Sons and Servants

Martin Luther, the great Reformer, said, “A Christian is free and independent in every respect, a bondservant to none.” In the very next sentence he stated, “A Christian is a dutiful servant in every respect, owing a duty to everyone.”

We see this reality throughout the Scriptures. Christians have been set free and yet that freedom leads the Christian to duty. As an example, Paul emphasizes this truth to Philemon as he appeals for him to receive Onesimus back. Onesimus is a runaway slave, who has apparently also stolen from Philemon (v. 18). How does Paul appeal to Philemon? He emphasizes the gospel. Paul reminds Philemon multiple times in the first seven verses that he is a child of God, a recipient of grace (v. 1, 3, 5, 6, 7). He will remind Philemon multiple times again before the letter closes (v. 9, 16, 17, 19, 20, 25). Philemon received abundant love, forgiveness, and grace in Christ. Paul implies that this truth matters as we live with others. “Remember the gospel” is Paul’s charge to Philemon.

In fact, Paul will make this appeal directly in verse eight. He tells Philemon that he could command him to do “what is required.” Paul is clearly pointing to Philemon’s duty in Christ. Yet, Paul chooses not to demand based upon his authority as an Apostle, rather he gently appeals to Philemon as he calls to his remembrance the gospel. “What is required” pertains to every recipient of grace.

A Christian husband and wife have hurt one another deeply. There is pain, anger, and even bitterness. Neither is happy. One spouse desires to walk away, believing it is time to start over. This is an all-too-common-scene. As a pastor, I have been in many of these conversations over the years. In those situations, I am bold enough to demand, as Paul said (v. 8), that they remain together, but that accomplishes little. Rather, I have found that when we begin to remember the gospel together and all that this individual received in Christ, what was hard ground begins to soften. Remembering the gospel allows the door of iron that has come upon their heart as result of pain, sorrow, and injury, sometimes through little to no fault of their own, to begin to swing open a little on its hinges. Maybe it is but a crack, but that crack allows gospel grace, love, and forgiveness to find their way in and even to flow out.

“Remember the gospel Philemon.” It frees us, but it also binds us. That is one of the paradoxes of the Christian life. We are free by God’s grace and are bound to act because of God’s grace. We are a slave to none, but then we are a slave to all. We have been set free from duty and yet now all duty is required of us. “Oh, Philemon, Christ has purchased you, do what is required of you for love’s sake, for Christ’s sake.” Remember the gospel.

The Christian needs this reminder daily. The beauty of the gospel delights our minds and sustains our souls; and it also provides drive, energy, and vision for the will. As it affects our persons, it informs our actions. Never underestimate the power of the gospel to claim lives from death and give them purpose in the present.

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