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We Are Responsible Persons

Part 7 of 7 from ‘A Short Theology of Conflict’ by Olof H. de Vries and translated by Pieter Lalleman

In the preceding part I wrote that conflicts churches are not so much accidents that can be prevented with good will, love and tact, as part of the structure of salvation history. God realises his salvation right through conflicts in the bosom of the community for whom that salvation is intended. So it is in the Old Testament. 

Historical necessity?

The conflicts between Jacob and Esau, between Joseph and his brothers, between Moses and the people of Israel, are each part of the way by which God reaches his goal with the chosen people. The New Testament is no different. Jesus’ work of salvation is to a large extent structured by the conflict between Jesus and the spiritual leaders of Israel. Almost from the beginning, the conflict with the Pharisees and scribes largely determines Jesus’ public ministry. His atoning suffering and death are also, historically, the outcome of a lawsuit brought by Israel’s leaders against Jesus. The first Christian missionary preaching outside the walls of Jerusalem is rooted in the conflict between the primitive church in Jerusalem and the Jewish leaders in the city. As the conflict escalates into persecution, we read, ‘And those who were scattered went about preaching the gospel’ (Acts 8:4). Paul writes that the conflict between Israel and the Gentile church is the structure of history in which both Israel and the Gentiles share salvation. ‘By the fall of Israel salvation has come to the Gentiles, to stir them up to jealousy’ (Rom 11:11). And, ‘a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles enters, and thus shall all Israel be saved’ (Rom 11:25). The thought arises: is conflict a necessity for salvation history? Are we victims of the inevitable course of events in the conflicts in the church? Immediately afterwards, an even deeper question arises: what about our responsibility in conflicts? Is there anything we can do about them?

We are there ourselves

It would be completely contrary to the nature of God’s work of salvation to claim that humans are unresisting objects of God’s action. Whatever God does on our behalf, he involves us as people who can say yes and no, as people who can go along with God and who can resist him. When it comes to the reconciliation of sinners with God, one can make another objection. After all, the vicarious suffering of Jesus includes our exclusion! Jesus takes our place on Calvary. When Jesus dies for us, we are like the disciples, watching from a distance. What is true of Jesus’ death on the cross is also true of his resurrection. When Jesus rises from the dead for us on Easter morning, we are still fast asleep at home, just like the disciples. 

But when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit, we get involved. Just as Christ is ‘God for us,’ so is the Spirit is ‘God in us’. The Spirit dwells in our bodies (1 Cor 6:19); there he is at home! The work of the Spirit is typified by the preposition ‘with’. The Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God (Rom 8:16). Together with the Church, the Spirit prays for the return of Christ (Rev 22:17). One of the most important responsibilities of the Holy Spirit is to sanctify the Church and its individual members. Concerning sanctification we read: ‘… we are changed from glory to glory, for through the Lord who is Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:18). The Spirit is the Spirit of sanctification (Rom 1:4). Each fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) is a work of sanctification, performed in us by the Spirit. Conflicts in the church make it clear that we are not yet who we will once be. The Spirit is working to make that day come. Therefore, conflict and the Spirit are closely related. I mean, the Spirit picks up our conflicts in order to sanctify us right through these conflicts. He does this in his characteristic way. He involves us completely, with all our conflictual nature. All the things that play a role in common conflicts: our different traditions, our different experiences of faith, views of Scripture and interpretation of Scripture, our different personalities: the Spirit draws us into them completely! He does this because his work is about sanctifying us in every aspect of our existence.


Conflict is a historical necessity insofar as our ongoing sanctification is a historical necessity. In this necessity we are not victims or unwilling objects of the course of events in a conflict. The Spirit does not work with objects but with subjects. He involves us as responsible people in his sanctifying work in the conflict.

Olof de Vries (1941-2014) was a lecturer at the Baptist Seminary from 1981-2009 and a special professor of ‘History and Doctrines of Baptistism’ at Utrecht University from 1991-2009. He had his own characteristic way of teaching and theologizing and inspired and trained countless pastors and congregants through his lectures, sermons and articles. His consistent view of church and theology from the perspective of history is typical: how people follow their faith in time and culture. The relationship between tradition and innovation was his lasting interest, based on the conviction that tradition always contains the possibility of innovation.

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