George MacDonald is one of my all-time favourite authors. I became hooked on him when I realized the esteem C. S. Lewis held for him. I read Lilith and Phantastes a number of times, not quite comprehending the depths of them yet feeling strangely moved. Next, I read a biography and plowed through his three volumes of Unspoken Sermons: Series I, II, III. After realizing he wrote poetry, I read through his Diary of an Old Soul: 366 Writings for Devotional Reflection. Two nights ago I started reading Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood. (You can find the full text of this novel here.)
Ranald is a children’s book, but as George himself says, “Some such readers, in virtue of their hearts being young and old both at once, discern more in the children’s books than the children themselves.” Let me recount an episode from this children’s novel that should speak to young and old hearts alike.
Ranald became friends with the wrong type of boy in school. Ranald was raised as a Christian, but was swayed by the example of Peter Mason. At the height of his depravity, he impulsively threw a snowball at the back of a young girl’s head. Reveling in his depravity, he laughed.
Following that, he and Peter tied the door of a grumpy old woman’s house shut. They proceed to light a stalk of cabbage filled with tow (and some other vile ingredients), and blew the smoke through the keyhole of the old woman’s house. The woman raised quite a fuss until she fell down from smoke inhalation. With the granddaughter screaming for help, they untied the door and Ranald was exposed. From that point on his conscience tormented him.
The following Sunday evening, just before bed, his Father read the story of the prodigal son to Ranald and his brothers. Ranald was so overcome by guilt that he confessed everything. His father received him back, and they set out to make amends in town.
It’s the Father’s words that will illuminate our text from 1 John:
“We’ve done a wrong, a very grievous wrong, my boy, and I cannot rest till I at least know the consequences of it.”
He put on his long greatcoat and muffler in haste, and having seen that I too was properly wrapped up, he opened the door and stepped out. . . .
“Papa,” I said, “why did you say we have done a wrong? You did not do it.”
“My dear boy, persons who are so near each other as we are, must not only bear the consequences together of any wrong done by one of them, but must, in a sense, bear each other’s iniquities even. If I sin, you must suffer; if you sin, you being my own boy, I must suffer. But this is not all: it lies upon both of us to do what we can to get rid of the wrong done; and thus we have to bear each other’s sin. I am accountable to make amends as far as I can; and also to do what I can to get you to be sorry and make amends as far as you can.”
In essence, the the son and the father share each other’s nature.
. . .
What MacDonald described in a negative way—the father taking the blame for the son’s actions—John states positively. If we share in the divine nature (if we are “born of him”), then we will do right since the Father is righteous.
I should mention that there has been an abrupt shift in focus between verse 28 and 29. Verse 29 clearly refers to Jesus who will be revealed some time in the future. Verse 29 speaks of being “born of him”. While context might suggest “him” is Jesus, all throughout scripture children are born of the Father. It is most likely the Father that John had in mind here.
. . .
Being “born again” has taken on some radical fundamentalist associations in Western society. Often people avoid speaking of salvation in that way, since it has come to mean something other than what God intended. John’s gospel sheds a little light on what it truly means to be born again:
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13 NRSV)
No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:5-6 NRSV)
The word for Spirit, both in Greek and in Hebrew, can be translated in three ways: breath, wind, spirit. Jesus continues in John 3 to say that the wind blows where it will, essentially overlapping the concept of Spirit and wind. Bruce Cockburn was quite theologically accurate when he wrote, “I’ll be a child of the wind ’till the end of my days”.
. . .
It’s important to remember that John is not imposing some sort of works-righteousness on his congregation. Far from it. As Stott observed:
A person’s righteousness is thus the evidence of his new birth, not the cause or condition of it.
Being “born again”, or “a child of the wind”, however you prefer to refer to it, is a two way street. In one sense, the Father via Jesus takes our sin on himself and eradicates it. This is what Ranald experienced in part with his earthly father. On the other hand, we are called to do what is right, since righteousness is one of the chief attributes of our Father.