True Christian Freedom
When Christians speak of freedom in these times, it is a freedom not familiar with the Scriptures. Christian freedom today speaks of a freedom from the oppression around us; we speak of freedom from demons, financial burden, personal troubles and trials, behavior that impedes on our flourishing, mental illness, physical illness, and every other kind of oppression we can imagine.
Since there are passages in the New Testament which tell of Christians being free, and portions of the Old Testament which speak of captives being set free, we interpret them to mean whatever we want them to mean. However, such a philosophy regarding Scripture will lead to error.
The passages of Scripture that I often hear when the list of oppression mentioned above is presented come from two different epistles of Paul: 2 Corinthians 3:17 and Galatians 5:1.
In both these letters, Paul never mentions any characteristics of oppression which we readily supply. Paul has a completely different idea of oppression. It is not because of the culture he lived in, nor was it because of the circumstances of his day. Rather, it is a universal, cosmic oppression which transcends time and culture. The oppression Paul speaks of is an oppression that is upon everyone; it is no respecter of persons. It is the oppression of the law of God.
“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:12-18)
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:1-6)
As both texts unfold, it becomes painfully clear just how oppressive the law of God is on us. In 2 Corinthians, we find that those who teach it, teach a ministry of death (3:7); a veil covers their hearts (3:15); and their hearts are hardened so that they do not love Christ (3:14). In Galatians, those who preach the law are to be damned (1:8, 9). Those who believe the law to add to salvation are "foolish" and "bewitched" (3:1). They are imprisoned (3:22). They are not justified in the sight of God (2:21).
The law is our oppressor. Yet, the law is necessary. God gave us the law as a guardian, as a guide, so that we might find Christ. He gave us the law to bring us to faith, not that the law gives faith, but that the law points us to faith. There is no life in the law, but there is life in Christ. There is darkness under the law, but Christ brings light. The law enslaves, Christ frees. We need the law, not because it benefits us, but because it brings us to, and teaches us of the One who does.
So, away with placing common ailments, everyday problems, and even demonic oppression on the same level of oppression as the law of God. Nothing compares to the universal imprisonment of the law. It is the rule by which we all will be judged.
Recently, I found myself discussing religion with an atheist. He told me the three reasons he had left religion and the worship of God. Out of the three, the last two stuck out to me. He told me that it was insane for God to place a law on us that we cannot keep. The last reason was connected. He believed, alongside the philosopher, John Locke, that we do not need God to guide us in creating laws for the flourishing of humanity. As I pondered these last two problems, I found them to be inextricably connected.
God has placed his law on our hearts so that we cannot escape judgment (Romans 2:15). What this man had not taken into account was the universal truth that God has placed a law into our hearts. Paul explains to us in Romans 1&2 that we cannot escape God nor his law. The reason we can figure out a law for the flourishing of humanity is because of God. It cannot be true that we can have a law apart from God since God has given his law to us, and to some extent, placed it on our hearts. God and law cannot be separated.
This law, Paul explains, will always condemn us. Whether we have the law of Moses, or the law stamped on our conscience, we will always fall short of it. We may be able to keep some of them, but to break one is to be a transgressor of the law (James 2:10). Regardless of where the law comes from, we fall short to some degree. It turns out the atheist was right; God has given us a law that we cannot keep. However, God is not insane for doing so.
Sin is the problem, not the law. Paul emphatically makes this point throughout Romans 7. Because we are sinful, we are oppressed by the law. If there were no sin, the law would be a joy to us. However, since Adam sinned, death reigns in us all for all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Therefore, we cannot keep the law of God. God gave us his law, and because of sin, we cannot keep it.
Here was Martin Luther’s problem. As a monk, he believed that in order to find righteousness, one must keep the law. If a person sinned, they must confess it to a priest to have it absolved so that they could continue to strive for righteousness. Luther was resolved to obtain it, so while others spent 20 minutes a day in confession, Luther would spend hours. Luther’s confession would go on so long that the priest would turn to him and say, “Brother Martin, come back when you have actually committed a sin.” But according to Luther, if you only had one sin to your name, it was as if you had them all.
As he was studying the book of Romans, he came across a verse quite early in the book. Romans 1:17 stumped him. What did it mean for the righteous to live by faith? Hours upon hours were poured into this verse until he finally realized what it meant. To better understand the verse, he translated it to say that the righteous (or justified) by faith shall live. It was not the works of the law and the confession of sin that justified Luther, it was faith in Christ! Luther explained, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.”
The law of God is meant to bring us to Christ. The law enslaves, Christ frees. In Christ, we have the greatest freedom of all, freedom from sin and the law. Not only do we place our trust in Christ for the atonement of sin by his blood, but we also place our trust in Christ for his righteousness. In Christ, we have the righteousness the law requires but could not be achieved by us. In Christ, we have freedom from the oppression of the law. Not that we do away with the law, but that the law is now sweet and joyous to us. What a freedom Christ brings!