Sunday, July 16, 2017

For Freedom

Holidays often commemorate the work of longer periods of time.  In the USA, we call July 4, "Independence Day."  On that day in 1776, the final vote was taken ratifying the text of the Declaration of Independence, a document whose drafting began nearly a month earlier.  In fact, the motion for independence was originally made on June 7 and passed July 2. Nevertheless, the text of the document is of such importance that we continue to celebrate the nation's independence on the day when the text was ratified by the Continental Congress, even if very few citizens have read its text or traced its arguments.

The United States faces a true problem of people importing their preconceptions about freedom to the provision of freedom from the founders and the system of government they established.  This brings confusion to the question of the purpose of government.  Is it then any wonder that the freedom that scripture describes also faces the same problems?  We understand that Christ has set us free, but we rarely ask from what or for what.  Just like many don't read or understand the Declaration of Independence, we haven't read the Scriptural equivalent, the Bible's declaration of freedom.  Let's change that.
"For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1 ESV)
Paul's letter to the churches of Galatia describes the freedom accomplished by Christ for the church against the legalism of the Judaizers, those who preached that Christians needed to be circumcized and obey other Mosaic laws.  Having proclaimed the superiority of Jesus Christ to the types and shadows of the Old Testament, Paul urges the church to live in the freedom the gospel gives to those who receive Christ.  His point is not that we are freed from all obligations to God, but that we are freed from the imperfect foreshadowings which were being advocated because of a false idea that they were necessary to make one right with God.  The slavery to that idea offended Paul to such an extent that he would wish for those who taught this idea to "cut themselves off."  Instead, Paul wanted the church to remember the reality of freedom that we enjoy in Christ.

What freedom does Paul have in mind?  In Galatians, Paul uses bondage to refer to the mindset that makes salvation dependent upon man's works, particularly the work of circumcision, but encompassing all the outward Old Testament rituals.  In Romans, the slavery of this bondage comes into focus.  The futility and pain of this mindset comes from the reality of sin working against our vain effort to make ourselves right with God. (Ro.6:6)  In truth, we are slaves to sin, unable to do anything other than sin.

Paul uses the image of a slave in its worst, secular, unbiblical view.  Old Testament law gave the slave a way of escape.  No slave in Israel should have lived without hope of redemption or release.  The laws of manumission provided that someone could pay to release a slave or that during the year of jubilee, all Israelites would go back to the land given to their families.  Instead, Paul uses what we could equate with the situation of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt.  We remember that the Israelites were prisoners in Egypt, slaves bound to serve without hope of redemption, release, or escape.  For the rest of their lives, the people of Israel in Egypt could look forward to nothing other than bitter service and death.

This is the image Paul intends for us to see when he speaks about the former bondage of the Christian.  The image of a slave is appropriate here because it expresses our inability before coming to Christ.  As a slave is bound to his master and cannot escape or work his way out of his condition, so were we once.  What we needed is what Israel in Egypt needed, an exodus.

The story of the exodus plays a much bigger role in the Bible that most Christians credit it.  In one sense, it shows the power and determination of God to keep His promises to His people.  In another, it show the Lord's superiority over the idols of Egypt, especially in answer to Pharaoh's question, "Who is the Lord?"  For our present study, we see how the exodus stood for the rescue of God's people from physical bondage, promising and pointing forward to the greater exodus where God would free His people from their slavery to sin.  In this light, the final plague, the death of the firstborn, the passover, the blood on the house that caused the angel of death to pass over the house, and the sacrificial lamb take on special significance to Christ.  He was the Son slain.  His blood causes the wrath of God to pass over us.  He inaugurated the Lord's Supper at the feast of Passover.  He was the sacrificial lamb that accomplished our exodus from sin.  This exodus gives us a present experience of freedom.

One excellent description of this freedom appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  The twentieth chapter describes "Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience."  The first paragraph sets the foundation of our liberty.
The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel, consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love, and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law; but under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is farther enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected, and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.  (WCF 20.1)
Here the Westminster Assembly describes the reality of the covenant of grace reflecting the freedom purchased by Christ and the difference between the old and new administrations of that one covenant.  This description explains why Paul is so adamant about the danger of returning to the rituals of the old administration.  Because of the appearance of Christ, all the old rituals had become obsolete and obeying them from conscience constituted bondage to sin.

This freedom has many aspects.  Its primary focus is the spiritual freedom we have, our freedom from sin and ability to serve God.  Before the Holy Spirit regenerated us, we were bound to sin.  In Christ, He has set us free from the power of sin.  Whereas we could do nothing but sin, now we can choose to obey rather than sin.  Yet one more step remains for our freedom.  When Jesus returns to earth, He will perfect our freedom by freeing us from the presence of sin.  Then we will be unable to sin any longer.  We often overlook this concept in our vision of heaven.  The pearly gates and streets of gold often overwhelm our senses.  We remember the lack of sorrow, toil, and pain.  We long for the freedom from physical and mental limitations of sin in this life.  These truths distract us from the spiritual reality that ought mean more to us.  Freedom from sin ought to thrill our soul as much as if not more than freedom from physical impairment.

However, the spiritual freedom also spills over into the way we think.  Before Christ, our minds were darkened by sin. (Ro. 1:21-22)  We could not think accurately.  We we deceived by sin and blinded to the truth of the world in which we live.  We were enslaved by the lies of sin. The connection between the spiritual freedom and our mental ability appears in another of Paul's letter.  "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (I Cor.2:14)  Spiritual freedom gives us the ability to understand reality truly.  Sin blinds us to reality because within it shines the reality of God.  Satan would prefer that we not see that reality.  In Christ, we can see reality, how all that exists points to the Lord.

The extent of our freedom also appears in the Confession.
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (WCF 20.2)
This section reminds us that part of the freedom Christ won for us includes freedom from anyone who would attempt to define good and evil for us.  God alone does this.  As Paul saw the return of the churches in Galatia to the Old Testament observances, especially requiring circumcision, as sin, so every violation of conscience is sin.  Only the Lord ought be obeyed as a matter of conscience.  When we obey the doctrines of men out of conscience, we make those men idols.  We obey men only as unto Christ.  We obey them only as they reflect the order and law of God.  We obey those God commands us to obey and only so far as their commands do not transgress our obligation to God required of us in the Bible.

Why did God grant us this freedom in Christ?  Again, the Confession helps us.
They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. (WCF 20.3)
This section echoes what Paul says in Romans 6.  "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?  God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?"  Paul and the Confession challenge us to think differently about freedom.  The unchristian world defines "freedom" as the absence of restraint.  The Bible defines "freedom" differently.  Thomas Boston described the fourfold state of man.  Before the fall, man was able to sin, but not required to sin.  After the fall, man could not help but sin.  He was enslaved to sin.  In Christ, we are able not to sin, that bondage has ceased.  However, our freedom even now is not fully perfected.  We look forward to glory where we will enjoy the totality of our freedom.  That freedom, Boston describes accurately as the inability to sin.

Christian liberty is the liberty from sin, not the liberty to sin.  This demands our humble submission of mind to the truth of scripture concerning sin.  It also challenges our presentation of righteousness to the world.  Righteousness is not bondage to the law, but freedom from sin.  When we call people to obedience or point out their lack of obedience, we are calling them to live in the freedom that we have in Christ.  We confront the temptation to see correction as a negative act, and in some ways it is.  However, the glorious reality of freedom reminds us that the pursuit of righteousness is the pursuit of liberty.  Correction then positively encourages people not to remain in bondage but to participate in the liberty of Christ.

If we would live Christian in an unchristian world, we must think biblically about freedom.  This requires us to think opposite of the mindset of the world.  We must advance the call to holiness as a positive thing, not only primarily as obedience and duty to God, but also as participating in the freedom purchased for us at the cost of the blood of Christ.

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