How do you respond when somebody has wronged you? Better yet, how does the gospel inform you in your response? The temptation for each one of us is to respond to the person by giving ourselves to bitterness, seeking revenge, and calling for justice.
The Gospel Way
The gospel shows us another way, however.
Consider the story of Jim Elliot and four other missionaries. Taking the gospel to the unreached and violent Auca tribe of Ecuador, these five missionaries gave gifts before making ground contact with the tribe. Their first ground contact was their last. Jim Elliot and the four other missionaries lost their lives at the hands of these Aucas.
Now, put yourself in the place of these missionaries’ families. How would you react to such a tragedy? Maybe you would say the Auca people deserve to be left alone because anyone who takes the life of another human being should have their lives taken from them. It would be easy to hold a grudge and call for justice. But the response of the late Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of Jim Elliot, shows us there is another way, a way that is informed by the gospel and reveals the power of the gospel. It is the way of forgiveness and reception.
Gospel Impact on Our Affections
If forgiveness and reception are the way, then the next step is to see how we go about this way. The book of Philemon does just that. In this letter, Paul lays out how the gospel impacts our affections, our attitudes, and our actions. The point is this: As God has received us in Jesus Christ through the gospel, so we receive those who have been received by Him and those who we pray would receive Him. This involves even loving and forgiving those who have wronged us.
We can only learn to forgive and receive when the gospel informs and impacts our affections. Paul is confident Philemon will listen to his plea to receive his former slave Onesimus (v. 21) because of the gospel affections evident in Philemon’s life, namely his faith in the Lord Jesus and his love for all the saints (v. 5) which bring his fellow Christian family much joy, comfort, and refreshment (v. 7). Philemon’s affections cause Paul to respond in thankful prayer to God.
Gospel Impact on Our Attitudes
The gospel’s impact on our affections leads to the gospel’s impact on our attitudes.
Notice, once Paul has commended Philemon on his affections, he turns to the issue at hand. Onesimus, a runaway slave of Philemon, has encountered Paul, has been received and has come to faith in Christ, and is now useful to Paul (vv. 10-12). But Paul is sending him back. The manner in which Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon is what speaks volumes.
Paul’s attitude is in line with the gospel.
Where he could use his apostolic authority to command, he chooses to appeal for love’s sake (vv. 8-9). Although he would be glad to keep Onesimus with him, he places the concern of Philemon before himself and sends Onesimus back. This gospel-shaped attitude goes even further, though. When Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus back, he tells him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (vv. 15-16).
Gospel Impact on Our Actions
In the story of Philemon, and in the life of Elisabeth Elliot, we not only see the impact of the gospel on affections and attitudes but also on actions. Paul’s point to Philemon is to receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.
The gospel compels it and Paul is committed to it. His astonishing statement in verse 18, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account,” reminds us of the One who did no wrong, received what we deserved, and we can be counted as righteous because of Him. It is the gospel that produces this action of reception. Only in the love of God can reconciliation and forgiveness take place.
The Gospel Bears Fruit
When affections, attitudes, and actions are informed and impacted by the gospel, the gospel spreads.
Because of the gospel-shaped life of Elisabeth Elliot, the gospel did reach the Auca people. Rather than holding onto bitterness, Elisabeth made the decision to forgive. She went and lived with the tribe that had killed her husband. As a result, many in the tribe repented of their sins and placed their faith in Christ. Most amazingly, one of the murderers of the missionaries, Kimo, became the pastor of the tribe and had the opportunity to baptize Steve and Kathy Saint, one of the other missionary’s children.
Only in the gospel does such an act occur. Only in the gospel can our affections, our attitudes, and our actions be transformed, even when we are wronged. Because God has received us in Christ, we can and should receive one another. That is the gospel reception.