As we continue on our voyage of exploration into the reality of authentic Christianity as it manifests itself in our world today, our quest directs our attention to yet another fundamental aspect of the Christian faith—that fact that we are called to freedom.
I want to begin this facet of our exploration together, beloved child of God, by calling your attention to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the ekklesia dwelling in the region of Galatia, and to us as well, when he said, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, NASB).
Of course, the most obvious question one might ask is, “From what have we, the new covenant children of God, been set free?” And the first and most obvious answer is that we have been set free from sin and its consequences. Jesus said:
If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
(John 8:31-36, NASB)
The consequences of sin are clearly stated throughout the Bible. Way back in the Garden of Eden, at the very beginning, God had given instructions to Adam and Eve concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil, saying, “You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die” (Genesis 3:3, NASB). The prophet Ezekiel warned ancient Israel that, “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20, NASB). The Apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Rome that, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23, NASB). This death, of which Paul speaks, is described in scripture as, “the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9, NASB).
However, Jesus has come to set us free from this law of sin and death. The Hebrew writer says:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
(Hebrews 2:14-15, NASB)
We who have put our faith in Christ Jesus and His sacrificial death have been set free from the “power of death” and from the “fear of death.” The Apostle Paul reminded God’s people in Rome that:
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
(Romans 8:1-4, NASB)
This passage of scripture not only celebrates our freedom from “the law of sin and death,” it also encompasses freedom from having to appeal to the Law of Moses, or any other moral code or system of justification, for our salvation. Rather than appealing to law, God’s covenant children appeal to Christ Jesus our Lord. Rather than trusting in our own moral performance and ability to keep the law, God’s people trust in the sacrifice of Christ to redeem them and make them right with God. As Paul goes on to say, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4, NASB).
Paul’s teaching to the Romans regarding their freedom in Christ has in view all the same freedom that he was referencing when he said to the Christians living in the region of Galatia, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1, NASB). The context of the Galatians passage has directly in view the distinction between trying to be justified by works of law and being justified by faith in Christ. Paul even tells them, “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4, NASB). Paul’s point here is that, not only have we been set free from the consequences of sin—eternal separation from God—but, through faith in Christ, we are set free from having to appeal to law—the Law of Moses, or any other religious law—for our salvation. Furthermore, one cannot have it both ways. Paul makes it clear that, either we are justified through our faith in Christ and what He has accomplished for us, or we are “seeking to be justified by law” and are “severed from Christ.”
Sadly, there are some people who think that we are saved by the blood of Christ only after we have done everything in our power to justify ourselves in light of the law. I’ve even heard the illustration given that, we do our best to measure up—maybe 50%, 60%, or even 80%—and then God’s grace takes care of the rest. But when I heard that, my immediate thought was, “50%? How about 0%?” Because, the fact is, “all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6, NASB).
As ridiculous as the above illustration sounds to the ear, I think, perhaps, we are all tempted to think like that to some extent. Even those of us who know beyond doubt— at least at the intellectual level—that we are saved only by God’s grace through our faith in Christ tend to harbor in our hearts some small vestige of seemingly reassuring self-righteousness. We tell ourselves things like, “Yes, I have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but at least my sins are not of the magnitude of this other person’s sins over here. At least I haven’t ‘blown it’ as bad as he did!” Or we tell ourselves, “Yes, I know I sin, but look how hard I’m trying, look at all my effort and diligence, look at all my sacrifice and service, look at my devotion and all the good that I’m trying to do in the world!” And, deep in our hearts, we tend to want to hold on to those little moral appendages, based on law, as some kind of personal reassurance that we’re going to be okay.
If there is any good thing that can come about as a result of sin, it is that it reveals our vulnerability, our helplessness, and our utter dependency on the grace of God. I think of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in which He says:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other.
(Luke 18:10-14, NASB)
In this parable, note that the tax collector does not point to a single good thing that he has done in some feeble attempt to justify himself. He had absolutely nothing to offer God except his broken and contrite heart. When will we learn to truly pray like that? Only when we truly stand under the same conviction—that we have nothing good whatsoever within us to offer God for our justification.
This fact is what the Law of Moses was designed to ultimately teach us. The Apostle Paul tells us that, “… the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24-25, NASB). Keeping the passage in context, the way in which “the Law has become our tutor” is by teaching us how desperately short of God’s expectations we all continually fall; and, therefore, how desperately we need a Savior. Even some of those who lived under the Law of Moses understood that; and, thus, the prophet Micah cried out:
With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:6-8, NASB)
From this prophecy we learn that, even back in Old Testament days, the prophets realized the shortcomings of the Law of Moses and our inability to appease God’s justice by our own performance. The psalmist adds:
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
(Psalm 51:16-17, NASB)
But that’s all theological, isn’t it? That’s all just scriptural teaching; the kind of stuff ministers like to get up and preach about. But what about real life? What about my heart and yours? Let me ask, “Have you ever experienced your heart breaking over the acknowledgement of some heinous sin in your life? Perhaps it was some private or public act of irresponsibility or blatant ungodliness; something so horrendous that you, at one time, could never even have imagined yourself doing such a thing?” And, if your answer is, “No!” then, “Have you ever, at least, shed even a single tear when you realized how your words or actions have hurt somebody else; or when you took a moment to consider how your heart and life really looks in light of God’s holiness? Or are you still thinking to yourself that, all-in-all, you’re really a pretty good person?”
Oh, dear child of God, it grieves me to confess to you, here and now, that there is not a single one of the Ten Commandments that I have not broken; at least in my heart if not in actual life. I am not a good person; although I try to be nice to people, and kind, and loving. In my heart, I truly want to please God and seek His righteousness. But despite my best intentions, if I put my walk of life up alongside the Ten Commandments, what I hear is an incessant, booming refrain: “Guilty,” “Guilty,” “Guilty”… ten times over, and over again.
It took years for me to fully appreciate Jesus’ remark to one of the rulers among the Jews when he questioned Jesus, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:18-19, NASB). While Jesus may have been acknowledging His own deity in this statement, just as importantly, He was declaring a fact that all people everywhere must come to terms with, and that is: not a single one of us is good.
It’s not because we don’t want to be good, we do. But, as the Apostle Paul declared, “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Romans 7:19, NASB). For this reason, I dare not trust in my own righteousness to any degree whatsoever. Even the things I do right are fraught with ulterior motive and “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NASB). I cannot even begin to climb up on the measuring scale of God’s holiness; let alone achieve any appreciable measure of righteousness that would justify me in His sight.
The fact is, with Jesus it’s all are nothing. Either I choose to trust Him implicitly, without qualification, or I choose to put my trust in myself and my own ability to do enough and be good enough to satisfy God’s expectations of holiness. But I can’t have it both ways. I have to let go of my tendency to want to cling to, and comfort myself with, some semblance of personal holiness for justification. “Lord, I know I’m not perfect, but at least I __________” (you fill in the blank). That kind of thinking has to go out the window. Authentic faith requires that I let go of every trace of that kind of self-righteousness and learn to step out into the true freedom of complete trust in God’s love.
I don’t know what your plea will be on that day when we all stand before God in judgment, beloved, but I hope you will not be trusting in any righteousness of your own because, in light of God’s holiness, you have none. For me, I will have but one plea—the sacrifice of Christ Jesus my Lord who died for me. As the old song goes: “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” (Lowry, 1876).
But, does the fact that we’re justified by the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf—“saved by grace through faith”—mean that people have no moral obligations whatsoever; or that we are completely free to design, or redesign, our own personal moral code? Having granted us pardon through the death of His Son, has God now left us completely to our own devices and imaginations as to how we should worship Him or live in a manner that is pleasing to Him? Of course not! Remember, Jesus said:
But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
(John 4:23-24, NASB)
There is still such a thing as “truth.” God has not left His children without guidance. While the New Testament does not read like the books of Leviticus or Deuteronomy—with rules, regulations, and check-lists of do’s and don’ts—it clearly sets forth God’s desires and expectations for how His new covenant children are to relate to Him and please Him with our lives. The writings of the New Testament are filled with spiritual instruction, with guiding principles, with moral guidelines, and ethical standards; all of which help define the terms of the new covenant in Christ. The Apostle Paul says:
Retain the standard [hold to the pattern] of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.
(2 Timothy 1:13-14, NASB)
From these verses we learn that the New Testament does, indeed, contain a pattern for Christian living. Sadly, though, even this passage is often abused by those who want to cloak their own private interpretations, personal opinions, and denominational traditions in the garb of Paul’s words to Timothy; and then tell people: “behold, the pattern!” But we know from the context in which these verses are set that Paul is not talking about some narrow set of rules and regulations that must be deduced from inference or extracted from implication and then used to identify somebody’s denominational dogma as that of the only true church. Rather, Paul has in view all the teaching concerning life and liberty in Christ that he has shared with Timothy and with others. The pattern of which Paul speaks consists of:
- “…do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8, NASB);
- “Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:22-23, NASB);
- “Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings” (2 Timothy 3:10-11, NASB);
- “… preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2, NASB).
All of these instructions, and hundreds of others scattered throughout the thirteen letters written by the Apostle Paul, are a part of the “standard,” or “pattern,” of “sound words” which Timothy and others had heard from him.
The pages of our New Testament are perfectly capable of impressing God’s holy “standard”—His blueprint, His pattern for how we are to live our lives—upon the heart and mind of every new covenant child of God. Paul says that this treasure of truth has been entrusted to us and that we are to “retain”—hold, keep, guard—that treasure; just as the 1st century Christians did as they preserved, protected, enacted, and passed down the sacred writings for posterity.
The Apostle Paul, speaking about the use of his own personal freedom in Christ, said:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law…
(I Corinthians 9:19-21, NASB)
Paul understood, and so should we, that being free from having to adhere to some religious doctrine or dogma, in order to be saved and remain in a right relationship with God, does not mean that He does not reign over our hearts and lives, He does! This passage makes clear that, even though Paul lived among those without law as one who was without law, still, he knew that he was under the law of Christ; he had the law of God in His heart. As he said to the Christians in Rome:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
(Romans 6:15-18, NASB)
Paul makes it pretty clear here that everyone is a slave to someone, or something. Either we are “slaves of sin” because “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23); therefore we owe a debt to sin that can only be paid with our eternal death; or, having been set free from “the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2), we have become “slaves of righteousness” because our hearts now belong to God. Notice, in the passage above, that Paul speaks of obedience; but it is not a forced obedience inculcated by law. Rather, he says “you became obedient from the heart.” We obey because our hearts compel us. It is not a matter of “have to”—we obey because we “want to” please our Lord.
In an absolutely beautiful statement to God’s covenant children in Corinth, Paul explains the essence of the new covenant in Christ and how it differs from the old covenant given through Moses. He says:
You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(2 Corinthians 3:2-6, NASB)
Where does God write His law? Back in Old Testament days, He wrote his law on “tablets of stone”—the Ten Commandments—and on vellum parchments and papyrus scrolls that were inscribed with ink by the inspired prophets of old and preserved by the Levitical priesthood. But, according to the Apostle Paul, today, God’s law—His will, His desire for how we are to live our lives—is being written on “tablets of human hearts.” To me, that is crazy beautiful!
This passage is in perfect harmony with the Hebrew writer who, quoting from the prophet Jeremiah, said:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
(Hebrews 8:10, NASB)
How do we know that we belong to God; that we really are among His chosen people, one of His covenant children? We know because He is putting His laws into our minds, and writing them on our hearts. And, because our hearts and minds belong to God, our lives are surrendered to Him as well. This is why the Apostle John said:
No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
(I John 3:9-10, NASB)
When John says, “he cannot sin,” he is not talking about individual instances of sin in moments of weakness. Nor is he talking about our perpetual “falling short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NASB). John has already established—earlier in this same text—that, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8, NASB). But what John is talking about is the continual practice of willful sin—he’s talking about a lifestyle of habitual sin; a sinful walk of life. The new covenant children of God will no longer pursue that kind of lifestyle.
When John says, “no one who is born of God practices sin because His seed abides in him,” I believe the “seed” that John talks about in this passage is the same “seed” that Jesus described in His parable of the sower, and that the Apostle Peter references when he says:
Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.
(I Peter 1:22-23, NASB)
The “seed” is the truth—the word of God. And, as Jesus put it, “But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15, NASB).
Like all seed, the word of God contains DNA—in this case, a spiritual blueprint for the heart. When planted in “an honest and good heart,” this seed reproduces itself causing us to be “born again,” as Jesus said and Peter reiterates (John 3:3; I Peter 1:23, NASB).
But, beyond the new birth, Jesus said that the seed will “bear fruit.” And what do you think that fruit looks like? I think it looks like those people described by John in the passage above when he said, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (I John 3:10, NASB). Pursuing righteousness and learning to love one another are not legalistic commands inculcated from without by “the letter of the law.” Rather, they are the result of God’s word doing its work within hearts surrendered to the will of God as He puts His law into our minds and writes them on our hearts. That’s why God’s covenant children so avidly pursue love and righteousness; their hearts will simply not allow them to do otherwise.
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