Christian responsibility according to St. Paul

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A funny thing happened on my way through Paul’s epistles.

I read through all of Paul’s letters over the last couple days, trying to take note of the commonalities rather than the issues specific to the churches, such as the Judaizer conflict in the Galatian church, the disorder in the Corinthian church, etc. I wanted to identify his consistent baseline concerns for those he was writing to. I even read the lot in presumed chronological order, just in case there was a shift in his emphasis throughout time; I made note of no dramatic changes (this certainly isn’t to say that I disbelieve there are such), or even any indisputable nuances or drifts. But I did see more than I expected.

It felt like I rediscovered first century Christianity. You know, the first century Christianity most modern evangelical churches claim to be trying to “get back to”. And I must say, I was startled. A bit unnerved, even.

If you listen to the modernized version of Christianity so prevalent in America, you’ll come away thinking that Christianity was and still is to be lived out primarily by holding fast to good theology, witnessing to the lost to bring them into the fold, and, almost incidentally, attempting to be a better person. Quite recently I’ve made the argument that those who claim that Christianity was originally supposed to be about believing the right things were wrong; I’ve contended that our faith was always supposed to be about doing good, spreading the Kingdom of God. It turns out that even in my criticism I was only half-right. I want to show you what I heard Paul saying about two of our modern assumptions about how Christians are supposed to live.

  • Who is saved and who is not depends on whether one believes (some particular number of right things), not whether one acts a certain way.

If you ignore what’s in the air among Protestants today and listen directly to Paul, you’ll come away with the startlingly clear observation that only two simple and related beliefs were explicitly demanded: that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that this as opposed to following the Jewish law is what justifies us.

Things get muddy here: what is justification, and how is it different from sanctification, which throughout the Pauline epistles was asserted to be based upon putting away bad behavior and taking up righteous behavior? The popular, non-Holiness Movement response is that justification gets you “saved”, while personal holiness is our expected response. After all, Paul certainly said, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The problem is, personal holiness is also unequivocallyin several of Paul’s letters listed to be the determining factor upon which ultimate salvation the outcome of our judgement as believers on the imminent “day of Christ” depends. [Edited: I was prompted to change my position on this last based upon two responses (one below and one in private correspondence) that made me go back and look at the epistles yet again; I concluded that I overstated this point. Paul did seem to teach consistently that our identification with Christ through faith is the determining factor of our salvation, although there are a couple passages that suggest he wasn’t quite sure how God was going to react if Jesus came back to find believers acting debaucherously. Thanks, Dan and Joe!]

For Paul, faith in practice was to consist almost entirely of what most modern Christians denominations and sects have dismissed as the “holiness” tradition. Yet how many sermons have we heard that insist that what believers actually do doesn’t affect God’s opinion of us (only that doing bad things makes Him sad); that “nothing we can do can make God love us more, and nothing we can do can make God love us less”; that Paul’s entire theology could be summed up as “works-based religion is bad, religion based only on believing is good”? These may or may not be true, but we should not gloss over his other clear teachings.

Not too long ago, I told someone that Jesus was certainly more interested in personal holiness and good works than you’d surmise from the impression given by the epistles. I was wrong about the epistles. I implore you to go back to Paul’s epistles and look for specific instructions for the congregations and the rationale given.

There are all kinds of convoluted theological constructs that try to ignore Paul’s emphasis on personal holiness or downplay Paul’s warning of the consequences, but if you read the words of Paul rather than the words of Paul through Luther, the conclusion is glaringly obvious. I even wrote down a lot of references when I was reading through the epistles, but I don’t want to proof-text anything or leave any question about whether there are other verses that I conveniently left out that support the other view; I’d rather just encourage you to empty your mind of presuppositions and read Paul’s epistles for yourself.

On the bright side, this puts the kibosh on the conclusion I’d reached that Paul’s and James’ view of soteriology were essentially different, if not contradictory. [Edit again: well, thanks to Dan and Joe, this tension resurfaces. 🙂 ]

  • Personal evangelism is an essential part of every believer’s Christian life.

The observation about the importance Paul placed on sanctification surprised me, but this positively startled me: I could not find one solitary instance in which Paul told the people of the churches to evangelize.

A couple times Paul exhorted believers to behave well toward outsiders, and to do their best not to offend them; he certainly told Timothy as a pastor to evangelize; he wrote a fair amount about evangelism — his, anyway. When discussing the proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers, he consistently wrote of it being done by an “us” group that always remained distinct from the recipient congregation. He besought the churches for prayer that he and others engaged in evangelism might be bold and the like. In the end, all of this is distinctly different from the common marching order given to Christians to actively evangelize everywhere we go. If it is truly a supreme duty of every Christian to bring others into the faith, we certainly do not know this because of anything Paul said; in fact, it is far likelier that an egocentric interpretive emphasis (“The Bible was written to me!”) and a de-emphasis on the crucial audience-relevance hermeneutic have influenced modern evangelicals (in both senses) to misappropriate Paul’s talk of gospel proclamation, the “thousands more were added” emphasis of the book of Acts, and Jesus’ Great Commission as being intended for every believer singly.

It will be argued from “just plain common sense” and from passages outside Paul that witnessing is a good thing. I am not trying to deny this. My point stands: it’s absolutely startling that Paul, the great evangelist so sure the return of Christ was right around the corner, never even once in passing expresses urgency about evangelism. If anything, he taught the church to be wary of interaction with unbelievers (the “unequally yoked” passage in 2 Cor 6 is about all relationships, not just marriage). And once again, this doesn’t itself mean the NT doesn’t teach personal evangelism, but as I’m sure you’ll find, it’s not in Paul. Don’t get me wrong — Paul was undoubtedly a passionate missionary and evangelist who fervently desired that more people hear the gospel, but it seems he really took his categorization of the duties of Christians seriously: he wasn’t going to tell everyone to do something that apostles and evangelists were supposed to be doing. (Here we have implied yet another thing my own evangelical tradition has denied, namely that the NT teaches a fairly sharp distinction between clergy and laity.)

I can’t underscore the significance of this omission enough. Not once in thirteen epistles amongst the myriad imperatives and exhortations to live in a way that would please the returning Christ did he so much as mention “witnessing” in passing. The closest he came was a couple scant references to watching how you deal with outsiders. For Paul, it certainly appears that evangelism was meant for “clergy” evangelists. Christians were to keep their heads down, being notable only in their humility and righteous living, by which they would be seen as worthy on the Day of Judgment when Christ was to return.

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Well, despite what it might sound like, I’m not concluding that both points above are incorrect, or even that Paul would necessarily have disagreed with them. I merely wanted to share my observation that what the majority of Christians believe about these topics nowadays is not Pauline, in the very important sense that we have a number of instances in which the necessity of sanctification for ultimate salvation was explicitly claimed and that we have no Scriptural record of him advocating active evangelism for all believers indiscriminately. Right or wrong, our church does not look like Paul’s, and if we’re to take his epistles and the book of Acts seriously, that means that the first century Church in general differed from ours in some striking ways.

This has gotten quite lengthy, so I’ll save another intriguing insight I had for another post. But this is quite enough for now, isn’t it?

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What are you still reading this for? Go read Paul’s epistles!

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  • On the point of holiness, I agree that personal sanctification is overlooked, at best, and ignored, at worst, in many evangelical churches.

    Evangelism: I guess the first question that comes to mind is (I swear I’m not being sarcastic) why is this important to note? Who out there is saying “we need to evangelize b/c Paul said so?” Who specifically do you have in mind as you write this? I only ask b/c when I think of personal witnessing, my mind goes to the Great Commission, not the Pauline epistles.

    Assuming you’re right and Paul and the Great Commission do not teach personal witnessing, does any NT passage teach it? Do you think a statement like 1 Cor. 11:1 plays into the discussion about evangelism?
    .-= Josh H.´s last blog ..Living To Be 100 =-.

  • On the point of holiness, I agree that personal sanctification is overlooked, at best, and ignored, at worst, in many evangelical churches.

    Evangelism: I guess the first question that comes to mind is (I swear I’m not being sarcastic) why is this important to note? Who out there is saying “we need to evangelize b/c Paul said so?” Who specifically do you have in mind as you write this? I only ask b/c when I think of personal witnessing, my mind goes to the Great Commission, not the Pauline epistles.

    Assuming you’re right and Paul and the Great Commission do not teach personal witnessing, does any NT passage teach it? Do you think a statement like 1 Cor. 11:1 plays into the discussion about evangelism?
    .-= Josh H.´s last blog ..Living To Be 100 =-.

  • Good post!

    I have long noted the contrast between the church’s emphasis upon personal evangelism and Paul’s. Or for that matter, that of the entire New Testament. From many evangelical pulpits today there streams a steady flow of imperatives to evangelize the lost, a phenomenon not unlike the membership drive down at the Elks Lodge. But such imperatives are conspicuously absent in the New Testament. Instead, there seems to be a general and tacit assumption that if you’ve got some good news, you’ll be naturally inclined to share it … Like I might do when my favorite college football team wins in a upset. When that happens, I need no one to command me, manipulate me, or lay guilt trips on me to go out and talk about it!

    Which leads to the question, do we really have good news?

    I did a similar reading of Paul years ago, and found the most explicit instructions he left us re. how we relate to the lost to be Colossians 4:5. The verse assumes that opportunities to speak to people will naturally occur, and that we will take advantage of them. But the imperative in the verse has to do with how we live, how we relate in general to the lost.
    .-= Cliff Martin´s last blog ..Atheistic Fundamentalism: Ridicule Them into Unbelief! =-.

  • Good post!

    I have long noted the contrast between the church’s emphasis upon personal evangelism and Paul’s. Or for that matter, that of the entire New Testament. From many evangelical pulpits today there streams a steady flow of imperatives to evangelize the lost, a phenomenon not unlike the membership drive down at the Elks Lodge. But such imperatives are conspicuously absent in the New Testament. Instead, there seems to be a general and tacit assumption that if you’ve got some good news, you’ll be naturally inclined to share it … Like I might do when my favorite college football team wins in a upset. When that happens, I need no one to command me, manipulate me, or lay guilt trips on me to go out and talk about it!

    Which leads to the question, do we really have good news?

    I did a similar reading of Paul years ago, and found the most explicit instructions he left us re. how we relate to the lost to be Colossians 4:5. The verse assumes that opportunities to speak to people will naturally occur, and that we will take advantage of them. But the imperative in the verse has to do with how we live, how we relate in general to the lost.
    .-= Cliff Martin´s last blog ..Atheistic Fundamentalism: Ridicule Them into Unbelief! =-.

  • Josh,

    I’d be careful not to read too much pastoral advice from this post. I was approaching it simply from a history/Biblical studies stance. As I said, I’m not trying to conclude anything about what we should or shouldn’t do. But if we are supposed to derive our theology and our Christian practice from the Bible, we have to start somewhere.

    Because the modern church tends to read Paul’s letters as the model for how the church is supposed to look, I thought it would be interesting to compare our emphases with those of Paul’s churches; I suspected that I would find that we have begun to take things for granted about what is normative that may not be there, or there in a modified way. Anyone who finds it important to consult the Scriptures for what to believe and how to act would be interested in this sort of info, it seems. I haven’t given any NT writers/personalities other than Paul this much analysis yet, so I’m obviously not trying to say that the NT doesn’t teach this or that based upon Paul (important as he is). But we’ve got to make sure we believe things for good reasons, other than knee-jerk responses conditioned in us by our culture.

    As for the Great Commission, even those not acknowledging that Paul applied his “each part of the body has its own role” teaching even to evangelism should recognize that the Great Commission was specifically directed at the eleven people to whom Jesus was speaking at the time; this is, in fact, the ancient historical interpretation of this passage. It’s significant that even though Jesus “appeared to many” after his resurrection, he only delivered the Great Commission to his apostles (the “sent out ones”). Many (including myself) believe this was the specific “sending out” that made them “apostles” (earlier “commissionings” such as the sending out of the 70 applied to more than just the Twelve).

    Looking at the greater context of 1 Cor 11:1 (1 Cor 10.23-11.1), it is clear that the topic is doing one’s best to not be a stumbling block — passive evangelism at best. I did find references in Paul to passive or relationship evangelism; it was the door-to-door, checkout line at the grocery store type of evangelism that I couldn’t find Paul talking about. Peter said to be ready to give a reason for our hope, and I find this to be much more along the lines of what they expected non-evangelists/apostles/pastors to do. This doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t (as Cliff says, if we’ve got something worth sharing, it seems we would naturally), but Paul at least doesn’t demand it, either. Contrary to many well-meaning believers’ insistence (like Keith Green and Ray Comfort), as far as Paul’s epistles go, it appears that a first century believer could live a perfectly obedient, guilt-free Christian life without ever once “busting a witness”. I found that interesting. And I could be wrong; I’ll have to check the rest of the NT.

    Cliff,

    Thanks — your agreement tends to bolster my confidence in my own observations. The “Elk Lodge” comment made me laugh.

  • Josh,

    I’d be careful not to read too much pastoral advice from this post. I was approaching it simply from a history/Biblical studies stance. As I said, I’m not trying to conclude anything about what we should or shouldn’t do. But if we are supposed to derive our theology and our Christian practice from the Bible, we have to start somewhere.

    Because the modern church tends to read Paul’s letters as the model for how the church is supposed to look, I thought it would be interesting to compare our emphases with those of Paul’s churches; I suspected that I would find that we have begun to take things for granted about what is normative that may not be there, or there in a modified way. Anyone who finds it important to consult the Scriptures for what to believe and how to act would be interested in this sort of info, it seems. I haven’t given any NT writers/personalities other than Paul this much analysis yet, so I’m obviously not trying to say that the NT doesn’t teach this or that based upon Paul (important as he is). But we’ve got to make sure we believe things for good reasons, other than knee-jerk responses conditioned in us by our culture.

    As for the Great Commission, even those not acknowledging that Paul applied his “each part of the body has its own role” teaching even to evangelism should recognize that the Great Commission was specifically directed at the eleven people to whom Jesus was speaking at the time; this is, in fact, the ancient historical interpretation of this passage. It’s significant that even though Jesus “appeared to many” after his resurrection, he only delivered the Great Commission to his apostles (the “sent out ones”). Many (including myself) believe this was the specific “sending out” that made them “apostles” (earlier “commissionings” such as the sending out of the 70 applied to more than just the Twelve).

    Looking at the greater context of 1 Cor 11:1 (1 Cor 10.23-11.1), it is clear that the topic is doing one’s best to not be a stumbling block — passive evangelism at best. I did find references in Paul to passive or relationship evangelism; it was the door-to-door, checkout line at the grocery store type of evangelism that I couldn’t find Paul talking about. Peter said to be ready to give a reason for our hope, and I find this to be much more along the lines of what they expected non-evangelists/apostles/pastors to do. This doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t (as Cliff says, if we’ve got something worth sharing, it seems we would naturally), but Paul at least doesn’t demand it, either. Contrary to many well-meaning believers’ insistence (like Keith Green and Ray Comfort), as far as Paul’s epistles go, it appears that a first century believer could live a perfectly obedient, guilt-free Christian life without ever once “busting a witness”. I found that interesting. And I could be wrong; I’ll have to check the rest of the NT.

    Cliff,

    Thanks — your agreement tends to bolster my confidence in my own observations. The “Elk Lodge” comment made me laugh.

  • Dan

    Good post Steve. Regarding your first point I think the New Perspective has shown that Paul, James and others believed that we will be judged according to our works (e.g. Ro 2). (Notice I didn’t say saved because of our works.) Your second point also gave much food for thought. I’m especially turned off by the aggressive evangelistic tactics that are promoted in church these days with techniques to immediately evangelize complete strangers, handing out tracks and the like. For all the testimonies of people saved through this process I imagine many more are turned off from Christianity as a result. And in this postmodern culture, I believe this will have less and less success.

  • Dan

    Good post Steve. Regarding your first point I think the New Perspective has shown that Paul, James and others believed that we will be judged according to our works (e.g. Ro 2). (Notice I didn’t say saved because of our works.) Your second point also gave much food for thought. I’m especially turned off by the aggressive evangelistic tactics that are promoted in church these days with techniques to immediately evangelize complete strangers, handing out tracks and the like. For all the testimonies of people saved through this process I imagine many more are turned off from Christianity as a result. And in this postmodern culture, I believe this will have less and less success.

  • Pingback: What many Christians believe, that Paul didn’t. « Castle of Nutshells()

  • Dan,
    Thanks for tying this in with the New Perspective; I think you’re right about being judged vs. being saved for our works. Good distinction, one that I thought worthy of integrating into the actual post. But I’m still as amazed as ever at how little schrift Paul’s calls for holiness get as opposed to how much his message of God’s grace is exalted.

    Also, regarding the inefficacy of active evangelism of strangers (especially some of the more aggressive tactics, like canvassing neighborhoods), I think you’ve got a practical point worth considering; perhaps this is why Paul was convinced it was the job of those specifically called and empowered to witness.

  • Dan,
    Thanks for tying this in with the New Perspective; I think you’re right about being judged vs. being saved for our works. Good distinction, one that I thought worthy of integrating into the actual post. But I’m still as amazed as ever at how little schrift Paul’s calls for holiness get as opposed to how much his message of God’s grace is exalted.

    Also, regarding the inefficacy of active evangelism of strangers (especially some of the more aggressive tactics, like canvassing neighborhoods), I think you’ve got a practical point worth considering; perhaps this is why Paul was convinced it was the job of those specifically called and empowered to witness.

  • Doug Moody

    Its important that we not take the word “WITNESS” and turn a noun into a verb. “Witnessing” is not something we DO, it is something we ARE. Christ told us to BE witnesses.
    What is a witness? He or she is someone who has seen or heard something and then is asked to tell someone else what was seen or heard.
    I think if you go back and read, I don’t think you will ever find a spot where the word witness is used as a verb.
    So how is it that we commonly use the terms “I witnessed today”, or “We were out witnessing the other day…” etc.?
    It has come into common linguistic usage in practically ALL churches. I think it is time to re-examine this.

  • Doug Moody

    Its important that we not take the word “WITNESS” and turn a noun into a verb. “Witnessing” is not something we DO, it is something we ARE. Christ told us to BE witnesses.
    What is a witness? He or she is someone who has seen or heard something and then is asked to tell someone else what was seen or heard.
    I think if you go back and read, I don’t think you will ever find a spot where the word witness is used as a verb.
    So how is it that we commonly use the terms “I witnessed today”, or “We were out witnessing the other day…” etc.?
    It has come into common linguistic usage in practically ALL churches. I think it is time to re-examine this.

  • On ” … handing out tracks and the like.” [see above Dan @ Sep 27, 2009 at 8:03 pm] — I have heard of “laying tracks” and “making tracks” but am perplexed about ” … handing out tracks”. What? Bear tracks? I wouldn’t think it is “needle tracks”. Maybe it is like pebbles or bread crumbs as in *Hansel and Gretel*. May be it is marking the narrow path, showing “The Way” … OK. I had to pounce. This is not one of my top word play finds, but it gives cause for showing some of my catches:

    CHI-TONW — YEAH!! [8/22/07]
    =========

    Mick’s Blog » 2007 Vision Forum and CHEC Father and Son Retreat III
    [find @ -26 Aug 2007 05:01:09-]
    re: “encouraging lesions”
    ===========

    JL’s Blog — Sam and Genesis
    [find @ -09/27/07 00:16:25-]
    re: “Moday”
    ============

    Unfinished Christianity » Study: Chiropractors are useless
    [find @ -12 Nov, 2007 – 05:48:51-]
    re:”I have a message therapist/chiropractor.”
    ============

    Mike Beidler — Dot Commentary v2.0
    [find @ -12/04/07 01:13:46-]
    re: “apostrophic dispensation”; “Your grammar is so bad …”; “fraudian slips”; “Message therapy … encouraging lesions.” ( Mike Beidler may now see that my reference was not just “… posting humorous nonsense”.)
    ============

    Life14all — Covenant-101
    [find @ -12/05/07 23:32:22-]
    re: “Wolves usually run in *pacts* …”
    ============

    Windpressor — spiel-checker proofreader extraordinaire
    🙂 🙂
    ……………………..
    .-= Windpressor´s last blog ..GidjaJuan Wind commented on Sharon Nichols’s blog post ‘New School Prayer’ =-.

  • On ” … handing out tracks and the like.” [see above Dan @ Sep 27, 2009 at 8:03 pm] — I have heard of “laying tracks” and “making tracks” but am perplexed about ” … handing out tracks”. What? Bear tracks? I wouldn’t think it is “needle tracks”. Maybe it is like pebbles or bread crumbs as in *Hansel and Gretel*. May be it is marking the narrow path, showing “The Way” … OK. I had to pounce. This is not one of my top word play finds, but it gives cause for showing some of my catches:

    CHI-TONW — YEAH!! [8/22/07]
    =========

    Mick’s Blog » 2007 Vision Forum and CHEC Father and Son Retreat III
    [find @ -26 Aug 2007 05:01:09-]
    re: “encouraging lesions”
    ===========

    JL’s Blog — Sam and Genesis
    [find @ -09/27/07 00:16:25-]
    re: “Moday”
    ============

    Unfinished Christianity » Study: Chiropractors are useless
    [find @ -12 Nov, 2007 – 05:48:51-]
    re:”I have a message therapist/chiropractor.”
    ============

    Mike Beidler — Dot Commentary v2.0
    [find @ -12/04/07 01:13:46-]
    re: “apostrophic dispensation”; “Your grammar is so bad …”; “fraudian slips”; “Message therapy … encouraging lesions.” ( Mike Beidler may now see that my reference was not just “… posting humorous nonsense”.)
    ============

    Life14all — Covenant-101
    [find @ -12/05/07 23:32:22-]
    re: “Wolves usually run in *pacts* …”
    ============

    Windpressor — spiel-checker proofreader extraordinaire
    🙂 🙂
    ……………………..
    .-= Windpressor´s last blog ..GidjaJuan Wind commented on Sharon Nichols’s blog post ‘New School Prayer’ =-.

  • 2 points:

    1. The tension between Paul and James is more apparent than actual.
    I won’t profess textual depth here but allow as that the Restoration Movement’s analysis reconciles better than Protestant gymnastics over “faith alone”.

    2.

    (Here we have implied yet another thing my own evangelical tradition has denied, namely that the NT teaches a fairly sharp distinction between clergy and laity.)

    I recommend a treatise on the case for a more flat rather than vertical form of hierarchy —
    The Great Eccesiastical Conspiracy [misspelling is at source]

    G1

    ……………………….
    .-= Windpressor´s last blog ..GidjaJuan Wind commented on Sharon Nichols’s blog post ‘New School Prayer’ =-.

  • 2 points:

    1. The tension between Paul and James is more apparent than actual.
    I won’t profess textual depth here but allow as that the Restoration Movement’s analysis reconciles better than Protestant gymnastics over “faith alone”.

    2.

    (Here we have implied yet another thing my own evangelical tradition has denied, namely that the NT teaches a fairly sharp distinction between clergy and laity.)

    I recommend a treatise on the case for a more flat rather than vertical form of hierarchy —
    The Great Eccesiastical Conspiracy [misspelling is at source]

    G1

    ……………………….
    .-= Windpressor´s last blog ..GidjaJuan Wind commented on Sharon Nichols’s blog post ‘New School Prayer’ =-.

  • Finnur

    Remember what it is to be a christian: II Corinthians 13:5

    You are redeemed, and made holy by the sacrifice of Christ (Jesaja 53)

    1 Peter 2:22-24

    There is only one thing you need to give to be a christian – and that is everything!

    God has poured out His life for you that you may pour out your life for him. (Galatians 3:20 – Matthew 25:40)

    For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. (1 Corinthians 4:20)

    You consider yourself dead to sin and a life to righteousness. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2) .

    In a christian there is to be the very Spirit of God – he cannot live in man who is bound by sin and is unholy that is why there is the redemption (Romans 8:11).

    A Christian is a free person. Free to be as Christ. Free to lay down his life to live.

    All is perishing – the old will vanish and the new will become. God is love so He gives you the opportunity to die to self, to die to the world (all unloving systems of governance and being) and to live by Him, with Him and for Him.

    As you are a Christian, it is Christ who lives in you carrying on His ministry of reconciliation on this earth.

    Luke 4:18

    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to preach good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to release the oppressed”

    THAT IS YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION! Until He comes!

    Be free and be well,
    Finnur