The idea of surrender sounds un-American to most of us. We are told to never surrender, to never quit, to keep fighting, even if the odds are stacked against us. I wholeheartedly agree when we are talking about sports, competition, or even war. But, in the spiritual life, in the kingdom of God, surrender is actually the path to real freedom.
Unfortunately, nothing can put people in bondage like religion, and we have a sad history of preachers and organizations that have used the teaching of surrender and submission to control, manipulate, and ultimately destroy people. So, it is apparent that a sound biblical understanding of surrender and submission is necessary if we are to experience the freedom that this truth can bring.
Let’s start with a basic definition of the word surrender, “A verb or action which involves ceasing resistance, giving up, or abandoning oneself to someone or something else.”
The great crisis of the current evangelical church, which is the group I most closely identify with, is that we have invited people into a relationship with the living Lord of the universe, the King of kings, the mighty God without surrendering to his lordship over our lives. We have assured the willing convert that they are saved by simply believing that Jesus died for their sins, and all they need to do is thank him in a brief prayer. The word “surrender,” or its synonym, “submission,” is nowhere to be found, or heard, in the presentation of this gospel. So, the new convert’s will and pride is firmly intact, and will become the great obstacle to them ever getting on with Jesus. They will fake being nicer, or just grow bored and quit altogether.
The invitation of Jesus to come to him is open to all, but does not hesitate to make clear that it means coming under his lordship, his leadership, and his Word. “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23 ESV).
In other words, Jesus requires that I say “no” to myself so I can say “yes” to him and his leadership over my life. This will be a daily experience of surrendering or submitting to him (my cross) and following him.
It is clear that the first enemy of the disciple or follower of Jesus is the self. When I surrender the lordship of my life to Jesus, I experience freedom. Freedom to not always be in charge, freedom to care more about others and their needs, freedom to not always be right, and freedom to trust Jesus to take care of me.
It is clearly an invitation of grace. We do not earn the right to follow him, but he makes it clear it will take effort on my part. We must settle the issue of who is in charge right from the beginning, or our followership will never get off the ground. As Jesus’ brother, James put it in his epistle:
This double-mindedness, which James speaks of, is an unwillingness to come under the care and lordship of Jesus. This person does not trust him fully, so he is always pulling away and taking his own path. The result is a lack of connection to God and his plan for them.
To see the foolishness of this well-worn invitation, compare a similar omission in any other discipline or coaching.
- A music teacher tells her students, “You can become a great musician by never submitting to my tutelage. Just do what feels good.”
- A sports coach tells his players, “You will be a wonderful addition to our team. Take what you like from my playbook, practice when you like, and show up for the game.
- A marriage counselor tells couples, “Each of you give 50% to this union and we’ll see how it works out. Keep your options open.”
These are so clearly absurd, but we have made following Jesus almost as lame. “Just believe,” we tell them, “and then come to church, give some money, and maybe serve. Do what you want, we offer a full slate of groups and classes for you to choose from. A Christian smorgasbord!”
We invite folks to come to Jesus for what he will do for them, but never clarify that he is God, the Lord of all creation, and is calling followers, disciples, not just converts. Converts do not have the power to be transformed by the Spirit of God because he does not “have them.” And this is the tragic state of too many Christians, sincerely having prayed a prayer and now waiting for Jesus to fix them.
The call to surrender, or submit, to Jesus is step one in our sanctification, in our growth in holiness. To do this is to voluntarily put myself under Jesus for his leading in my life. It is a step of humility, to admit that I cannot save myself, or change myself, into the person Jesus wants me to be.
Surrendering to God’s call is the story of all the saints in the Bible. Noah had to submit to the radical call to build an ark, abandoning his life plan. Abraham had to abandon his hometown and friends and family to experience what God had for him. Moses, Esther, Mary and Jesus himself all had to submit to God’s call on their life. Not one of these people would define their relationship with God by “praying a prayer.” Their faith was made real and evident by obediently submitting to what God revealed to them. In our sincere effort to save souls, we have made the gospel too small, with no surrender and consequently no power.
As Jesus said about his own life and mission, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me” (John 6:38 ESV). Jesus expects the same submission from his followers, his disciples, those who will be saved, when he says, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 ESV).
Let me suggest three (3) steps to the process of surrender or submission.
1. Submission to Jesus as my Lord and Savior
You must give your full allegiance to the one who made you and saved you, and now wants to lead you. This will include admitting the truth about and repenting of your sin. Who have I hurt? Where am I powerless to sins pull or temptation? Surrender to the truth that you are powerless over your sin without his grace and power. It is interesting that 12-step recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, understand this; no one gets sober and clean until they begin here, submitting to the truth of their powerlessness. It is easy to point out the sin of the alcoholic, but the sins of pride, jealousy, or gossip are just as deadly to us and others.
2. Submit to Jesus as your teacher and protector
You must come under the yoke of Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30). We all wear the yoke of someone, or something, else … our boss, our family, our own pride and self-righteousness. Jesus assures us that, compared to these other masters, his yoke is easy and light. But he must be your sole teacher for your entire life. He will not share you. He wants to lead you, so submit to his hand, and follow him. We have too high a view of our own ability to live the Christian life. Dallas Willard reminds us that this is just as hard as learning an instrument or foreign language. It is not natural, it takes teaching and practice, until it becomes our second nature.
3. Submit to another disciple of Jesus
Ephesians 5:21 calls us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” 1 Peter 5:5 calls the younger men to submit to the older men for wisdom and direction. I have found the key to unlocking this ministry in my life is to say to just a few people, “I give you permission to tell me the truth about my life. I want it and need it, even when I won’t like hearing it.” People will take this as a sacred trust, and, frequently, will ask you to do the same for them. This is a level of fellowship that too few experience because it is not taught or modeled for them. What’s more, it is a humbling and pride-slaying thing to do! Yet, there is such freedom being with others who know the truth about you and accept you. They understand you and want to help you grow, but without judgment.
Surrender may be the missing step in your walk with Jesus. I have found that there are areas of my life that God, His Word, or others will regularly point out that need looking at. Surrender and submission are a mindset of obedience that must be watered and nurtured by God’s word and close friends in Christ.
May God give us grace to come under his loving care and lordship!
This post originally appeared at: Surrender — The Bonhoeffer Project
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