In an age of personal autonomy and glorified rebellion, we might struggle to understand biblical submission. What exactly is it? An Old Testament law provides a helpful illustration. The Hebrew indentured servant had the option to depart after his sixth year. But if he had come to admire, love and respect his master’s authority, he could publicly pledge his voluntary submission:
“But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ “then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. (Exodus 21:5-6)
Here is the picture of our submission. We willingly and cheerfully give up self-direction, to dwell under the leadership of the Good Shepherd. This image helps us to understand biblical submission. Love is at the root of it, and it expresses itself in love.
Submission is loving the wise and good authority of God. The Hebrew servant came to trust in his master’s rule more than self-rule. He had come to place his hopes in another. The believer does the same thing with God. God has both the might and right to rule us, direct our lives, and lead us. God’s right to do this comes from his nature and role. In three ways, God can claim absolute lordship over us:
i) He is the absolute sovereign of the universe, who owns us as Creator (Isaiah 64:8).
ii) He is the Lord of believers, who owns us as Redeemer (Romans 14:9, 1 Cor 6:19-20).
iii) He is our Father, who owns us as the One who begat us (Hebrews 12:9).
As Creator, Redeemer and Father, the Triune God has the right to lead us, direct us and command our obedience. However, biblical submission is not the begrudging laying down of arms of an overwhelmed, but still resistant, rebel. Submission cheerfully yields to God’s wisdom and goodness.
Once again, this is why the postures of the Christian life are expressions of the life of faith. Faith is at the heart of the crosslike humility and repentance, as well as the resurrectionlike seeking and obedience. Faith trusts that God’s commands are given ‘that it might be well with us’, and that in choosing to obey, we are choosing life, and life in abundance. Faith trusts that no good thing is withheld from those who walk uprightly, and that if God has not withheld his only Son, he shall with him give us every good thing. Submission is trust in the loving and good authority of our God.
Obedience carries a risk: by forfeiting self-direction, we bank on the wisdom of another. This is what the Hebrew servant had to do. We trust that the consequences of granting another direction over our lives will be better than had we leaned to our own understanding. This is where biblical hope comes in. Hope is a deep confidence that God’s unseen provisions and future promises are backed by his inexhaustible power and limitless goodness. Hope allows the unseen and the future to affect the visible and the present.
We posture our lives in hope: hope that by submitting, we will find more goodness and reward and joy than had we pursued our own ends selfishly. This grants joyful patience. We also place our hope in the truth that when we obey, we will find enabling resources in the Holy Spirit. He will empower and enable what he commands.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
In order to love God’s authority, we must love his Word. God reveals his will explicitly in his Word, which is sufficient to ‘ thoroughly equip’ a Christian (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If we allow this Word to richly dwell in us, we are likely to surrender to the Spirit’s leadership. If someone wants to live in God’s presence in the posture of submission, he must first let the Word of God be in his thoughts continually, and allow it to shape his thoughts.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:2)
I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word. (Psalm 119:16)
Notice that these Scriptures enjoin more than attention. The attention is to be loving: a deliberate desire to hear the wishes and desires of the One we wish to please. The Scriptural order of “hear and obey” will only occur if the hearing part has the attitude of one who is attentive, observant, and careful to hear. No submission comes to the casual hearer, the man who sees his reflection in a mirror but makes no changes. The indifferent, impulsive and infested hearts do not receive the seed of the Word to bring forth lasting fruits. Submission comes to the one who is slow to speak, quick to hear, and slow to react, who puts aside sins and welcomes the Word with meekness (James 1:19-25)
The posture of submission trusts the loving authority of God, and listens carefully to that authority.
Thomas à Kempis prayed, “Grant that I may always desire and will that which is to Thee most acceptable, and most dear. Let Thy will be mine, and my will ever follow Thine, and agree perfectly with it.”1
Submission is desiring to consciously please God. As we yield to his authority, giving our loving attention, hoping in his promises and power, it must culminate in the act of seeking to please God in obedient choices. By making God’s will our own, we are demonstrating love.
If you love Me, keep My commandments. (John 14:15)
Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. (2 Corinthians 5:9)
Teach me to do the thing that pleaseth Thee;
Thou art my God, in Thee I live and move;
Oh, let Thy loving Spirit lead me forth
Into the land of righteousness and love.
Thy love the law and impulse of my soul,
Thy righteousness its fitness and its plea,
Thy loving Spirit mercy’s sweet control
To make me liker, draw me nearer Thee.
My highest hope to be where, Lord, Thou art,
To lose myself in Thee my richest gain,
To do Thy will the habit of my heart,
To grieve the Spirit my severest pain.
Thy smile my sunshine, all my peace from thence,
From self alone what could that peace destroy?
Thy joy my sorrow at the least offence,
My sorrow that I am not more Thy joy.
– John S. B. Monsell
Obedience is an act of love, and love is its grand aim. Christians are not aiming at trying to master hundreds upon hundreds of very different commands with no relation to one another. The essence of the commands and therefore the essence of holiness or Christlikeness can be summed up in one word: love. This is what our new posture amounts to: the death of the inordinate, Adamic self-love, and the resurrection of Spirit-enabled love for God and neighbour.
Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5)
Indeed, at the top of all commanded virtues is love.
But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. (2 Peter 1:5-7)
And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)
But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. (Colossians 3:14)
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
As we have seen, love for God and love for neighbour are the first and second commandments. These summarise the Ten Commandments, and all the righteousness of the Law. When a man loves God ultimately, his neighbour as himself, and all things as God does, we can confidently call the man righteous. A truly just person loves what God loves, to the degree God loves, and in the way God loves. Though we are just and righteous in Christ, this righteousness is imparted to us by degree as the Holy Spirit progressively changes our characters.
If we are seeking to live in God’s presence, communing with him, and living with the process of conviction, confession, consecration and cleansing, inevitably, we will be experiencing this stage more and more – being changed into the image of Christ. The Holy Spirit will produce in us the fruit of Christlike character. This change is nothing short of a transformation. Metamorphosis is the word which Paul uses in Romans 12:2 when he says that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, he again speaks of this metamorphosis, when he writes, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
Of course, on this side of Heaven, it will be a process, not an event. As we cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work, and give ourselves wholly to our responsibility, we will bear more fruit: the fruit of Christlike character. As our obedience becomes more consistent, it cements into a pattern. When it does this, our characters are being transformed. For real transformation, this obedience cannot be sporadic or intermittent. When this obedience, this kind of love for God, neighbour and all creation happens under pressure, it is the grace of endurance (Jas 1:2-4). When we are able to love under pressure, we are truly like Christ (Luke 23:34) This is possibly one of the reason the Lord allows persecution in our lives: to teach us love our enemies, which is loving under pressure (I Pet 2:19-23). As we become practically identified with this righteousness, we are being changed into Christ’s image.
- The Imitation of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library ), 83. [↩]