This is the time of year when our national thoughts are of freedom.
Freedom is even in the language of the church. Jesus himself said, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free."
'Freedom' is a word on everybody's lips today. There are many different forms of it, and many different people advocating it and canvassing it. There is the African nationalist who has gained 'Uhuru' for his country - freedom from colonial rule. There is the economist who believes in free trade, the lifting of tariffs. There is the capitalist who dislikes central controls because they hinder free enterprise and the communist who claims to set the common man free from capitalist exploitation. There are the famous four freedoms first enunciated by President Roosevelt in 1941, when he spoke of 'freedom of speech everywhere, freedom of worship everywhere, freedom from want everywhere and freedom from fear everywhere.
In our courts and congressional building today, the concepts of freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms, and the free exercise of religion are being hammered out, and redefined.
However, freedom, as defined by Scripture, has a much different meaning. When we talk about freedom as Christians, what do we mean?
Paul, in Galatians 5, defines our freedom in two forms. The first form is negative, and suggests that we are free from something. The second form is positive in nature, and suggests that we are free for something.
1. Christian freedom is freedom from -
a. Legalistic bondage
Context is the theological struggle over keeping the Mosaic Law. So Jews argued that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians.
What kinds of legalistic bondage do you tend to be enslaved by?
- Works oriented faith
What is remarkable is the new legalism that infects some churches on issues that don't even have the significance of circumcision.
- Dress codes
- Worship styles
What some Christians, and some who have not yet accepted Christ, need to hear more than anything else is "You don't have to live up to other people's legalistic expectations in order to earn God's favor and to be a Christian. Jesus' death on the cross did away with all of that. All you have to do is accept the gracious offer of forgiveness and freedom that he offers you."
Our Christian freedom from the law, which Paul here emphasizes, concerns our relationship to God. It means that God's acceptance of us depends not on our obedience to the law's demands, but on faith in Jesus Christ who bore the curse of the law when He died. It certainly does not mean that we are free to disregard or disobey the law. (Stott)
b. Slavery to sin
So we have been freed from the bondage of legalistic religion, which forces us to perform in certain ways, in order to earn God's favor. However, there is a caution here.
Trading legalistic bondage and its set of rules for slavery to sin is parallel to the choice given to former slaves after the Civil War. These slaves were given the choice to continue to sharecrop for their former master. Their pay for all of their work would be a place to live, and a small amount of money to feed and clothe themselves and their families. However, the cost for things were kept so high that though these people were free, they were kept in abject poverty. The former slaves may have felt good about their freedom, but they found themselves economically and socially controlled by another type of bondage.
Some say that our ability to choose to do evil is our freedom, but is it freedom? Isn't it another sort of bondage?
Theologian and author John Stott, in his book Only One Way, wrote of this text, "Indeed, such 'liberty', an unbridled licence, is not true liberty at all; it is another and more dreadful form of bondage, a slavery to the desires of our fallen nature. So Jesus said to the Jews: 'every one who commits sin is a slave to sin' (John 8:34), and Paul describes us in our pre-conversion state as "slaves to various passions and pleasures" (Titus 3:3).
"There are many such slaves in our society today. They proclaim their freedom with a loud voice. They speak of free love and a free life; but in reality they are slaves to their own appetites to which they give free rein, simply because they cannot control them."
Bondage to peer pressure - "I'm dressing like a unique individual." The puzzling thing is why are there so many unique individuals that look the same.
Addiction vs. bondage - Isn't addiction a polite way of saying that I am enslaved?
We argue for the right to free speech. But what some people mean by free speech is the right to blurt anything out without consideration for others. But how dare them say anything about us.
Galatians 5:15, 26
Or what about "Reproductive Rights" or a "Woman's Right To Choose".
Mary Ann Bell has said about the freedom of choice debate: "It is not freedom of choice people want so much as license to sin."
The only freedom that we really have when it comes to evil is to experience its consequences.
"Christian freedom is very different. Far from having liberty to indulge our sinful desires, Christians are said to 'have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires' (v. 24). That is to say, we have totally repudiated the claim or our old nature to rule over us. In vivid imagery which Paul borrows from Jesus, he says that we have "crucified" it, nailed it to the cross."
Freedom does not mean the absence of constraints or moral absolutes. Suppose a skydiver at 10,000 ft announces to the rest of the group, "I'm not using a parachute this time. I want freedom!"
The fact is that a skydiver is constrained by a greater law - the law of gravity. But when the skydiver chooses the "constraint" of the parachute, she is free to enjoy the exhilaration.
God's moral laws act the same way: They restrain, but they are absolutely necessary to enjoy the exhilaration of real freedom. (Colin Campbell)
At a special chapel service in an Ohio penitentiary, the governor was to grant freedom to several convicts. The suspense mounted as it came time for the governor to announce the names of those selected. "Rueben Johnson, come forward and receive your pardon!" No one responded. The chaplain directed his attention toward Johnson and said, "Rueben, it's you, come on!" But the man looked behind him, supposing there must be someone else by that name. Then pointing directly at him, the chaplain exclaimed, "That's right, you're the man!" After a long pause, he slowly approached the governor to receive his pardon. Later when the other prisoners marched to their cells, Johnson fell in line and began to walk with them. The warden called, "Rueben, you don't belong there anymore. You're a free man!"
Our decision to continue to live in legalistic bondage or in slavery to sin, after Christ has set us free, makes as much sense as receiving our pardon then marching back to our cell.
We are free! We are free!
2. Christian freedom is freedom to -
Set in opposition to what the world calls freedom, which is really living in bondage to sin, is the living in the Spirit. The Fruit of the Spirit is the starting point of talking about what Christian freedom is.
The way this verse is constructed in the Greek says there is one Fruit of the Spirit. The Fruit is not plural. There is only one, and it is love. Now if you want to know what that love looks like, it is described as joyfilled, peaceable, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.
As we exhibit this freedom to love others it produces two particular freedoms.
a. Serve one another
An obvious question is, "How can serving be freedom?"
Let me leave the answer to that question up to Jesus, who said, "I have not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many." Jesus in that verse says in a rather dramatic way, "I am setting the captives people free by freely paying their debt."
"It is a remarkable paradox. For from one point of view Christian freedom is a form of slavery, - not slavery to the flesh, but to our neighbor. We are free in relation to God, but slaves in relation to each other. " (Stott)
The closest you will ever get to freedom is when you freely pour your life into the lives of others.
Karl Menninger, an acclaimed psychologist, determined a decade ago that the treatment for patients with clinical depression which was showing the greatest level of results was having the patient find someone who was worse off than them who they could serve. Patient after patient would return with reports of reduced levels of depression.
b. Share one another's struggles
Now, I hope that you noticed I said, "Share one another's struggles", not what some translations read "bear one another's burdens". The reason for that is that "bearing" has come to mean to put up with, or to tolerate. It is the language of the new political correctness.
But we are meant to "share one another's struggles". We are not just to put up with one another's sins, temptations, failures, trials and struggles. We have a responsibility for one another.
It is when we are there to encourage another who is struggling that the church is the church. It is when we are there to lift up another who has fallen that the church is the church. It is when we teach someone who is spiritually immature and uninformed that the church is the church. It is when we give hope to those who are hopeless that the church is the church. It is when we demonstrate love to the unlovable that the church is the church. It is when we correct a brother or sister who is caught in an unrepentant sin that the church is the church.
Jawanza Kunjufu, in his book, Restoring the Village, writes:
When I was a 14 year-old high school freshman, school was dismissed early for a teachers' meeting. I conveniently neglected to tell my parents about the change and arranged to bring my girlfriend over to my house. We weren't planning to study.
As we were going up the steps, my neighbor, Mrs. Nolan, poked her head out of a window and said, "You're home awfully early, Jerome."
"Yes, Ma'am," I said, improvising a lame story about how we planned to review algebra problems.
"Does your mother know you're home this early," Mrs. Nolan persisted, "and do you want me to call her?"
I gave up. "No, Ma'am. I'll go inside and call her while Kathy sits on the porch."
He finishes the story with this assessment:
Mrs. Nolan saved our careers that day. If Kathy had gotten pregnant, she might not have become the doctor she is today. And my father had warned me that if I made a baby, the mutual fund he set up for me to go to college or start a business would have gone to the child. I'm glad Mrs. Nolan was at her window, looking out for me.
What Mrs. Nolan did is what it means to share one another's struggles.
One of the most dramatic symbols of the new political freedoms in the worlds was the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. In 1990, church leaders invited Billy Graham to conduct a rally at the Brandenburg Gate. They said that rock stars, entertainers, and political groups had rallied at the Wall, but little or no attempt had been made to present the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here's how Graham described the event:
The rally was 'symbolic' and meant to underscore the needs of spiritual development in the new spirit of freedom. One East German woman said that when they first came over to West Germany, they thought they would hear church bells ringing and be handed a Bible. Instead they were greeted with about $50 to spend in the luxury stores in the West. She said, "What we really needed to hear was the voice of God."
We who live in freedom need to examine our lives to see if we are bound by materialism, personal fulfillment, or religious tradition. If we are, we must either receive Christ or renew our fellowship with Him. Then we must pray that spiritual freedom will come to those who are tasting what they have come to call freedom. Unless they respond to God's voice, their bondage will lead them into even greater bondage.