This is the one-hundred-tenth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
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The promise of spiritual transformation, and with it, the restoration of human dignity, is powerfully at work in the world. Writing to the believers in worldly Corinth, the apostle Paul described it this way:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lords glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18, italics added).
Romans 8:29 speaks of being conformed to the image; in 2 Corinthians 3 we find the idea of people being transformed into [Christs] image. This is a text not to be glossed over. First, this transforming work is accomplished by the Spirit of the Lord. It comes from the Lord. We will never overcome our problems by sheer willpower and a plan to restore dignity. Only the power of God can overcome the dead-weight inertia of fallen human nature. Only the Spirit of God can make fallen human beings want something better than their own autonomy.
This restoration is a process. Paul does not say in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that we have been transformed, but we are being transformed with ever-increasing glory. The gospel offers a definitive way to get on Gods side, but the restoration of dignity is a longtime work.
Then Paul says that in this is freedom. This is what so many find hard to believe, that in submission to Christ, there is real freedom. Martin Luther put it this way in his classic, The Freedom of a Christian: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. Many cannot accept the paradox that in servitude to God there is real freedom, the realization of all our true potentialities.
Christopher Hitchens, one of the most vocal evangelists for atheism in recent years, fatally misunderstood submission to God as a total loss of dignity:
I dont want it to be the case, that there is a divine superintending celestial dictatorship from which I could never escape and that abolishes my private life. . . that would supervise me, keep me under surveillance in every moment of my living existence. And then, when I died, it would be like living in a heavenly North Korea where ones only duty was to continue to abase oneself and to thank forever the Dear Leader for everything that we are and have.
The tragedy of Hitchens binary view is that either there is a God who is like Kim Jong-il, or there is no God at all. So we are left to choose between a very bad god, or to make ourselves sovereign. Neither option leaves us with real dignity.
We must not miss the significance of the unveiled faces in 2 Corinthians 3:18: we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lords glory. . . . This refers back to Exodus 34 which says that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD (Ex. 34:29). The phenomenon frightened the Israelites, so Moses put a veil over his face. It was not the only time in Scripture when something wondrous evoked fear.
But now, Paul says, everyone who is being transformed by the Spirit of God is a Moses. And it’s time for the veils to come off.
This is authentic gospel witness. Not political machinations. Not naive social engineering. Not vitriol. Not religious tribalism. Not platitudes and spiritual cliches. The gospel is expressed in faces that reflect the glory of God, a glory that purifies and dignifies.
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrooks teaching pastor. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the BibleA Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.