“The Love of God the Father”
Sept. 23, 2001
As we begin our expositions of Paul’s letter and, particularly, as we begin with a paragraph as rich and with so much great truth compacted in it as this opening paragraph, it is well to consider the approach we will take. There are different ways to preach through Ephesians or, for that matter, any book of the Bible. I have a volume of sermons on Ephesians by John Calvin first published in French in 1562 and then translated into English 15 years later. Calvin began preaching those sermons on Sunday morning, May 1st, 1558 and they were concluded on a Sunday morning the following March. There are 48 sermons all told covering the entire letter. That is, they represent something less than a year’s worth of morning sermons preached at St. Peter’s in Geneva.
On the other hand, Martin Lloyd Jones, a great modern preacher, began preaching his celebrated series of sermons on Ephesians at Westminster Chapel in the center of London in 1954. The series eventually extended to 230 sermons and lasted for years. If you allow for holidays and special Sundays of the year that require a different sermon, it would take some six years to preach 230 sermons on Ephesians. Indeed, there are 26 sermons devoted to the text we read this morning, chapter 1, vv. 1-14.
Now anyone who has read great preaching of either type knows that there are advantages to each approach. Lloyd-Jones is able to give thorough attention to virtually every important word and detail in Paul’s argument. Calvin, on the other hand, gives us a better sense of the natural flow of Paul’s thought. I prefer Calvin’s approach for two reasons. One, my gifts as a preacher pale in comparison to those of Martin Lloyd-Jones and I guarantee that you would weary of 230 sermons from me on Ephesians! Second, it seems to me that though preaching necessarily slows our pace through the letter, we must not lose sight of the way in which the letter would have struck its original readers, or, better, it original hearers. Obviously when Ephesians was read for the first time and then times thereafter, in the hearing of God’s people, in their consideration of what was read to them, the letter was not reduced to the microscopic examination of the details of each word, phrase and sentence, but was heard as we hear a letter, in its wholeness, its sentences and paragraphs flowing on main point to main point. Its details fit unobtrusively into the structure of the whole. As the inerrant Word of God, of course, Paul’s phrases, sentences, and paragraphs can stand the most microscopic examination and can teach us many things through closer study, but first and foremost it was a letter written to Christians about their faith and life, a letter that would have seemed to them like, well, a letter, not a theological treatise, still less a theological wordbook.
So we begin with the first large paragraph, vv. 1-14 of chapter 1, which, in Paul’s Greek is actually a single sentence! 204 words! Clause after clause building upon one another as Paul loses himself in enthusiasm for his subject. We will not devote 26 sermons to this single sentence though, to be sure, we can’t manage it in just one or two either, so dense is Paul’s thought, so compact the layers of marvelous truth.
But we begin this morning with this very important observation about this first paragraph. It is a doxology. As we read at the beginning, in v. 3, it is praise expressed to God the Father for all the reasons that Paul enumerates in the following verses. It is a New Testament equivalent to Psalm 103 where David calls upon himself to “Bless” or “Praise” the Lord and then spends the rest of the psalm enumerating the reasons why he should. And, take special note, it is praise addressed to God the Father. This entire wonderful first paragraph of Ephesians stands under the name of God the Father. And not only that first paragraph, but in an almost unique way the entire letter. At key points along the way, it is to God the Father that Paul specifically directs our attention.
In 1:17 he writes, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father may give you the Spirit of wisdom…”
In 2:18 he describes the reconciliation that Christ has effected between Jews and Gentiles by saying “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” The summum bonum, man’s highest good, is access to God the Father.
In 3:14, at an important juncture in Paul’s argument, we read, “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”
In 4:6 he puts in the climactic place in a series of things that Christians hold in common, “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
In 5:20 he exhorts us to give our thanks for life and salvation to God the Father.
And he concludes his letter in 6:23, as he began it, with a reference to God the Father as the source of all our blessing.
And there are more references than that, references that do not explicitly refer to God as Father but clearly intend us to understand that what is being said about God is being said about God the Father, the first person of the Triune God. For example, at the beginning of another key section in the letter, in 2:4, Paul writes, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions…” The reference to Christ indicates that the God mentioned earlier in that sentence is, in fact, God the Father. The same could be said of the references to “God” in chapter 3.
There is, in other words, in Ephesians, a sustained emphasis upon the person of God the Father and the place of the Father in our salvation. Paul wants us to know and to glory in God as our Father. As Paul opens his letter to these Christians, the saints and the faithful in Christ Jesus, he reminds them of their heritage, he wants, as he will put it later, the eyes of their understanding to be opened, to appreciate what extraordinarily great things have been done for them and given to them. And who do they have to thank for that? Ultimately, God the Father. He stands behind and above all their blessing and all their peace, joy, hope, and love. He is the source of it all. There is so much to praise God the Father for, to love him for. There is so much in thinking about what God the Father has done for us and given to us that ought to inspire us and make us determined to live for him, to serve him, and to love him in return.
In 1657 John Owen published his great work Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation. In that work Owen worked out with great care the way in which Christians are to know and to have fellowship with each person of the Triune God distinctly, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After introducing that point and explaining what he meant by having communion with God, he proceeded to our communion with God the Father. And his point was that, according to Holy Scripture, our communion with God the Father is and ought to be particularly a communion of love! The specific characteristic of the Christian’s communion with the Father is love. He points out, for example, that when in 1 John 4:8 we read, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love,” we are to understand that reference to God as a reference to God the Father, as the next verse shows, which goes on, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son.” So, the famous statement made there about God being love is specifically a statement that God the Father is love. Surely, Owen hastens to say, that does not mean that the Son and the Spirit are not also love. But it does mean that there is a way in which the Father is preeminently the Person of Love in the Godhead. In his ponderous 17th century English, Owen says that the Father is peculiarly or principally and by way of eminency the Person of Love in the Godhead. He notes, for example, that in the Trinitarian benediction in 2 Cor. 13:14, we have, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” [Works, ii, 18-19] You are beginning to see how commonly in the usage of the New Testament “God” by itself is a reference to God the Father.
And that seems to be Paul’s point and emphasis here and throughout Ephesians. He speaks in these opening verses of all that has come to us because of the love of the Father and because of the riches of God the Father’s grace lavished on us and of the Father’s will that we should be saved from sin and death by the sacrifice of his Son.
Now, it is widely thought that this emphasis poses a problem in our day, perhaps it has in every day: to call God “Father,” and to think of him as our Father as Paul wants us to do here. There are many people whose experience of their father has been profoundly negative, even sinister. The idea that God is a Father or their Father does not provoke warm and happy thoughts for them, but repulsive or even terrifying thoughts. Feminists also object to the characterization of God as Father because they see it as part of the patriarchal structure of biblical thought that they think has for so long oppressed women.
Some of you are familiar with the writings of Paul Vitz, Professor of Psychology at New York University. Vitz is a Christian who has written very perceptibly about contemporary culture and modern psychology from the vantage point of Christian faith. He published a book in 1999 entitled Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. It is an interesting analysis of prominent atheists from David Hume and Voltaire to Jean Paul Sartre and even Madalyn Murray O’Hair in terms of their relationship to their fathers. It is not by any means a simplistic book. He is too careful a scholar to believe that all atheists have had bad relationships with their fathers and all Christians have had good relationships with their fathers. Indeed, he gives examples to the contrary. But it is striking how many of these important thinkers and shapers of Western culture were influenced in obvious ways, ways in many cases obvious even to themselves, by unhappy and unfruitful relationships with their fathers. After all, Vitz points out in his introduction that, while believers in God are found widely in all strata of a society, it has long been noticed that atheists, who always represent a small minority of any population, have tended to be found, to a remarkable degree, in a very narrow range of social and economic strata and in a few professions, notably in the university. So it is not unlikely that there are some quite regular features of the atheist psychology.
What is more, Vitz argues, atheists themselves are constantly subjecting believers to psychological analysis and usually argue that their belief in God is, in fact, some form of psychological crutch. The popular theory, taught in thousands of American University courses, of course, is that belief in God is a projection of our own needs. The idea of God gives us psychological comfort. But, says Vitz, that notion is double-edged. Is it not fair for us then to ask if unbelief might be explained in the same way, as a psychological projection, and in particular one that stems regularly from dysfunctional relationships with the authority figures they had in their early life. He points out that what one finds in examining the lives of many prominent atheists through the last three centuries is exactly the unhappy kind of family and particularly the kind of parental and fatherly situation that is now becoming more and more common in our culture at large, perhaps accounting for the increase of atheism in our culture at large.
You may know that Freud explained a great deal of human life and behavior by what he referred to as the Oedipus Complex, the contradictory feelings and ambivalent father-complexes of children. Sons supposedly hate their fathers because they present a formidable obstacle to their craving for power and fulfillment of their sexual desires, but they love and admire him too. So, after they get rid of their fathers so as to act on their desires – not literally get rid of them, but psychologically –, they re-identify with their fathers and express the affection that they had to this point suppressed. They express that affection usually in the form of feelings of guilt. Well there is a great deal that is wrong with this, of course, and it has been largely abandoned in the form in which Freud taught it. But, remember, in Freud’s thought God was the psychological equivalent of the human father. And surely there is something like Oedipal motivation in the rebellion against God we see all around us today. Most people, I think it is safe to say, who consider themselves atheists would believe that they rejected belief in God because their flinty honesty drove them to that hard conclusion. Observation of their lives and examination of their thought, however, has suggested to many people that these atheists deny the existence of God not out of flinty honesty but because they don’t want to believe in God and, in particular, because they want to be left to think and do as they please. They wanted to be rid of God and so they got rid of him and guilt and remorse over the murder show up in lots of different ways in their lives.
But, says Vitz, the Oedipus complex hardly explains human behavior satisfactorily, even if there is some truth to it. So he goes on to suggest another psychological theory of atheism’s origin. He calls it the “Defective Father Hypothesis.” It is a simple theory and has been noted through the ages in one form or another by lots of wise people, including many Christians and Christian preachers. “Once a child or youth is disappointed in or loses respect for his earthly father, belief in a heavenly father becomes [much more difficult].”  Then Vitz proceeds to demonstrate with examples how regularly – not invariably but
regularly – the youthful years of prominent atheists was marked by troubled relationships with their fathers or by absent fathers. Weak, dead, or abusive fathers are found in virtually every case.  He then compares, as a control group, a similar group of prominent Christians from the same periods, many of whom had very happy and healthy relationships with their fathers, and then deals with other atheists who do not fit so precisely into the scheme. A very interesting and informative study. Along the way he points out that, almost to the woman, the prominent theorists of modern feminism had very troubled relationships with their fathers. Kate Millet, for example, adored her father as a girl. Then, in 1947, when she was 13, he suddenly abandoned the family and took up with a 19 year old woman. Kate told her sister at that time that she would never let another man become really important to her.
But, you take my simple point. Bad fathers make for difficulty in believing in Christianity because Christianity makes so much of God as our Father and in believing that having a divine Father is a supremely good thing, indeed, the greatest conceivable thing.
But, if that is true, and it is certainly easy to believe that it is true, it did not lesson Paul’s enthusiasm for the fatherhood of God! No doubt he would have had a deep sympathy for those who grew up in homes troubled and darkened by the absence or faithlessness or irresponsibility or cruelty of the father. And that is not just a few homes. There have always been more failures among the fathers than among the mothers of this world. But Paul is unwilling, for that reason, to be less emphatic in teaching that it is an unqualified blessing to know God as your Father and to know that as our Father he has loved us with an everlasting love. He does not assume that it will be difficult to relate God’s fatherhood to his love and goodness. Paul believes that the fatherhood of God and our embracing God as our father is essential for Christian faith and life.
We know, in our own world today, how much harm absent and irresponsible fathers can do. 70% of long-term prison inmates grew up fatherless. Children in families without fathers are five times more likely to grow up in poverty, and two to three times more likely to abuse drugs, and three to four times as likely to commit suicide. We know that is true. But, then, we also know how important fathers are, how much blessing they bring to others when they are loving and responsible men. The very troubles that beset people whose fathers let them down are proof of the blessing of loving and caring and responsible fatherhood. Just as the law of God is proved by the misery that eventuates when it is disobeyed, so fatherhood is proved by the misery that eventuates when it is disobeyed.
But, there is something more that must be said. For we have been speaking as if Paul were speaking about God the Father metaphorically or by analogy. We think, somehow, that we must call God “Father” because it is the closest idea we can derive from our own experience to help us think about our relationship to God. He is a Father like a good human father would be. But that is a serious mistake!
In the Bible and in the Apostle Paul, God as Father is not an anthropomorphism – speaking about God in human terms – nor is it a metaphor, a figure of speech. It is just the other way round. Human fatherhood is a reflection of God’s fatherhood, not the other way around.
It is not that we have projected human fatherhood onto God or idealized human fatherhood into a divine image of Fatherhood. On the contrary, we are, if you will permit the term, using a “theomorphism” when we speak of human beings as fathers. God was Father first and eternally. Men are fathers only because they have been made like God in that way! We are never using the term so precisely and so accurately as when we call God “Father.” He is Father originally and ultimately, human beings are fathers only derivatively and secondarily and temporarily. God is not like a father, he is the Father. He has always been, through eternity past, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and, as Paul says in this opening paragraph, he has been our father from before the foundation of the world. Human beings are real fathers only to the extent that they are like him in his perfect and divine fatherhood. [Cf. William Dembski, Intelligent Design, 231]
So there can be no thought of thinking of God as something other than the Father or wanting him to be something other than our Father. That is what he is and is eternally by nature. And that is the source of our blessing and happiness and salvation: that he is our Father.
I hesitated to use this illustration because I used it in a sermon some years ago and it is memorable enough for you who where here then to remember it. But I couldn’t think of a better picture of this sublime fatherhood such as Paul is putting before us in Ephesians and for which he begins his great letter with a doxology addressed to God the Father as the source, the ultimate originator of everything wonderful that is ours in Jesus Christ. It will always be for me the sublime human image of what a father is and, so, what God is as our Father.
Many of you now have read the wonderful autobiography of the famous missionary, John Paton, who brought Christ to the cannibals of the South Sea islands in the 19th century. I know there are many copies of that book to be found on the bookshelves of this congregation. We even have a little boy among our number named Payton, named after the great missionary and man of God. A great name to live up to! The early paragraphs of that wonderful book describe the saintly home in which John Paton grew up, a Scottish peasant home, presided over by a godly man who loved both Jesus Christ and his children with a great love. Paton describes his father’s life of prayer, of witness, of worship. His father’s desire to see salvation brought to the world. The practical wisdom of his fatherhood in the home and so on. And, then he describes their parting, as Paton, now a young man of 18 years, heads off to Glasgow and school and preparation for his life’s work. He puts down his recollection of that scene as he could remember it many years later while writing his autobiography.
“My dear father walked with me the first six miles of the way. His counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. For the last half-mile or so we walked on together in almost unbroken silence, — my father, as was often his custom, carrying hat in hand, while his long, flowing yellow hair (then yellow, but in later years white as snow) streamed like a girl’s down his shoulders. His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me: and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain! We halted on reaching the appointed parting place; he grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said: ‘God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you and keep you from all evil!’ Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him – gazing after me. Waving my hat in adieu, I was round the corner and out of sight in an instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me further, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for a time. Then, rising up cautiously, I climbed the dyke to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he had gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face towards home, and beg an to return – his head uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonour such a father and mother as He had given me. The appearance of my father, when we parted – his advice, prayers, and tears – the road, the dyke, the climbing up on it and then walking away, head uncovered, — have often, often, all through life, risen vividly before my mind, and do so now while I am writing, as if it had been but an hour ago. In my earlier years particularly, when exposed to many temptations, his parting form rose before me as that of a guardian angel.” [John Paton, 25-26]
God is our Father, infinitely more wonderfully a father than even that saintly James Paton, father of John. To know that, to remember that, to glory in that and rejoice over that, to feel that having such a father we must live so as never to bring dishonor to his name – that, says, Paul, as he begins his letter and then continues it through six chapters, that is a very large part of what it means to be a Christian and to live as a Christian in this world.