‘I write to you fathers because you have known him [God] who is from the beginning’ (1 John 2:13).
Clearly, every believer knows God, even the most recent convert. Indeed, this is particularly true of ‘children’ because the kind of maturity implied by this statement stems from an experience of the fatherhood of God.
Wisdom and foolishness
This maturity is the birthright of every believer. It is a maturity of knowledge and understanding of the things of God. Of course, Christians are to ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18). In that sense, they become more mature as time passes. But the maturity which John addresses here is that which consists in a knowledge of God.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul describes this maturity, this wisdom, that is the believer’s birthright. Believers are wise, he declares, by contrast with the world.
He explains that the knowledge of God is not accessible to human wisdom: ‘Where is the wise, where is the scribe, where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:20-21).
The wisdom of men has its place, no doubt, in God’s providential scheme for this world. But Paul declares that the world’s wisdom is ultimately foolish. Why? Because human philosophy, science, art or culture can never put us in touch with the living God.
Here lies the fallacy in many people’s thinking. They believe that human activity can somehow bring them into a meaningful relationship with God. But, of course, it cannot do so, because by nature we are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
We are estranged from God, and no amount of human effort, religion, knowledge or research can ever bridge that gap. It has to be something that God does in his almighty power.
He has to reach down to those who are spiritually dead and bring them to life. Only then can they begin to understand the things of God. And that is exactly what has happened to the true believer.
Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2:6. Having rejected human wisdom as the means of knowing God, he hastens to add that believers do not reject wisdom as such, but only the wisdom of the flesh.
Those who know God, he says, possess a special kind of wisdom: ‘we speak wisdom among those who are mature. Yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are coming to nothing, but we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory. Which none of the rulers of this age knew, for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’.
Believers have a wisdom that God ordained before the ages to give them glory, but which he has hidden from the natural man. What is that wisdom? It is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Wisdom from above
The gospel is the wisdom that God, in almighty and sovereign power, has been implementing throughout human history. It is the wisdom according to which God brings to life those who were spiritually dead and draws them to himself.
But it is also the wisdom he imparts to those who are so drawn. In John 3 we read about a very learned man, Nicodemus. John calls him not just ‘a ruler of the Jews’ but ‘the teacher of Israel’.
In effect, Christ said to him: ‘You, whose eminent role is to instruct and teach Israel about the things of God, do not understand the need to be born again. Unless a person is born again, he has no wisdom, for he cannot see the kingdom of God’.
This divine and ‘hidden’ wisdom is what Paul characterises in 1 Corinthians 2:16 as ‘the mind of Christ’. It can only be acquired through spiritual birth.
That is the starting point. You cannot begin to acquire this wisdom, the status of ‘fathers’ in the eyes of God, until spiritual life has been imparted to the soul. That is what being a Christian is all about. It is a work of God in the soul of man.
What God does
Many people think of Christianity as ‘something we do’. We go to church, sing hymns, subscribe to certain articles of faith. We adopt a certain life-style, avoiding things that are prohibited and doing things which are encouraged.
To the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians, religion is all about what we do. But that is completely the wrong way round. Christianity is all about what God does in us.
The dead man cannot bring himself to life, but God raises the spiritually dead. God the Holy Spirit comes into a mind and heart that are utterly ignorant of God and imparts a desire for God and a knowledge of God. The love of God is shed abroad in the enlightened heart.
Immediately, we realise that there is such a thing as a spiritual world; that God is real; that the commandments of God are more important than the commandments of men; that pleasing God is more important than pleasing men or pleasing ourselves; that our relationship with God is the most fundamental thing about our existence.
Because it is an eternal relationship it does not end when we die. All our relationships with other people, no matter how sweet and precious or long-lived they may be, will be severed by death. But the believer’s relationship with God will never end.
As the Spirit of God opens our eyes, therefore, the wisdom of the gospel is imparted to us. We see Jesus, we understand what he was doing when he hung upon the cross. We comprehend who he is and what he has done for us. We understand the depths of his mercy and the riches of his grace. We know that he came into this world to give his life a ransom for many, and that we are among the beneficiaries of his atoning sacrifice.
We begin to understand, and these things become the most important things in our lives. We have been made alive in Christ, and gospel wisdom is flooding our hearts and minds, as the morning sunlight pours into a room when the curtains are flung open.
So it is when a man or woman, a boy or girl, is born of the Spirit. The sunlight of God’s wisdom floods in like light, ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
It fills the soul with a wisdom, a maturity, that transcends the wisdom of this world. Believers are like mature people, ‘fathers’, because they know God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally, because even the youngest believer is wise, he can become a ‘parent’ to others. In other words, believers are like fathers because, having received wisdom from God, they are able to teach that wisdom to others.
Paul rejoiced again and again that he was a spiritual parent to those who had come to faith in Christ through his preaching. By making this claim, of course, he was not usurping the fatherhood of God. He was merely an intermediary, bringing the gospel to his hearers and bringing them to the Father through Jesus Christ.
All believers have the ability (and are privileged) to proclaim the gospel to others. They do so, not necessarily or even normally from the pulpit, but in their conversation and normal daily contact with those around them.
They can, therefore, be ‘fathers’ begetting their own spiritual children by bringing others to the knowledge of God that they themselves have been given by grace. God will use their testimony to bring others to himself.
Edgar Andrews is Emeritus Professor of Materials at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former editor of Evangelical Times. This article was first published in ET in August 2001.