which those ministering the Word have served, that year stands out for myself for the two great ‘keynote’ addresses which Sinclair gave: and it is no exaggeration to say that they changed my world by the fresh and more focused perspective they gave me. It was as if I’d been to a wise, astute optometrist who’d prescribed for me the glasses I clearly needed – and I suddenly saw, with a clarity I hadn’t imagined was possible, what before had been simply vague, and blurred, and indistinct.

His two addresses were on ‘The Reformed Doctrine of Sonship.’ Don’t be put off by the title! These were not two weighty, academic lectures: they’re Sinclair, the pastor, expounding the truths of Scripture, and applying those truths with all of his customary consummate grace.

To speak of ‘sonship’, however, he had to take us back, of course, to what is logically and theologically the prior, and primary, doctrine – that of the fatherhood of God: a doctrine, he explained at the outset, which has been largely neglected and ignored within the evangelical church, to our great impoverishment. And far too often, I suspect, to our considerable harm as well.

There are reasons why it’s been so much neglected, why it came to be something of a ‘no-go’ area for evangelical preachers – not the least of which has been the degree to which the ‘mantra’ of ‘the fatherhood of God’ is one that has long since been almost hijacked by rank liberalism and made the ‘flagship’ doctrine of that heresy. It’s the “We’re-a’-Jock-Tamson’s-bairns” theology, which argues from the premise that we’re all of us God’s creatures to the consequent (but suitably ambiguous) assertion that we’re all in truth God’s children, and from there to the quite fallacious verdict that not one of us needs saving and we’ll all be all right finally. No place for the cross. No need for a Saviour. No heaven or hell. God is our Father and He loves us all. A fairy-tale philosophy with the fairy-tale conclusion that they all lived happily ever after. Classic universalism.

So you can understand why evangelical preachers rather veered away from pushing this central doctrine of the fatherhood of God: they were wary of their message being misunderstood, and their leaving people comfortably complacent in the blanket of that liberal theology which had become so thoroughly pervasive through society.

Understandable, then, undoubtedly. But regrettable, also, most certainly – a fact that’s impressed itself upon me again and again in decades of pastoral ministry since Sinclair’s Crieff addresses.

‘Regrettable’ simply because the doctrine of the fatherhood of God is so very much foundational and primary that ignoring or neglecting it, or even, with a measure of embarrassment, just quietly side-lining it, is both highly detrimental to the fullness of that life believers live, and also sometimes actually quite damaging in its effects.

If you either omit or down-play this basic, biblical ‘building block’ – the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God – certain unsought consequences tend to follow.

There are, first, some crucial theological repercussions. Three in particular: three central themes of gospel proclamation which are inevitably affected by any such neglect of this great doctrine of the fatherhood of God. Three central themes which are not, of course, denied at all, but which tend to lose a little of their ‘cutting edge’.

The nature and necessity of Spirit-wrought regeneration are the first things to be compromised. Perhaps only ever so slightly compromised, but compromised, nonetheless. Yes, we are, each one of us, God’s creatures: but, no, we are not thereby God’s children: God’s children are the ‘twice-born’, those who are regenerate, those who have been marvelously, manifestly born again. Scripture is insistent – you must be born again.

‘No doctrine in Christianity is more necessary than the doctrine of the new birth,’ declared the German Lutheran clergyman A H Francke some 300 years or so ago: and half a century later the same conviction was laid on the hearts of the leaders of the ‘Great Awakening’, both John Wesley and George Whitefield insisting that it was nothing less than the re-discovery of the complementary doctrines of regeneration and justification by faith which under God triggered that astonishing period of revival.

There’s a dearth of such preaching and teaching today, however, in evangelical circles. Reference is certainly made to the need to be born again, but there’s little in the way of the rich, substantial teaching which a former generation was so careful to give on the theme.

And little to show for it as well, in consequence. Why’s that? I think, in part at least, it’s as simple as this: the prior doctrine of the fatherhood of God has been too much neglected. There is a direct connection.

The second great doctrine to suffer, I fear, from the lack of any great prominence given to the fatherhood of God, is that of our adoption into the family of God. The sonship of Jesus and the fatherhood of God belong intrinsically together. Obviously.

What does that ‘adoption to sonship’ (as Paul puts it in Romans 8.15) – what does that mean and entail? It means we cry ‘Abba, Father’: it means we now know what it is to be children of God: it means we are together family. That’s why Jesus when asked by His clueless disciples (we’re most times as clueless as they were, of course!) – when asked how to pray, He replied with these words: “.. when you pray, say, ‘Father ..” (Lk.11.2). And that’s why Paul in his letters spends so much time underlining the bonds that we have with each other, as those who are now brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing a common birth, living a common life, and bound by a common love.

But this great theme of adoption, you can readily see, also has its roots and gets its substance from the fatherhood of God. We neglect the latter, therefore, at our peril and to our great impoverishment. For the more we have savoured and find ourselves succoured on the fatherhood of God, the more we become – not just in name, but in rich, experienced reality – a family. Some 29 months or so ago, we discerned under God the prompting of His Spirit to be working at being just that, namely family. And that can surely only begin with a clearer, fuller grasp and understanding of the fatherhood of God.

There’s a third important theme which has its roots right back in the fatherhood of God: and that’s the issue of God’s work of sanctification. The Spirit of God who made us alive and placed us in Christ is intent on transforming our lives. Making us holy. Making us pure. Making us more and more human.

Conforming us ‘to the image of His Son’, as it’s put in Paul’s climactic exposition of the great eternal purpose of the living God, which takes us to the pinnacle of grace. Being made not simply like Jesus, but being made like Jesus as God’s Son. That takes us close to the heart of the gospel, and it’s all (and always) bound up with the fatherhood of God. ‘Behold the amazing gift of love the Father has bestowed on us, the sinful sons of men, to call us sons of God ..’

That’s where the Spirit’s work of sanctifying grace is headed, where He’s taking us. And for us to fully comprehend the magnitude and glory of that sanctifying work, we therefore need again a fully-rounded, thorough-going acquaintance with the fatherhood of God.

So much for the theological ramifications. There’s pastoral fall-out, too, from the dearth there’s often been in evangelical life of clear teaching on the fatherhood of God.

The first big pastoral fall-out is the extent to which that relative dearth has kept people often at arm’s length from the Lord. I recall a man telling me once (long ago now) that it had taken him 25 years – 25 difficult, tortuous years – finally to lay hold of the hand of the Saviour: and when I asked him why it had taken him all that time, he told me, with tears in his eyes, that it was because of the abuse he’d known from his father in his earliest years. His view of God had been long since defined by the traits of an abusive father and he couldn’t bring himself to get close to such a God.

It’s a story I’ve seen repeatedly. Like a man here in Aberdeen who died while barely in his fifties: a man who knew what he needed to do in entrusting his life to the Lord, but who could not bring himself to do it – because of the abuse that he’d known from his father: it was psychologically or emotionally too traumatic a thing for him to expose himself to any ‘authority figure’ again, such was the nightmare he’d known.

In some ways the only pastoral remedy for that is the patient, persistent exposure a person is given to that essential and original fatherhood of God, so profoundly and perfectly seen in the person of Jesus: the final contradiction of the wretched, wicked counterfeit the person’s previously known. ‘There is a higher throne than all this world has known,’ yes. And, yes, there is a better Father than any, even the best, this world has known.

I was singularly blessed with a wonderful father, for which I’m lastingly thankful. So many, sadly, aren’t.

The second big pastoral fall-out is the frequency with which that relative dearth of teaching on the fatherhood of God has issued in an inappropriate relationship being formed and then embraced. We were made by God and made for God; made for sonship, to rejoice in His glorious fatherhood. Remember how Luke’s long genealogy of Jesus comes to an end – “.. the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” 

We were made for that relationship. Your earthly father was there, under God, to point you to Him, and to lead you to Him, that having done so he might then leave you with Him as your heavenly Father, when he as your pedagogue father has left this earthly life.

The better your earthly father has been (not least in that role) the more of course you will miss him the moment he’s gone. And if there’s been a dearth of any teaching on the fatherhood of God, the passing of a father, more perhaps than anything, creates a massive void within the human heart.

It isn’t only nature which supposedly abhors a vacuum: the human heart’s the same. And where there’s no experiential knowledge of the fatherhood of God, the vacuum in the wake of such bereavement too often quickly sucks a person into relationship with another, in whose ‘father-figure’ love and care and friendship they will find some ready solace for their desolating grief; and too often and too quickly a relationship is grown which can then in time be found to be unhealthy, domineering, or just out of line with God.

Not least for that reason, I’m so profoundly thankful to God for the ministry Sinclair exercised at Crieff in January 1984. Because in September 1984 my father died. I miss him hugely still, 38 years down the line. But Sinclair’s two addresses on ‘The Reformed Doctrine of Sonship’, his gracious exposition of the rich and foundational truth of the fatherhood of God – that timely, pastoral ministry as much as anything else was what, in the kind and sovereign providence of God, enabled me to cope. By the time my earthly father passed out of sight I was already resting and rejoicing in the fatherhood of God.

My Dad had done his work: my pastors had done theirs too. And my Dad went home to his Father in heaven, my heart had now been well prepared, and I slipped from the grace of my earthly father’s love to the lasting, warm embrace of our Father in heaven.

“Lord, show us the Father,” pleaded Philip, “and that will be enough for us” (Jn.14.8). Jesus did. And that must ever be the aim of Christian ministry.

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton