What Is True Freedom in Christianity?
What Is True Freedom in Christianity?
Dr. Michael A. Milton
We read the famous words in the American Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance upon the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
And we ring the Liberty Bell. But did you know that on that Bell are the words of Scripture, which planted a divine idea of freedom in the hearts of so many who devised those words in the Declaration?
Inscribed on the Liberty Bell are the words of Leviticus 25:10: "And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan."
Paul's "Year of Jubilee"
The year of Jubilee was just one of the many ways God went about telling us that what our hearts intuitively long for is exactly what He has prepared for us: freedom! We should always be vigilant to protect that freedom. And that is what is happening with Paul in Galatians 1. And that is what Paul defended in Galatians 2:15-21. The year of Jubilee, of true freedom, is here for Paul. And it is Jesus. And nothing should cause us to go back, nothing should shake our resolve to stand up for that freedom. The blood of Jesus Christ won freedom. And it belongs to everyone, regardless of race or past sin, who calls on the name of the Lord.
Let us ring out the truth about God's grace as we consider "The True Believer's Declaration of Independence."
Freedom to Die For
But before any battle is won on the field, a battle must be won in the minds and hearts of the people.
On March 23, 1775 the battle had to be won in the Virginia House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, Virginia. The man who would become known as the Voice of the Revolution, Patrick Henry, called his own people to see the choice they had before them. I know you know the last line: "Give me liberty or give me death!"
The remarkable thrust of that speech was to stir his fellow countrymen to see what was at stake: for want of peace they would become slaves. Before there could be freedom in America, there had to be a willingness to die for freedom in the hearts of Americans.
The churches of Galatia were not there yet.
Perhaps the Galatian pastors at that time thought, "Can't we just live in peace? Let's just go along with the what others are saying about converts being forced to keep Jewish law to be saved."
That had been the idea for a long time. But that was not the Gospel, and it was not the freedom that God had planned for His world. It was even a distortion of the Law and a misuse of it. Law was never given without love. But that had been compromised as well. Sadly, even Peter and Barnabas became apathetic and did not stand up. Before the enemy could be addressed, as it were, the Church had to be corrected. All future world missions, all future evangelism, all future understanding of the Christian faith depended on the outcome of this debate.
But one man, Paul, stood up.
Paul recounts this climactic moment in Church History in Galatians 2. It was a struggle for freedom. The Apostle Paul relates how this struggle for freedom in Christ brought him to Jerusalem where he fought for grace. He tells about how this struggle for grace even caused him to have to take on Peter face to face; how even Barnabas, his companion in the ministry, had given in to the demands of the false teachers who demanded religious ritual as a condition for earning God's favor. Paul withstood false teachers without any wavering in order to establish the Gospel: that a person is justified before God only through faith in Jesus Christ.
And this story of how he defended grace builds until at last it becomes very personal and Paul delivered his climactic and divinely wrought oratory:
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Galatians 2:20-21).
This is more compelling than even Patrick Henry facing his fainting friends and proclaiming: "Give me liberty or give me death!" Because the gripping words in Galatians 2:20-21 are inspired of the Holy Spirit and spoken through Paul to the Church in all ages.
- These words must be liken to the words of Joshua: "Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:1).
- These words are like the words of the prophet Elijah, who in 1 Kings 18:21 went before the people and said, How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.
This is the song of an unshackled soul. This is the sacred flame of a man on fire for Christ. This is what the great Australian scholar Leon Morris called "Paul's Charter of Freedom." Today, I want to call it the true believer's Declaration of Independence.
There are three articles of this Declaration vital to every person. I want to put it in the simplest form possible and then look at each one.
1. Christ's Death Saves Me.
First of all, Paul is declaring in verse 20: "I have been crucified with Christ."
Before we unpack this passage, we need to think about the fact that when Paul burst forth in this declaration, there were common assumptions in this debate that may be lost today and which need clarification.
At that time, both Paul and the false teachers understood that there is a holy God who requires perfection, and there is a sinful man who has rebelled from God, who is born in sin and is separated from God. Man needed to be justified before this God.
Now, the false teachers were saying that justification, getting right with God, is accomplished through obedience to the Law. However, Paul said that it is based on obedience to the Gospel only. It is not what we do but what God has done in Christ.
Now the problem is this modern culture does not necessarily think in these categories.
Robert Bellah in his Habits of the Human Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life writes: "In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right and wrong, good or evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide."
Or in the words of Mark Twain, "if something is moral, it is something you feel good after." Of course the opposite of this is that if you feel bad about it, this must be immoral.
You can see how problematic this becomes for thinking in terms of moral absolutes. It is all relative. This subjectivism, this moral relativity, this "every man does what is right in his own eyes" we are told, is the current situation in the human mind in the postmodern West. I think the New Testament scholar, Scott McKnight was right when he remarked: "It is my contention that until our society awakens morally, it will be difficult to apply the doctrine of justification."
Justification, the defining doctrine of Christianity, is lost if there is no right or wrong, if there is no God who is holy and whose wrath against sin must be assuaged. Without this basic understanding, the question becomes: "What is the use of even dealing with this passage?" If we have no common understanding of sin and God and the need to be justified before this God, then what are we to do? Is the Bible relevant at this point?
Well, if we admit the power of God's Word over man and assume that men are sinners and need to be put right with God, the question then becomes: "How can we get right with this holy God?" And that takes us back to the context of this passage.
Biblical Context (again):
In the context of Galatians, the Jewish leaders were asking the question: "In the past, if a foreigner had to undergo circumcision to be included among the people of God. Doesn't this still stand?"
Paul, the Hebrew of Hebrews, one schooled in the finest tradition of Judaic law, but one who had been touched by the grace of God in Christ, said, "No." Man was never justified by the work of the Law. Now Paul was not throwing away the law and introducing antinomianism, moral anarchy. That is the point of verse 17; we know that Christ does not promote sin. Paul is not talking about the role of the Moral Law, the Ten Commandments in a person's life; he is simply asserting that the Moral Law, the Ceremonial Law, or any tradition based on those laws cannot justify a person before God.
What does justify a person before God?
Only the cross. Only the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ can atone for sin.
And Paul here makes it very personal. "I have been crucified with Christ." Now Paul did not mean, of course, that Paul went to Calvary to die. Paul is saying that at Calvary, Christ died to save sinners vicariously. He went for Paul. What happened on the Cross was done for Paul, and thus, Paul was there.
This is what Isaiah 53 was talking about when that great chapter of the Bible pictures Jesus on the cross:
"But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:5-6).
Paul is declaring that on the cross, his sins were put to death in Christ. The great Puritan expositor, John Owen called it "the death of death in the death of Christ." In a book of the same title, John Owen wrote: "The sum of all is, the death and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ hath wrought, and doth effectually procure… grace here and glory hereafter."
And this new birth begins with death. Thus Bonhoeffer was exactly right when he said in the Cost of Discipleship "Jesus bids men to come and die."
Saul of Tarsus was crucified in the death of Jesus positionally, but he was also born again personally when Christ came to him on the road to Damascus. This is what is meant when he says, "I have been crucified with Christ." His death saved me.
In the reality show, "Extreme Make Over," the producers gathered experts in cosmetic surgery to give a person a new look: nip this and tuck that, smooth some wrinkles here and add hair there. And in the end you had this person who looked practically nothing like the person at the beginning of the show. But of course the person was the same.
Religious works are like that. Through a change of habits and a commitment to a new way of life, you begin to get an extreme make over. You used to smoke, but now you don't. You used to lie around in bed and read the New York Times on Sunday morning, eat croissants and imported preserves. But now you are up on Sunday morning, you put on your Sunday face, you force yourself out to go to early church, carry a big Bible and smile a lot.
But that is not what Paul is talking about. That is what the false teachers wanted. Observe the law, and you will get rid of sin, they said. Paul says, "No. You must die. You must recognize your sin and obediently follow Jesus Christ all the way to the cross. In His death on the cross, you are free. And the old person is dead."
My beloved, this is altogether a work of the Spirit. Thus I am confident that an invitation to die to yourself, to repent and see your only hope in the sacrificial death of Christ is a powerful invitation. For this is the will of God for you. To die that you may be born again.
2. Christ's Life Empowers Me.
The second article of the true believer's declaration of independence is this: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
Paul, having admitted that he is no longer the same man, also admits that he is not under his own control. It is Christ who is alive in Paul, leading him and guiding him. This man is under another power.
We now move from considering the doctrine of justification to the doctrine of union with Christ. This is a beautiful doctrine of the Bible which says that when we are justified, declared holy before God, based solely on our faith in the Cross of Christ, (and by faith, we mean a transfer of trust from self to total reliance on the merits of Jesus and in obedience to His Gospel), when that happens, we are united to Jesus Christ. He lives in us.
Our union in Christ was taught by Jesus:
- "I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you" (John 14:20).
- "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
- "I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).
This is what Paul taught and told the Corinthians: "You are not your own; you were bought at a price" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
The life of my wife has empowered me. I am different because we have walked together these many years. In infinitely more supernatural and transforming way, I can no longer imagine living without the power of Jesus Christ flowing through me.
The life of our Lord possesses those who are His. We cease to live when His death saves us, but we truly begin to live again through His life. He comes into a person's life and takes control and empowers us in every area of our existence: our relationships, our attitudes, our decisions, our responses to sorrows, our understanding of tragedy, and even our awareness of joy in the midst of it all.
Is Christ alive in you?
3. Christ's Love Compels Me.
The third article of the true believer's declaration of independence is this: "And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
This last article of Paul's declaration of independence catches us off guard. In the midst of a theological reflection on his struggles for justification by faith, in his talk so filled with the doctrine of union in Christ, the giant theologian caps his Freedom Speech off with this tender statement: Jesus loves me.
What religion could not do, love did. What a life of hard training in rigorous legal and religious devotion could not do, the love of Christ did.
And this is enormously important to us. When we speak of doctrine, say justification by faith, we are not toying with language. We are not tickling our intellectual fancy. We are not exercising our theological muscles. We are dealing in love. This is the love of God who gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16).
Jesus Loves Me – This I Know!
This story has been told a thousand times but it bears repeating. When Dr. Karl Barth, arguably the most influential theological figure of the twentieth century, came to the United States in 1961 he gave a lecture at Princeton Seminary. Afterwards Barth took questions. A reporter from the New York Times asked the eminent theologian: "Dr. Barth, can you tell us the theological concept that has had the most profound influence on your thinking?" And the man who wrote a "closely reasoned" systematic theology that took up over 10,000 pages replied: "Jesus loves me. This I know for the Bible tells me so."
You know in your heart of hearts that is what you want. You know that most of all, you want to be loved. And in Jesus of Nazareth, the question of God's love is answered in an unequivocal "Yes!" When you know that love – when you know Lord of Love – you will never be the same. And what turning over a new leaf could not do – what trying really hard to be good could not do – the love of Jesus does without any effort at all.
Summary: I will not go back
The summary of this declaration and of the whole argument is found in verse 21: "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
I like to call this summary: "I will not go back." The question is settled once and for all. God is pleased only with His Son, and if I am in His Son I am free. For we are in Christ, and this is our Declaration of Independence:
His death saves me. His life empowers me. His love compels me.
The American Declaration of Independence created a nation of free people. And I have seen how a true believer's declaration of independence, how trusting in Christ alone, can create a truly, eternally free man or woman, boy or girl.
In Jesus Christ, the Year of Jubilee is here. Through His grace, all of us may declare, "I have been crucified with Christ and it is not longer I who live but Christ who lives in me."
This article was adapted from its original on Preaching.com.
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Fuu J