Many decades ago, when I was just beginning to understand my struggle with legalism and attempting to come out of it, God mightily used this story in my life.
It’s one of those stories which we are so familiar with its full impact can easily be lost. Jesus, the Son of God steps out of obscurity to submit himself to John’s baptism. The one Man on the planet who didn’t need to be baptized (since he had no sin) submits to baptism in order to identify himself with a sinful race. John tries to dissuade him at first, realizing that he is in need of Jesus to baptize him (see Matthew 3:13-17). Nevertheless, Jesus convinces him and John brings the Son of God into the waters.
It is what happens next that God has used so mightily in helping me let go of legalism. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) all record how the Spirit of God fell like a dove and rested upon the Messiah. This is no doubt a reference to the dove that Noah sent out which refused, at first, to land on the old creation, though eventually he did when the flood had thoroughly washed away the old creation (Genesis 9). Even so, the dove could land on the Messiah since He was the new creation.
As the Messiah came out of the waters of baptism, John heard the voice of the Father testifying of His Son: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). It was that sentence which God has used so mightily to teach me the true meaning of grace. This statement reveals why He is the Beloved—it is simply that He is a Son and therefore pleases him. It is important to reflect on the fact that at this point, the Son hadn’t yet started his ministry. That meant he hadn’t yet preached a sermon, or cast out a devil, or healed a leper. Nevertheless, the Father publicly announced that this Son pleases him even though he had not yet done any of the things we have come to associate with pleasing God.
This flies in the face of what I had been taught. I was on the performance treadmill and did not even know it. What is the performance treadmill? It is the idea my standing with God at any time is based on my performance at living the Christian life. If I am doing my best at preaching, praying, serving, witnessing, and being a good husband, then I can feel good about my life that I am pleasing God. But if at any time I failed to live up to these ideals, I would feel that I had fallen short and that God was not pleased with me. Unconsciously, I had accepted the idea that, while I was at forgiven when I first believed, I was now on probation to see how I would do.
But then this story of Jesus’ baptism assaulted me; God declared his delight in his Son even though he hadn’t yet done anything yet. All he had done was be a Son. And the Father publicly testified his love for his Son even though he hadn’t yet started his ministry.
As the Father of three sons I think I understand this. When my boys were young, there were times when I would simply want to draw them near to me, sit them on my lap, and lavish them with kisses. I didn’t do this as a reward for their obedience or as a response to something they had done for me. Rather, I did it simply because they are my sons and I loved them! Though they try to run, I still try to lavish them with kisses, though they are now adults.
I think that of all the believers down through history who have understood this, the Puritans head the list. They had something they referred to as the ‘kisses of God’, a term they used for those times when God gave believers his manifest presence. They bid us to imagine a father walking down the street holding his young son’s hand, when suddenly he stops, gathers his son in his arms, and lavishes him with kisses. The son is not at that moment any more a son than when his father held his hand. It’s just that at certain moments he delights in lavishing upon him his love in an extravagant way.
The Bible clearly teaches we are his sons (and daughters) through the adopting grace of God. If that means anything, it means that the Father is well pleased with us, regardless of how successful we are at living the Christian life. Paul goes as far as to use the word beloved, which was used by the Father of the Son at the Jordan to describe us (see Ephesians 1:6). This is the miracle of grace. We are now fully accepted in the Beloved.
There are some that fear teaching this will promote a lax attitude towards sin. Nothing could be further from the truth! The unconditional acceptance of me by my wife does not in one iota make me want to find another partner. Rather, it creates in me a holy desire to give myself to her fully and completely, not out of obligation but out of love. So also, when we become sons of the Father through the finished work of his Son Jesus, it creates a holy desire to give ourselves unreservedly to God forever (Romans 12:1-2).