Paul offers a unique perspective on grace in Philemon.
Philemon 1:24-25: “and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (ESV)
Last week, I shared how you cannot forgive if you have never been forgiven and how you cannot extend grace to others if you have not been the recipient of grace. Today, to conclude this series, I will share how Paul teaches we should respond to free grace in the book of Philemon.
Complete Surrender to Free Grace
A crucial component of free grace is acceptance by the recipient. For example, say I have a bag of chocolates. I’m willing to offer it to someone, freely, without expecting payment. But the person I offer it to may or may not choose to accept the chocolates. This analogy eventually breaks down because some people may not want chocolate, but I hope that everyone desires God’s saving grace.
Accepting and benefiting from God’s free grace requires us to surrender completely to Him. When we do not surrender to God, we restrict the flow of His goodness through us.
In Philemon, Paul petitions Philemon to forgive and reconcile with his runaway slave, Onesimus, but he is clear that Philemon’s “goodness [should] not be by compulsion but of [his] own accord” (Phil. 1:14).
What is required of Philemon is to allow the goodness of God’s free grace to him to take full effect toward Onesimus. In believers’ lives, this goodness comes from God and operates in our lives through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many years ago, my wife and I took a cruise for our honeymoon. As we passed through a narrow strait off the coast of Italy, a small speed boat brought out a local Italian captain who would temporarily pilot the ship. Because he was very familiar with the narrow strait, he could more safely navigate the huge ship through.
As Christians, we surrender willfully to God’s grace because we know only God can navigate our life. We surrender so that God’s free grace may function through us by the dwelling of His spirit.
Free Grace in Action
The mention of Mark in this section is evidence of God’s free grace working through Paul’s life. Recall from the book of Acts that Paul and Mark had previously had a falling out. God’s grace working in their loves not only restored their relationship but also ministry partnership. Paul is giving Philemon a profound example of free grace and forgiveness. Paul shows that he understands Philemon’s position of being hurt but also that forgiveness is possible.
Freely Given, Freely Give
In response to the freedom God gives us, we must exercise grace freely, unconstrained by human logic, worldly influence, or guilt and shame.
Does Onesimus deserve forgiveness? From a human perspective no, he does not deserve forgiveness. He is a runaway slave, a criminal according to the law of the land, and unworthy of trust. He betrayed Philemon and his family.
But instead of, “does Onesimus deserve forgiveness?” we should be asking, “should Philemon forgive him?” The answer is yes. Why? Because forgiveness is not for Onesimus. It is for Philemon and his family. This is the only way he and his family are going to let go of the hurt and betrayal and begin to heal and trust other servants.
When we do not forgive, it’s not because we seek justice. We want someone to pay for the hurt we have experienced. But spiritually free people who surrender to God’s grace, which does not make sense according to worldly standards, can extend the same grace freely to others even if it defies human logic. As Christians, there is no other response to any offense against us than to live according to the confession of our faith.
We do not know if Philemon ultimately forgave Onesimus, but the Philemon we came to know in the last eight weeks has no other option but to forgive, receive, reconcile, and restore Onesimus.
Christ paid the price so that we may not die the death we deserve but live the life we do not deserve.
God is not a cold-hearted, distant being full of wrath. God chose love over wrath, mercy over justice, and grace over judgment and extended it to people like us, unworthy, good-for-nothing, and rebellious by nature. God chose to offer a complete pardon and absolute forgiveness by declaring us innocent in Christ.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit as you learn to forgive and exercise grace freely just as we have been set free.
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