All the verbs of our salvation are passive. God calls and gathers people to him through his Gospel. We don’t find him like an explorer finds the headwaters of a river. We are saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We don’t save ourselves. We are forgiven by God’s declaration of grace and peace. We can’t forgive ourselves and hope it sticks. It doesn’t, not in relation to God anyway. We are made holy by God, just by God’s Spirit coming close to us. No amount of effort on our part is going to get us one inch closer to heaven. We don’t even actively pray, the Holy Spirit has to pray for us (Romans 8:26). In relation to God, we are perfectly passive. We are receivers, not doers. That’s who God made us to be and that’s what faith reveals to us.
So then, are Christians just supposed to lay around and wait for the resurrection? Or maybe we’re supposed to live large since, we imagine, we can’t do anything one way or the other to affect our salvation. When Christ busts in and permanently interrupts life with his grace and favor, what’s a person to do? The trick is getting the question right. Ask a question that begins with us and we’ll get an answer that serves to satisfy our desires and wants. Then we’re off again, working on our self-salvation projects in the name of God. Ask a question that begins with what Christ does for us, and we’ll get an answer that leavens the whole loaf.
Martin Luther put it this way:
Although the two sentences may seem to contradict each other, Luther is riffing off St. Paul, when he writes: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all” (1 Corinthians 9:19). But how can this be? A free person who is a slave? The answer for us hangs on the excessive words “none” and “all.” You’re free from worry about your relation to God. The work is done. It is finished. We are saved for Christ’s sake. In relation to God and all people we are free from inner-desires and outward demands. “We are subject to none,” as Luther writes. Not just some, but none.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean we do whatever our heart desires. If we imagine our freedom frees us to only think of ourselves as what we do and don’t do, that it’s all about me, no one can tell me what to do or say or think, our end is spiritual death. Take for example Jesus’ example in Matthew’s Gospel. You have been made a good tree (been made right with God by Jesus’ death and resurrection), and a good tree produces good fruit” (Matthew 7:17). When God calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes us holy by His Spirit and Word, we will do stuff. Faith will produce love for God and for our neighbors. It’s not an open question. Jesus isn’t appealing to our sense of right and wrong. He’s not trying to motivate us. It’s stated by Jesus as a fact. Christians are apple trees, and so we will produce apples, because God is the one who planted us, caused us to grow and to thrive, and so apples will hang from our branches come the harvest.
When God comes near, speaks to us, and says, “Be at peace, you’re a new tree,” we are turned inside out. We are shown that our life is outside ourselves in Christ Jesus and our neighbor. We are made to receive from God and give the gifts away to our neighbors. God, it turns out, works through his people, through all these trees, to produce apples (and apple seeds) for other people who aren’t saved yet. In this way, God makes us subject to all. We are free in Christ to serve everyone without thought to our own interests or desires. But, doesn’t that mean that we do, after all, have to do something? If all the verbs of salvation are passive, then what’s with all this talk of us becoming “subject to all”? If we are good trees doesn’t that mean we have to produce fruit? What happens if we don’t? What if we don’t feel like it some days? I don’t even like apples. What if I want to be an orange tree?
These are fruitless questions. In our salvation God plants us in Christ Jesus. We are in Christ by faith. The Holy Spirit doesn’t ask our old Adam what he thinks about this. He just does it. God’s Spirit plants and unites and grafts us into Christ. Then the works of God in and through us produce fruits for our neighbors good. An apple harvest without end. God saves us so we can give ourselves away, lose ourselves in faith toward God and in love for one another. In this way Christians are set free by God’s salvation work for them to see that Christ’s loss of life is our gain, and our loss is our neighbor’s gain. Or, as Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). This is the Christian life. The passive salvation life. Not our acting, and doing, and speaking for God, but Christ acting, and doing, and speaking us into his Christ-life. New trees producing Christ’s passion fruit in an old world.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.