A Personal Yet Public Faith

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints” (Phile. 4-5).

- Philemon 4-5

For about three hundred years or so, largely due to the so-called “Enlightenment,” Western society has regarded religion as largely a private matter. Most people are happy to let others believe what they want to believe as long as they do not talk about it too much in public. Even though most American evangelicals would profess not to agree with this sentiment, there is an unspoken understanding that one’s religious affairs are private, and no one else has the right to meddle in them .

This intense privatization of religion is wholly un-Christian. From beginning to end, Scripture assumes that while personal faith is required for salvation, the personal faith that God demands of us is not a private faith. Many texts teach this point explicitly, including Deuteronomy 16:16–17, Matthew 10:32–33, and James 2:14–26, but the idea that personal faith is expressed in community is also taught implicitly throughout the canon. That Paul intended his personal letter to Philemon to be read to the church in his home affirms that faith is not a private affair (Philem. 1–2). Since Paul was asking ultimately for Philemon to forgive and free Onesimus (see tomorrow’s study), a man who had wronged him somehow (vv. 17–20), the church had to see its need to forgive Onesimus for offending their dear brother. They also needed to know they should hold Philemon accountable for doing what love demanded in Onesimus’ case.

Philemon reveals that our goodness, as one commentator notes, needs encouragement from the community of believers even if, like Philemon, our love and faith are exemplary (vv. 4–5). Paul recognized Philemon’s overflowing love, and this gave him confidence that Philemon would finally do the right thing (v. 21). But since even the most mature Christian is still liable to sin, every believer needs encouragement from the church to do what is right.

Paul did not mention Philemon’s faith and love to manipulate him into doing what was right, for the apostle speaks of his addressees’ virtues in most of his letters. Instead, reference to these virtues reminded Philemon that they must be expressed concretely and that Paul was asking the Spirit to move him always to practice the love and faith for which he was known. Faith and love determine the truth of one’s Christian profession (1 John 3).

Coram Deo

John Calvin writes, “Even the most perfect, so long as they live in this world, never have so good ground for congratulation as not to need prayers, that God may grant to them, not only to persevere till the end, but likewise to make progress from day to day.” Even the upstanding Philemon benefited from Paul’s prayers, so we should not be afraid to ask others to intercede for us as well.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 10:12–22
Habakkuk 2:4
Romans 1:8–15
2 Timothy 1:3–5

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