We have been told that freedom is the power to exercise our will to make choices without restraint. But for a Christian, freedom is something all together different. What is it?
What is “freedom?”
In today’s context we often associate the word “freedom” with the ability to exercise our will to make personal decisions for our own lives without restraint or coercion. Many will argue that the power of choice is an essential component of our humanity. Christians will argue the God created us with the power to choose. Freedom flows out of this ability to exercise choice.
Our society impresses upon us every day that no one should be able to tell us what to do, or where we can go, who we can associate with, what we can say, or what we can do with our own bodies. We should be free to define our own identity as we choose. Our choices are our own. We should not be forced to make any choices we don’t want to make. Freedom is the ability to make personal choices without limit or restraint. It is hard to resist this idea and its allure. After all, didn’t God make us with the ability to choose?
This way of thinking presents a challenge to us as Christians. What does it mean in today’s society that you grow up rooted within a Christian faith tradition, that your church and your church community in many ways choose you and not the other way around? The very idea of a faith community with a defined set of beliefs and clear moral framework based on the biblical writings and the long tradition of Christian teaching which we declare to be the instruction of God is seen by many today in our culture to be inherently oppressive. Many would make that case. Many see traditional Christianity as inherently oppressive because it’s seeks to restrict people’s ability to freely express who they are. Traditional Christianity restricts choice and therefore freedom.
Most of us as Christians will say that we reject this way of thinking. Yet, how many of us bristle at the idea that our lives might be accountable to others? That someone might call us out for our moral failings? Most of us struggle with this. Few of us like being told what to do. Are we willing to submit our lives to another’s spiritual authority, even if that person is someone wise and respected? Submission to the authority, teaching and guidance of another does not come easily or naturally for many of us. Far too many within the churches have picked up our culture’s way of thinking about freedom and personal choice.
Having said this, how many of us, if we were to have an honest moment, would be willing to admit that our own spiritual growth has been stunted and held back because we don’t want someone telling us how to live our lives? The result of this cultural disposition towards not being told what to do is that we engage in a quiet, unspoken conspiracy with our fellow believers. We expect that people will leave us alone to figure out the Christian faith for ourselves. No one will tell me what to do or how to live my life. And in return we are quite willing to look away from the lives of others. We won’t tell them what to do and how to live their life as long as they are willing to look away from us? This general cultural dynamic has effectively destroyed the habit of making disciples. Discipleship requires a relationship of master and apprentice, teacher and student. Clear lines of authority. Someone who has authority over you and instructs you in how to live your life and be a Christian.
We all kind of know that this idea that freedom means unlimited ability to make our own choices is not really a healthy understanding of the idea of freedom, but its all that we know. The idea of making our own choices is very appealing. The idea of not being told what to do is very appealing. Many of us embrace this ethos more than we know we should, but at the same time we have a hard time coming up with an idea of freedom that can provide a meaningful substitute.
We often try to make the argument that true freedom is the opposite of being able to make all your own choices, that freedom means being obedient to God’s law. If you obey God’s commands, you will be free. And while we know that obedience to God’s law is a good thing for ourselves and our life, bringing health, wellbeing, and goodness into our lives, obedience doesn’t seem really like “freedom.” The argument that we try to make is that the opposite of freedom of choice is a good thing and we should be willing to constrain our choices for our own good. But we all know that this is not really “freedom” as the world describes it. It is a better way of life, but it does not sound like “freedom.”
When Paul says to the Galatians church in chapter five, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free,” what does he mean? The answer comes in the next sentence: “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” What does Paul mean here? He might be talking about being a slave to our passions, perhaps? He wants us to be free from making bad choices. We need God’s rules to help restrain our desires. But then in the next verses the very thing that Paul criticizes is the law as symbolized in the practice of circumcision. So, what is up with this? Is the law a good thing or not?
To get a handle on what is meant by “freedom” we need to think about the concept of freedom more politically rather than first of all morally. Our society wants to emphasize moral freedom as the foundation for political freedom. But to properly understand the biblical idea of freedom we need to think in terms of spiritual politics. The New Testament concept of freedom flows out of a proper understanding of spiritual politics. What does this mean?
To understand this, let’s turn to Acts 26 and Paul’s own retelling of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus:
12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”
The heart of Jesus’ commission for Paul is that he is sending Paul to the Gentiles to turn them from darkness to light from the power of Satan to God, so that they might receive forgiveness. Here Jesus divides the world into two categories, those who under the power of God and have forgiveness and light; and those who are under the power of Satan.
The way that Jesus describes things here and Paul picks up this language in Galatians and Ephesians and elsewhere, is that there are two kings and two kingdoms. There is the kingship of the living God. And there is the pretender kingdom of Satan who would try to usurp God’s place. What Jesus is saying is that there are two basic conditions to all of mankind. You are either under the power of God or you are under the power of Satan. You are either under the power of darkness or you are under the power of light.
If you are under the power of Satan, you are in bondage. You are oppressed. You are a slave. Whatever “freedoms” you think you have, are just a lure and a trap to draw you deeper into bondage to Satan.
When Paul talks about the law in this context, even though it is given by God and thus a good thing, because of our sinfulness, it becomes a tool of bondage because you cannot live up to it. The devil uses it against you to bring you down, fill you with shame, make you hopeless; or conversely, to puff you up with pride before your pride and hubris bring you down and you are humbled and shamed. You try and try and try and you never measure up. Our culture’s solution is to cast aside all shame and say that God accepts you just the way you are. You don’t need to be ashamed of your choices. In fact, you are free. You can make your own choices. Be proud of your choices.
But all of it deepens our bondage. We are oppressed. We are burdened. Even when we try to pretend that we are free all we do is deepen our bondage.
How can we be set free from this intolerable situation? This is really what our condition is. We are trapped in an intolerable situation ruled and enslaved by a usurper king who wishes nothing more than our bondage, ruin and destruction. Satan would like nothing more than for us to live the lie, pretending we are free. We make our choices. We exercise our will. But we never escape the trap that we are in.
If it were a political situation, we might say that we need rise up and revolt and overthrow the oppressive ruler. We are political prisoners living under a tyranny. We need to rebel against the usurper king. This is the essence of what happens with the grace of God in Christ. This is what Jesus is talking about to Paul on the road to Damascus. This is what Jesus means when he draws on Isaiah to talk about his mission:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
There are basically two conditions that we can be in: we are either in Christ and are free or we are oppressed prisoners, to Satan, to ourselves and our own sinfulness. Without Christ all of us are oppressed prisoners. We live in an intolerable situation from which we cannot escape. We live under a tyranny. We may have been brainwashed by the devil to think that exercising choice is freedom, but without repentance and faith in Christ, every decision we make is a form of bondage.
No amount of try hard, no amount of having a code, no amount of following the rules can help us. There are a lot of people of whom you would look at them and say “He is a good person” who are prisoners of Satan and are living in darkness.
What Jesus is saying, what he impressed upon Paul, is that our task is not first of all about growing churches. It is not an organizational thing. What Jesus wanted Paul, and by extension us, to see is that we are in a spiritual war. People are in bondage, oppressed by Satan. Even people who would think of themselves as free. Unless they are “in Christ” they are in some form of bondage to the evil one. Without Jesus we are in bondage, oppressed by Satan. We are political prisoners under an oppressive totalitarian rule that is spiritual in nature. We are called take up spiritual arms and set the captives free.
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Freedom is being set free from that bondage, from bondage to the usurper king. Once set freed from bondage, you can live life under the dominion of the true King, the Living God.
Listen again and hear what Paul is saying in Galatians in this light,
“It is for freedom you have been set free. Stand firm then and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
You have been living in a concentration camp and Jesus is here to set you free. Don’t go back to the camps again. The whole “try harder” thing is another form of bondage. “Do better” and “try harder” are not a forms of grace.
So how do you stay free?
You live by the Spirit. As Paul says, if you live by the Spirit, you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
And this brings us to a key passage in 2 Corinthians 3 beginning at verse 17:
17 “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
The image here is deeply devotional, spiritual, mystical in nature. Freedom is found in immersing ourselves in the Spirit of God. Paul is saying that we are called to gaze deeply and intently upon God and his glory and be transformed by this coming into his presence. Paul says that freedom can only be found by immersing ourselves deeply in the presence of the Lord, who is the Spirit. This is the role of the Spirit, to bring us into the presence of God, to reveal to us the heart of God.
This is the essence of freedom. To be immersed in the presence of the Spirit of God, drawn into the very heart of God. This is what grace is all about. This is why Christ died. Jesus died so we can commune with God in prayer and worship. From top to bottom, from beginning to end, this is a gift from God. Jesus tells us that we just have to ask. Luke 11:
9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
What is freedom?
Freedom can only be found when we are immersed in the life and presence of the Spirit of God and as a result are transformed by the glory of God into the likeness of Jesus. It is the revelation of resurrected life, here, today. In Christ you are complete. In Christ you are made new. In Christ you have been raised. It is all there in Christ. His return will bring about a full unveiling of who we are in Christ.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
Do you want to be free? Ask and it will be given to you. Trust in the promises of God. Immerse yourself in the presence of the Spirit and you will be free indeed as you are transformed, and your life reflects the image of Jesus.