Adoption, conversion, faith and Christian living

This post continues a series in the book Life in the Trinity by Donald Fairbairn. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1234568.

[revised 4/27/17]

Fairbairn now addresses the related topics of adoption, conversion, faith and Christian living.

Adoption and conversion
Fairbairn locates the moment of our adoption at the point of personal belief (conversion), noting that, "our believing/receiving [Christ] makes us children of God." (pp184-5). In making this statement, Fairbairn is careful to uphold the biblical perspective that though God, in Christ, has reconciled all humans to himself in and through the Christ (via the "hypostatic union" of the divine and human natures in one Person), it is those who, enlightened by the Spirit, receive Christ in faith, with repentance who are "born again" (John's term) and so are "adopted" (Paul's term) becoming "children of God" through the work of the Spirit who unites them with Christ (in what we might refer to as a "spiritual union").

As Paul makes clear, God reconciled all humanity to himself, in Christ, when we were "dead in...[our] trespasses and sins..." (Eph 2:1). And then, as Fairbairn notes, it is at conversion (which itself is God's gift of grace---the work of the Holy Spirit), that a person is born again and so enters into the reconciled life that is theirs in Christ becoming a child of God by adoption. As a believer shares in Jesus' believing, they actively and thus transformingly experience Jesus' own relationship with his Father. We refer to these believers as "Christians" - the gospels calls them disciples (followers) of Jesus. To follow Jesus is to actively, by the Spirit, share in our Lord's living and loving, and thus in his relationship with his Father and with all humanity, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Faith and works
Concerning the faith that accompanies our adoption as children of God, Fairbairn notes that evangelicals often get tied up in knots trying to define faith in ways that separate it from works. Certainly, we want to be clear that we do not, and indeed cannot, earn our salvation (adoption) by our works. However, to focus so much on what constitutes faith, and faith's "mechanics," inadvertently can turn believing into a human work, placing the focus back on ourselves. Fairbairn comments:
The fathers of the church did not normally try to define what faith was, and they certainly did not try to delineate which religious activities belonged in the category of works and which belonged in the category of faith. Instead, they wrote of faith by writing about the one toward whom we are to direct our faith. They wrote endlessly about God the Trinity...[and] modeled faith in God the Trinity by directing everyone's gaze toward God but did not articulate what it meant to have faith. (pp187-8)
The patristic fathers understood that everyone has faith - all believe in something. And so they focused on the true and only saving object of faith, namely our triune God, and specifically the person and work of Jesus Christ. And so Fairbairn concludes...
It is perhaps appropriate today for evangelicals to spend less time seeking to nail down exactly what faith is and instead to point other people to the only one who is truly worthy of their faith, Jesus Christ. Conversion to Christianity is not so much a process of gaining faith where one had none before as it is a process of transferring one's trust from whatever or whomever one was trusting previously to Christ alone. (p188)
Christian Living
Concerning the Christian life, Fairbairn rightly notes that "our union to Christ is deepened by our continued adherence to him... In Christ we become more and more who we already are (that is, by remaining in Christ we begin more and more to reflect his character and thus to be more and more sanctified)." (p207)

Fairbairn carefully emphasizes that this sanctification, like our justification, is God's work of grace in us through the Spirit who unites us to Christ. We are not saved (justified) by faith and then sanctified by our own effort (works). Just as we deepen our personal experience of justification through active participation in it, so too with sanctification:
All aspects of Christian life, from beginning to end, revolve around our union with the Son and our reflection of his relationship to his Father. In a corresponding way, all aspects of Christian life involve our trust in Christ - we trust him to share his righteousness with us in sanctification just as much as we initially trusted him to share his righteousness with us in justification.... This recognition that both justification and sanctification are linked to Christ's righteousness was one of the fundamental insights of the early church, although the church fathers rarely expressed it using the words we use. Instead, they spoke of salvation as theosis, a word that emphasizes the believer's participation in the life of God. Believers are given this participation at the onset of faith and grow in it through what we call sanctification. Therefore, one may not speak of the righteousness that comes from sanctification as being our own any more than one may speak of initial justification as being our own. Instead, we come to life by union with Christ, and we grow in Christian life by remaining united with Christ, by fostering our relationship with him through the action of the Holy Spirit.... Accordingly it is important to speak of Christian life not just as growth in holiness but as cultivating and reflecting the share in the Father-Son relationship that we have been given at the beginning of Christian life (pp207-9)
How does this "cultivating and reflecting" occur?  Fairbairn, noting the Scriptural metaphors, likens it to "eating and drinking from Christ." (p214), which occurs as we practice spiritual disciplines: Scripture reading, prayer (the "practice of being in his presence") and the Lord's Supper (Eucharist). Sadly, many Christian fellowships "seriously under-emphasize" the Eucharist (p217). In contrast, the early church "made the Eucharist the central aspect of worship and celebrated it regularly (at least once a week, and in some churches several times a week or even every day)" (p217). Fairbairn reminds us that these practices are communal as well as individual. Indeed, "life in the Trinity is life in the church and involves regular participation in the worship and the mysteries Christ has entrusted to the church" (p219).

Finally, Fairbairn notes that our sharing, and thus growing in the Son's life includes sharing in suffering, "which God uses to bring about perseverance in faith and maturation of our Christian character.... Suffering is a way of both deepening our participation in the Son's relationship to the Father and reflecting that relationship in a broken world" (pp221-2).

Next time we'll conclude this series with Fairbairn, looking at his Trinitarian view of eschatology.


Pastor Jonathan said…
Hi Ted,
I've enjoyed reading your summary and review of this book over the last few weeks - thanks for taking the time to do it, I know it's been helpful to readers of the blog. I especially appreciate today's post and the way you've respectfully critiqued his understanding of conversion and when adoption takes place. As I'm sure you can guess, that was the part of the book that I had the most disagreement with when I read it a few months ago.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks Jonathan for your comment.

I would love to sit down with Fairbairn and discuss this issue. I think the difference with my view (and yours) with his, may be more one of emphasis than substance. However, it is still a critical difference.

At issue here is what the church fathers called the "Ordo Salutis" (order of salvation). In the order that I understand Scripture to teach (adn the church fathers to proclaim), God's gracious action on our behalf in and through Jesus *precedes* our personal response (faith/belief). And that includes the issue of our adoption into the triune communion.

One has to be particularly careful in reading Paul's discussion of adoption, because most of the time he is making reference to our response (or lack thereof) as believers. Nevertheless, he carefully proclaims that this personal response follows and is grounded in a preceding reality that is established fully in Jesus.

Thus our personal response, though important, does not *create* the reality. However, it does effects our awareness - enjoyment - participation in what is ours already.
Pastor Jonathan said…
I'd like to talk to him as well. What's strange to me is that we all know that adoption is accomplished through a decision made by the adopter, not the adoptee - even if the two are adults and the adoptee requests adoption it is still the adopter who makes the decision to adopt the adoptee. There is no process by which an individual can make himself someone else's adopted child yet in theology it is so often stated that the adoptee gets himself adopted by his own decision. When Fairbairn says "our believing makes us children of God" my immediate thought is "how is that possible? how can an adoptee cause his own adoption?"
Anonymous said…
Hi there,

Thank you for sharing this material from Fairbairn's book. It is most interesting.

I also suggest that the terms objective and subjective are not helpful in understanding the faith as it was given to the original disciples. Fairbairn seems to capture the importance of belief apart from these terms.

Anyway, I wish you well.

J. Richard Parker
Ting Bejo said…
Hi Ted,

Your point of diversion from D. Fairbairn is very important. In Christ all have been made alive :) Whether we participate in the theosis or not Christ atonement was for all and is a spiritual reality for all. Whether all accept this reality is another matter.

On the other hand, I am glad D. Fairbairn does not recommend over-analyzing the mechanics of faith (i.e., faith vs works). If I am correct, the apostles and the church fathers were not aware of any dichotomy between faith and obedience.