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True Freedom – what is it?

23 February 2014

o-PRISON-BARS-facebookIn our church gathering tonight we are looking at Romans 6 in the Bible which one famous commentator on Romans described as “the most liberating chapter in the bible”. So I thought I would jot down a few notes on what the Bible says about true freedom.

This issue of freedom very much dominates the modern mind and I think there are three good reasons for this.

(1) Nelson Mandela – a man marked by freedom

Long-walk-to-freedom-t-shirt-1855441With the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, the world has been reflecting on his remarkable life, particularly his unjust imprisonment and then his leadership of South Africa into a new era where black and white people are treated fairly. His life was marked by freedom and he is truly one of the greatest statesmen of the last 50 years. His autobiography is aptly called “Long Walk to Freedom”.

However Mandela realised that freedom wasn’t just about social and political equality (which South Africa eventually achieve) and it wasn’t just about physical freedom (which he eventually received), it is also about something deeper, more personal and more penetrating. He famously said:

As I walked out of the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

Mandela knew that to be truly free, it meant you had to experience a freedom within. This ultimately is what the Bible wants to help us with and is the source from which all other freedoms (physical, political and social) come.

(2) Sex trafficking – modern slavery

I recently attended the Rubicon conference where we spent a day reflecting on and discussing the issue of justice. It was a very stimulating and encouraging day. However, one sad statistic came across during one of the talks regarding sex trafficking. This is a form of slavery as people, usually against their will, are trafficked to other parts of the world so that a pimp can sell their sexual services to make money. The lady speaking told us that because this industry is so prominent there are actually more slaves in the world today than ever before. We often think that we are moving forward as a civilisation but maybe we are actually just repeating old mistakes/crimes in new guises.  It is well known that the only way to eliminate modern slavery is to eliminate the demand for it. And the only way to eliminate the demand is to experience a change of heart, to experience inner freedom.  The fact that sex trafficking is so rife reveals that our world has not found an inner freedom, but is in fact enslaved to pleasure, power, money and sex. This leads me on to my third introductory comment on our desire for feedom.

(3) Freedom – today’s battle cry

The greatest desire of our generation today is ‘freedom’ and by that I mean, self-discovery through self-fulfilment. People want to be free to choose the life they want to lead because they believe that if they are free to make the choices they want to make, they will discover the fulfilment they desperately desire. People pursue all kinds of things to find this freedom  they crave. Some think they’ll find fulfilment in romance and relationships, some in sex and pleasure, some in alcohol and partying, some in work and achievement, some in money and fame, some in good works and deeds of justice, others in family and friends…the list is familiar and ever increasing. Whilst all these things are good in and of themselves, in fact they are all gifts from God, if we pursue them to satisfy our need for freedom and fulfilment, they actual lead to slavery and despair. The things we thought would set us free (work, money, relationships, good causes) become our masters and demand more and more of us until either (a) we fail them or (b) they crush us to the ground, by demanding more and more time and energy from us.

What Mandela’s quote and the statistics about sex trafficking reveal is that for all our talk about freedom, we are actually all slaves – something or someone is commanding our time, emotions and decisions and ultimately controlling our lives. No-one is really free; even the people who say “I am free, I do whatever I like” are actually enslaved to their own desires and other people’s pressure.

So how do we find true freedom? How do we find the fulfilment we so desire? How does inner freedom occur? Well the Bible states very clearly there is only one master who (a) always forgives you when you fail and (b) exalts you higher than the heavens by giving us a status and worth beyond our wildest dreams…and his name is Jesus. He is the giver of all the good gifts we so often try and build our lives around and the way to freedom is to enjoy all those things but to build our lives around him.

Galatians 5:1 in the Bible says this: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” So what bondage has Christ set us free from? What masters does he deliver us from? Well there are three, and we’ll start with the master Galatians 5 is specifically talking about.

(1) Freedom from the law (self-justification)

Inside each of us is a desire to prove ourselves, to acquit ourselves, to justify ourselves. We do this in different ways. Sometimes we do this through moral obedience, sometimes by pointing out that “we are not has bad as those bad people”, other times by hard work or by being faithful in our deepest and dearest relationships, sometimes by giving to charity or by going to church or confession etc. However we do it, we are all doing it. In the New Testaments there was a group of people, the Pharisees, who tried to justify themselves through obedience to the Old Testament law. Moral obedience made them acceptable to God and superior to their fellow men. Jesus didn’t seem to have too much time for them (just read Matthew 23)!

When Jesus died on the cross, the Bible says that his perfect record (of obedience) was credited to us and all our failures and mistakes were credited to him. We therefore learn that God accepts us NOT on our performance but on his performance (his perfect life and sacrificial death). All his courage, beauty and perfection are given to us. This is truly the most profound and wonderful mystery and the theological term that sums it up is “union with Christ” which is the doctrine running throughout Romans 6. I share in the life, death and benefits of Christ before God. We therefore no longer need to prove or justify ourselves as Jesus has done that for us. His record has become our record. We are not defined by our performance but by his performance on our behalf. Hallelujah!

(2) Freedom from guilt (our past and our mistakes)

Inextricably linked with our freedom from needing to obey the law and be morally good to be accepted before God is our understanding that, as Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Because Jesus took all the punishment that our sins deserve we don’t need to atone for our sins (point 1 – try to justify ourselves), nor do we need to wallow in them feeling more and more guilty. We can thank God for his forgiveness, that his justice was satisfied in Jesus and live free from guilt and shame. Again, we are not defined (and haunted) by our past; we are defined (and set free) by Jesus’ performance for us. Hallelujah!

(3) Freedom from sin (our spiritual masters)

Here I return to the introduction. Each us of us is ultimately living for something. We are offering ourselves to something. We have entered into a covenant relationship with something. We need this thing for our satisfaction, significance and security and that thing defines us, commands us and controls us. This spiritual master then leads us to do things that we know are not good (sin) and in turn we feel more and more inadequate.

How does this show itself? It all becomes clearer when we are in danger of losing or failing that which we are living for. We lie or steal or cheat to get it back. Instead of a reasonable amount of anger, worry or sadness at losing it we over-react with bitterness, anxiety or depression and are paralysed. Our behaviour and emotions reveal our slavery.

So how does freedom come? When you find all your identity, value and confidence in what God thinks of you because of what Jesus has done (and your union with him), then you can let go of these others things, enjoy them in their right context and in the right way, and be controlled by the only master in the whole universe who wants impart life, goodness, peace, wisdom and joy into your life. He forgives you when you fail and exalts you higher than the heavens. As you let your life be defined more and more by Jesus you’ll find a freedom from sin and your other spiritual masters.

True freedom is ultimately not external, either politically, socially or physically, although these matter deeply to God as well. True freedom as Mandela highlighted, is something that happens internally and becomes the source, power and motivation with which to fight for all other freedom. This is how Paul puts it at the end of Romans 6.

Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that [in Christ]…You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

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