A few days ago (May 12, 2014), Dr Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission posted a fabulous article titled ‘The Church Needs More Tattoos’. The title captured my attention immediately because more tattoos in the church sounds like an oxymoron. I won’t give away the entire article, and you can read it for yourself here (as a matter of fact, I’d suggest you read it before continuing on with my post).
Tattoos can mean several things. The images engraved onto one’s skin can conjure up a whole host of other images in the viewers mind and can thus be a powerful tool. It can be used to intimidate, seduce, or even tell a story. The story could be about one’s upbringing, about the challenges a boy has experienced or the disappointments that a girl has faced. It could be a story about hurt, or a story about change.
Look around you and you’ll see that there is an increasing population of people getting tattoos, both in and outside the Christian circles. The taboo of tattoos are slowly wearing out, and that caused me to think about getting a tattoo because let’s be honest, it can look pretty cool. But if I ever did, I asked myself: ‘what would it look like or what would it say? What story would it tell?’
The Stories that Tattoos Tell
I used to train mixed martial arts and the gym was like a gallery for tattoos. The Head Coach at the gym had his something about his family tattooed on his forearm and an image of a tiger on the other forearm. Another guy has tattoos on his feet; on one it says ‘walk by faith’ and the other says ‘not by sight’. Still another guy, though muscular and tough, had the names of his children inked on his chest and when you talk to him, you’ll see how much he cares and loves for each of his kids.
What would mine say? Would it be a cool Japanese art, reflecting my Asian heritage (even though I’m not Japanese but because it looks cool)? Or would it say something deep and philosophical? Would it, like some guys at the gym, say something about my family? After an extended period of thinking, I came to the conclusion that if I ever were to get a tattoo, I would have the Greek word for ‘slave’ (δοῦλος) tattoo on my forearm. Let me tell you why.
A Slave of Christ
The word ‘slave’ has powerful connotations. A slave is an individual who does not belong to themselves. Everything he or she does is subject to their master. For better or for worse, they are completely bound. The Bible describes sin as a form of slavery and every human being born onto this earth a slave to sin. Yet the story of the Gospel is that Christ came into this world to liberate us from that slavery, to save us to be His slaves. But God is not a power hungry and unsympathetic slave driver. It was because of His love in the first place that we can be free from the ugly life of sin. That is why the Apostle Paul can confidently write that he can and Timothy are ‘slaves of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 1:1). So just as slaves used to be marked physically on the skin, I thought if I ever were to get inked, I would want a tattoo that would remind me that I am a slave for Christ. That means everything I do, from the way I act to the way I speak, must reflect Christ as my master.
A New Found Identity
Time went by and I never got the tattoo. But I never stopped thinking about. One day I was sitting in a coffee shop studying Galatians 4 with David Platt’s ‘Follow Me’ on the table as well (Side note: Dr David Platt has been a real force for change in my life. His exposition of the word is incredible and if you haven’t read his books, in particular ‘Radical’ and ‘Follow Me’, then you are really missing out). As I studied, I stopped at Galatians 4-6 and the verses hit me like a truck.
‘But when the completion of the time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying Abba, Father!. So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God’
I sat at the table stunned at what I was reading because while being able to call ourselves ‘slaves of Christ’ is amazing privilege in itself, God goes further and calls us His son. Then and there, I realized my true identity as a follower of Christ because while a slave can serve his master freely, he is still enslaved. But God gives his followers a new identity. He calls them sons. As sons, we don’t merely get the privilege to serve God freely, we also get to serve God joyfully, just as a son experiences immense joy when he serves his Father. And as sons, our Father lavishes His love on us. As sons, we inherit all that belongs to our Father. As sons, we get to enjoy an intimate relationship with our Father. So on October 31, 2013 (which is the date of when I came got his by this reality), I came to fully realized my new identity, that is being a son (υἱός) of the living God.
That one status ‘son of the living God’ encapsulates so much of the gospel and if you want a story, there you have one. This is a story of a sinner who was enslaved in sin. So deep in sin was he that he no longer knew what was right or wrong. So deep in sin that he almost gave up on trying to turn away from it. Yet Christ miraculously dove down to the depths of the ocean where he was already dead from drowning in his sin, brought him back to the surface and gave him life. With this new life, God calls him son, which means that not merely are his trespasses no longer counted his own, but whatever good that is His own Son has, whatever righteousness Christ has, is given to him. Here is a story of a guy’s life that was radically turned around, here is a story of a guy who no longer delights in sin but rejoices in honouring God. Here is my story, though not engraved on my skin, is engraved on my heart. The Gospel is a miraculous story of God turning us from slaves to sons.