One of my special moments in life came in Israel when I watched a young boy run after a man, calling out “Abba, Abba!” For the first time I had a tangible sense of what God offers us in Christ: an invitation to call him “Daddy!” The confidence and energy of that Israeli youngster spoke of a bond that I now have with God. It was a call rich with intimacy and easy access—the boy knew he was loved by his father and wanted to be with him.
In Galatians 4:6 Paul wrote, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” The full embrace of God—Father, Son, and Spirit—form this bond. The Spirit, who represents the Son in this case, is sent by the Father to join our hearts in a communion that moves us to resonate with the Son’s heart in calling the Father “Abba!” Our real union with Christ makes us sons with the Son, who have a full and lively access to the Father.
Paul reiterates the same point in writing to the Romans: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” [Romans 8:15-16].
This Spirit-to-spirit witness is not to be understated. I say this because of some occasions when I’ve talked to Christians who say, in effect, “I’ve always been a Christian because I was raised in a Christian home.” In one such case a very thoughtful believer asked me, “Did you have a distinct conversion when you came to faith?” When I said, “yes!” I was surprised by his dismissiveness. “Well,” he responded, “my own faith is lifelong.” As I probed a bit I found that he was actually put off by the idea that a sense of having been converted or born again was crucial to Christian faith. His sense was that each of us should hold to our unique experience with equal confidence. Some have conversions and some don’t; and those of us who have had conversions must not impose that expectation on others.
I respected the man—someone who was very bright and well educated—but I was unsettled by what he said. Here’s why. In what he shared of his faith there was no reference to God as one who is personal to him—of God as his Abba, Daddy. Instead the man spoke of his confidence in his training and his devotion to the truths of the faith as the measure of a sound Christianity. My thought, by contrast, was that a new life in Christ has a real impact on someone. Jesus, in John 3, spoke of the coming of the Spirit as a comparable to a breeze sweeping through a forest: he’s clearly evident by his presence. And, in the two “Abba” texts I’ve cited here, the Spirit is evident as he creates in us a sense of God’s immediacy and his intimacy.
So let me ask this question: what are the true marks of a Christian? Is a sense of personal intimacy with God among them? Or is it just an option for some of us but not for all?