I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 1, verse 20)
Have you ever wondered what you would do if someone asked you to renounce Christ or die? I always wonder if I’ll be devoted enough or brave enough not to cave in and renounce Jesus. I’ve even considered that He would forgive me because He knows how hard it is to deal with pain or the threat of death. But would He?
After the persecutions under Emperor Diocletian in the first decade of the 300’s, there was a group of Christians, some of whom had denied Christ, some of whom had under pressure turned in other Christians to the authorities (hence called “traditors,” those who hand over), and the church had to make a decision about whether they could be forgiven. One Christian group under the leadership of Donatus, a bishop in Africa, believed that they could be forgiven but not enough to allow them to hold positions of leadership, and that if any did serve as priests or bishops their administration of the sacraments was invalid. These were the Donatists.
The rest of the church was much more forgiving, but even they often had a very strict process for penitents to go through. It is described this way,
The first question, therefore, was whether the Sacrament of Penance can effect a reconciliation whereby the apostate, or in some cases specifically the traditor, may be returned to full communion. The orthodox Catholic position was that the sacrament was for precisely such cases, though at the time the Church still followed the discipline of public penance whereby a penitent for such a grievous offence would spend years, even decades, first outside the doors of the church begging for the prayers of those entering, then kneeling inside the church building during services, then standing with the congregation, and finally receiving the Eucharist again in a long progress toward full reconciliation. (see here)
Do we have any biblical example to appeal to in this regard? What about Peter, who did deny Christ three times? Was he forgiven? Was he allowed back in leadership? Yes, see John 21:15-17! So should Paul have been concerned? Should he have worried about what would happen if he wasn’t courageous enough to exalt Christ in his body during persecution?
We also have a passage in 2 Timothy 2:11-13,
Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
Was Paul unaware of Peter’s experience? Surely he was aware. So what does he mean here? The context makes it clear that Paul is not talking about someone who disowns God and then repents, but rather someone who abandons the Christian faith altogether, like Phygelus and Hermogenes (1:15).
Nevertheless, Paul had reason to be concerned. Would he give a good testimony to Christ, one worthy of all that Jesus had done for him? Would he glorify or exalt Christ by how he conducted himself during the trial, even if it meant death? He was representing not just himself but all those who knew him in Christ and looked to him for leadership, so it was important to him that he quit himself well.
I have often thought that surely I would take death and torture for Christ, or at least be willing to, but have understood that many have cracked under torture. If I was just going to be shot, I think I could take that easier than being tortured for days or weeks or months. I anticipate, too, as Paul did, that Jesus would supply me with the Holy Spirit to help me in my hour of distress (Philippians 1:19) and enable me to fulfill my commitment to Him.
But what if my whole family was being persecuted and I was asked to renounce Jesus or my granddaughter would be tortured. Surely Jesus would forgive me for not putting her through such torment. But then, would it be better for her in the long run to see her grandfather stand true to Jesus? Or would she want to abandon the faith altogether that required her grandfather to let her suffer torture for Jesus? These are tough questions that I hope I will never personally have to face in real life. I know we have a gracious God who understands that we are but dust and has pity on us (Psalm 103:13,14). I trust He will help me know what to do and to do it. I know I will have other believers praying for me that I do the right thing. And even if I fail to do the right thing, I know He will forgive me if I ask for forgiveness.