Submission, Sanctification and Freedom
Most modern western Christians miss what the Bible has to say about its good news – the Gospel of Christ. It’s right there in black and white. But somehow they miss it – read right past it. How does this happen?
It seems that what we see in the Bible is what we have been taught is there. What we’ve been taught it says forms our understanding of what it intended to say to us. So, in a very real sense, when we read the Bible what we perceive is what our teachers perceived, and little else. From our teachers we have inherited a scripture-view – a kind of cognitive filter that acts to filter out the “noise” of words unconnected with what we’ve learned, but repeatedly lets in those words we associate with the lessons we’ve been taught – the “signal”.
Because of this phenomenon, people with entrenched scripture-views can reread their Bible a thousand times and see or learn essentially nothing new.
What are they missing? A lot. In fact, many are missing arguably the most important message in the history of mankind.
What most every reader of the Bible’s New Testament (NT) seems to hear is the message that because Jesus Christ died for them and then rose from the dead Himself, all they need do to avoid Hell after they die is profess belief in Him as their Savior. After having professed this belief, should they commit sin, that sin is forgiven because of Christ’s sacrifice, and the mercy of their God. This is largely the extent of the church’s message today.
Many believe that they were chosen to believe in Christ “before the foundation of the world” and that, having been so chosen, there is literally nothing they can do to become “unchosen”. Others, however, just read past verses describing the “judgment” of God since, to them, God just wouldn’t do something like that. Sometimes this comes from earlier teachers. But as often it’s simply the result of their own sensibilities.
These themes are some of the most clearly communicated and therefore broadly accepted in modern Western evangelical Christianity. Paul’s “salvation by grace through faith” is the “signal” that gets through. And perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical about this selective hearing since pulpits concentrate, increasingly, on “what’s in it for you.” But what is in what we’re calling “noise” that gets filtered out?
We’re to be Sanctified?
The message most skip over or otherwise don’t receive from the gospel message is that we’re to be transformed (2 Cor 3:18) and repurposed for God – to be “sanctified”. Christ wants to change you, and He’s well aware that you’re unable to change yourself by your own willpower alone into His image. His agent of your change, the mentor He has given to you, the believer, is His Spirit (John 16:13).
What does it mean to be sanctified? It means to be transformed to holiness — set apart for God’s purposes. And we should understand that this process is life-long. As long as we’re in this body in this world, the work of sanctification continues – “being transformed into the same image” [as Christ] “from one degree of glory to another” (1 Cor 3:18).
It’s a wonder that so few self-identified Christians today understand this truth – that this is the Bible’s prescription for one seeking to follow Christ – and that they should expect to experience this transformation. When they don’t experience it, few know enough even to question “why?”.
Before His crucifixion, Jesus taught that it was good news that He was to “go away” from his disciples (i.e. die) because He would then send them a “Helper” – God’s Spirit.
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
God was going to place His Spirit inside you, if you believed Him and the Son. Think about that for a moment. Aside from, perhaps, some charismatic preachers, how many messages have you heard from Christian pastors of any kind recently proclaiming this almost unimaginable truth that if you sincerely believe and trust God for your life, The Creator of the Universe lives in you – there to help you become like Him? Likely not too many times. It gets ignored or, if mentioned, lost as “noise”. Yet it is the heart of the gospel message[i] and is, in fact, the essence of the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34. (The Bible overflows with this New Covenant prophecy of the gift of the Spirit: Joel 2:28, Isaiah 44:3-5, Isaiah 32:15-17, Ezekiel 36:26-27, Ezekiel 39:29, Zechariah 12:10)
Most professed Christians know that God is a Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and many know that the Spirit gives spiritual gifts to the faithful, perhaps as if He’s some external tooth fairy figure. But not nearly as many understand this “indwelling of the Holy Spirit” – the fact that God’s Spirit takes up residence in each and every follower of Christ.
A “Helper” to do what, exactly? To enable us to live as Christ would have us live, something we’re not equipped to do by ourselves. Jesus told us in Luke 14:25-33:
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Jesus is saying that in order to follow Him as His disciple we have to “renounce” (ἀποτάσσομαι apótassómai, meaning to forsake) “all that he has”. Christ is calling those who would follow Him to agree with Him to forsake their attachments to their possessions and worldly aspirations as their preeminent priority, and to replace them with Him. This is submission to God. If you don’t think you need the Spirit’s help to actually do this, then it’s possible you haven’t fully grasped its challenge.
Virtually nobody (in terms of the Western Church) teaches the need to submit ourselves to the Lordship of Christ in our lives in humility these days, and so professed Christians don’t need to spend much effort to filter it out. But it is essential to the one who would follow Christ.
Why it’s not taught is a matter of speculation. One could speculate, for example, that in the West at least, the idea of submission to anything is so counter-cultural as to be unacceptable. We’re all brought up (or at least were) with the expectation that we succeed or fail on our own, that we take responsibility for ourselves and our lives and we earn our own way. Our independence was assumed and was counted to our credit when (by the grace of God) we actually did succeed at something.
Western culture, therefore, doesn’t hold as a virtue submission to anyone or anything. Perhaps this is more of an American trait than a generally Western trait[ii]. But for those in whom it has been instilled, it creates a severe impediment to humbly accepting the Lordship of Christ. That it is the desire of God for us is reflected in David’s prayer in Psalm 51:
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
And in James 4:
6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Christian author CS Lewis had a lot to say about humility as a Christian virtue. He was careful to teach that Christian humility wasn’t some kind of “I’m not worthy” mentality, but one of confidence in his Lord. Cutting to the heart of the matter he says[iii]:
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
This is the essence of Christian humility – unselfconsciousness. Placing yourself in God’s hands results in liberation from the need to think about yourself, your own welfare, your standing with others, etc. It’s in God’s control. Believing that and living as if you believe it is the challenge.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this very well. In his “The Cost of Discipleship”[iv] he tells us:
“To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenceless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.”
Submitted humility is difficult for us because it opposes our nature – a nature that is driven by our own pride and vanity. This is why the Bible describes it as dying to ourselves (Romans 6:4-8) and being born again.
To be a Christian[v] one must commit to and submit to his Lord. When you call Jesus “Lord”, you’re saying that you are his subject – His servant. He calls the shots for you. You obey because He’s your Master and He promises what’s best for you (Mark 10:29-30). The Bible overflows with this message (Psalms 81:11, Romans 8:7, Romans 10:3, James 4:7, Titus 3:1, etc.) This is, without question, a daunting challenge to the would-be Christian. After all, he’s being instructed to give up control and instead pass that control over his life to his Lord. But it’s not like the Biblical writers didn’t understand that this was our calling. Christ Himself cautions us concerning this challenge:
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
The narrow gate is obviously submission to and obedience to the Lord. In the book of John Jesus tells us that obedience to Him is how we express our love for Him (John 14:15). However, somehow this message is lost as “noise”, and simply passed over by most modern Bible readers.
So how does the Spirit help us to submit to and place our obedience to Him first in our lives?
The Bible says He unshackles us from “sin”, where we understand “sin” to be doing anything that is outside of the will of God, such as placing Him and obedience to His commands as just “a good thing” to do in our lives (Romans 8:2, Galatians 4:6). Paul tells us in Romans 8:9-14 that the Spirit works to help us overcome ourselves – our natural tendencies (our “flesh” as he puts it):
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
To Paul, living “according to the flesh” was to live the natural life – the life in which we hold on to responsibility for and control over our own well-being, our manner of thinking, our habits and, yes, our sins. To be liberated from that condition requires Christ’s Spirit living within you, influencing your thinking, your habits and lifestyle to conform to His direction, resulting in your life looking more and more like the life Christ would lead if He were you.
The presence of the Spirit in you assures you that you will succeed in this project of submission (Philippians 1:6).
So obviously, it requires purposeful intention to be His disciple; that we have to forsake (stop caring about) all we “have”, and just follow Him. No wonder He has sent us the Spirit – the Helper.
Given all of this exhortation to die to ourselves, to submit to the Lordship of Christ, how then can it possibly be that the Gospel message promises that we, having done so, are destined for “freedom” (Galatians 5:1, John 8:36, John 8:32, Romans 8:1-2, Galatians 5:13-14, 1 Peter 2:16)? This is perhaps one of the least understood (or preached) elements of the gospel of Christ. What are these “freedom” verses (and many others like them) teaching us about life in Christ?
Paul tells us in Romans 8:2 “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” It goes without saying that this is profound. But if we’re going to really understand it as Paul intended, we’re going to have to do a little work.
First and very importantly, the freedom being offered is brought about by “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus”. Paul here is talking about the result of the Holy Spirit living in us. But he’s expressing it in such a way that we can’t avoid the powerful image of our life lived “in Christ Jesus”. (I’ve written elsewhere about the practical meaning of this favorite phrase of Paul’s.)
Paul is an interesting study. While as we’ve seen the gospel he and the other Apostles proclaimed featured a foundation of humility and submission before the Lord, Paul himself seemed always to maintain a forceful self-image while seeing himself as a martyr for the gospel of Christ. He wasn’t afraid, for example, to let his readers know of the persecution and suffering he was enduring for them. He was hardly one to suffer in silence (2 Cor 11:21-33).
But he is also perhaps the foremost example of one, having been transformed on his way to Damascus, who truly lived his life empowered by the Spirit – in Christ. We see him, for example, when he wasn’t singing hymns and worshipping God from his rotting jail cell in Rome, implore the Philippians to focus their minds on the beauty and perfection of the Lord (Philippians 4:8). He constantly edified others while suffering, not something we would expect apart from the empowerment of the Spirit. He withstood numerous beatings and imprisonments and illnesses all the while professing Christ and working and praying for the well-being of the saints. It’s hard to miss the power of the Spirit in him.
So in professing the Spirit’s role of “life in Christ Jesus” in setting us “free”, we can perhaps conclude that the freedom Paul experienced was, indeed, spiritual freedom – being unshackled from the tyranny of concern about his circumstances and, rather, elevated to a spiritual oneness with his Lord. This was an overcoming freedom in Paul.
But his message certainly conveys more meaning than this. While this is the only place in the Bible the phrase “the law of sin and death” appears, what Paul has been teaching up to this point to the Romans is that all (Jew and Greek, Male and Female, Slave and Free, etc.) are guilty of sin. And that sin brings (spiritual) death – separation from their Lord. He has been spending a lot of time in the preceding chapters (for the edification, apparently, of the Jewish Christians in Rome) on the role of the Law in this condition of sin and death. This emphasis can hide from some his underlying message that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
So when Paul gets to chapter 8, he’s ready to identify the solution to this condition of sin and death – the Spirit of God in us. He says we are freed from having to continue to lead life apart from our Lord, in a condition of sin and death. We are given access to God who will, through His Spirit in us, change our heart so that we reject sin and instead desire the things of Him. And, because He lives in us, His followers, we are released from the sentence of having to persist in sin, and its death.
This is the message that is almost a secret in today’s church. It proclaims the freedom of life in Christ, not just going to heaven when we die.
The Good News is far, far more than avoiding an eternity of Hell. It is that our Lord will transform us from top to bottom in this life to model His characteristics and life among our neighbors if we will but not resist His Spirit in us. When we in humility die to ourselves, we agree with God and His project to transform us into the image of His Son. This is the message the Church needs to reclaim, and proclaim.
[i] The Eastern Orthodox Church does a much, much better job at proclaiming the gospel and work of the Spirit than does the Western Church in total.
[ii] It is quite condemning that a search of the internet concerning the psychology of submission turns up only articles related to sex roles or some kind of dysfunction. This must be the 21st century ;).
[iii] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperOne, 2001
[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Touchstone, 2017
[v] It’s important to point out that the desire of a follower of Christ was to learn from and serve his Master. A person that did so – who walked away from the safety and security of being in control of his/her daily life; who made Him the priority of their lives — was called his disciple (3101 μαθητής maqētēs, math-ay-tes’). These folks were, in fact, apprentices of Christ. And this was the expectation, established by Christ Himself, of everyone who would place their faith in Him. Only later were these people labeled “Christian”. This is what the term continues to mean to this day.