Leo Tolstoy began his classic novel, Anna Karenina, with these words, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I do not know the various ways in which your extended family struggles. For some, deep pain resides. For others, small grievances make life tolerable but uncomfortable. For yet others, anger and shouting are as common at Christmas as the tree and presents. But though we all have our own crosses to bear, I believe there is a common way to approach the issue of speaking the word of God to our extended families, and that is my attempt here.
The first domino that must fall in our understanding of ourselves is to see that those of us in Christ are complete, full-bodied, mature ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).
We tend to see ourselves inside the extended family unit as we once were rather than as we currently are. For us younger guys, that means we tend to see ourselves as the kid we once were rather than the adult we have now become. For us older guys, we may still see ourselves as the parent we once were instead of the grandfather we are now. Being around extended family has a way of keeping us in the mindset of the past. But the gospel gives us a message that pushes us toward a hopeful future. We are ambassadors for Christ.
Kevin Vanhoozer says, “Justification carries with it appointment to an office that authorizes those who have been justified to serve as ‘ambassadors for Christ.’” When we understand that God has justified us in Christ, we begin to see the world through a different filter. We are no longer proving ourselves; we have been proven. We are no longer waiting for the mission; we have become a missionary. We are no longer wondering what will come of us; we know our future with certainty.
Vanhoozer goes on to say, “To the extent that we respond to his lordship, an external authority, we become freer to act as his authorized agents on earth, thus fulfilling the promise of our created image.” This connection is vital. The question is: do we understand what has happened to us? There is a sequence of thought, which taken to its logical conclusion, will lead us to not merely a desire to speak the word of God to our extended family, but a responsibility to do so.
The sequence is as follows: the lordship of Jesus, our free justification and adoption, and our authorization as ambassadors for Christ.
The Lordship of Jesus
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God. That title is not merely familial language, though it is that. It is more than a son as you and I think of ourselves. Jesus, the Son of God, is the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb. 1:3). Jesus isn’t merely a son – a descendant – of God. He is God, the Son (John 1:14; Luke 3:22). God is one God in three persons (John 14:16-17). Using traditional language, Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. He is the eternally begotten Son of God with all authority given over to him (Matt. 28:18). He is Lord, not just of our lives, but the entire cosmos (Acts 10:36). He entered our world and made himself like us to save us from the wrath of God (Phil. 2:8). Jesus is the Lord who is also our Savior.
But we tend to think of Jesus as a buddy to help us rather than God to rule us. That’s because the world has infiltrated our thinking. We live in an age where lordship means nothing. We elect a new president, and he becomes “not our president” if we disagree. We attend a new church and leave if we don’t like a certain aspect that falls in the category of preference. We quit jobs because the boss is too exacting. On and on it goes, until we find ourselves not even able to agree on how to define gender, of all things. What should be obvious and easily definable becomes opaque.
Jesus is not just our buddy. He is our Lord. But under his lordship, we are not slaves living in fear. We are slaves to righteousness and joy (Rom. 6:18). We have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the Son of God (Col. 1:13).
The lordship of Jesus is non-negotiable. If we have been saved by him, we have come under his rule. But even if we haven’t been saved by him, he still rules (Heb. 1:3). We are just refusing to submit to him and rebel against the king of the universe. As I tell my kids all the time, you are not in charge. There is a God, and he is in charge. Drill down to the bedrock bottom of the universe, and you find the eternal God presiding over it all (Gen. 1:1). We didn’t create him, and we can’t change him. He is there, and he is not leaving. He is Lord.
Now, the next in the sequence will tell us how this Lord rules.
Our Free Justification and Adoption
Jesus is unlike any ruler we’ve ever known. All earthly rulers tend toward harshness and cruelty. It just happens because the human heart is wicked (Jer. 17:9). But Jesus is no cruel dictator. He is a kind servant (Phil. 2). Let’s think this through. What is the message of the gospel?
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). You and I fall inside of the all. We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We cannot escape this reality. Look inside yourself long enough, and you’ll find evil intentions, evil thoughts, evil desires. Look at your outward actions, and you’ll find evil that sprung from the heart (Matt. 15:19). We have not done bad things merely to ourselves or other people, but ultimately to God (Ps. 51:4). Our first sin is always unbelief in God (Gen. 3; Heb. 3:12).
How does God respond? God is patient toward you, not wishing that you should parish but that you should reach repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). God would rather redeem you than destroy you. What we deserve is the death penalty but what he has given us is a place in the family.
The theological term by which we have been made right with God is “justification.” It’s not that he has merely forgiven us. To do so would be gracious and merciful. But God has done more than that. He has restored us (1 Pet. 5:10). He has reconciled us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18). He has bought us with his own blood (1 Pet. 1:17-19).
We who believe in Christ for our salvation have been completely and freely justified by his grace by his life, death, and resurrection (Rom. 5:1). We are no longer enemies of God because God chose to befriend us (Eph. 2:14-16).
When we begin to see this, we begin to see that we have nothing to prove to God. He’s not waiting on our goodness to get us to heaven. He came down from heaven in his goodness to rescue us (Matt. 1:21). We are clear before his holiness. We have come inside the courtroom of his justice and been declared innocent (Rom. 5:8-10). It’s not only that he sees us as forgiven sinners. Because of Christ, he sees us as if we had never sinned at all. We aren’t just wiped clean of a guilty conscience; we’re given a new life altogether. We’ve been reborn, recreated, redeemed.
Lord Jesus has freely justified us before the Father. But more than that! He’s made us family members. The theological term is “adoption.” Jesus is the true and better older brother who goes and rescues his little brother out of the pig-sty, cleans us up, and brings us home with a smile on his face (Luke 15:11-32). He’s not ashamed to call us brothers (Heb. 2:11) because he made himself like us (Heb. 2:14). “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 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.” (Gal. 4:4-7)
We have a role to play in God’s kingdom. Our Father is King of the universe; we can take a risk. We are authorized.
Our Authorization as Ambassadors for Christ.
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20).
An ambassador is an official representative. He speaks not for himself but on behalf of another. Surprisingly, Paul became and ambassador for Christ. He saw the lordship of Jesus and was converted from a murderous Jew into a gracious Christian (Acts 9). Furthermore, he was authorized by Jesus as an apostle to take the word of God to the Gentiles – to the ends of the earth (Gal. 2; 2 Cor. 5). Paul, who wanted to kill those who spread the good news in the Jewish world, became the one through whom the good news went into the entire world. He was authorized as an official representative of Jesus.
In our family, there is one dynamic always present: authority. Who has authority to say what to whom? The words of grandparents weigh heavy, no one listens to the crazy uncle, and the kid’s table is cute but unauthorized. As we age, our place in the family changes but the dynamics stay, generally, the same. We are creatures of habit and environment, no matter how much we want to think differently.
Many of us want to prove our worth, especially to our families. We want them to be proud of us. We want to be accepted by them. We wait for their validation of our lifestyle, our profession, our accomplishments. How many of us could win the prize of the century and still feel like nothing until our family stands and applauds? So, when it comes to sharing the gospel with them, we simply follow family rules. We forget the lordship of Jesus, our free justification, and our authorization as ambassadors. What would change if you understood these three realities? What would you say? How would you say it?
Nearly every one of us has a family member that we can’t imagine will ever believe the gospel. We can feel so weak. Paul felt weak in his life, too. He tells us how he asked the Lord to help him. And God responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). What we see as inadequacy he uses as power. Our weakness is no excuse before God because he has not left us to figure this out on our own. He has given us the Holy Spirit. If we trust his leading, he will give us both the opportunities and the power to speak the word of God to our families. Furthermore, it is not we who do the saving. God does. We are simply heralds of the King. Let’s just be open enough to be used by him and see what only God can do in our families.