By Paul Koch –
Talking to people about our faith is at times one of the easiest and most natural things to do and yet at other times one of the most difficult and confusing endeavors on which we embark. Have you ever noticed that there are those you can just sit with and the conversation flows with ease? You can talk about the most important things in life with mutual understanding and concern: about sin and salvation, hope and assurance. But then, there are those with whom you can’t even begin to get the conversation going. Every part of it is strained and difficult. You discover that though your language is similar, your basic understandings of the terms are completely different. Even when it seems like you might finally be on the same page, you’ve never make any progress.
Quite often, disagreements in our conversations are from assumptions that we’ve made. If our basic underlying assumption about God and man vary, then the conversation will not go well. One of my professors at the Seminary often told us that when someone asks us a question the appropriate answer (no matter the question) is to say, “Why do you ask?” Is suicide a sin? Why do you ask? Will dogs be in heaven? Why do you ask? Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons? Why do you ask? Now I know we’re not supposed to answer a question with a question, but finding out why someone is asking a question enables you to better understand their motive and concern. This will influence your answer. And so, if we want to be successful in the conversation, it is helpful to understand the assumptions of the other person.
In a conversation about evolution, I assume that there is an all-powerful God who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. The other person might assume there is no God, but rather our universe began through some sudden reaction in the cosmos. This is going to be a fruitless conversation unless we address our assumptions before we speak about evolution.
Now, when it comes to Christians and the Christian faith there are two major differences with regard to our assumptions. There are those who assume freedom and those who assume slavery. Depending on which underlying assumption is made, the conversation about the Word of God and his grace takes a wildly different trip. For if you assume that mankind is free, that we are all like unsupervised children, then what we set out to do is control that freedom. We keep it in line for its own good. The church then becomes a place that primarily offers guidance for a more faithful living. On the other hand if we assume that we are slaves, that we are not free but bound in our sin unable to fix ourselves, then the diligent instruction and faithful guidance are not even helpful. The church, here, sets out to speak a word of freedom. The church views itself not as an instrument of guidance, but deliverance.
As you can see, the ramifications of these assumptions are colossal. For instance, at the end of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica Paul speaks some words of exhortation to his brothers and sisters there; “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything, hold fast what is good. Abstain from every evil.” If the assumption is that people are free and need to be controlled and guided, why then this text is the cream of the crop. The focus becomes one of our works. This text amounts to a checklist of things we need to set our hearts and minds on doing. It is time then to get your minds away from the worldly cares, away from your lusts and desires. It’s time to rejoice and pray and give thanks without ceasing in every aspect of your life. If you accomplish all that, let me know. For then we will need to work on how you are to test everything, hold fast to what is good, oh… and abstain from every evil.
However, if the assumption is that people are in bondage, slaves to their sin, and not free to change their own fate, then these words take a decidedly different tone. These exhortations of St. Paul would not leave us looking within to our own works and efforts to be all that we can be. If so, it would be like demanding a blind person to see or a deaf person to hear. The power does not lie within us. Our prison of sin interrupts our prayers and rejoicing and thanksgiving. We may desire to avoid evil but we find that we are mired in it again and again. In fact, no amount of exhortation seems to change it. From a point of slavery these words must lead us to look outside of ourselves for a solution. We don’t hold the keys to our own release; we need another.
This you see is the assumption of Paul himself. He is the one who proclaims that we are dead in our sins, being slaves to its tyranny. And we would remain slaves if not for a new reality that comes to us in the righteousness of Christ. In the waters of baptism we are crucified with our Lord. In that blessed flood a new life is given to us. This is a life where Christ lives within us. Surely Christ is the one who rejoices always and prays without ceasing and gives thanks in all things. Surely he perfectly tests everything and embraces the good and avoids all evil. It is Christ, then, who does these things within us. So this word from Paul is not a checklist for us to do if we are to be sure of our salvation. Rather it is a reminder of what we already are.
You are not free deciding your own destiny by your own works. You are bound in your sin or bound to your Lord. And yet even when your identity is bound up in his resurrection and promise of life everlasting, that old sin still entangles you. Sin causes you to doubt. It makes you wonder if those words really apply to you, or if you are still left in your sin. We begin to think we need to fix it. We try to shore up all the loose ends so that there can be confidence in our salvation. We also want to take up this text and wield it as our checklist of assurance.
Paul knows this, for he says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and bod be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” In Christ you are those who rejoice and pray and give thanks. In him you embrace the good and avoid the evil. The call here is to trust that you are what your Lord declares you to be. You are his saints, his holy ones, his brothers and sisters. You wear his righteous garments and he takes away all your sin.
We will struggle to believe it. We will doubt and wonder if our assumptions are all wrong. But when we doubt his word and promises, we hear these blessed words again, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”