Look at it this way. Back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked with God. They were God’s household. It was no mere metaphor. They enjoyed communion with the Almighty in a very tangible, immediate way.
For a while, they did not sin. With one exception, they didn’t know how to sin. But they fell, and the Creation was cursed. Because sin cannot exist in Eden, Eden had to be taken away.
Today, by means of the Spirit, we enjoy God’s presence. Just as God dwelled with the Israelites in the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple, God dwells in each of us and in his church (especially) through his Spirit. He not only lives, he lives in and with us!
And his presence transforms us so that worship is not obedience to commands but a heartfelt desire, an expression of love leaping from the heart. It’s what we want to do. Just so, serving God and fleeing sin become the most natural things possible. It’s what we want to do.
But, of course, until the Resurrection, we still sin, and so we need forgiveness. But forgiveness is not the point. The point is becoming God’s person — someone who doesn’t even want to sin and who desperately wants to serve God.
The Prodigal Son
Is the gospel salvation? Oh, yes! Is it forgiveness? Oh, yes! Is it just forgiveness? Oh, no, it’s much more.
When the prodigal son returned to his Father, the first step was forgiveness. Relationship had to be restored. The sin had to be admitted, repented of, and forgiven. That’s the start.
But the son’s new relationship with his Father was not centered on forgiveness. Well, it was while he was on the road, but not for long. Soon it was time to celebrate, live to together, enjoy one another’s presence, eat together, and to get to work being about the Father’s business.
The son would, inevitably, sin again, and his Father surely was prepared to forgive again. But their relationship was not centered on sin, forgiveness, and sinning again. Their relationship centered on the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s response in acting as a faithful son should act.
You see, thanks to 500 years of Reformation theology, we treat the gospel as being about nothing but salvation by faith — but it’s much, much more. Forgiveness is just the door back into our Father’s household.
For the first time
Imagine that the prodigal son, alone in the pigsty, decides to be rescued from his sorry state. And so he goes over to his car, puts his hand on the radio, and says, “I believe that the man I rebelled against is my father.” Well, he’d still be with the pigs!
He was rescued (saved) because he humbled himself, deciding he was ready to be a servant in his father’s household. He was willing to go from being a slave to his sin and degradation to being a slave in the service of his father. He learned true humility. He learned to call someone other than himself “lord.”
And as a result, the Father freed him from sin and degradation but also from servitude in his own home. After all, he was no longer in rebellion. His heart was changed. Finally, he was willing to be a son.
You see, when he asked for his inheritance, he was telling his father he was dead to him. After all, no one inherits from a living man. And yet his father gave him what he asked, suffering the insult. The prodigal son had never really been a son.
But when he returned, by his humiliation he learned the essence of sonship — he learned to honor his father and to accept whatever lot his father might choose for him. And because of this, the Father treated him as the true son he’d become — for the first time.
We were never meant for sin. It seems so natural and addictive. It’s so hard to escape. And yet, in those times when we do escape and find ourselves willingly in God’s service, we find ourselves becoming truly human, truly the beings God intended us to be.
And, fortunately, we have help in this task. God pours his Spirit into us so that we’ll change, so that sin will make us miserable and service in the Kingdom will give us delight. And although we’d be content to be slaves in God’s household, he lifts us up and calls us son.
Oh, and communion is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet (Rev 3:20), where we’ll sit with God and eat the fatted calf, wearing a robe (Rev 7:9).
I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going to try and get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
— Joni Mitchell
Unlike Ms. Mitchell, I don’t think the solution is to attend a rock and roll concert, but this much is right: we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
What if we thought of the Sermon on the Mount, not as new law or as proof we need grace, but as a roadmap to becoming truly human?