“Put That On My Account”
The book of Philemon is a personal letter written by Paul while he was a prisoner at Rome to a man at Colosse by the name of Philemon. It is a personal letter, dealing with a very personal matter; but it was written by divine inspiration to teach us things concerning our Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel of God’s free grace in him.
Paul wrote to Philemon about one of his slaves who, having robbed him, fled to Rome. While in Rome, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, heard the gospel, and was converted by the grace of God. After his conversion, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter urging Philemon to receive Onesimus as his brother in Christ, just as he would receive Paul himself, assuring him that he would gladly pay whatever Onesimus owed him (vv. 10-18).
“I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account.”
The story we have before us in this short epistle is a beautiful picture of what the Lord Jesus does for every chosen, redeemed sinner. He has paid our debt, all that we owed to the law and justice of God. He intercedes for us with God, against whom we have sinned, from whom we have gone astray. Our blessed Savior said to the offended justice and inflexible law of God, regarding all his people and our sins, “put that on mine account,” and, with his one great sacrifice for sin as our substitute, he paid our debt. Because Christ is our Mediator, Substitute, and Surety, because all God’s elect are one with him, the Father receives and accepts every believing sinner as he receives and accepts Christ himself (Eph. 1:6).
Philemon was a truly gracious man. ― “Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints” (v. 5). He maintained a church in his house (v. 2). He loved Christ and his people (v. 7). He was a benevolent friend to the Apostle Paul. He treated his servants kindly and graciously. And Paul was confident that he would be obedient to the word of God, the word of God sent to Philemon by his servant Paul (v. 21).
Onesimus was a slave Philemon had come to trust. He had given Onesimus charge over at least some of his household goods. He trusted his treasures to the care of this slave as a steward. But Onesimus betrayed his master’s trust. Knowing his guilt and fearing his master’s wrath, Onesimus ran away to Rome. There he must have hoped to lose himself in the crowded streets among the vagabonds and street people. At last, (by one means or another) in God’s good providence Onesimus was brought into that room where God’s servant, Paul, was a prisoner. He heard Paul preach the gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ; and this poor runaway slave was arrested by God’s omnipotent grace, converted by the power of his Spirit, born again by the gospel, and made to be believer, a child of God.
But Onesimus still belonged to Philemon. He was a wanted man. His master had a lawful right to have him executed. The only right thing for this slave to do was to return to his master and hope that he would be gracious.
What a picture the Lord here gives us of his amazing grace! We who are now converted by God’s omnipotent mercy were once just like Onesimus. We went astray from the womb speaking lies (Ps. 58:3). We robbed God (or attempted to) of his glory as God. We despised him and his goodness; but we still belonged to God. If we had what we deserved, we would have perished under his wrath. It would be lawful, righteous, and just for the holy Lord God to slay us in his fury. Our only hope was (and is) his mercy. Fleeing to him for mercy, pleading for mercy in Christ, he received us graciously in Christ, for Christ’s sake, even as he receives Christ.
All men belong to God. We are his property. It is right for him to do with us whatever he will (Matt. 20:15). The unbelieving sinner belongs to God. Though he refuses to acknowledge it, he is God’s property. He is a wanted man. Justice cries out for his execution. It would be lawful, righteous, and just for God to slay him. But, if he pleases, he can have mercy upon him. The only thing for the sinner to do is to go to God, confessing his guilt and sin, pleading the merits of God’s own dear Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and hope that he will be gracious.
“Come, humble sinner, in whose breast
A thousand thoughts revolve,
Come, with your guilt and fear oppressed,
And make this last resolve―
‘I’ll go to Jesus, though my sin
Hath like a mountain rose:
I know His courts I’ll enter in,
Whatever may oppose.
Prostrate, I’ll lie before His throne,
And there my guilt confess.
I’ll tell Him I’m a wretch undone
Without His sovereign grace.
I’ll to the gracious King approach,
Whose scepter pardon gives.
Perhaps He may command my touch,
And then the suppliant lives.
Perhaps He will admit my plea,
Perhaps will hear my prayer;
But if I perish I will pray
And perish only there.
I can but perish if I go,
I am resolved to try;
For if I stay away I know,
I must forever die.
But if I die with mercy sought,
When I the King have tried,
This were to die, (delightful thought!)
As sinner never died!’”
Once Onesimus was converted, the Apostle Paul took down his pen and paper, and by the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, he wrote this little epistle to Philemon with his own hand, with the hope of both preserving Onesimus’ life and making reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon.
Here is an example of true Christian love (v. 5). Indeed, there is no true love in the hearts of men except Christian love, the love that Christ gives to and creates in his saints by his grace. Paul showed great love in his regard for Onesimus. He took this degraded, loathsome creature in. Once he had been converted by the grace of God, Paul regarded him and treated him as his own son. Though Onesimus and Timothy were very different men before they were converted (Timothy was a moral, upright young man, one who believed God from his youth. Onesimus was the offscouring of society.), after they were converted, they were both equal in Paul’s eyes. In Christ there is no such thing as rank. And in Christ our past is irrelevant.
Philemon showed great brotherly love in his reception of Onesimus. Though Philemon had been greatly wronged by this man, he received him again into his household, freely forgiving him the wrong he had done (Matt. 6:14-15; Eph. 4:32).
If God forgives us, surely we ought to forgive one another. If Christ receives us, surely we ought to receive one another. This kind of love is the law that rules God’s elect. It is the principle by which saved people live (John 13:34-35).
Here is an example of substitutionary redemption. Onesimus had wronged Philemon. He had betrayed his master’s trust, despised his master’s goodness, and stolen his master’s goods. Onesimus owed much to Philemon. But Paul says, “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account” (vv. 17-18). That is exactly what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us (Isa. 53:4-10).
Here is an example of divine forgiveness. Paul says, “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself” (v. 17). Onesimus was forgiven through the intercession of another. He was accepted, not as a slave, but as a brother, an equal. And he was accepted because of another. The God of Glory receives every sinner who trusts his dear Son as he receives Christ himself. We are “accepted in the Beloved.” We have been forgiven through the intercession of Christ. We have been accepted as the sons of God, in every way equal to Christ in God’s sight (1 John 3:1). We have been accepted because of another, accepted because of the Lord Jesus Christ, and accepted as Christ is accepted.
“Near, so very near to God,
Nearer I cannot be,
For in the Person of His Son
I am as near as He!
Dear, so very dear to God,
Dearer I cannot be,
For in the Person of His Son
I am as dear as He!”
Perhaps the thing that stands out most beautifully in the book of Philemon is the picture it gives us of God’s wondrous, amazing, irresistible grace. In the case of Onesimus, we see clear evidence that the grace of God is always effectual and irresistible, and can never be thwarted in its purpose. Grace is not merely God’s will to save. Grace is God’s act of saving. In the matter of salvation grace is always first! The grace of God always takes the initiative in salvation.
“Grace first contrived the way
To save rebellious man;
And all the steps that grace display
Which drew the wondrous plan.
Grace first inscribed my name
In God’s eternal book:
‘Twas grace that gave me to the Lamb,
Who all my sorrows took.”
Onesimus was the object of sovereign election. This poor slave did not know it, but he was the chosen object of God’s eternal, electing love. He was not worthy of God’s love. He did not desire God’s love. He did not seek God’s love. Nevertheless, he was loved of God from eternity. God had said concerning Onesimus, “I will be his God and he shall be my son.” And so it came to pass. God passed by many slaves who were just like Onesimus, and chose him. And the Lord God passed by many men and women at Colosse who were far nobler than Onesimus, and chose him.
As a general rule, the most unworthy of the unworthy, the most loathsome of the loathsome, the most useless of the useless, the most vile of the vile are the objects of God’s grace (1 Cor. 1:26-29; Jer. 31:3). What are you, and what am I that God should be merciful to us? Let us never forget where we were, who we were, and what we were when the grace of God found us and called us by his grace (1 Cor. 1:26-28; 6:9-11; Isa. 51:1).
Be sure you understand this ― The grace of God is always sovereign (Rom. 9:15-16). Man has no claim upon the grace of God. God is in no way obliged to show anyone his mercy. He can save us if he will, or he can damn us if he will. It is entirely up to him. God is not in our hands. We are in God’s hands.
The Lord God is sovereign. He does as it pleases him. God chooses some, and passes by others (Rom. 9:11-13). God sent his Son to redeem some, but not others (John 10:11, 15, 26). God sends the gospel to some, and refuses to send it to others (Acts 16:6-13). God sends his Spirit to call some, and leaves the rest to their own chosen darkness and ignorance (Acts 13:48). This is God’s right as God. Believers gladly submit to his total, absolute sovereignty (Rom. 9:18-21).
“Mortals, be dumb; what creature dares
Dispute His sovereign will?
Ask no account of His affairs,
But tremble and be still.
Just like His nature is His grace,
All sovereign, and all free;
Great God, how searchless are Thy ways,
How deep thy judgments be!”
The grace of God sought Onesimus. Onesimus did not seek God. God sought Onesimus. Onesimus was not looking for the Lord. The Lord was looking for Onesimus. Onesimus did not want grace. Grace wanted Onesimus. Onesimus did not come to grace. Grace came to Onesimus. Onesimus did not find the Lord. The Lord found Onesimus. The name of God’s church is “Sought Out” (Isa. 61:12). The Lord God declares, “I am found of them that sought me not” (Isa. 65:1).
Modern religion says to the sinner, “You take the first step, and God will do the rest.” God says to the sinner, “‘Without me, ye can do nothing.’ You have no ability and no will to come to me. I will come and be gracious to whom I will be gracious.”
Grace always takes the initiative in salvation. God chose us; we did not choose him. God gave us life; we did not give life to ourselves. God sought us; we did not seek him. God came to us; we did not come to him.
“‘Tis not that I did choose Thee,
For, Lord, that could not be,
This heart would still refuse Thee,
But Thou hast chosen me.
Thou from the sin that stained me
Washed me and set me free,
And to this end ordained me,
That I should live to Thee.
‘Twas sovereign mercy called me,
And taught my opening mind;
The world had else enthralled me,
To heavenly glories blind:
My heart owns none before Thee,
For Thy rich grace I thirst;
This knowing, if I love Thee,
Thou must have loved me first.”
Grace is always on time. It is never before time, and it is never behind time, but always on time. The grace of God rules and overrules all things to accomplish its purpose (Ps. 76:10; John 17:1-2; Rom. 8:28). Onesimus had no right to rob his master and runaway; but God was pleased to make use of Onesimus’ sin to accomplish his conversion. In the wise arrangement of divine providence, Onesimus’ evil deed brought him to the place where God was determined to be gracious to him (Psa. 76:10). Read verse 15. ― “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever.”
Onesimus did exactly what he wanted to do. He freely exercised his “free-will” and chose the path of wickedness. Still, God had a hand in the whole affair. This is what the old writers used to call prevenient grace, grace that goes before and prepares the way for grace. (Compare Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; 13:29).
Onesimus madly ran the sinful course of his own “freewill.” Had not the Lord God sovereignly intervened, this man’s actions would surely have brought him to ruin and to hell. But God’s purpose of grace could not and would not be overturned. Onesimus must come to Rome. Onesimus must hear the gospel from Paul’s lips, hear it at precisely the time he heard it, in the place where he heard it, and in the exact circumstances in which he heard it. That meant that Paul and Onesimus had to be brought to Rome at the same time, at “the time of love” (Ezek. 16:8) the Lord God had ordained for Onesimus from eternity.
How will it all happen? The Lord God called the old serpent, Satan, into his service. Satan is not God’s rival, but his devil. He is not a wild beast out of control, but a conquered lion on the chain of omnipotence, under the total dominion of God our Savior (Rev. 20:1-3). Satan tempted Onesimus, just at the right time, and persuaded him to steal his master’s goods. At about the same time, he led an angry mob to have Paul arrested at Jerusalem. Having robbed his master, Onesimus was filled with fear and fled to Rome. At last, on the appointed day, at “the time of love,” Onesimus comes before Paul, and Paul preached the gospel to him in the power of the Holy Spirit. And Onesimus was converted.
God almighty, when he intends to be gracious to a sinner, always brings the sinner, whom he has chosen, to the preacher, whom he has chosen, to hear the gospel (Rom. 10:14-17). Perhaps Onesimus had been arrested. Perhaps he came to Paul for help. We are not told. But Onesimus and Paul meet face to face at the appointed time, in the appointed place, for the appointed purpose. It is still true…
“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up His vast designs
And works His sovereign will.”
Here is a word of comfort and encouragement for you whose sons and daughters break your hearts through their rebellion and waywardness. Sometimes this is God’s appointed way of grace. It is far better to lose them for a season and gain them for eternity, than to keep them at home in self-righteousness and to lose them for eternity. The chosen sinner must, by one means or another, be brought down; and God knows exactly the best way to bring his own down before him (Ps. 107:1-43). The wise thing for us to do is to humbly submit to the wise and good will of our God. ― “It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth him good.”
Aren’t you glad to know that the grace of God rules and overrules all things to accomplish its purpose? Grace is always on time.
The grace of God is always successful. Grace cannot be defeated. Grace cannot be thwarted. Grace cannot be overturned. Grace cannot be resisted. God had chosen Onesimus, and Onesimus must be saved. Grace preserved him, provided for him, protected him, and led him all the days of his life, even in his rebellion (Heb. 1:14; Hos. 2:8; Jude 1). And at the appointed time, grace conquered Onesimus’ heart (Ezek. 16:3-8).
By the power of God’s grace, Onesimus was made a new man in Christ. Behold the wondrous, transforming power of the grace of our God! ― He who was an unprofitable wretch, a common thief, was transformed into a profitable servant of God and a profitable servant among men. Grace changes a man’s character, and grace changes his behavior: – At Home – At Work – In All Things! Rowland Hill once said, “I would not give half a penny for a man’s piety if his dog and cat were not better off after he is converted.”
The grace of God is successful. It is always successful (Rom. 8:29-30). The good Shepherd goes seeking his sheep. He never gives up the search until he finds his sheep. And he always fetches his sheep home.
Grace honors God. Grace always gives God the glory. This is the reason why God does things the way he does them, so that we might be “to the praise of the glory of his grace…to the praise of his glory who first trusted in Christ” (Ezek. 16:62-63; Eph. 1:3-14). ― “Salvation is of the Lord.” It was the Lord God who chose Onesimus, who redeemed him, sought him, called him, gave him life and faith in Christ, and who kept him.
Grace gives us hope. The grace of God is a door of hope for perishing sinners. The God of all grace is he that “delighteth in mercy.” Let all who need grace come to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). Oh, what a difference grace makes in the lives of sinners! And it is grace alone that makes the difference. ― “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).