Real Freedom, Real Bondage

Take just about any belief, ideology or practice which the secular world clings to or doggedly affirms, reverse it, and you are likely to have the Christian version of events. Not always, but often. If the world says that 2 + 2 = 4, well then we can go along with them of course.

But when the unbelieving world says that there is nothing wrong with turning pleasure or fame or success into gods, then of course Christians will argue for the exact opposite. It is this way on so many issues. For example, the world says we should strive for total freedom, and by that they mean we should have no restraints and be able to do whatever we like.

The Bible also talks about the importance of freedom, but it is always freedom under God, under law, under restraint. It is an ordered freedom, a freedom with clear boundaries and restrictions. It may be a paradox but it is perfectly true: we only experience real liberty when we fully submit ourselves to God and his law.

As R.C. Sproul put it, “If ever there is a genuine paradox to be found in Holy Writ, it is at the point of freedom and bondage. The paradox is this: When one seeks to rebel from God, he gains only bondage. When he becomes a slave to God, he becomes free. Liberty is found in obedience.” And again, “The only freedom that man ever has is when he becomes a slave to Jesus Christ.”

Or as James Montgomery Boice remarked, “The only real freedom you are ever going to know, either in this life or in the life to come, is the freedom of serving Jesus Christ. And this means a life of righteousness. Anything else is really slavery, regardless of what the world may promise you through its lies and false teaching.”

I have been pondering these truths because of my recent daily Scripture reading. Two texts from the epistles of Peter especially stood out in this regard. The first is 1 Peter 2:16: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.”

The second text is 2 Peter 2:17-19: “These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them’.”

These two passages certainly highlight the seeming paradox that if we want genuine freedom, it only can come in loving submission to Christ. And if we want real bondage, simply pretend we are free to do whatever we want, and pursue any desire we might have.

John Calvin, commenting on the first passage, says that the Christian life “is a free servitude, and a serving freedom”. And Martin Luther nicely explains this paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Thomas Schreiner elaborates, “Believers do not enjoy unrestricted freedom. Their freedom is exercised under God’s authority. In fact, genuine freedom is experienced only by those who are God’s slaves. One is either a slave of sin or a slave of God (cf. Rom 6:15-23). True liberty, according to the New Testament, means that there is freedom to do what is right. Hence, only those who are slaves of God are genuinely free.”

In the second text, we have the “theme of promising much and delivering little” as Peter Davids puts it. The false teachers were promising freedom, but all they could deliver was bondage. But the truth is, “glad bondage to the law of Christ,” as Michael Green writes, “leads in fact to an emancipation more complete than the errorists could ever have imagined. Peter has already shown, in 1:3-4, that true liberty … comes through knowing Jesus Christ.

“So here he shows that precept and love, charity and chastity, law and gospel are not combatants but correlatives. It is ever the way of licence to champion gospel over law, and of dead orthodoxy to champion precept over love. Healthy Christian living comes when God’s commands are seen as kerbstones on His highway of love, the hedge encompassing his garden of grace.”

“Naturally this is not unknown in the church today,” says Davids, “where the emphasis on grace is often so interpreted as to teach, ‘Free from the law, O happy condition; now I can go and live like perdition.’ Normally it is not put in those words, but rather what is implied is that if you have ‘asked Jesus into your heart’ (in itself not a biblical phrase) it no longer matters how you live, although lifestyle may affect the reward that you get in heaven. This is a teaching with which our author would have had no patience.”

Douglas Moo concurs: “‘Cheap grace’ is endemic among contemporary evangelicals. We constantly hear that God loves us, that Christ’s blood covers our sins, that ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins’ (1 John 1:9) – precious promises, not to be toned down for a minute. The problem is that we don’t often enough hear that God is holy and terrible in his majesty, that he is just and cannot abide sin, that ‘we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ’ (2 Cor 5:10).”

Quite right. The freedom we have in Christ is not meant to be an excuse for sin and licence. The false teachers, in step with the world, promise liberty but instead drag their followers down into slavery. Christ on the other hand offers us genuine freedom, but it comes only in saying no to ourselves and our passions and saying yes to him as joyous servants.

That is where real freedom resides. The world cannot give us such freedom. Only Christ can.

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