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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

The Myth of Entitlement

May 5, 2015 •

We belong to a generation that is obsessed with its perceived ‘entitlements’. From human rights to civil rights, gay rights to children’s rights, the list is seemingly endless as to the permutations of personal fiefdoms people want to protect by law.

In one sense we can understand this obsession, not least because of the many parts of the world where human beings are abused, trafficked, exploited and dispatched like animals by their persecutors. Indeed not a few of the younger nations of the world – not least the US – have enshrined a bill of rights into their constitutions in order to guard themselves against the kind of abuses suffered prior to their achieving nationhood. But, as with most things in life – even the best intentioned of them – there is a flip side.

In the case of rights, it is the fact that the obverse of the coin of human rights is that of human responsibility. And the tension between those two sides of that same coin go right back to the earliest chapters of Genesis. It manifests itself blatantly in Cain’s protest against God’s interrogating him after he murdered his brother Abel: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Ge 4.9). But, then again, his father had behaved in precisely the same way in Eden under a similar cross-examination when Adam was more concerned to protect himself (and blame his wife) rather than safeguard the very one who God had entrusted to his care (Ge 3.12).

From the very outset the problem endemic to safeguarding our perceived rights as human beings is that fact that sin has warped our ability to handle them. And even though their rise to prominence in many cultures and countries through the centuries has been an attempt to protect the vulnerable; too often they have only aided and abetted the self-serving interests of the powerful.

From a theological perspective, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that, even if our first parent had never sinned, either he or his descendants could have claimed any rights for themselves on the basis of some inherent status or merit. Whereas it is manifestly obvious that human beings are a privileged species, according to the Genesis record, that is not the same as their being entitled. The position and blessings God conferred upon humanity, in the manner in which Adam and Eve were created and in their calling as God’s vicegerents of the cosmos, were purely the gift of God and not an obligation he had to fulfil. The gulf between Creator and creature made that a matter of fact. It was purely an act of God’s grace that caused him to so honour our embryonic race.

There is, however, a more specific theological insight that we find in the New Testament which sheds even more light on this issue: it is the nature of the incarnation. We touched on this profound truth in a previous post, Glimpsing Mystery, in relation to Christ’s willingness to submit himself to the Father’s will in his descent from the glory of heaven to the degradation of Calvary. In that article we referenced Donald MacLeod’s insightful reflections on the apostle Paul’s use of the word kenosis to describe what happened when the eternal Son took human flesh and was made man.

MacLeod has much more to say on the question of kenosis and the implications it carries for how we regard the Person and work of Christ. One of the most striking is the way he describes it as the Son’s willingness to ‘not insist on his rights’.[1] The eternal Son, in a supreme sense, was the entitled One. By virtue of what he had always been by nature – co-eternal God, ‘the same in substance, equal in power and glory’ with the Father and the Spirit[2] – nothing or no one could demand that he take the step he took. But he did. And he did so because he refused to stand on his rights. They were not the things that mattered most.

Of course, what is so striking about Paul’s use of this hyper-dense nugget of theological truth is the fact that he uses it to challenge the behaviour of the Christians in Philippi. It was in the context of his telling them, ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus’ (Php 2.5) that he refers to Christ’s having ‘made himself nothing’ (Php 2.7). In other words, our Lord is the ultimate paradigm of how we are to regard what we perceive to be rightfully ours.

Our Lord himself presses this very point in the alien ethic he propounds in the Sermon on the plain:

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners’, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk 6.27-36).

It is an ‘alien’ ethic not merely because it runs completely counter to the ethics of our fallen, man-centred world; but more significantly because it is the ethic of the world to which Christ belongs. And, for that reason, it is the ethic of the Kingdom he is ushering into our world.

Does all this mean that we as Christians ignore or dismiss the rights of others? Not at all. Insofar as they are enshrined in law and as long as they do not violate our supreme duty of obedience to God over any duty we may have to our fellow men, we will honour the rights of others. We will also press for the protection of all who are abused, trafficked, exploited and dispatched like animals by their persecutors. But, like our self-sacrificing Lord, we will not stand on our rights as though they matter more than any other thing. If necessary we will even become ‘obedient unto death’ rather than protect ourselves and our own name over and above the name of our God and Saviour.

Entitlement is a myth. Because the only thing that is really rightfully ours, is the wage our sin demands – and that is death (Ro 6.23). Only the grace of God in salvation delivers us from that grim entitlement and that same grace displayed in us will prove, as Jesus says, that we really are ‘Sons of the Most High’.

[1] Donald MacLeod, The Person of Christ (IVP; Leicester) 1998 p. 214

[2] Westminster Shorter Catechism Answer 6


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