christianity

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.

Wisdom from Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares a nugget of wisdom in his Papers and Letters from Prison. The proper way to view other human beings is through a particular lens colored by humility, self-awareness and compassion. See what he has to see about the matter.

The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others — and especially to our weaker brethren — is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men’s sake.

Devotional Warmth & Academic Rigor

In the book The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor, D.A. Carson provides this helpful advice on combining devotional warmth and academic rigor when approaching the Bible. He shows that the common disjunction made between these two ways of approaching Scripture is a misnomer.

Fight with every fiber of your being the common disjunction between “objective study” of Scripture and “devotional reading” of Scripture, between “critical reading” of the Bible and “devotional reading” of the Bible. The place where this tension first becomes a problem is usually at seminary. Students enter with the habit of reading the Bible “devotionally” (as they see it). They enjoy reading the Bible, they feel warm and reverent as they do so, they encounter God through its pages, some have memorized many verses and some chapters, and so forth.

Seminary soon teaches them the rudiments of Greek and Hebrew, principles of exegesis, hermeneutical reflection, something about textual variants, distinctions grounded in different literary genres, and more. In consequence, students learn to read the Bible “critically” or “objectively” for their assignments but still want to read the Bible “devotionally” in their quiet times.

Every year a handful of students end up at the door of assorted lecturers and professors asking how to handle this tension. They find themselves trying to have their devotions, only to be harassed by intruding thoughts about textual variants. How should one keep such polarized forms of reading the Bible apart? This polarization, this disjunction, kept unchecked, may then characterize or even harass the biblical scholar for the rest of his or her life. That scholar may try to write a commentary on, say, Galatians, where at least part of the aim is to master the text, while preserving time for daily devotional reading.

My response, forcefully put, is to resist this disjunction, to eschew it, to do everything in your power to destroy it. Scripture remains Scripture, it is still the Word of God before which (as Isaiah reminds us) we are to tremble—the very words we are to revere, treasure, digest, meditate on, and hide in our hearts (minds?), whether we are reading the Bible at 5:30 am at the start of a day, or preparing an assignment for an exegesis class at 10:00 pm.

If we try to keep apart these alleged two ways of reading, then we will be irritated and troubled when our “devotions” are interrupted by a sudden stray reflection about a textual variant or the precise force of a Greek genitive; alternatively, we may be taken off guard when we are supposed to be preparing a paper or a sermon and suddenly find ourselves distracted by a glimpse of God’s greatness that is supposed to be reserved for our “devotions.” So when you read “devotionally,” keep your mind engaged; when you read “critically” (i.e., with more diligent and focused study, deploying a panoply of “tools”), never, ever, forget whose Word this is. The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it.

Washington’s First Presidential Act

In George Washington’s first inaugural address he expresses deep humility regarding the task at hand and publicly turns his attention heavenward as the first step in his journey. Washington’s first presidential act is an instructive moment in history.

Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station; it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes: and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success, the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either. No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.

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.

All Good Men Were Once Bad

Augustine, the early church father (354-430 A.D.), was on of the most significant theologians in all of church history. In this post I have selected a number of quotes from a few different works.

“Hence it is not the case that every bad man will become good, but no one will be good who was not bad originally.”

“He that becomes protector of sin shall surely become its prisoner.”

“It is this Good which we are commanded to love with our whole heart, with our whole mind, and with all our strength. It is toward this Good that we should be led by those who love us, and toward this Good we should lead those whom we love. In this way, we fulfill the commandments on which depend the whole Law and the Prophets: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind’; and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ For, in order that a man might learn how to love himself, a standard was set to regulate all his actions on which his happiness depends. For, to love one’s own self is nothing but to wish to be happy, and the standard is union with God. When, therefore, a person who knows how to love himself is bidden to love his neighbor as himself, is he not, in effect, commanded to persuade others, as far as he can, to love God?”

“Now the Apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, “Knowledge inflates: but love edifies.” The only correct interpretation of this saying is that knowledge is valuable when charity informs it. Without charity, knowledge inflates; that is, it exalts man to an arrogance which is nothing but a kind of windy emptiness.”

Contaminated By Responsible Action

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian positioned in a challenging historical situation. As a Christ-follower, pastor and professor he wrestled with the dynamic of Hitler’s dictatorship and the terror of the Holocaust.

What must a responsible disciple of Christ do in such an impossible context? Many turned a blind eye to the situation and plugged their ears. Bonhoeffer pushed for and modeled a different path. His comments are wise and challenging in this regard.

Here and there people flee from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness. But anyone who does this must shut his mouth and his eyes to the injustice around him. Only at the cost of self-deception can he keep himself pure from the contamination arising from responsible action. In spite of all that he does, what he leaves undone will rob him of his peace of mind. He will either go to pieces because of the disquiet, or become the most hypocritical of Pharisees.

Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles. his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?

Responsible action is messy. When you enter the fray obediently, staying clean is unlikely. The idea that a Christian can stay faithful and unscathed by the mess around them is faulty. This “private virtuousness” that removes our neighbors from us and keeps the world at bay is no virtue at all.

Bonhoeffer’s theology would root virtue in the cross; the embodiment of contamination for responsible action.