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April 19, 2016

How to Inherit: An Allegory from Downton Abbey

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My husband and I have enjoyed watching the PBS show Downton Abbey, which finished with its final episode in March. The season finale culminated in the glamorous and happy news that characters Edith and Bertie would finally marry.

When the viewers meet Bertie, he is the agent of the Brancastor Castle, in service to his distant cousin Peter who is the 6th Marquis of Hexham and owner of the estate. Bertie is courting Lady Edith, daughter of the Earl of Grantham, but is considered “working class” and claims himself that he “doesn’t have much to offer” her as a potential husband. His prospects then appear even worse when news breaks that Bertie’s cousin and employer, Peter, has died while on holiday in Tangiers. Viewers are left wondering if the fortuneless Bertie will even have a job when the new Marquis of Hexham is revealed. Bertie’s humble status as agent is in question as everyone awaits news of the new heir.

I was struck, while watching the show, how unfair it all seemed. Bertie was a hard worker and clever planner who clearly did a good job in running the estate for his cousin. His own merit, however, was inadequate to overrule the landed aristocracy of that time. For any reason, the new owner could terminate Bertie’s employment, simply because he was the owner and Brancastor Castle was under his authority. Bertie’s long service and intimate knowledge of the estate did not entitle him to continue making it his home. He served the estate at the whim of its master and, despite his credentials, his future was far from secure.

Under the Law

Similarly, the Bible talks about another line of nobility, the sons of God, who are promised to be heirs of God (Romans 8:17). However, Scripture also teaches that everyone is imprisoned under a master, sin, and as guilty sinners we are unqualified to inherit this promise. We need to be justified, made righteous to inherit. The law serves a useful role by revealing our unrighteousness in order that we might come to faith in Christ. Galatians 3:22-26 explains:

But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. So then the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

You Lack One Thing

Bertie was a good man, moral and kind. But for all his goodness, he couldn’t get out from under the guardianship of the law, which said the estate was promised to the rightful heir. There was nothing he could do to become the heir. Bertie was helpless, incapable of obtaining that promise for himself. His plight reminds me of another young man, eager to inherit, who runs to Jesus in Mark 10:17-21:

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up to him and knelt before him and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

The young man walked away sad because he was powerless to overcome his covetous heart. He was unwilling to own up to his own helplessness to inherit eternal life and fall on the grace and mercy of Jesus. Instead of looking at himself through the lens of the ten commandments, seeing the goodness of God and his own sinful heart, he saw his own righteousness. He thought he had kept them all, even from childhood.

He misunderstood a key point of the law, which is to reveal our sin to us and thereby turn us to Christ through faith (Romans 7:13). The young man in Mark’s gospel stands in front of Jesus, the owner of all things, zealous to serve and desiring to inherit eternal life, yet completely misses the means by which he might attain it. The law says that none are rightful heirs, and the inheritance is not obtained through works, but it belongs the one to whom it has been promised through faith.

A Rightful Heir

There is a moment in the show when Edith enters the drawing room to her waiting family after speaking to Bertie on the telephone. Everyone is shocked and surprised to learn that the new Marquis of Hexham is none other than Bertie himself! Although he is merely the second cousin once removed, the order of succession has declared he is now the rightful heir. The promise of inheritance, bestowed on him through the death of his beloved cousin, has done what no effort on his part ever could. He is now the rightful owner of the estate he has loved and served, and he is free from the fear that he will ever be forced to leave it.

Similarly, we once lived helplessly under the guardianship of the law, futilely straining to obtain the promise of eternal life for ourselves. But by faith, Jesus, through his death, has brought us into an inheritance fitting our royal adoption:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4-7)

The Wedding Feast

The final episode of Downton Abbey climaxes at a lavish banquet where the new Lord Herbert “Bertie” Pelham announces his engagement to Lady Edith Crawley in the grand dining room of his vast estate, filled with rejoicing family and friends. The viewer is left grinning at how Edith’s humble suitor has been transformed into a wealthy and powerful lord of the county.

It reminded me of another, far greater banquet, described in Revelation 19 where John writes:

Then I heard a what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to cloth herself in fine linen, bright and pure” – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6-9)

Who is fit to be invited to the marriage supper of the lamb? Those who have seen their helplessness to be righteous on their own and have been redeemed and adopted as sons and daughters through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. These children of God, gathered together into his church, are the Bride of Christ, adorned in his righteousness. And their promised inheritance is not like any title, castle, or fortune to be had on this earth. On the contrary, it is “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

So what is the inheritance for those who believe? The scriptures point out many things that are ours through our adoption into God’s family. Here are a few benefits, found with help from Wayne Grudem’s book, Systematic Theology, from chapter 37.

The Benefits of Our Inheritance

  • Hope of eternal life (Titus 3:7)
  • The gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13)
  • The guarantee of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14)
  • The guidance of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:18-23)
  • Good gifts when we ask (Matthew 7:11)
  • Membership in the family of God, with many brothers and sisters (Romans 8:29)
  • The compassion of our Father (Psalm 103:13-14)
  • The discipline of our Father (Hebrews 12:5-6)
  • The provision of our Father (Matthew 6:32)
  • Calling and power to imitate our Father (Ephesians 5:1)
  • Restoration when we sin (1 John 1:9)
  • The privilege to bring glory to our Father (Philippians 2:15)
  • The privilege to share in Christ’s suffering and glorification (Romans 8:17)
  • The privilege to reign with Christ (Revelation 3:21)
  • Recipients of the ministry of angels (Hebrews 1:14)

These benefits come to us because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, our elder brother. We have been declared fellow heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), who is heir of all things (Hebrews 1:2).  Furthermore, as sons and daughters of the Most High God we get to take on the family characteristics. Romans 8:29 says the Father will conform us into the image of his Son, that Jesus “might be the firstborn among many brothers.” How blessed it is to be counted a son of God!

Where are you? Are you like Bertie, striving to be good, yet still serving under the authority of the estate with constant uncertainty about your future? Are you like the young man who ran to Jesus, convinced of your own righteousness and unable to fall at his feet in surrender? Do you long to become an heir to this inheritance? Then seek a relationship with the Father, through his son Jesus Christ. Admit your helplessness and come to Jesus in faith to receive the forgiveness, new life, and adoption as sons, which he promises to those who believe. And then, joined to Christ, embrace with joy the riches of your glorious inheritance.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:12)

As a child of God, what else have you inherited through Jesus?

Downton Abbey

Rachel Lehner

Rachel Lehner is married to Peter, has four children, and serves in women's ministry at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church. Among other things, she loves helping with math homework and reciting Dr. Seuss from memory.
Rachel Lehner is married to Peter, has four children, and serves in women's ministry at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church. Among other things, she loves helping with math homework and reciting Dr. Seuss from memory.