Sometimes people greet us by asking: “What’s going on?”
They mean, what’s been happening in your life? What have you been doing? What events have been important? They want to know what we perceive as being significant, vital, and essential for us? “What’s going on?”
We can be—and should be—asking ourselves the same question. We should be reflecting on what’s going on in our Christian lives. There is no more critical “temperature check” we should be concerned with than what God is doing in us and through us. This is where our deepest joys lie and where our responsibilities to live faithfully are the strongest. What is God doing in our Christian lives?
We help answer this question from a seventeenth-century Puritan theologian, William Ames (1576-1633). He was called “the learned Dr. William Ames” because of his keen theological mind. He urged theology be believed and lived. Theology was “living to God,” said Ames. It is a matter of doctrine and of life.
“Doctrine” means “teaching.” Christian doctrine is what Christians believe: about who God is and what God does. Theology is a matter of faith. But the second part of theology, said Ames, was “observance,” which means how Christian people live. We are to live by carrying out the will of God and to live for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). What we believe affects how we live. We are guided for how to live by what we believe.
“Doctrine” and “life” go together, said Ames. Our hope should be to live a “good life” directed to God’s will and God’s glory. Theology or doctrine helps us know what God wants us to believe. Faith is focused on what God has promised, as we know God’s promises through the Scriptures. God’s greatest promise is Jesus Christ, in whom we have salvation—being joined together with God by faith, now and forever. As we live, our faith, theology, or doctrine gives us ways to name and understand what we experience of God—what God is doing in our lives.
William Ames helps us in understanding our Christian beliefs and Christian lives in a little book, The Chiefe Heads of Divinitie (Dordrecht, 1612), which was a question-and-answer catechism. In one answer, Ames mentions theological terms that describe what God is doing for us and in our lives—in relation to Jesus Christ. This answer helps us know what we can believe about what God is doing in our Christian lives and what we do to “live out” what God wants of us.
Ames wrote: “In our vocation we receive Christ, and rest upon him, as offered; in our justification, we rely upon him, as already imputed; in adoption we are joined unto him as our brother; in sanctification, we are united unto him, as to our head; and all this by faith, at one and the same time.”
This may sound like a mouthful! Let’s break it down, simply.
What is going on in our Christian lives is that God is at work in what we call: vocation, justification, adoption, and sanctification. All these are centered in Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and Savior.
Vocation—Receiving and Resting in Christ. “Vocation” means “calling.” We perceive the beginning of our Christian faith as being when we responded to Jesus’ call: “Follow me” (Mark 1:17). Jesus called his disciples, and Jesus calls us. We are called with all whom Jesus calls—to be joined together and united with Christ. We are called to become Jesus’ followers, Jesus’ disciples. “Disciple” means a learner. We are to learn of Christ—understand who Jesus is and what Jesus wants us to do in and with our lives. We are Christians because God has called us in Jesus Christ. The church is the “company,” the “whole number of believers and saints,” who are called, said Ames (1 Cor. 1:24). Our “vocation” or calling marks our receiving and resting in Christ. We receive Christ. We are now identified as Christ’s disciples, and we look to him. We put our trust in Christ, “resting” in him—finding our life’s purpose and protection in Jesus who calls us.
Justification—Relying on Christ. “Justification” is a biblical term used to describe our union with Christ. This means we have a new life, a new status before God, a “change and alteration in the condition of believers from the state of sin and death to the state of righteousness and eternal life” (1 John 3:14) as Ames put it in his Marrow of Theology (1.27.2). When we believe and have faith in Jesus Christ, who calls us, God forgives our sin. Sin separates us from God. But now, God “reckons” or declares us “righteous” before God through the death of Jesus Christ. In him, we are “redeemed” (Romans 3:22, 24), and through Christ, our sin is forgiven. This is the greatest expression of God’s love for us (Romans 5:8). We are “justified by faith” in Christ (Romans 5:1), not by any “works” we do…but by what God has done for us in Christ Jesus (Galatians 2:16). Justification gives us a new status, a new relationship with God. In justification, we rely on Christ, who gives us the gift of salvation—reconciliation with God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
Adoption—Joined to Christ. We are called. We are justified. We are adopted. Adoption means forgiven sinners who are called by Christ are brought into the family of God. By believing in Jesus, we become “children of God” (John 1:12). God graciously brings us into the family of God and gives us a new life. We are joined to Jesus Christ by faith. We are received as God’s children (Galatians 4:5), so Jesus calls us brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11-13), which is what we are (1 John 3:1). What a joy! Our new status and relationship bring a new inner life of union with Christ, being joined to Jesus by faith here and now. We are given the witness of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:15-16) in our hearts (Gal. 4:6), so we know the reality of our relationship. In the future, being “heirs of Christ,” we can look forward to glorification (Romans 8:17) and eternal life (Titus 3:7). In adoption, we are joined with Jesus now and forever!
Sanctification—United with Christ as our Head. What God is doing in our Christians lives is working to make us a “new creation” in whom “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). These are the results of justification. By God’s Spirit, we are changed from sinners to new persons in relation to God in Christ. We are being “renewed” in our minds—knowing what to believe. Now we can by the Spirit: clothe ourselves “with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Now we are free to serve God, living as forgiven sinners. We are dedicated to being disciples of Jesus Christ. We do what God calls us to do in service to Christ and others. We live for the glory of God. In sanctification, we are united with Christ as our head. By the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). We die to sin and live to righteousness, being transformed and renewed in the image of God (Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:10). God’s Spirit within us leads us and guides us into good works (Ephesians 2:10) to which we are to devote ourselves (Titus 3:8, 14).
This is what God is doing in our lives. God is at work. Jesus Christ is at work. The Holy Spirit is at work. Doctrine and life are united. Faith and observance are joined. We can see our Christian lives in terms of what we believe God is doing theologically and what we experience God doing within us every day. We live to the glory of God! So, to all who ask us, “What’s going on?” we have an answer: God is working!
Donald K. McKim is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a former pastor, seminary Academic Dean and Professor of Theology, as well as Executive Editor for Theology and Reference for Westminster John Knox Press. He has written and edited a number of books including Everyday Prayer with John Calvin, Coffee with Calvin: Daily Devotions; and Moments with Martin Luther: 95 Daily Devotions. He and his wife LindaJo live in Germantown, Tennessee.