Either-Or vs Both-And
There are a number of concepts that, on the surface, appear antithetical but actually are complementary. For example, take the words macro and micro. A macro perspective gives the big picture while a micro view looks at the smaller parts of the whole. Consequently, if we take an either-or approach to any issue or subject, we will have an unbalanced and incomplete perspective on whatever is the focus of our attention.
This is true with literary analysis. If you only study a small (micro) portion of the narrative apart from the larger (macro) storyline, you will possess some information but not enough to really understand the author’s purpose for the story as a whole. The same is true in reverse. If I am only concerned with the overall theme and neglect to take the time to explore how that theme is worked out in the details, I will miss the heart of the story—how it relates and applies to the personal lives of the characters and how their lives can provide valuable lessons for mine.
In literature, you don’t study either the macro or the micro. They are not antithetical but complementary. This is why business majors take both macroeconomics and microeconomics. The same is true with geology, trends in philosophy and culture, science and medicine, etc. The macro and the micro go together.
Possibly, there is no greater application of this both-and principle, wedding the macro and micro, than the Christian life. For some reason ( it may be due to differences in temperament and personality) believers gravitate toward either a focus on macro theological concepts or focus on the micro practical issues we face day in and day out. But the theological and the practical were never meant to be separated into an either-or. They are always both-and. Doctrine (the macro) and devotion (the micro) are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin. Head and heart. We need both.
Paul agrees, as macro and micro concepts are wed in Galatians 3:26-4:7. In this text, the apostle unites the broad and sweeping macro sovereignty and providence of God in history with each believer’s micro experience. He places our personal, individual stories within the context of the larger, redemptive story of God. The result of connecting my micro experience with God’s macro purposes just may lead to a life of peace, hope, and even joy, as we learn to rest in a restless world as beloved children of a sovereign Father. This is what Paul teaches us in Galatians 3:26-4:7.
3:26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. 4:1 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. 6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
The most obvious micro theme in this text is spiritual adoption. In chapter 4, verse 5, Paul says that those who have received the benefits of Christ’s redemptive ministry of substitution have received “adoption to sonship.” As a result, believers are, in the words of chapter 3, verse 26, “children of God through faith.”
Through faith is a critical detail in this text, as human beings are not by nature children of God. All people are creatures of God and subjects under the cosmic, kingly reign of God. In Ephesians 2:3, the apostle Paul says we all are “by nature children of wrath,” spiritually dead and in need of supernatural, spiritual regeneration. Only those who are, as Paul writes in verse 27, “clothed with Christ” are children of God.
But what does it mean to be “clothed with Christ”? Imagine you have gone out for a run before a dinner date. You arrive home with clothes that stink with sweat. What do you do? You shower and change clothes. You take off the sweat saturated garments and put on a new, clean, dry outfit. The process takes you from being unpresentable for a dinner date to presentable for a dinner date.
The same thing happens when we are “clothed with Christ.” The difference is our garments are not soaked with sweat but with sin. They are unrighteous and unpresentable in the presence of a holy God.
When verse 5 says that Jesus has “redeemed those under the law,” we learn that, through crucifixion, Jesus took the stink of our sin upon himself, being clothed as it were with our unrighteousness. Yet, he did more that suffer the penalty for our sins in death. In life, he obeyed the law on our behalf so that he could possess righteous garments with which to clothe those who would receive them.
But how do we receive the new righteous clothing Jesus provides? The first step is to confess the stink of my unrighteousness for which Jesus suffered death where my rags of sin were incinerated. The second step is to receive his perfect righteousness through faith, by believing that my new identity before God is no longer defined by the filth of my unrighteousness but is defined by the beauty of Jesus’ perfect righteousness.
We can say it like this. We take off our rags with repentance and put on the merits of Christ through faith. This is the heart of the Christian message concerning how an individual is reconciled with a holy God. Because of Jesus, we are now presentable before heaven, forgiven, accepted, and treasured.
I think we need to highlight the word treasured. After all, an adopted child is a wanted child. The Father didn’t have to pay the excessive cost of the cross. But he did. Why? He wanted you to be his. No longer an object of eternal wrath but an object of the Father’s eternal affection.
When This Sinks In
I wonder what happens when this sinks in for kids who have been adopted. Think about it. Some children are planned. Some are not planned. But every child who is adopted can know, without question, that even if they weren’t planned, they are wanted!
It is exactly the same with spiritual adoption as a child of God. When this nickel drops, the micro-blessing of the gospel is realized in the believer’s personal life. Jesus died for me. I am his. He wanted me. It is this reality for which the believer will have to fight to believe. The enemy will do his best to convince you otherwise through your conscience and the accusations of other people who make much of your sin and human limitations.
But the cross tells me this: when the Father looks upon me as an adopted child, his forgiveness is complete and his love is unfailing. Furthermore, his love is equal for each of us. Verse 28 confirms this glorious, ground leveling truth, saying, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
For those in Christ, there is no ranking system. Our identity is found in the merits of Jesus, not our ethnicity, social standing, gender, or any other distinction. We stand as one on level ground before the cross—equally forgiven, equally righteous, and equally loved. If you belong to Christ, there is not a believer on the planet more forgiven, accepted, or treasured by the Father than you.
If the micro blessing affirms that I am saved by grace and adopted by God as a treasured son or daughter, the macro blessing embraces the truth of God as a sovereign Father who administrates history by the unfolding of his providential purposes. We see these macro themes in this text through the promise given to Abraham and in the incarnation of Jesus.
Way back in the Old Testament (around 2,100 B.C.), the Lord made a promise to a man named Abraham. Now, this was before the formation of Israel as a nation. Before the prophets. Before David. Before Moses.
Abraham had lived in a city called Ur, an ancient city located in what today is known as Iraq. Before he was called by God to travel to a new land, he likely had been a worshipper of false gods. He was a child of wrath, just like the rest of humanity in our natural condition. But God singled him out by grace and called him to travel from Ur in order to settle in a new land, which later became Israel.
Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were old and had been unable to have children. In that powerless condition, God made Abraham a promise: “Trust that I will give you a descendant who will bless the nations.” Abraham believed the Lord. In response, God “counted it to Abraham as righteousness.” Translation: Abraham believed God’s promise of grace. Yes, it was a bit vague. Vague for him but clear for us, because we know that descendant was born two-thousand years later in the line of Abraham. His name. Jesus.
Therefore, regardless of one’s ethnicity, social standing, gender, or any other distinction, anyone who believes God’s promise in the gospel is adopted into the family of Abraham as an heir of the same grace he received when he trusted the promise of God. What is that promise? Imputed righteousness would be given to any and all who are willing to receive it by looking with repentance and faith upon Jesus as their sin-bearer and righteousness provider.
The promise of God to Abraham serves as the metanarrative of the Bible, with God’s grace, kindness, and mercy toward sinners through Christ being the macro storyline. If we miss this, we will have a tragically incomplete understanding of the gospel message and possibly will slide back into the default setting of how humans have thought about and practiced religion, what Paul calls in verse 3 “the elemental spiritual forces of the world.”
These “elemental forces” are the basic principles of the kind of religion which enslaves its adherents with the chains of works righteousness. In this model of religion, acceptance with God depends upon moral performance and the fulfillment of pietistic devotion. Outside of Christianity, every other religion in the world functions according to the “elemental forces” of works righteousness.
However, it is not only religion that functions this way. Secular culture has a pantheon of gods to which we are as easily enslaved. Consider the bondage created by the need to gain likes on an Instagram post. We post and obsess. Our mood rises with increasing approval and declines when nobody notices. It is a form of slavery. In a way, social media has become a worldly, secular religion, where peer approval serves as our god.
And this applies in so many other ways. The pressure to rise on the sales team. The pressure to secure the lead role. The pressure to have a successful child. The pressure to be appreciated, recognized, and praised. It is not wrong to desire the role or want the promotion. But if these things rule us, then they subtly but eventually turn into our gods. And every god except Jesus will enslave you eventually. Your life will be filled with burden and fear. Not the freedom and peace offered by Jesus. Rather than burden us, Jesus takes the pressure off of us.
The Set Time
In fact, this is the reason Jesus was born. To set us free from the legalistic, works righteousness of the world, whether the religious or the secular variety. As Paul writes in verses 4 and 5, “4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”
It is possible that the most important macro aspect of the gospel is found in the phrase “when the set time had fully come.” It is easy to overlook the significance of this seemingly innocuous phrase. However, in this statement, Paul magnifies the complete sovereignty of God over all history.
The original NIV translation reads, “in the fullness of time, God sent his son.” Fullness is a word picture of sorts, depicting history as pregnant with the long-promised and awaited Messiah, ready to deliver at just the right time. The Old Testament is the historical gestation of the Savior as the promise grows. The New Testament is the personal revelation of the Savior through the incarnation of Jesus. But why was the timing of his birth so crucial. Why not 200 B.C., or 600 A.D.?
Of all moments in history, the hinge between BC and AD was characterized by several converging factors. One was the Pax Romana, an era when a great expanse of the western world was protected from invasion by the superpower army of the Roman Empire. A second factor was the ability to travel. With general safety in the Empire, ordinary citizens could easily travel the extensive network of roads built by the Romans. Another factor pertains to language. Several centuries before the Romans came to power in the Mediterranean world, a young man from Greece named Alexander conquered the region, spreading his native tongue all over the known world. That language, of course, was Greek, which by the time of the birth of Christ, was spoken by everyone, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. There also was the rise of the Pharisees, a Jewish sect that had turned Judaism into a full-blown religious system of works righteousness. This group not only would be offended by Jesus’ kindness to sinners but would become the driving force for his execution.
In this cultural context, Jesus would be born, die, and rise to new life. It was perfect timing because, in such a cultural context with safe travel along solid roads where everyone shared a common language, the message of a risen Christ could spread like wildfire from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Combining the Micro and the Macro as Both-And
With that background, we are ready to combine the macro aspect of God’s sovereignty and providence with our micro experience as the adopted children of God. For if we are only children, we might be grateful for the love of God but may not experience much peace or hope, thinking that the details of our personal lives have been left to chance, whether the status of our jobs, children, and marriages, along with larger issues such as what takes place on the political landscape. We can only have peace and hope if the Father who has forgiven, reconciled, and loves us is not only good and wise but is strong and sovereign, working all things, personal and historical, with a predetermined purpose.
Like the captain of a massive sailing vessel, our Father is at the wheel and in total control, unfolding his providential, redemptive purpose through the rise and fall of nations, as well as through the day in and day out of our individual personal lives. At the center of it all is the cross, where all the various aspects of God’s character are revealed. We do not have to choose between a God who is loving or sovereign or a God who is Savior or Lord, or a God who is just or merciful, or a God who is good or wise.
He is all these things together. Not macro or micro. Not either-or, but both-and. He is our loving Father and our Sovereign King. When I embrace both, peace begins to flow like a river.
Subscribe or Upgrade
Get posts like this sent directly to your inbox so you don’t miss anything or upgrade to the Supporter Plan to unlock the archive and receive bonus content.