Commands and Appeals

Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting, yet for love’s sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus (Philemon 1:8-9).

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Theodore Roosevelt made this “proverb” famous as a way of describing his governing policy. He preferred diplomacy so as to resolve differences but made it clear how he could use force to accomplish his purposes.

In the short letter Paul wrote to Philemon, a letter which raises more questions than it answers, Paul wishes to use the spiritual equivalent of speaking softly while carrying a big stick in order to persuade Philemon regarding the condition of Onesimus. Paul is an Apostle of Jesus Christ, one granted power and authority (cf. Colossians 1:1). All of the province of Asia would have heard of the mighty acts which Paul had accomplished in the name of Jesus in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:1-20). The authority granted him by the Lord Jesus and his personal commitment to the Lord’s purposes were unquestioned in Colossae (the likely home of Philemon; cf. Colossians 4:12-16, Philemon 1:1-2). Paul would have been entirely in the right to issue a command to Philemon to act as Paul believed he should (Philemon 1:8).

Yet Paul has great respect for Philemon. Paul thanks God for him in his prayers, having heard of his love and faith for Jesus and the Christians (Philemon 1:3-5). Many Christians have been refreshed by him, and he is likely hosting the assemblies of the church in Colossae in his house (Philemon 1:2, 7). By all accounts, Philemon is seeking to please the Lord Jesus and to do His will in all respects.

Therefore, Paul does not think it best to enjoin, or command, what Philemon should do; instead, for love’s sake, he will beseech, or appeal to, Philemon to act as he should (Philemon 1:9). Paul will go on to make his request: to not penalize Onesimus the slave of Philemon in any way on account of his departure and time spent with Paul, but instead to receive his slave as a fellow brother in Christ (Philemon 1:10-17). Paul wishes for whatever would be charged against Onesimus to be charged against him instead (Philemon 1:17-19).

We have so many questions to ask regarding this situation and especially about the aftermath of the letter and what happened among Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Even though we will not come to a complete answer to these questions in this life, we can share in the same trust which Paul maintained: since Philemon seeks to live for Christ and glorify Him, and Philemon seems to be aware of the “debt” which he owes Paul (cf. Philemon 1:19), we can have confidence that Philemon did the right thing on the basis of Paul’s appeal. Yet we must ask: if Paul had instead decided to maintain his boldness in Christ and command what was necessary, would we feel as confident that Philemon would have done the right thing? If Paul had not first so commended Philemon for his faith and manner of life, thereby giving us confidence in his faith, would we have any basis upon which to believe that Philemon would be well-disposed to do the right thing?

As Christians, when we consider what is written in the New Testament for our instruction, it is easy to conflate commands and appeals and consider the two as completely synonymous. This is understandable: as servants of God in Christ, we should seek to follow after both what has been commanded in the name of the Lord as well as the appeals made toward thinking, feeling, and acting in holiness and righteousness (Colossians 3:17, 2 Peter 3:11-12, 1 John 2:3-6). If anyone comes away from Scripture thinking that what is commanded is all that is required and therefore anything regarding which an appeal is made is less than required and thus optional is still thinking in worldly, carnal ways, and has not fully imbibed the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Appeals can be made because there are commands and the Lord Jesus behind them!

While we ought to follow after both those things which are commanded and concerning which appeals are made (and, to be fair, many things regarding which appeals are made are also commanded in other places, and vice versa), in terms of communication, there can be a big difference between a command and an appeal. A command is more forceful, and might rub someone the wrong way. To have to make something a command, at times, could imply a lack of trust and confidence in the one being commanded. An appeal, especially when made in a way that appreciates the faith of the one to whom the appeal is made, can often lead to the same desired end more effectively. If the appeal does fail, then the “big stick” can be used.

Another “proverb” of our time which speaks to the same reality is that one can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. We should not compromise the Gospel message or God’s standard in order to make the message more palatable to people. There will be times when people are going to be offended and rubbed the wrong way no matter what we say or do. Yet everyone appreciates being appreciated. Every Christian is sustained in their faith by encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25). People often do not mind being encouraged toward a higher goal or better service toward God but do not respond as well when they are berated, denounced, or denigrated because they have not done as well as they could. None of us are perfect; all of us fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Sometimes people do need a wake-up call, but how many times are commands dictated and rebukes blasted when a loving appeal would be more accurate and effective?

There is a time for commands, but there are also times for appeals. We might carry the “big stick” of the Word of God, but that does not mean that we do well to use it constantly to beat up on other people. Instead, let us seek to persuade men through appealing to them by the message of God. Let our presentations of the Gospel really be good news, not bad news. Let us make sure that we are truly encouraging one another, exhorting each other toward greater faithfulness to God in Christ, growing together in the Way!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Commands and Appeals

Maintaining Good Works

Faithful is the saying, and concerning these things I desire that thou affirm confidently, to the end that they who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men (Titus 3:8).

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of discipleship is maintaining good works. Yes, in many ways, there is a bit of a learning curve in Christianity; when we come to faith in Jesus, we have much to learn and gain from instruction and exhortation regarding how we should live. At that time we are also motivated by early enthusiasm for our faith. But what happens after we have been seeking to follow Jesus for awhile? How will we continue to be motivated toward good works?

Paul is aware of the challenge, and his solution might seem odd to some: further exhortation and reminder of what has transpired in the past (Titus 3:3-7).

It is easy for us to consider preaching and teaching only in terms of instruction; we have been conditioned by our society to associate a lack of proper conduct with a lack of knowledge. If we do not do what we are supposed to do, it is as if we have not been properly instructed. Nevertheless, most of the time we do know what we are to do; any Christian who has read a bit of Scripture and heard it preached frequently should have a decent understanding of what God expects from them. Much of the exhortation in Scripture is provided for Christians as a reminder of things they should already know (cf. 2 Peter 1:12-13). Doing righteousness and avoiding immorality is not “new news” to Christians; the greater danger is a weakening of zeal and developing complacency in one’s spiritual life (cf. Revelation 2:1-10).

Therefore, it is not strange or even surprising for Paul to insist on continual encouragement and exhortation, not to necessarily provide new information, but to constantly reinforce what has already been taught so as to keep such things at the forefront of the Christian’s mind, giving him or her greater strength to resist the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Hebrews 3:12-14). But what is the message the will truly motivate Christians to maintain good works?

Much of Paul’s letter to Titus is toward these ends. Jesus gave Himself up for Christians to redeem them from sin and to purify a people to Himself (Titus 2:11-14). Christians are to be subject to authorities, not speaking evil but being gentle and meek (Titus 3:1-2). But why?

Paul explains more fully in Titus 3:3-7 what he said simply in Titus 2:11-14: Christians were once in a terrible state. The list is unpleasant: foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hated (Titus 3:3). Salvation came through the kindness and mercy of God, not our own works; we were cleansed by the washing of regeneration (baptism) and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, not our own futile efforts (Titus 3:4-5). This allowed us to become heirs of the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:6-7). Paul intends to motivate Christians to good works through this message.

How will such a message motivate? There are three aspects to the message: our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, God’s love, mercy, and kindness reflected through Jesus in providing the means for our redemption, and our ability to hold to hope of eternity through Jesus. These three put together can encourage the believer to good works!

How can the reminder of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves motivate us to good works? By itself, it could not; it would lead to despair and paralysis on account of guilt. Without this reminder, however, it is easy to get puffed up and overconfident in our “holiness.” We are easily tempted to develop an “us” versus “them” attitude against those outside of the faith; it is tempting to feel as if “we” are better than “they.” This is why Paul says that we “also” were foolish, led astray by passion, etc.; on our own, we are no better off or superior in any way to those still lost in the world of sin. We were lost too at some point; we were terribly sinful as well. We could not save ourselves; this reality should keep us humble!

Thankfully, God provided the means by which we could be rescued from ourselves. We did not deserve it, nor could we; God has freely displayed love, kindness, mercy, and grace through Jesus and the redemption and reconciliation obtained through His life and death. This is an important piece of the story, but by no means the only one: without a recognition of our sin, we cannot appreciate the redemption we have obtained; without hope for the future, there would not be as much motivation to move forward. Nevertheless, atonement and reconciliation through Jesus is the centerpiece of the Gospel and of this message of encouragement: we could not save ourselves, and no deed can save us, but God has provided the means by which we can obtain cleansing through Jesus’ blood in baptism and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel makes it plain that Jesus’ death without Jesus’ resurrection would have been without power or sufficiency for anything (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). It is through Jesus’ resurrection that we maintain the hope for eternal life in our own resurrection. God wants us to be rescued and preserved now but with a view toward the resurrection of life for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

It is lamentable how the various truths in Titus 3:3-7 have been distorted and used against each other since Paul speaks with such harmony. We were lost in sin and could not save ourselves; God provided the means of atonement and reconciliation through Jesus; through this believers have hope for eternal life; these truths motivate believers to maintain good works. This pattern does not show contradiction or inconsistency, but balance. If we will honor God in our lives, it is because we maintain humility, understanding that we are no better than anyone else and cannot save ourselves; it is because we remain thankful, always keeping Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in mind; it is because we can look forward with confidence in the resurrection, which itself infuses the present life with purpose and meaning. When we remain humble, thankful, and forward-looking, we will devote ourselves to the good works for which our Creator made us (Ephesians 2:10).

As humans, we are weak, and constantly in need of exhortation and encouragement. We do well to always keep all aspects of the big picture in mind: our former state, the means by which we obtained our present state, our future hope, and all of those to motivate us toward obedience now. Let us seek to perpetually honor and glorify Christ through our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maintaining Good Works