Great Themes of the Bible (#3-Lordship)

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

Last Wednesday evening, one of the most remarkable television programs of recent vintage aired on PBS. “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace” is an introduction to the life of one of the most remarkable Christian martyrs of recent times. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran minister who joined the German resistence when the evils of Naziism became apparent. He was arrested in 1943 for plotting against Adolf Hitler and hanged at Flossenberg prison on April 9, 1945.1

The film is framed by Hitler’s demand that German citizens swear a type of allegiance that Christians could only render to Christ himself. Bonhoeffer is pictured in Berlin in 1939 as the film opens.

. . . let’s not delude ourselves that if we take the loyalty oath to Hitler it means they’ll let us worship in peace. The Nuremberg laws are an attack on Christianity itself. Adolf Hitler demands nothing less than total commitment. He’s the elected chancellor, yes. But more than that, he considers himself der Fuhrer and as “the leader” he craves to be the conscience of every living German. But his claim upon us is a claim that a Christian can only accept from Christ himself.
Thus Bonhoeffer and a small group of friends, pastors, and seminary students refused to take a loyalty oath. He helped write a document called the Barmen Declaration that called on Christians to remember that their first allegiance is to Christ alone. He and other German churchmen who refused to accommodate their faith to the evils of Naziism left the state-supported churches and created what came to be called the Confessing Church.

The man portrayed in “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace” is one who knows what it means to fear God, and not to presume on divine grace. One who watches the film comes to understand what Bonhoeffer meant by writing that “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient, believes.”

The Earliest Confession

The martyrdom of such persons as Stephen, the apostles, Polycarp, Maximilian Kolbe, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer is predictable in one sense. If one truly believes that Jesus Christ is who he claimed to be, that one’s own identity is defined by him, and that one’s welfare is better served by dying for Christ than by betraying him to save one’s own neck, it is to be expected that there will be occasional martyrs for Jesus’ sake.

When a man or woman gives heart, soul, mind, and body to him, Jesus Christ becomes not only that person’s Savior but also his or her Sovereign. That is, a saved person acknowledges the right of Jesus Christ to own, command, and reign over him. Thus such texts as these in the New Testament:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord (Rom. 14:7-8).
These and a dozen similar passages are summarized in the earliest confession and creed of the Christian church: “Jesus Christ is Lord” (cf. Phil. 2:11).

The term “lord” (Gk, kyrios) basically affirms a position of authority for someone. To the Greeks, a kyrios is one who has the right to rule over another. But there is a related-but-quite-different Greek term that is also translated into English by the same term “lord,” despotes. The difference in the terms is critical. Despotes sometimes carried with it the notions of harshness, arbitrariness, and unpredictability. Kyrios, on the other hand, points to one who has legitimate authority and who uses it appropriately. A pretender and usurper might be despotes to those he ruled. Only the person with the lawful right to rule could be kyrios.

How did Jesus get his “right” to rule over us? How do we know he is not a usurper? “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:9). Jesus has been proved to be the Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead. In his exalted state, he has been declared the rightful Lord of Heaven and Earth. The business of the church is to proclaim his status and to invite people to take an oath of allegiance to him as their sole rightful master.

Tom Boyd tells the story of a woman who was a member of his church. She was a bit flamboyant and eccentric in some ways, but Boyd was impressed with the depth of her commitment to Christ. He was having dinner at her home one evening, and his hostess had him engaged in animated conversation about some biblical theme. In the midst of the conversation, the woman’s teenaged daughter — perhaps a bit frustrated with the tone of the conversation — asked, “Mother, why do you talk about religion all the time?”

The girl’s question brought an ominous silence to everyone’s conversation at the dining table. Her mother paused dramatically, pushed her chair back, stood up, and said, “Every morning before you are awake, I rise and walk into the living room. I lift my arms and ask, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ The answer always comes back: ‘Not you!’ That’s why I’m religious. Because I am not in charge!”

While I’m not at all sure that was the best way for a mother to answer her dismayed daughter — though it may have been! — that lady understood something critical to faith. A truly spiritual life begins with the understanding of Sovereignty, Lordship, and the Right to Rule. We are not in charge, and from that understanding we can proceed to align ourselves to the One who is.

Case Studies

The defiant unbeliever Robert Ingersoll was belligerently assailing Christianity in a conversation with Lew Wallace. Wallace, himself an unbeliever, said, “I am going to read the New Testament and find out for myself.” For six years, he pored over the pages of Scripture. When he had finished, he said, “I have come to the conviction that Jesus Christ is the Messiah of the Jews, the Savior of the world, and my own personal Redeemer.” Wallace proceeded to write the book Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

C.S. Lewis underwent a similar conversion through diligent study. An agnostic who became a prolific apologist for Christian faith, he once wrote: “Jesus was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met him. He produced mainly three effects — hatred, terror, adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.” He is right. And the posture of adoration is the one adopted by those who, like the apostle Thomas, fall at Jesus’ feet to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28; cf. Rev. 1:5; 19:15-16).

This exclamation is more than a posture or verbal formula. It is a life commitment that shows itself in changed values, new priorities, transformed behavior. Take the case of Jack Eckerd, founder of the Eckerd drugstore chain, as a case in point. He committed his life to Christ well after his success and achievements in the business world. Shortly after his conversion, he was walking through one of his stores and notices the magazine racks with their glossy copies of Playboy and Penthouse. Though he was retired from active management at that point in his career, he called the president of the company and urged them to get rid of those publications that degraded women by exploiting them as sexual objects.

The president protested that substantial amounts of money were at stake. Eckerd, himself the largest single stockholder in the company, stood to lose money by such a decision. But he remained firm in his newfound conviction. He prevailed, and the magazines were removed from all the stores that were then operated under the Eckerd name — 1700 stores at the time! When he was asked what motivated him to press for such an action, Eckerd replied, “God wouldn’t let me off the hook!”

When Paul was confronted by the risen and reigning Christ on the Damascus Road, his urgent question was, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10a). That question governed Paul’s life until the day he died. And we too must ask that question about our own life situations before Jesus Christ — whether in the home, in business, in school, in politics, in every life situation.

A Threatening Notion

The notion of living under the Sovereign Rule of Jesus Christ — otherwise known as “entering the kingdom of God” or “seeing the kingdom of heaven” — seems to threaten some who have claimed him as their Savior. I think that sense of threat comes from one of two things.

On the one hand, it may come from our spiritual immaturity. We want to go to heaven but we don’t quite want to take both feet out of the world. We see Jesus as someone who is intruding into and messing up our lives. But the Christ of Scripture is one who loves us and wants only to help us be everything we were created to be. He never prohibits anything except that which would hurt us. He never enjoins anything except that which would bless us.

On the other hand, it may stem from our failure to distinguish between Jesus as Kyrios and Jesus as Despotes, Jesus as one who has the right to rule because of his love for us and a mental image of Jesus who is offering us a batch of rules.

Watchman Nee tells about a new convert who came in deep distress to see him. “No matter how much I pray,” said the man, “no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot seem to be faithful to my Lord. I think I’m losing my salvation.” And Nee said, “Do you see this dog here? He is my dog. He is house-trained; he never makes a mess; he is obedient; he is a pure delight to me. Out in the kitchen I have a son, a baby son. He makes a mess, he throws his food around, he fouls his clothes, he is a total mess. But who is going to inherit my kingdom? Not my dog; my son is my heir. You are Jesus Christ’s heir because it is for you that he died.” So it is with us. We are Christ’s heirs, not through our perfection but by means of his grace.2
Lordship is neither an assignment to nor an accomplishment of non-Christians that admits them to favor with Jesus. It is the blessed privilege of the children of God by which they honor the Christ who has saved them by his sacrifice. Lordship is not something the church seeks to impose on the world. Our calling, after all, has never been to remove the darkness from the world but to shine as lights in a dark place. Our assignment is to be an alternative community to the world. By obedience, faithfulness, and purity in the power of the Holy Spirit, we seek to submit ourselves to the rule of Christ and then to lead as many as possible to know the one who has changed our lives and created a hunger in their hearts by what they have witnessed in us.

Conclusion

Salvation is by grace, not by our good works or obedience to commandments. It is a gift given, not a reward earned. But, returning for a moment to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, grace is a costly thing — not only to God in offering salvation but to us in accepting it.

Bonhoeffer published a book titled The Cost of Discipleship in 1937. In it he attacked what he called the “cheap grace” of the German churches. It was a view of grace, he said, designed merely to make people comfortable with their weakness and sinfulness. By contrast, “costly grace” carried with it the presumed obligation of discipleship, obedience. He insisted that “it is only through actual obedience that a person can become liberated to believe.” Faith and obedience, he argued, are ultimately all but indistinguishable, “for faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”3

That is ultimately the point of claiming Jesus as one’s Lord. It is a pledge of obedience. It is the surrender of one’s total life to God. It is not the mistaken belief that following the rules exactly will bring one to heaven but the abandon of a lover’s commitment that says I will do anything that would honor or please him.

Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ sent him to the gallows. Yours will more likely send you home, to the workplace, or back to school with a renewed sense that your obligation is not to yourself, the bottom line, or being cool. It is to prove that you have understood the words of your Savior that it would be foolish to try to call him “Lord, Lord!” and not do what he has commanded.

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1 An excellent summary of the life and writings of Bonhoeffer may be found in Susan Bergman, ed., Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), pp. 155-168. One who has never read the works of Bonhoeffer owes it to himself to read such classics as The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.
2 Bruce Larson, Luke (Waco, TX: Word Publishers, 1983), p. 127.
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), p. 93.

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