Volume 29 - Issue 3

My Father and Common Grace

By Robbie F. Castleman

My father died in mid-spring this year after a long illness and a slow deterioration of his once robust and handsome body. A friend once told me, ‘I’d rather die by the yard than by the inch’. My dear father died inch by inch, becoming less and less able to be who he had been. And he had been so much to so many. My dad became a follower of Jesus as an adult. In fact, my father told his pastor that I led him to Christ. But, I often start my own testimony with this sentence, ‘I was not raised by parents who were Christians, but I was raised in a home where Christ was present’. My parents loved their daughters with an extravagance of both affection and discipline that modelled for my sister and me the gift of grace and the tellers of truth we have become for our own children.

I have thought more poignantly about God as Father since my dad’s death. I have realised with gratitude the truth I shared at my father’s funeral. I said at that time, ‘My dad did not make it difficult to believe that God the Father is good’. For so many people, the idea of God as ‘Father’ is an obstacle for faith or understanding that must be overcome, but not for me. And I am profoundly grateful for that. My father was delightful. It was my dad who created games the whole neighbourhood could play. It was my dad who carried me off to bed at night as a ‘helicopter’ or a ‘blind horse’—and it took a long, long time to get there. It was my dad who taught me to read and love books. It was my dad who taught me to drive a ‘stick-shift’, control a spin on an icy road and notice every other driver on the road. It was my dad who took an interest in my life as an adult and still knew how never to be my peer. My father bid me welcome, but never was I encouraged to presume on his audience, or take his attention for granted. My father let us know that he was to be respected. I was to knock before entering. I was to say, ‘Pardon me’ before interrupting. I was to factor in his authority as much as I was to relax in his affection.

Is it any wonder, with such a father, that I have come to love God as the one who invites me to ‘come boldly to the throne of grace to find mercy and help in time of need’? Yes, I come boldly, but I know I come to a throne, not an easy chair. I am part of our Father’s family, but never is this relationship familiar, casual or presumed upon. My Father loves me and I need to be awestruck by that reality. God is my Father, but never my peer.

It strikes me that even Jesus understood that as the only Son of the Father. Jesus addressed God as Father carefully—‘holy’ (John 17:12) and ‘righteous’ (John 17:25) were adjectives that balanced the possessives of ‘my’ and ‘our’ that indicated Jesus’ relationship with God as Father as well as our own. The one time the NT records the Aramaic Abba, it emerges in Jesus’ prayer language (Mark 14:36) as an intimate cry of distress, not an irreverent address of presumption. Jeremias’ early work on empbasising Abba as a term of endearment has lead to some ill-grounded pretension as well as exaggerated hermeneutical implications of who God is as Father. The triune God is not to be trifled with!

Jesus, as the incarnation of God the Son, gives us a hint of how careful we have to be in understanding our relationship with God in the family of faith. Jesus the Son is never our peer either! He calls the disciples his ‘friends’ (John 15:15) in order that they might know and do the will of his Father. But, it is interesting to note that never does Jesus reciprocate this designation. Jesus does not invite the disciples to call him ‘friend’, but says, ‘You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am’ (John 13:13). This demarcation of respect isn’t intended to create an alienating distance or coldness in the relationship of the disciples to Jesus. It is intended to define our place and His preeminence in all things.

It is also worth noting, that only by the third person of the Trinity are we able to call God Abba! ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God … when we cry Abba Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Rom. 8:14–16). It is through the Son that we know God as Father in the present reality of the Spirit. The mystery of God as Trinity demands careful approach, careful address to the intimate love and glory of his very self.

This intimate and loving reverence was a gift of grace in my childhood home before any of us knew Jesus the Son, understood God as Father or were indwelt by God’s Spirit. God was at work in our lives before we could identify his presence or know his name. God’s goodness was hinted at in the kindness and affection of my dad. God’s glory was thinly veiled in the respect my dad expected. And these marks of my dad’s life have helped me know God for who he is. Was not this ‘common grace’ prompted by unknown ‘special grace’?

I am grateful to legally bear the diminutive ‘Robbie’ as my given name. My father’s name was Robert Joseph Fox and it is an inexpressible joy to know that I introduced my dad to our Father and, together in the Spirit, we cry, Abba!

Robbie F. Castleman