In one of my daily quiet times last night, I was really spewing out my resentments to God. But as I was ranting against this person and that person, and this situation and that situation, a thought came to me: wouldn’t it be great to be free from all that resentment?
In a lot of sermons and discussions that I’ve encountered on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I hear the following spiel: Christ saved us by his gift of grace, so now we are free to love. We don’t have to please God by obeying a bunch of laws, for God has already declared us righteous on the basis of our faith in Christ. But now we get to love other people.
That never made much sense to me. For me, love was always a burdensome law. In my eyes, there’s no “get to” about it: I’d opt out of that requirement if I could. I have difficulty reaching out to people for a variety of reasons (e.g., social anxiety, a history of being rejected, not knowing what to say in social situations, my Asperger’s, etc.). And I have a hard time convincing myself to love jerks. Give me the laws of the Old Testament, where I can please God through circumcision, kashrut, and Sabbath observance! Sure, the Hebrew Bible has laws about love, but they’re pretty manageable (e.g., tithing, returning donkeys, etc.). But don’t make me become a social extrovert who actually loves people from the heart. That’s a burden all by itself!
Last night, however, the “we get to love” spiel began to make sense to me. There I was, getting all worked up about affronts to my dignity. I was keeping my record of wrongs, something I Corinthians 13 tells me not to do! But then I thought: “It would be great to be able to let all of that go–to say, ‘Okay, that person did not accept me, but I’m going to love him anyway, for that makes me feel better, and I’m tired of basing my happiness on what others think about me.'”
And, by “love,” I don’t mean that I have to be “buddy, buddy” with a person. I’m saying that I can be friendly to my “enemies” whenever I encounter them, without feeling that I’m sacrificing my personal dignity when I refuse to “tell them off.”
There’s a strong part of me that would like to make others feel as bad as they’ve made me feel–perhaps even worse. That will even the scores! Then I’ll show them that I’m a person of value, and that they cannot attack my dignity with impunity! That will tell them what I think about them and how they act! And that’s the way that many in the world approach life: they want to uphold themselves and their own personal dignity. But, according to Christianity, I as a Christian have died to the world and its ways of doing things (Romans 6; Colossians 2). I don’t have to act the way that the world acts. I can choose another way, even if it involves me not being on top (I Corinthians 6:7). That’s freedom–from the world’s demands, from my own sense of dignity, from the bitterness and resentment that can eat on my soul.
My mind then went to another topic: assurance of salvation is necessary if a Christian is to overcome sin. There are Christians who assume the opposite: in their minds, if a person is absolutely sure that he is saved, then he may lose all fear of God, and he’d feel free to sin. And they have a point, for the Bible is full of warnings.
But Paul seems to believe that assurance of personal salvation is necessary for Christians to overcome sin. Take a look at parts of Romans 6:3-14:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin…The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (NRSV).
To overcome sin, a Christian must believe that he has died with Christ: his old sinful self is dead, which entails that God has forgiven him (Colossians 2:13ff.). That’s salvation! A Christian who wants a victorious life can’t approach salvation as I often do: “I don’t know if I’m saved or not, since I have a lot of sin in my life, plus I don’t bear much good fruit.” I have to assure myself that God has saved me, since that’s the only way I’ll have the self-image that’s necessary to overcome sin and produce good fruit. And, yes, self-image is a part of all this, for Paul says in Romans 6:11 that “you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” I have to see myself in a certain way in order to live a righteous life: I am dead to sin and alive to Christ, since I have died and risen with him.
Sure, Paul exhorts people to examine themselves to see if they’re in the faith (II Corinthians 13:5), and that has to fit into my religion somewhere. But I also see that having assurance of my own salvation is not a bad thing that will encourage me to sin. Paul says that sin will not dominate us precisely because we are under grace. If I want to sin less, then I need to believe that Christ has loved me, forgiven me, and given me hope.