Abba

Years ago in seminary one of my professors asked me, “Do you see yourself as a mystic?” The question startled me since it didn’t have any context! I had never claimed to be a mystic. In fact the idea had never crossed my mind. But it did alert me to a likely difference in our views.

I was honestly puzzled. “It depends on what you mean by mysticism,” I answered. “If it means we get to experience God’s presence in some direct fashion, then yes. Paul twice wrote of the Spirit in us inviting all of us to call God ‘Abba.’ And from time to time I’ve had moments when I’ve clearly sensed God’s love for me. But other than that, no.” That ended our exchange but it stirred my thinking. And it still makes me reflect on the range of views found among Christians.

Here are the two passages I had in mind in that distant exchange. The first is from Galatians 4:6. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

The second is Romans 8:15-17—“you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…”

I was recently reminded of this exchange when some friends told me how their son was doing. One story was of his meeting a young woman at church. In time he asked about her conversion, assuming it would be a single event. Instead it came in two parts. “I was baptized as an infant and then I completed my catechism in middle school—that’s when I joined the church.” It was a wake-up call for him about what faith involves in various traditions.

Let me pick up my point for the day with these two stories in mind. By now many of us are familiar with the gap that can exist between a more creedal faith—based on truths affirmed by a church and taught in a catechism. And, separately, faith based on a campfire conversion or from an evangelist’s invitation to “receive Jesus in your heart.” One is a process; the other an event.

I hope we can agree that these two models of faith aren’t formally opposed. A good catechism can produce a spiritual awakening that a campfire conversion calls for. And the campfire conversion can launch an appetite for training in faith that matches or even swamps what creedal coursework offers. The two can coexist—something Martin Luther recognized in the mid-1520’s when he wrote his own catechism for spiritually anemic German churches. He did this even as he held that living faith is only achieved by the Spirit’s work. We love God only because he first loved us and then awakens our hearts to respond to his love in faith.

Of course we can, all too often, take very strongly opposed views and throw verbal bricks back and forth. One side can claim the other side ignores God’s truth when they dismiss carefully tested confessions of faith. Such untrained faith, they insist, relies on sketchy emotions. And the other side can complain that head-knowledge has been substituted for heart-knowledge despite Christ’s insistence that a living faith always maintains a heartfelt devotion to God and neighbors.

Let’s return to our “Abba” texts either to dismiss our alternatives or to affirm them—depending on our response. The Spirit happily “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” so that we’re inwardly assured of God’s love. This Spirit-to-spirit communion is also affirmed in 1 Corinthian 2:12 as a basis for sound doctrine: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”

And Paul also reminds us that all who know Christ—whether by a campfire conversion or a catechetical discovery—will evidence the Spirit’s presence with his “fruit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

So here’s a practical step for Christians who are busy challenging the fidelity of the faith in other Christians. Ask, instead, “Abba Father, please give me your heart.” Be assured: he’s happy to pour out the Spirit’s love in our hearts. And he’s the same Spirit Jesus relied on in his earthly ministry. And that’s what sets out the ultimate mark of authentic Christianity.

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