A Parable on Faith, Works, and Adoption

by Jay Guin

Newbert never let anyone call him “Newbert,” for obvious reasons. He just went by “Newbie.” And Newbie had been an orphan all his life. He was born in the usual way, of course, but his parents — if you could call them that — were much more in love with the drugs than their baby boy. His mom prostituted herself for drugs. His dad was a thief.  So he’d never had parents — in the usual way.

He lived with his “parents,” but they never paid him any mind. After several years of neglect, abuse, and squalor, the state took him away, and he lived with a series of foster parents. Some of them abused him (in every way abuse can happen), but others tried to love him.  Because Newbie had a foul temper, a filthy mouth, and an utter disregard for authority, until he was six, there wasn’t a foster parent who could handle him.

But when he was six, he was placed with an old man, who lived with his son, much older than Newbie, the only child he had who wasn’t adopted. This old man had a great heart for hard cases, and he knew how to deal with Newbie’s hard case. He had remarkable patience learned from many years of taking in the very hardest cases.

After a few months, the old man approached Newbie, saying, “I wonder if you’d like for me to adopt you? You see, I love you with all my heart and I’d like you to be my son and live with me forever. But if you become my son and join my family, you’ll have to believe in me and my oldest son — believe that we know what’s best — and live by the family’s rules. I’ll help you. If you’ll let me, it’ll work out. Things will be better than you can even imagine.”

Newbie said a few choice curse words and ran outside, wandering the neighborhood all night and most of the next day. Newbie wasn’t the brightest kid God had ever made, but he knew what it means to make a commitment — and Newbie didn’t know how to commit to anyone. In fact, having to obey that old man forever sounded like the worst fate imaginable.

But little boys are made to love and be loved, and over the next several months, the old man reshaped his heart just a little. Oh, Newbie was still a mess — no one most of us would want to have over to play with our kids — but he was learning that he very much liked being loved.

And so, one day he approached the old man and asked if he could still be adopted? Well, the old man lit up like a light bulb, and they immediately went and did the paperwork.

At first, Newbie hated the old man’s discipline and rules, but soon he came to associate the rules with home and the love of the old man and his son. He still struggled with everything — hated saying “ma’am” and “sir,” hated having to use the right utensil to eat, hated having to bathe every single day, hated the chores — but somehow, deep inside, he knew he was in a good place.

I’d like to say that they all lived happily ever after, but they didn’t. Whenever Newbie got angry — which was often — he rattled off every curse word ever known. And when he was upset with any of the other kids the old man kept, he hit them. He didn’t know how else to act. And sometimes he called the little girls the old man had taken in the foulest, rudest names imaginable.

He never shared. He never said “please” or “thank you” — unless he saw the old man or his son watching. And he never, ever apologized.

As a result, he was disciplined nearly every day. He’d known that the old man didn’t approve of his behavior from the first few days he’d been there — even before the adoption — but it’s hard for a six-year-old to change. Wanting to is not enough.

The old man and his oldest son spent many evenings up late wondering what they were going to do with Newbie. How much discipline would be required? How many times must he eat alone, away from all the others?

And, they wondered, when would he be ready to learn the other life lessons he needed? It wasn’t enough to just clean up his language and stop hitting the other children. He had to become a fully participating member of the family — doing his chores and homework. He needed to grow into someone the old man could be proud of.  The list of shortcomings was long, and Newbie didn’t have a clue how much change was ahead of him.

A few times, as the old man and his son pushed Newbie to grow up, he ran away — but he always came back. And ever so slowly, he really did grow up. By the time he was 16, he’d not only cleaned up his behavior, he told his father that he wanted to grow up to be just like him. He even wanted to take in foster children and adopt them when he got old enough. He asked for lessons on how to be a good parent for hard case kids, just like he’d been. He said, “You’ve changed my life. You saved me. You gave me everything I am, and I need to do the same for others.” That night, his father and older brother threw Newbie the biggest party that house had ever seen.

The next morning, the father and his oldest son met to consider Newbie. The son said, “I’m so thrilled that Newbie has made this decision. But you know that he’s nowhere close to being ready. I wish he could appreciate how much work you and I will have to put into him to get him ready!”

The old man replied, “Newbie has turned into a fine young man, but he’ll never get beyond needing our help. And each year, as he grows to be a little more like you and me, and as he begins to do the same thing for others, he’ll understand a little better what we’ve had to do for him. But he won’t ever really understand, because we’ll never be through working with him.”

That’s the parable.

And so, Newbie believed in the old man and his son, and he made a commitment to obey, and so he was rescued — saved, really. Afterwards, he struggled to obey, and often chafed under the discipline, but the father never took away his rescue — he never disowned him — and over time, Newbie changed to be very much like his father.

Did Newbie’s works save him? No. Did Newbie’s work after his rescue save him? No. Was the father’s love conditioned on Newbie’s obedience? No. That’s just not how it was.

What if Newbie disobeyed? Would the father have put him back on the street? No, we know he wouldn’t because Newbie did disobey — often.

What would have been required for the father to give up on Newbie and send him back to his earlier life? Only rebellion — and not a momentary, adolescent rebellion.  But if Newbie had deliberately continued to disobey — if he didn’t even try to obey for long enough — well, that might have done it.

You see, the biggest mistake we often make in reading the scriptures is trying to fit the verses into a legal framework — as though Newbie and his father had signed a contract where the father would rescue Newbie in exchange for Newbie’s good behavior. If Newbie breaks the terms of the contract, he’s no longer saved — the father disowns him and sends him back to his biological parents.

But Christianity is first and foremost about God’s love for us and, secondly, about our response to his love. We imagine that somehow we deserve the love, but this is because we don’t understand how very desperate our circumstances are and how very poorly we obey.

And we think God is motivated to save us so we’ll obey and follow the rules. But like the old man in the story, God rescues us because he loves us and wants what’s best for us. Our maturing in God makes him proud and it does some good for the world, but it costs us nothing — because it’s all for our own benefit. We only gain. It’s all for us. We don’t really give up anything. It’s not an exchange — it’s a gift! Even our growing up in him is a gift.

When we obey, we want to take credit for it — so we’ll feel we’ve held up our end of the bargain. But our obedience is really much more about the Father’s work than our own. We never earn our salvation. And we never truly appreciate how much God does for us — shaping us into his image — because we can’t imagine how far removed from his goodness is our obedience.

[In two days, we begin a series of posts on Gal 5:4 and falling from grace.]

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2 Comments on “A Parable on Faith, Works, and Adoption”

  1. laymond Says:

    And the spirit of the “Old Man” abode within Newbie.
    Uh, not really, but you know what I mean, don’t you?

  2. Jay Guin Says:

    Laymond,

    Absolutely, but you can only fit so much theology into a parable. 🙂


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