When I posted recently on the subject of people or places being viewed improperly as God-forsaken, a frequent reader of the blog had some questions that were far distinct from what I had intended and which ended up being very lengthy reflections on a wide variety of scriptures that demonstrate a certain tension and concern that I have noticed frequently among those who are second or third generation believers in the way of God, who have believing parents (or grandparents, in my case), or even generations further back, who made a commitment to follow God and received the blessings therein. There is a certain degree of prestige, even pride, in our church culture that comes from having been a first generation believer, who has made a clear break between following the corrupt ways of a fallen world and choosing to follow God’s lead in obeying His commandments and living according to His ways. There are often dramatic experiences that encourage this sort of radical change of commitment, not dissimilar from Paul’s own discussion of his famous Damascus road conversion. This glorification of the break between following the ways of the world and following the ways of the God does have negative consequences, though, when it comes to the spiritual confidence of many who grow up in godly homes but who wonder the extent or glory of their own calling, since it would often lack the dramatic sort of break that is most appreciated and most highly regarded among our brethren. Even among those who are very knowledgeable about the Bible, there is a real internal tension between a desire to find comfort in unconditional promises about God’s calling and a recognition that some of the promises of blessing are conditional in nature.
Obviously, I come to this particular discussion with a personal perspective/bias, and it would be worthwhile to get that out of the way before we begin. I am myself a third-generation baptized member of the Church of God, and my grandparents were called in the mid 1960’s when they lived in New England and when my maternal grandfather was a drill instructor at the Coast Guard Academy in Groton, Connecticut. At about the same time my father was being called as an undergraduate student in agriculture at West Virginia University. In both of these cases, the experience of being called was dramatic in nature and marked a clean break with the ways of the outside world. My grandfather was not far from having served two decades in the Coast Guard and his departure from the service and his subsequent move to rural Central Florida was quite traumatic, and not something he was keen on talking much about in my own personal experience. For my father, joining the Church of God meant moving to Texas and spending four years on the 1-W program after he had been drafted in Vietnam, no longer with an academic deferment as had been the case before. Their choice to heed the call of God involved a great deal of sacrifice and dramatic personal changes in their own life. For myself, I was born into this way of life, albeit in the dark times of the reign of the Ayatollahs in the early 1980’s when people were focused on getting “back on track” and when minor matters like spousal and child abuse were not often taken very seriously by the powers that be within and over local congregations. The collapse of Worldwide Church of God during the early to mid 1990’s forced me to make a choice, one that was very different from many of my contemporaries, but it was a choice that was framed in a background of decades of loyal commitment to the ways of God despite a great deal of cynicism about the corruption of the authority within the church itself. And in the nearly quarter of a century since those dramatic times, my own level of simultaneous commitment and cynicism have not changed.
Given this context, it is worthwhile to set some ground rules about the scope of this series of posts, as it is clear that it will not be finished very quickly. Some of the matters of this question of the legacy and position of the second (and later) generations of believers are more straightforward than others. I will first deal with the very simple matter of the unconditional blessing that results to future generations as a result of the committed belief of earlier generations. Many young people who grow up in godly families wonder about whether or not they are being called personally by God, and that is a relatively straightforward matter to deal with. Nevertheless, the Bible does balance unconditional promises with conditional ones, and that reflects a fundamental truth, namely that everyone and every generation must enter into the Kingdom of God through its own relationship with God and through its own commitment and obedience to His ways. We will not enter into the Kingdom of God on anyone else’s coattails. Unlike with a college or university, there are no legacy admissions into God’s kingdom. This creates a complexity in terms of how God deals with those who come from faithful families and backgrounds of believers that is worth examining in some detail, and I hope to be able to do so well.
Let us therefore, in this introductory section of a longer conversation, set up the sort of model that we see from the Bible when it comes to God’s dealings with us. On the one hand, we have a model where aspects of genealogy and legacy are very important, and where God’s calling and blessings comes on later generations who are privileged by the obedience of their forefathers. We do not deserve this privilege. Many of us have received a calling by God that is not due to our own efforts but is due to being born in particular families who have followed God’s ways for generations. On this side of the equation we see God working with families over the course of decades and centuries (and even millennia), and where knowing where one comes from allows us to recognize where it is that our blessings come from, so that we do not take credit for what does not belong to us. On the other hand, all those who enter into God’s kingdom and who will receive the blessing of eternal life are directly adopted by God and have a personal relationship with Him that is developed over the course of a lifetime. This personal relationship is based on various conditional promises and a personal commitment to developing and maintaining a covenantal relationship with God. The tension exists because part of our situation encourages us to look the chain of being and hierarchies that connect us with God through the personal and family and institutional history that we are involved in, not as pioneers but as those who benefit from what happened before us, while the other part of our situation involves our understanding of a relationship with God making those same honored forefathers our brothers and sisters in Christ who will enter into that kingdom simultaneously at the return of Jesus Christ, a relationship of considerable equality. That tension needs to be put in its proper place and well-understood as well, and so we shall.