The focus of my last blog post was on the need for freedom from covetousness (greed) in our materialistic and consumer-oriented society. Ever since posting that blog I have been giving a lot of thought to the broader subject of our freedom in Christ – what it means and what it does not mean. Jesus said, “If the Son of Man makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). What kind of freedom was Jesus referring to?
When we hear the word freedom, it usually calls to mind a variety of human conditions with political connotations: oppression, injustice, persecution (the need to be delivered from such evils in so many nations, being brought from bondage to freedom). We may also think of the freedoms we have enjoyed in this so-called “sweet land of liberty” such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from tyranny, etc.
However, in the bible verse quoted above from the Gospel of John, Jesus was concerned with another form of bondage and a different kind of freedom. If you study the context, you will discover that the Master Teacher was speaking not only to his disciples, to those who “believed in him” and were following him (vs. 31), but also to the Pharisees who had come to question him (vs. 13-19). Those self-righteous religious leaders believed they knew the truth and were convinced that Jesus was a false prophet, not a true child of Abraham, because he was bearing witness to himself (vs. 13). Jesus had told them, “If you really knew the truth, you would know me (i.e. you would know who I really am, and would know my Father who sent me)…you would know the truth, and the truth would set you free” (vs 17-19 and 27-32). Not just knowledge about the Law of God, but to actually know God – not just knowledge in general, but divine truth, saving truth (John 14:6 – Jesus claimed to be “the truth”).
It was these incredible claims about himself, who he was, that infuriated the Scribes and Pharisees. Furthermore, they were not in bondage to anyone, including Rome! Yes, they were living under Roman occupation and rule, but they were “children of Abraham.” They did not understand that Jesus was talking about freedom from the power and penalty of sin (i.e. freedom from bondage to sin, freedom sin’s slavery). They did not know that he was also talking about freedom from the burden of so many man-made rules and regulations, the “traditions of the elders” that had been added to the God-given ten commandments, delivered to Moses to be given to the descendants of Abraham who had been slaves in Egypt, to be obeyed by God’s covenant people forever, for all generations.
By the time of Jesus and his earthly ministry, there were more than 600 commandments and most of them were negative: “You shall not“ do this or that). That tremendous portfolio of law had made Judaism burdensome, and there is something wrong about a burdensome religion (i.e. a religion you must carry, instead of a religion that carries you). Suffice it to say, religion is not necessarily a good thing! That’s why Jesus gave this invitation to those who were carrying such a heavy load: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light“ (Matthew 11:30).
With these encouraging and comforting words of Jesus in mind, it is easier to understand the surprise in the Apostle Paul’s sad words in the first chapter of his Letter to the Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ (i.e. God the Father), and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:6-7). There were some among the believers in Galatians who were teaching that their “freedom in Christ” meant that they were no longer living in bondage to the Law (i.e. God’s commandments), and were now free to live as they pleased, rather than living in a manner that is pleasing to God. Paul admonished them, “Do not use your freedom to indulge your sinful nature” (Galatians 5:1:13). Suffice it to say, our freedom in Christ is not freedom to sin! Galatia was obviously not the only place where believers were being led astray by this false interpretation of the fact that Christ had set them free, for in his Letter to the Romans Paul warned believers there of the same thing (although he had never visited Rome at that point): “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how then can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2).
On the other hand, there was another group in the same church who had turned once again to the old way of those Jewish zealots who had always believed they could make themselves righteous by adhering to the Law, rather than by trusting in the grace of God alone, through faith alone. Falling for this false teaching only made them slaves again, bringing them back into bondage to the law (Galatians 5:2-4; see also Ephesians 2). It is not a righteousness “gained” from keeping the moral law of God, but righteousness “given” (i.e. the righteousness of Christ himself), through faith in his atoning death on the cross as the true Passover Lamb, “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), that is acceptable to God (Titus 2:11-14). Our freedom in Christ is not freedom to boast for anything we ourselves have achieved. Our salvation is not an “achievement” (i.e. Christians are not “self-made” individuals, but “Christ-made” men and women). Paul says we are “his workmanship” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The Christian who experiences true freedom in Christ Jesus is the one who acknowledges his or her total dependence on Jesus, living in absolute submission to him as both Savior and Lord! It is not “either-or”, but “both-and.” This is why Paul calls true believers “slaves” of Christ. I know that sounds contradictory, but it is the paradox of our salvation!
What we consider a paradox is when two truths seem to be contradictory or irreconcilable because it is so hard for us to wrap our minds around both. For example, our belief in the sovereignty of God (i.e. God’s unlimited power, absolute control, and fore-knowledge) and the freedom of man (i.e. our freedom of choice) or the doctrine of predestination, including the passion and death of Jesus which was the plan of God from the beginning to end and also God’s condemnation of sin and evil in all of its forms and the responsibility of humankind for the consequences of all sins committed against God, including the crucifixion of Jesus (see Isaiah 53, especially vs 10: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain”, RSV). Those scoffers in the crowd on that fateful Friday were mocking Jesus at the cross in vulgar derision and scorn when they cried out, “He saved others, himself he cannot save.” They did not know that they speaking profound truths, but seemingly paradoxical truths.
For that too is the paradox of our salvation. Of course, Jesus had the power to save himself. He could have called upon legions of angels to come to his assistance. He also could have stayed in Galilee where it was safe, but Luke tells us in his gospel that “…he set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem.” In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.” Once again, we are faced with what seems to be a paradox, for it was not possible and yet we are told: “all things are possible for God.” According to the infinite wisdom of God, and God’s eternal plan for the salvation of humankind, these are two truths that only seem to be in conflict to us because “God’s ways are beyond our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts” (Isaiah 55;8). As the Apostle Paul says in his Corinthian correspondence, “Now we see through a glass darkly (or dimly), but then (ie. in eternity) we will see clearly...we will know even as we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Paul did not hesitate to proclaim truths that seemed to be irreconcilable because he knew “God has made foolish the wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 1:20). Paul was speaking to Greeks who took great pride in their wisdom, but he told them that the true and living God, the only God who speaks for himself says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart” (i.e. the discernment of those who trust in their own accumulated knowledge – vs 19), a word of warning for those in our own age who believe they can decide for themselves what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, what is beautiful and what is ugly. God has spoken once and for all, answering these ethical and moral questions in His written Word, telling us what is forever true.
Scripture is an essential part of God’s revelation of himself and his will, a written record of God’s self-disclosure, the truth about himself, his character, as well as a trustworthy guide for what God requires of us as believers in our own character and conduct. Therefore, as believers in Jesus Christ, we are not free to use our own conscience for choosing what we will believe and how we will behave, for we have an authority for faith and for the practice of our faith. The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are not only a historical record of the mighty acts of God, for it is our God-given guide and authority for faith and practice. It is much more than salvation history, the written records of God’s dealings with his covenant people, Israel, and in the “fullness of time” with the “new Israel” (i.e. the new community of faith established by Jesus Christ. The Bible, the written Word of God, is in and of itself one of the mighty acts of God (i.e. an event, an act of revelation, the activity of the Holy Spirit who inspired these writings), with the authority and power to convey the truth of God, including the truth about God’s forgiving love, amazing grace, and the truth about ourselves as those who belong to Jesus, and our freedom as those who are bound to him as servants (i.e. servants of our Lord and Master).
The apostles in their letters to the first churches that had been established following the Pentecost event frequently introduced themselves as servants of Christ (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1), and called upon their brothers and sisters in Christ to “serve one another” (Ephesians 5:21; Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 5:5 – sometimes translated “submit to one another”). The Christian who wants to experience true freedom, full freedom, in Christ must be willing to assume the role of a servant rather than seeking to be served. Too many who claim to be Christians have never understood that being a servant of Christ must also include serving other members of the Body of Christ, for we are part of a body of which Christ is the head, and we are “members one of another” (1 Corinthians 12). Our freedom in Christ does not mean that we are free to choose to be a participant in the worship and work of Christ’s Church or to go it alone. Our Lord has not given us that option!
Biblically speaking, there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Turning our lives over to Jesus Christ also means turning our lives over to each other! Christianity is relational, and the relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ compels us to have a proper relationship with other believers in Christ’s Church. That is where it begins. If it does not begin there, then true freedom in Christ does not really begin. It is in “serving one another in love” (Galatians 5:13) THAT WE EXPERIENCE TRUE FREEDOM IN CHRIST, THE FREEDOM TO BECOME THE KIND OF FOLLOWERS OUR LORD WANTS US TO BE.