Risky Business: The Other Side of Christian Freedom
August 12, 2001
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1a). What exactly is this Christian freedom that Paul talks so much about in Galatians? In order to help us understand the answer, I’d like to borrow a definition and an illustration used by Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Freedom is the opportunity, ability, and the desire to do that which will give you the most joy 10,000 years from now. This definition suggests that true freedom has four parts:
4) Lasting joy
For true freedom to exist, all four things must be in place. For instance, let’s suppose that you decide to go skydiving. That is, you want to go up in an airplane, jump out, land on the ground, and walk away with nothing broken and a smile on your face. After doing some research you learn about a skydiving school just west of Chicago where you can take lessons on Saturday morning and go skydiving that afternoon. So early one bright Saturday morning you get in your car and head for the Eisenhower Expressway, knowing that the classes start at 11:00 a.m. What you didn’t expect was the most humongous traffic jam in Chicago history. Cars are backed up 47 miles in every direction. Even though you left home at 9:00 a.m., by 10:00 a.m. you have gone less than a mile. By 10:30 a.m., you’ve gone another half mile. At 11:00 a.m. you are still on the expressway. Same thing at 11:30 a.m. Same thing at noon. About 12:30 p.m., still stuck on the expressway, you look up and see planes from the skydiving school flying overhead. With sadness and some frustration you realize that you won’t go skydiving today. Are you free to go skydiving? Not on that day. You lack the opportunity even though you have the desire.
Booked Solid for 17 Years
Let’s play that story out another way. This time the expressway is clear and you make it to the gate of the skydiving school well before 11:00 a.m. When the man at the gate asks if you have reserved a spot in the class, you answer, “No.” “I’m sorry,” he says. “We’re full today.” How about next Saturday? We’re full then, too. And the next? Same thing. And the next. Also full. “When I can I take a class?” you ask. “We’re booked solid for the next 17 years,” he replies. Are you free to go skydiving? No, because you lack the ability to learn what you need to know. In this case desire and opportunity are not enough.
So we run the story a third time. This time the expressway is clear and you are able to take the class. Later that afternoon you board the plane for your first parachute jump. When the plane reaches the proper altitude, the door opens, the light flashes, and the instructor says, “Jump.” But when you look out the door and see how far away the ground is, you suddenly change your mind. “You want me to jump out of this plane? You must be nuts!” Now you have the opportunity and the ability, but the desire has disappeared. So the friendly instructor gives you a push and out the door you go, screaming bloody murder. Are you free? No, because you didn’t want to do it and had to be coerced into it against your will.
Let’s work this story one final time. You make it to the airport, take the class, and go up in the plane. When the light goes on, you happily jump into the air. As you plummet to the ground at over 100 miles per hour, the thought occurs to you that this is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done. You see the ground rushing toward you, but you are not afraid because you have two parachutes—a main chute and a reserve chute. When the moment comes, you pull the ripcord but nothing happens. Calmly, you pull the cord for the reserve chute. Something fouls in the line and the chute will not deploy. Now you begin to scream for help but no one can hear you. And even if they could hear you, no one can help you. With a sickening thud you hit the ground. Are you free? Yes, but your freedom has led to your death.
Free Fall to Death
As this illustration graphically shows, freedom is more than simply doing whatever you want to do. True freedom is the opportunity, ability, and the desire to do those things that will bring the deepest joy 10,000 years from now. Many things that people do in the name of “freedom” actually lead to their own destruction. That’s why Christians should never envy the “freedom” of sinners. Often we look at people who sleep around and think, “That must be fun.” Or we envy those who built their lives upon greed, lust, pride, power, prestige, gluttony, materialism, violence, hedonism, the pursuit of wealth, the acquisition of worldly fame, the practice of moral perversion, and we think, “That’s a fun way to live.” How wrong we are. They have jumped from the plane of sexual freedom only to discover their chute won’t open. They have jumped from the plane of material success only to face their own destruction. They have jumped from the plane of hedonism, pride, power, and sexual excess and now they are in a free fall that will end in their own death. The smile you see is the smile that comes just before they slam into the unforgiving earth.
Power to Do What We Ought
From this we learn an important truth. Christian freedom is freedom from sin, not freedom to sin. As Martin Luther put it, freedom is not the right to do what you want but rather the power to do what you ought. The truly free person is the one who has the desire and the ability to look into the future, judge the alternatives, and then choose to do those things that will make him truly happy in 10,000 years. In the Christian sense, true freedom is not doing whatever you dream of doing or acting on every wild idea; it is choosing to do what God approves because you know that will bring you the greatest happiness today and the deepest joy in eternity. Those who know the Lord have the power (by the Holy Spirit) to choose that which produces the highest and best eternal good.
The challenge facing all of us is this: We’re free. What will we do now?
A Second Look at the Judaizers
In our study of the book of Galatians I have repeatedly mentioned the “Judaizers,” that group of so-called Christian leaders who came from a Jewish background and who claimed to represent the apostles in Jerusalem. They were influencing the young Galatian believers (nearly all of them Gentiles) to become circumcised (and thus live under the Law of Moses) as a means of pleasing God. Every time I have mentioned the Judaizers, it has been to roundly criticize them. In this message I would like to say a good word on their behalf. We will understand them better if we consider the moral condition of the Roman Empire in the first century. Although we like to talk about the moral decline of Western Civilization in the 21st century, we need to know that things were much worse in Paul’s day. It is hard for us to easily grasp how morally degraded the Greeks and Romans were. Regarding sexual ethics, it was a period of lawless chaos. One writer describes it as “an age when shame seems to have vanished from the earth.” The famous orator Demosthenes declared, “We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for the day-to-day needs of the body, but we have wives in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our homes.” Almost every famous Greek figure had a mistress. The list includes Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Plato, Pericles and Sophocles. Seneca commented that “chastity is simply a proof of ugliness.” He also added that innocence is not rare, it is non-existent. Modesty was unknown. “The greater the infamy, the wilder the delight,” said the Roman historian Tacitus.
And homosexuality was found in every layer of society from the highest to the lowest. Rome learned this vice from Greece. J. J. Dollinger calls it “the great national disease of Greece.” Evidently Plato and Socrates both practiced this perversion. Historians tell us that 14 of the first 15 Roman Emperors were homosexual, including Julius Caesar.
William Barclay offers this telling summary: “It has been said that chastity was the one completely new virtue which Christianity introduced into the pagan world.” It is against that backdrop that we must judge the Judaizers. Knowing the immorality of Rome and Greece, they thought the only way to combat it was with rules, rules and more rules. Their diagnosis was correct. It was their prescription that was completely wrong. (The various references come from a sermon by Robert Deffinbaugh, “The War Without and the War Within, Part 1.”)
I. Believers are called to freedom. 13a
Twice in Galatians 5 Paul declares that believers are now free. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1a). “You, my brothers, were called to be free” (Galatians 5:13a). Freedom is a wonderful word but it is also a dangerous concept. True freedom leaves us with all sorts of choices to make. It requires self-discipline or it soon disintegrates into anarchy.
In what sense are Christians now free? Here are several answers to that question. We are …
Free from the guilt of sin.
Free from the penalty of sin.
Free from the shame of sin.
Free from the power of sin.
Free from the power of the law to condemn us.
Therefore we can come to God anytime on the basis of the blood of Christ with the certainty that we will be accepted. Our freedom is first and foremost a spiritual freedom that opens up a new and everlasting relationship with God.
But freedom does not mean that we do not struggle with sin any longer. We are not yet free from the presence of sin. That won’t happen until we stand face to face before Jesus Christ. Nor are we free from the pull of the flesh that leads us into sin. We are free from the bondage of trying to please God through ancient ceremonies and religious rituals, and we are free from the overwhelming guilt of sin that was like a mighty weight around our necks, pulling ever downward.
But sin itself remains with us and even in us. Are we free? Yes! But freedom can be misused. The next part of verse 13 explains what this means negatively and positively.
II. Freedom leads in two directions. 13b
“But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13b). The word “indulge” is a military term that refers to a base of operations that an army establishes in enemy territory. From this base of operations the army can then launch attacks in various directions. You can misuse your freedom by allowing the flesh to have a “base of operations” in your life from which all sorts of sinful actions spring. That raises a key theological question. Exactly what is the “flesh” (translated in the NIV as “sinful nature”) that may lead us into sin? The term does not refer to our literal, physical flesh and bones. It refers to the fallen human nature that all of us inherited from Adam. We are born with this fallen human nature and it stays with us in one form or another until the day we die. Even though we are redeemed and made new creatures by Christ Jesus, the flesh is always with us, pulling us down, dragging us back to the world, and enticing us to every sort of moral and spiritual compromise. It is the flesh that pulls us toward lust, anger, hatred, bitterness, violence, cheating, adultery, perversion, malice, envy, greed, and every other sin we can think of. One writer defines the flesh as “the inner desire for selfish gratification at the expense of God and others.” That’s a good definition because it focuses on the selfishness of the flesh. There is something in all of us that says, “Go ahead. You deserve this. You’ve earned it. No one can stop you,” even though we know the thing itself is sinful. The flesh loves to be pampered and it whines like a little baby when it wants something. When our flesh throws a tantrum, we quickly give in to it. But that giving in leads to sin, compromise and eventually to outright evil behavior.
Here is the tricky part. The flesh attacks us anytime, anywhere. That’s why we can be listening to a wonderful sermon and have the most evil thoughts enter our minds. Or we can witness for Christ to a lost person and then with the next breath spew obscenities at our children. Or the same hand that reaches out in love can knock that same person to the floor. Don’t ever underestimate the pull and power of the flesh. If you do, you will find yourself falling into all sorts of sin.
Are You an Antinomian?
Let’s pause for a moment and learn a new word. The word is “antinomianism.” It doesn’t sound very good, does it? Well, it isn’t good at all. The prefix “anti” means “against” and “nomos” means “law.” Literally, an antinomian is someone who is “against the law.” In church history the term has come to refer to one of the most ancient Christian heresies, a virulent strain of false teaching that has recurred in every generation and is widely held in evangelical churches today. An antinomian is a person who believes that salvation by grace means that he is free to do whatever he likes and God won’t care. Such a person excuses evil by saying, “God will forgive me.” He claims that God’s grace allows him to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and without paying any consequences. Some people use this logic to excuse adultery (“I know it’s wrong but God will forgive me”) or unbiblical divorce (“God wants me to be happy”) or pornography (“I have needs, you know”) or homosexuality (“God made me this way”) or theft (“I deserve this”) or anger (“God understands when I lose my temper”) or even abuse (“She had it coming to her”).
Where this logic prevails, anything goes. There are no limits, no restraints. It’s a convenient theology because you can claim to be a Christian and yet ignore the moral teachings of the Bible. It says, “Accept Christ and then live as you like.” It’s pure, undiluted hedonism dressed up in a Christian costume. How easy it is for all of us to “justify” our sin. We use grace as a cloak to cover our sinful behavior and then dare God not to forgive us.
Let me say it as clearly as I can: Anybody who says a Christian can do evil and God won’t care is a missionary from hell. Such a person is doing the devil’s work and is in fact a tool of the devil. And some of those “missionaries” are in pulpits leading God’s people astray.
I have already mentioned that Christians sometimes envy the wicked, which is why we feel the need to “justify” our sin with antinomian excuses. But remember this. When you see people living together or when you watch a movie or a television show that glorifies immorality, what you are watching is a fantasy. It isn’t reality. To indulge the flesh is to live in slavery to it. You are not free at all. You are no better than a brute animal acting on its animal instincts.
Biblical freedom is never freedom to sin; it’s freedom from sin. It’s the power to overcome, to get up and fight the battle again and again and again.
III. Love fulfills the entire law. 14
“The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). There is a better way than indulging the flesh. Paul calls it serving one another in love. But there is irony in his voice. The word “serving” comes from a Greek word that means to be a slave. We are set free from our slavery to sin by the power of Jesus Christ. Having been set free, we are called to become slaves to one another in love for Christ’s sake. As Bob Dylan puts it, “You gotta serve somebody.” In this case we are freed from our servitude to sin and Satan so that we can serve Jesus Christ by serving other people. Instead of being masters with many servants, we are called to be servants with many masters.
The emphasis on love is all-important because it is not law on the outside but love in the inside that makes the difference. Here is where the Judaizers made their fundamental mistake. They thought the only way to change human behavior was through a system of laws. But laws can never change the heart. Christianity works because it changes people from the inside out. When Christ comes in, he changes everything. The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who lives within us (Romans 5:5).
It was love that motivated God to send his Son to the earth. “For God so loved the word that he gave….” Christ flew from heaven to earth on wings of love. Love says, “I will go out beyond myself to take care of you and your needs. I will reach beyond myself.” Someone has defined narcissism as “the inability to commit to anything beyond yourself.” True love sees the need and then moves to meet the need even at great personal cost.
In his final message to his men before his crucifixion, Jesus declared that love was to be the distinguishing mark of his followers: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). We might have said that differently. By this shall men know that you belong to Jesus if …
You attend the right church.
You say the right prayers.
You sign the right doctrinal statement.
You go to the right schools.
You cut your hair the right way.
You dress and act like other Christians.
But Jesus said the one way to spot his disciples is by the way they love one another. The gospel changes the heart and a changed heart always leads to changed relationships.
Have you ever considered the many “one another” statements of the New Testament? There are dozens of them. Here are a few:
Bear one another’s burden—Galatians 6:2
Build up one another—Romans 14:19
Admonish one another—Romans 15:14
Forgive one another—Colossians 3:13
Comfort one another—I Thessalonians 4:18
Pray for one another—James 5:16
Confess to one another—James 5:16
Teach one another—Colossians 3:16
Greet one another—Romans 16:16
Spur one another onward—Hebrews 10:24
Accept one another—Romans 15:7
Encourage one another—I Thessalonians 5:11
Give preference to one another—Romans 12:10
Be devoted to one another—Romans 12:10
Be kind to one another—Ephesians 4:32
Submit to one another—Ephesians 5:21
Serve one another—Galatians 5:13
And there are many others we might list. All of these “one another” passages are but reflections and amplifications of the great command given by our Lord himself—love one another.
It is at this point that the preacher struggles a bit because it is hard to explain or even to describe what it means to “serve one another in love.” I suppose this is one of those truths that you know it when you see it. Love is better experienced than defined. As I thought about this truth, I recalled a conversation that took place a week ago in upstate New York when my wife and I went out to eat with some friends who graduated from the same Christian college we attended in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As we talked, our conversation drifted back to people we had known 30 years ago. One of our friends mentioned how she had been impacted by the wife of one of the faculty members. Her godly example and genuine Christian compassion left an impact that was still felt after three decades. The wife and her husband eventually moved to another Christian college where they had the same kind of positive influence. She died recently after a 19-year battle with cancer.
Yesterday as I was surfing the Internet I happened to find a poem she had written. As I read it the thought came to me that these words offer a good description of a person who seeks to serve others in love. These are words of Marlene Evans.
O Lord! Help me to be …
Firm but not harsh;
Realistic but not skeptical;
Scheduled but not rigid;
Pure but not proud;
Close-mouthed but not unfriendly;
Appropriate but not stiff;
Funny but not frivolous;
Teachable but not gullible;
Flexible but not scatterbrained;
Humble but not pious;
Kind but not compromising;
Dependable but not dull;
Decisive but not stubborn;
Persistent but not needling;
Precise but not picky;
Simple but not foolish;
Demanding but not intolerant;
Thorough but not unkind;
Human but not worldly;
Spiritual but not impractical;
Generous but not irresponsible;
Enthusiastic but not “hyper;”
Honest but not brutal;
Fair but not unloving;
Proper but not unreal;
Confident but not snobbish;
Bold but not brazen;
Busy but not harried;
Active but not shallow;
Deep but not dry;
Wise but not intimidating;
Intense but not forbidding;
Empathetic but not uncontrolled;
Forgiving but not naÃ¯ve;
Sympathetic but not pitying;
Helpful but not condescending;
Penitent but not paralyzed;
Organized but not bossy;
Spontaneous but not inconsistent.
Lord, I guess I’m asking to grow in favor with God and man.
I am asking you to help me become a balanced person. Amen.
I commend those words to you for your own consideration. You might want to put them in your Bible or paste them on a mirror where you can read them every day this week. We would all be more like Jesus (and we would be better servants) if we lived like this instead of living only for ourselves.
IV. Liberty without love leads to mutual destruction. 15
“If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15). Our passage ends on a solemn word of warning. Because freedom leads in two directions, we either use our freedom as an excuse to sin or we can use our freedom as a means to serve others. If we choose self-indulgence, we risk destroying our friendships and tearing apart the family of God.
Two simple equations make the choices crystal-clear:
Liberty + Love = Service to others
Liberty – Love = Freedom to sin
Seen in this light, we can understand how love fulfills the whole law. It is the lack of love that causes men to hate their parents, commit murder, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet. It is the lack of love that leads to bitterness, anger, threats, and to verbal and physical abuse. It is the lack of love—and the presence of self-centered egotism—that leads to pushing others around, demanding your own way, arguing over minor issues, and dividing the body of Christ. If we truly loved our neighbor, those sins would be impossible. Where God’s love reigns, sin cannot abide.
This week I received note from a woman who said that her church has recently split over the King James Version-only controversy. She commented that she had been shocked by some of the things that were said and done, including gossip, rumors, personal attacks, attribution of evil motives, and so on. Eventually those who wanted the King James Version to be the only version used split the church and took their followers with them. But the cost in terms of Christian testimony was very high indeed. My only comment is this. If you want a church that uses only the King James Version, go ahead. I was raised on the KJV and I still read it and esteem it highly. There is no command in Scripture about which English translation to use. But to use violent words, gossip, innuendo, to spread lies, to malign people who disagree with you, it makes me think you must love the King James Version but evidently you’ve never read it.
We Christians have never been very good at fighting fair. We let small disagreements become major issues and we elevate secondary matters to the level of the Deity of Christ. When we bicker and quarrel, we inevitably harm the cause of Christ. Our bitter arguments eventually become more important than Jesus.
They put an end to Christian peace.
They destroy the work of God.
They cause the church to turn inward.
They turn new believers away from the church.
They dishonor the Lord.
They grieve the Holy Spirit.
They stir up sinful tendencies on all sides.
They cause weak Christians to give up the faith in despair.
They force people to take sides on things that are not commanded.
They injure the testimony of the church.
They confirm the criticism of skeptics that the church is full of hypocrites.
They cause the enemies of the gospel to rejoice.
They send the message to the world, “God loves you but we hate each other.”
In the end, these things destroy the church of God. Hatred and envy and power plays and vicious words and insisting on your own way—these things harm God’s church. There can be NO VICTORY. How can you win when you consume each other? Verse 15 describes Christian cannibals who destroy each other. They are like wild beasts that attack each other until nothing is left.
May God deliver us from such self-destructive, unchristian behavior.
Four Concluding Statements
Let’s wrap up our study with four statements that summarize the message of this passage:
1) Christian freedom is not the right to do what we want, but the power to do what we ought.
2) Freedom that is not guided by love soon descends into destructive self-indulgence.
3) When we act with love towards others, we have fulfilled the law of God.
4) God’s love and bitter strife cannot coexist.
With that we return to where we started. Christian freedom is the opportunity, ability, and the desire to do those things that will give you the deepest happiness now and the greatest joy in 10,000 years. All of us want this kind of freedom. We were born for it, made for it, and created by God to enjoy it. It is a freedom that goes far beyond the cheap substitutes offered by the world.
Brothers and sisters, we are called to this freedom. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. God grant that we should live as the free children of the Living God this week. Amen.