Question: I am struggling with the terms “surrender” and “submission.” We have all heard the saying that when we become Christians we surrender or submit to Christ. And to a certain extent this is true. I can’t even find the word “surrender” in the New Testament. When I hear the term “surrender,” I think of it as something you do when you “surrender” to the enemy, are put into prison, or worse. You are put into a prison camp until the war is over. You don’t have the liberty to simply walk out of the camp. The term is also used in AA to describe one of the 12 Steps. Paul was a literal prisoner for Christ, and a prisoner by choice. But Paul’s letter to Philemon did not ask Philemon to receive Onesimus as a slave or prisoner but as a friend and brother in Christ. That seems to be the model. Now I could be wrong…but I did want to run it by you for your thoughts.
Response: Although there are aspects of both “surrender” and “submission” that seem to overlap, as you point out, “surrender” is a military term. It is what the losing side does in a battle when they are overcome by those with whom they are in conflict.
You are correct that the word “surrender” isn’t found in the New Testament. Nevertheless, in Romans:8:7, concerning the unsaved, Paul points out: “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” “Enmity” is conflict. Nevertheless, in His grace, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” And, although Jesus never used the word “surrender” (i.e., in the English translation), nevertheless, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
To “deny” ourselves means to abandon our own interests, priorities, and goals. In essence, we would then be “surrendering” to the one with whom we are in conflict. As commentators have pointed out, the individual who is not willing to deny “self” will not trust Christ. Nor will he who is unwilling to suffer hardship or persecution trust Him. In the same way, if a person is unwilling to follow Christ in the path of suffering, he will not learn to truly trust Christ. Yet, these are the very things that the Lord asks of those who follow Him. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be joy, peace, satisfaction, and other blessings, but the Lord warned believers that if they are in the world but not of it, their path may well be very difficult. If we read the book of Acts or read a history of the church, we will see this. The young man known to us as the “rich, young ruler” was told to give away everything and follow Jesus.
Even though the word “surrender” is not in Scripture, the principle certainly is. So then, what about submission? Is there a difference? It does seem that these words overlap. But it is instructive to look at their use in context. The word “submit” is indeed used in Scripture. In the epistle of James, the writer is addressing his message to Jewish believers. To those who followed the Messiah, James wrote: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas 4:7).
At salvation, the enmity that formerly existed and was dealt with on the Cross is removed from the life of the person who believes and appropriates God’s provision (i.e., is “saved”). Consequently, from that point on we must learn to submit ourselves to the Lord. A man and a woman are equal before the Lord. Nevertheless, the Lord has an order for the family that includes submission of the wife to her “own” husband (Eph:5:22-24, Col:3:18). As you point out, Paul, in his letter to Philemon, asked him not to treat Onesimus as a slave or prisoner but as “a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord” (Philemon 16).
The order mandated by God is as follows: Believers are called upon to submit “yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so [let] the wives [be] to their own husbands in every thing” (Eph:5:21-24).
In conclusion, although we have “surrendered” to Christ at salvation, the rest of our life will present opportunities to “submit” ourselves in love and obedience to Him.