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Monday, September 05, 2016

Anti-Invictus

Here is the apostle Paul describing his gospel to the Romans:

“I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience …”

“… through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”

That’s an awfully funny way to put it, don’t you think? Bring the Gentiles to obedience. The obedience of faith. Those sorts of catchphrases could put people off.

What’s In It for Me?

Perhaps “funny” is not the best word. Maybe “distasteful” would be more accurate. This is, after all (as Paul refers to it), the “priestly service of the gospel of God”. If it were you tasked with marketing the gospel, wouldn’t you try to make it a little more appealing?

As marketing campaigns go, “Just do it” has gone over like gangbusters for Nike. Why? Because it speaks of personal power and potential. Life isn’t about finding your limits. It’s about realizing you have none.

On the other hand, “Just do it” would not have anywhere near the same appeal if the masses understood it to mean something more like “Just trust and obey, for there’s no other way”. Aside from being way too clunky for an ad campaign, it smacks of humility, self-abnegation and a spirit that has learned to defer to the will of another. Good luck popularizing that!

We live in a society that prizes autonomy and decisiveness, one that invariably finds itself asking, “What’s in it for ME?” When talking about salvation, I don’t have to be Joel Osteen to find myself arriving fairly speedily at a list of ways in which the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus turns out to be of personal benefit. I almost can’t help it: we automatically think of our own will and desires first. It’s like default programming.

Six Good Reasons to Get Saved

Walter Huyck, among others, has listed Six Good Reasons to Get Saved:

1. To escape the terror of hell (John 3:18)
2. To become a child of God (John 1:12)
3. To be heard by God (Proverbs 15:8-9)
4. To receive help in trouble (Psalm 46:1)
5. To know the truth and freedom (John 10:10)
6. To know the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)

Good reasons all, but even something as apparently spiritual as a desire to know the “deep things of God” can be merely a selfish, individualistic or intellectual pursuit. Looked at uncharitably, we might say Mr. Huyck’s points amount to “me, me, me”. Maybe that’s the only sort of appeal the unregenerate heart can countenance. If so, it tells us quite a bit about the human condition.

But this is not the way Paul characterized the gospel he preached to the Gentiles; at least not in Romans, which is bookended with references to the obedience of faith.

Acceptable Offerings

For Paul, it was about making sure GOD was satisfied with what he was doing. First and foremost, he cared “that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit”. He cared that when the Gentiles finally came into the kingdom in significant numbers, they came on GOD’s terms, not their own. It mattered to Paul that those to whom he preached the gospel were not just buying fire insurance, or picking out a new and more interesting worldview.

He intended to present them ... obedient. Humbled. Compliant. Willing to be led.

Wow. That’s not the way the gospel is often presented to sinners today.

Still, obedience is a significant component of the gospel message. If there is no characteristic obedience in the lives of those who profess salvation, there is no way to know whether they are the genuine article or simply along for the ride.

Part of the Package

This is not a new thing. Obedience has always been part of the package for anyone who claims to know God. It was an integral aspect of the covenant with Israel:
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples.”
Obedience was also a hallmark of discipleship when the Lord walked the earth. It was an indication of love for him:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
It was a mark of friendship with him:
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Obedience was a feature of discipleship that John the apostle was still hammering home years after the Lord ascended to heaven in glory:
“This is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.”
Love for Christ and obedience to Christ are always inextricably bound together. We can’t avoid that if we are to approach scripture honestly.

The Master of My Fate

The gospel can be presented many different ways. Does having a relationship with Jesus Christ make it easier to manage your kids? It could, though it may not work out that way. Could it improve your relationship with your wife? Possibly, but there is no iron-clad guarantee: frankly, if your marriage is in trouble, obedience to Christ might well make things worse. Will Christianity make you a better person? Absolutely, though you may not find people like you for it. Is the truth of the Bible more compatible than current evolutionary theory with the actual operation of the universe? I believe it is, but you may not find many who agree with me about that.

In fact, all efforts to package the gospel in terms of its benefits to man in this life fall short in one way or another. The faithful are surely rewarded in heaven, but in this life … well, we just can’t be sure. What we can be sure of is that exercising faith is an act of obedience, and obedience pleases God.

In Invictus, William Ernest Henley famously wrote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”. In direct contrast, the prophet Samuel, though still a boy, knew enough to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears”.

If God exists, and if he rewards those who seek him, one response makes a great deal more sense than the other.

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