Grace

Freedom for Slavery

Paradox lies at the heart Christian faith. Strength is found in weakness, the first will be last and losing life is how we find it. Most striking, we find the mighty God in a crib and on a cross. The majesty of the Creator is his humility.

Peter touches another paradox in his first letter. He states, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for what is evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:16). You are free, the gospel has done that for you. But people freed by the gospel are strange. They use their freedom to ensure their slavery.

The word servants (δοῦλοι) literally means “slaves.” The gospel liberates us for joyful service to others. Martin Luther’s book, The Freedom of the Christian builds on this paradox. His preface says it well.

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul’s own statements, who says in I Cor. 9:19, “For though I am free item all men, I have made myself a slave to all,” and in Rom. 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was “born of woman, born under the law” [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, “in the form of God” and “of a servant” [Phil. 2:6–7].

Another great treatment on this theme is a book by Murray J. Harris called Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ. We are freed for slavery.

Gospel Strength

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?

  • The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
  • The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
  • The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
  • Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.

Indwelt: The Presence of God In Us

Biblical scholar Alfred Edersheim said this about the indwelling of the Spirit. “The absolutely highest stage of intercourse with God is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament Church, when man’s individuality is not superseded nor suppressed, but transformed, and thus conformed to Him in spiritual fellowship.”

During the last few months we worked through a series of posts on the indwelling Spirit. I have spent time expanding what was written. I wanted to share the finished product with you. My hope is that you will find it helpful, encouraging and challenging. Please let me know any feedback you may have. Thanks so much! Here you go: Indwelt: The Presence of God In Us.

The Considerate God

Working through the gospel of Mark I have been consistently moved by the way Jesus interacts with people. As the God-man he perfectly manifests true humanity and true deity. In Jesus we behold God. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19).

God is thoroughly considerate in his engagement with humanity. He listens to people, shares a meal with anyone, touches people with frightening diseases, generously gives his time, heals the blind, the paralyzed and the sick, cares about people’s pain and questions, and grieves over the suffering of others.

On two occasions Jesus feeds thousands of hungry people by miraculously multiplying loaves and fish. He cares for the physical needs of people. On one occasion Jesus miraculously raises a twelve year old child from the dead. The surrounding story of this miracle reveals a deeply considerate God (Mk 5:21-43).

In the narrative Jesus listens with concern to the fear and desperation of the parents. He responds to their heartfelt requests with care and action. He speaks words of comfort to them. He speaks life into the lifeless child. Everyone is astonished and overwhelmed.

I was struck by the dialogue that follows the miracle. “He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat” (Mk 5:43). Sustenance was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, they had just observed a lifeless girl sit up! But it was on the mind of God. Jesus gave her life back and then made sure she had something to eat. I love this picture of God, so considerate, so kind, so practical.

The Depth of the Golden Rule

A close friend and co-worker of ours recently lost her mother after a long battle with dementia. I was amazed by the way she handled the difficult journey with such grace, patience and transparency. This past week she described the heart-wrenching decisions that had to be made along the way as well as the twists and turns of grief, pain and even joy.

She shared something so simple, yet so profound about the lens through which she viewed the whole journey. “I put myself in her shoes and asked, ‘how would I want someone to treat me.'” The golden rule drove her decisions big and small. She explained what this looked like in her conversations with her mother, the time they spent together, her choices regarding living situation and those who would be her care-takers. Each of these areas and more were informed by a genuine desire to treat her mother as she would want to be treated.

Our discussion triggered a realization. First, I recognized a depth in that command I had never felt before. Such a simple yet profound truth, sufficient for caring for a loved one with dementia. Second, I realized that I have not thought deeply about applying the command of Christ we call the golden rule. I think I have hovered around the surface of that imperative, but have rarely explored its significant implications. Let’s look at the text together briefly. In Matthew’s account we are given the following

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

On this command hang the law and the prophets, this is no small thing. The moral concerns of the entire law and prophets can be summarized under this banner. Jesus uses this same language when discussing the overlapping concept of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self (Matt 22:39-40). In other words, this critical command is intended for pervasive application. Every corner of our lives should have the light of this imperative shine on it. Every relationship should be viewed through this lens.

First step in application is to think through the way you want to be treated in different situations. When fearful I wish others to be reassuring. When in pain I want others to be compassionate. When angry I want others to be patient. When excited I want others to share my joy. When I fail I want others to show grace.

The second step in application is to think through our relational contexts. What would it look like to apply this command in these different relationships?

  • In our homes
    • Spouses
    • Children
    • Parents
    • Extended Family
  • At our jobs
    • Bosses
    • Co-workers
    • Employees
  • With our neighbors
    • Friends
    • Acquaintances
  • In our churches
    • Pastors/Elders
    • Members
    • Visitors

A great variety of relational scenarios arise in these different contexts. Taking the golden rule and pressing it into each unique situation would change the we way we relate and the way people feel with us. What would happen if this truth guided how we engaged in all our relationships? How would things be different? How would people feel? How would we feel? The command requires intentionality and sacrifice. It requires Christ-likeness…for “Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:3). He put the interest of others before himself. He embodied the command to love neighbor and fleshed out the golden imperative.

Immanuel: God With Us In Our Sin

Names mean something. This was especially true in the world of Christ. Names were carefully chosen and would often set the trajectory of a child’s life. In the Matthew narrative we learn that the naming of Jesus was no different. The text says that Mary and Joseph received divine guidance regarding what they would call Jesus. “You shall call his name Jesus for He will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

The name Jesus has Hebrew roots, it literally means “God saves.” God the Father makes clear what the saving work of Jesus is focused on…sin. His name indicated the reason for his coming. His name was a constant reminder of why he was born. Jesus came to deal with sin, this is absolutely central to his purpose. In the context it is very interesting to see that the author moves on to state that his name will be called Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matt 1:23).

Placing these two names side by side is instructive, something the context also seems to require. God is with us and God saves us from sin. Jesus is the God-man who enters the fray, he comes alongside and is present with us even in our sin. To save us from our sin he must walk with us as we struggle and falter. The saving work of God is not accomplished at a distance. He is uncomfortably present…so much so that “he who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

When we speak of the God who is with us, we mean to say that he is with us in our darkest moments, our greatest sins, our desperation, our brokenness, our weakness, our pain, our grief, our suffering…he is with us in the places where we need him most. Luther was right, God is “with us in the muck and in the work that makes his skin steam.”

Round 1: Why Does God’s Indwelling Presence Matter?

I have spent the last two months posting on the grace of God provided to us through indwelling. Indwelling being that merciful commitment of the Father and Son to send the Holy Spirit to take up residence within those who trust the gospel. Indwelling is the stunning reality that God the Trinity lives within us and refuses to ever leave us. We have explored a number of texts in the New and Old Testaments that communicate this peculiar doctrine.

In this final post on the theme I want to draw together various strands and explore the important implications of this biblical truth. I want to answer the question, “so what?” What does it matter? How does it impact us? As we grasp what this truth really means for us we will find that God is communicating rich things to us and providing a wealth of spiritual resource. Since there is so much here I will break the implications into two posts.

I have chosen the language of “must” because I believe that the grace of God in such a doctrine is capturing and compelling. When we are moved we move.

  • Our understanding of the presence of God must be impacted. God’s immediate presence throughout the biblical storyline was connected to the garden, tabernacle, temple, Christ, the church, and individual believers. The new covenant signals a shift in experiencing the immediate presence of God, from external to internal, temporary to permanent. The incarnation was God’s strong way of saying, “I am with you.” Indwelling is his affirmation, “I am in you.” Could God get closer? God’s nearness is now a static reality, the Spirit is no renter. He is here to stay. We have been purchased and our name now serves a divine address. His presence is a reality from morning to night, in all our conversations, while we work, when we play, in our sin, in our joy, in our faith, in our doubt, he is always with and in us. When we grapple with the question that we all do, “where are you God?” the doctrine of indwelling needs a voice.
  • Our appreciation of the cross and resurrection must grow. The coming of the Holy Spirit was inseparable from the new covenant. The new covenant was God’s promise of transformation, forgiveness, and his permanent presence. This covenant was enacted through the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gift of indwelling was purchased by the blood of Christ. Without the cross indwelling would not and could not happen. Indwelling then is another wonderful dimension of God’s love and kindness flowing from his cross. The empty tomb is no different. Only a victorious, reigning King could commission the Spirit to complete the work he began on the earth. When we worship God for the kindness of residing in us we must never forget that the cross and resurrection made this promise a reality.
  • Our worship of the Triune God must be heightened. Indwelling is not solely the work of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament indicates that he takes the lead in this work, but he is not alone. God the Father and God the Son are said to join the spirit in this new residential endeavor. This makes sense theologically when we consider the absolute unity of the Trinity while holding in tension the distinction of persons. Consider the tremendous humility of God the Father, Son, and Spirit. Not only does God humbly create us and graciously redeem us, he comes to live within us! Leaving the throne room of heaven he makes a residence of us. Consider the tremendous passion of God in his love for us, his commitment to change us, his willingness to be present with us! The doctrine of indwelling is fuel on the fire of intelligent and passionate worship. How could it be any other way?

In our next post we will conclude our focus on the indwelling of the Spirit as we explore some further implications. Let me know your thoughts….are there other important implications of this truth that you would suggest?