“ Because we are saved by faith, what we say we believe matters. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” Paul told the Romans, “and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, (then) you will be saved” (10:9). And so, more than once, through the years, I’ve been questioned about my beliefs. I’ve been asked about what I believe when I’ve joined a church, when I went to seminary, when I became a candidate for ordination, when I’ve met with pulpit committees, when I’ve taught classes and Bible studies, when I’ve met with church members and prospects, at hospital bedsides and cemetery gravesides. Well-meaning people have grilled me hard about my faith convictions and then welcomed me into their circle when they agreed with what I told them I believed, or treated me as something of a project – someone to be straightened out – when they didn’t. And I get it, I really do. After all, I’m someone whose whole life has been devoted to his faith seeking understanding.
I’m inclined to agree with A.W. Tozer’s familiar observation that what a person believes about God is the most important thing about them because what a person believes about God has momentous consequences, not just for eternity, but for the here and now as well. If you believe that God is just, then you will strive to be just yourself. If you believe that God is righteous, then you will pursue righteousness yourself. If you believe that God is merciful, then you will try to be merciful yourself. If you believe that God is generous and kind, then generosity and kindness will begin to increasingly characterize the way you live. And if you believe that God is welcoming and affirming, then you will become increasingly welcoming and affirming yourself. What we believe about God matters spiritually and morally. But I’m not sure that what we believe about God is the first question that needs to be asked and answered by us. The late John Claypool, widely regarded as one of the great American preachers of the 20th century, wrote –
From time to time, in church or elsewhere, you have probably been asked what you believe about Jesus, and this is an exceedingly important question. [The turning point in the Gospel story of Jesus was when He asked His disciples – “Who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:15)? Answering the question – “What think ye of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42) – is what makes is Christians.] However, I want to turn the issue around and ask, “What does Jesus believe about you?” (73)
It’s what we believe about God that shapes and directs how we behave, and that’s not unimportant. And it’s what God believes about us that shapes and directs how God behaves, and there’s nothing that’s more important than that! How God relates to us is determined by what God thinks of us, and I get a strong sense of what God thinks of us from Matthew 3:13-17, the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan by John, and what God said to Him when He came up out of the water – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (3:17).
I believe in something called “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace refers to the way that God’s grace always precedes the response of human faith. “Pre” means “before. “Venient” means “to come.” “Prevenient” refers to something that “comes before.” Before we think about God, God has already thought about us. Before we go looking for God, God has already come looking for us. Before we believe in God, God already believes in us. It’s prevenient grace that drives the Parables of Luke 15, perhaps the most famous and among the most beloved stories that Jesus ever told – one about the shepherd who went looking for his lost lamb (15:3-7); and another one about the woman who went looking for her lost coin (15:8-10); and the one about the Father who never gave up on his sons – the one who was lost in the far country, and the other one who got lost at home (15:11-32). In each case, it was love that drove the search. That shepherd loved his little lamb. That woman loved her precious coin. That father loved his two boys. Their value – the value of the lamb, the value of the coin, and the value of the sons – was established long before they got lost and the search for them was launched.
I have a good friend in Dallas who, whenever he’s asked when he got saved, doesn’t talk about the day he went forward in church, or the day he got baptized, but instead says that it happened 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, ministered in grace and truth in Galilee, and was crucified and raised from the dead in Jerusalem. That’s an affirmation of Prevenient Grace. Long before we cross the threshold of faith saying that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior, God has crossed the threshold of time and space coming in search of us. Technically, when my friend says that he got saved with the coming of Christ in human history, he’s wrong. Long before the coming of Christ became the event that we read about in our Bibles, the coming of Christ was something that got decided in the eternal purpose of God.
Revelation 13:8 says that “the Lamb [was] slain from the foundation of the world.” Some Christians talk about this as the “eternal” or “everlasting” covenant. It says that long before the first word of creation was spoken, that God had already decided on what He was going to so when the world went sideways through the choices we make. When we turn and walk away from God, God doesn’t just stand there surprised and confused, no, God comes after us. When Gardner Taylor, the great African American preacher who was described as having a voice like God’s “only deeper,” was asked: “Does the Bible have a point?” – he answered – “Sure it does – the Bible is about how God is out to get back what belongs to Him!” And God’s decision to do this – to come after us when we wander off – is rooted in what God thinks of us, in how God values us, and that’s what I hear in the Father’s words spoken to His Son when He came up out of the waters of His baptism – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
While Scripture is very clear about the utterly unique relationship that exists between God the Father and God the Son, Scripture is equally clear that the reason why God the Son became flesh and dwelt among us was so that we might be restored to our proper place in God’s family as His sons and daughters. And so, while on our first read through Matthew 3:17 – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” – we should probably hear it as an affirmation of the unique status of Jesus Christ as the “only begotten Son of God,” and then on our second read through it, we should probably hear it as God’s declaration of what he thinks of us as well. As Tim Keller explains, “In Christianity, the moment we believe, God says, ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’” And the only quibble that I have with this statement is that I don’t believe that it’s when we first believe that God says this of us, but rather, that it goes all the way back to the foundations of the earth, to the Lamb who was slain from eternity’s beginnings.
You see, it’s not insignificant that God said –“this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” – at the start of the public ministry of Jesus Christ, long before He had said or done anything particularly “Messianic.” Jesus didn’t earn this affirmation by His performance. It was “prevenient,” it “came before,” and so does ours. Just as Jesus Christ was God’s “beloved” and “well-pleasing” to God because God chose to love Him and because God decided to favor Him, so we are God’s “beloved,” and we are “well-pleasing” to God because this is something that God settled at the foundation of the world.
We can’t earn “beloved.” It can only be offered. Being called God’s “beloved” has a long history in the Biblical tradition. Go home this afternoon and take the twenty minutes that’s required to read through the Old Testament book of the Song of Solomon. If you’ve never done this before, then I guarantee that you are going to be surprised. On the surface, there’s nothing terribly transcendent about this little book. If you’ve ever fallen in love with somebody, then the Song of Solomon is going to be familiar terrain. It’s just a love poem full of the passion of courtship. But to the Biblical mystics, both Jewish and Christian, the Song of Solomon is a parable – a story about a common human experience that serves as an open window into the ways and will of God. Just as the story of young lovers is a story of passion and pursuit, so in the story that the Bible tells, God pursues us passionately. That’s what it means to be “beloved,” and so we are by God.
If the talk about being “well-pleasing” to God sounds familiar, it’s because it was Christmas, and we just heard the angels singing to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks the night when Jesus was born – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is well-pleased” (Luke 2:14). The root word translated “well-pleasing” is grace, and grace means favor. Pastor Mark Lauterbach told the people of his congregation to close their eyes and to imagine looking up into the face of God. And then he asked them – “What did you see?” “What was the mood of God’s face?” “What was the look in God’s eyes?” Was it disappointment? Disapproval? Criticism? Condemnation? Or, was it delight?
I’m going to give you a verse to live with all week long. It’s Zephaniah 3:17. I think I’m safe in saying that Zephaniah is nobody’s favorite book of the Bible. In fact, most of us don’t even know that there is a book of Zephaniah in the Bible, and that means that we’ve never seen Zephaniah 3:17 before, and that’s too bad because this is one of the Bible’s most dazzling verses.
The Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will dance [rejoice] over you with joyful songs.
God delights in you with gladness. God dances over you with joyful songs. You are His beloved in whom He is well-pleased.
It was a tradition of the church that I served in Dallas to ask each person who came to be baptized to write a personal “Credo” – an “I believe” statement of faith that could be read by an elder from the pulpit before they were immersed. Most of the “Credos” I heard through the years were short and predictable. People typically talked in John 3:16 sorts of ways about their experiences of believing in Jesus Christ, being born again, and receiving forgiveness and eternal life as the result. It was pretty much “Christianity 101” each and every time – standard, solid, simple, Scriptural statements of faith. And then we baptized her. She came to the church through our Divorce Recovery ministry. She had been shattered by an unexpected divorce. Her husband came home from work one day and told her that he didn’t love her anymore, that he had fallen in love with his secretary instead and that they were going to get married and live the life that she had lived with him for more than a decade. This woman came to church broken. Her self-worth had been decimated. Her life’s purpose had been destroyed. She experienced the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a life preserver thrown to a drowning person. She grabbed hold of it and refused to let go.
On her baptism Sunday, this woman took God the Father’s affirmation of Jesus Christ on the day of His baptism – “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” – and she applied them to herself! In her “Credo” she told the church that her baptism was her public acceptance of God’s estimation of her value as a person. “I am a beloved child of God,” she told us, “God is well-pleased with me.” And she was right. We all are. All of us sitting here in church this morning, and everyone we will meet this week – “beloved” and “favored” – not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Not because of what we do, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Not because of what we decide, but because what God decided at the foundation of the earth.