CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Christian Freedom (and Bondage)

Aug 31, 2018

As with so many basic biblical truths, there is a bit of a balancing act required when we speak about Christian freedom. Certain extremes need to be avoided, and various biblical emphases need to be held together – if need be, in tension. And there may well also be a fair degree of paradox involved as well when we discuss such matters.

On the one hand Christians are the freest people of all, yet on the other hand they are fully bound to another – they are slaves to Christ. And we find this also with non-Christians. On the one hand, they relish freedom and seek it to the utmost, but on the other hand they are fully bound as well – they are slaves to sin.

We get these truths clearly expressed in the epistles of Peter. Consider just one verse from 1 Peter. The second half of chapter two discusses submission to authority, and verse 16 especially stands out: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.”

In the very first verse of this epistle Peter has already referred to himself as a “slave of Christ”. Paul also calls himself this in various places (eg., Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 1:1). Christian freedom always leads to responsibility, not to license. The Christian has changed masters: instead of being in bondage as a slave to sin, he is now free but a slave to Christ.

Martin Luther put it this way: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Or as John Calvin put it, the Christian life “is a free servitude, and a serving freedom.”

Thomas Schreiner, commenting on this passage, says this:

Peter was not merely concerned about the outward actions of believers but also the motivations that inform their submission. . . . [A]s free people they are not to use their freedom as an excuse to indulge in evil. Genuine freedom liberates believers to do what is good. Those who use freedom as license for evil reveal that they are not truly free since a life of wickedness is the very definition of slavery. . . . 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.”

The second passage worth examining in this regard 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”.

The entire second chapter of 2 Peter is about false prophets and teachers. Here they are distorting the gospel and promising emancipation, but they are in fact leading people into immorality and bondage. The bogus promise of complete sexual liberty always results in a loss of freedom.

And the irony of the false teachers is on full display here as Gene Green comments:

The irony of the offer of freedom, however, is that they themselves are slaves of corruption. . . . The irony of their promise is the fact that one cannot offer what one does not have. The following verses (2:20–22) describe the apostasy of the heretics, which is evidence of their enslavement, a thought similar to that of Jesus and Paul (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16). The one who is given over to sin is its slave. No slave can promise freedom. Peter hopes that his readers will see the heretics for what they are: mere slaves.

Norman Hillyer also discusses this paradox:

Their boastful claim is to promise the new converts freedom in the moral sphere – in plain terms, sexual license – on the pretended grounds that it is the particular privilege of Christians to be free to do what they like, an antinomian heresy Paul also had to combat (Gal. 5:13; cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). True Christian liberty, on the contrary, involves moral restraint (Acts 15:29; 1 Pet. 2:16). The liberty these men vaunt is not true liberty at all. In their mouths “liberty” can be said to be a catchword in a quite literal sense, and they themselves are the living proof, since they are slaves of depravity in their own lives, slaves of their own passions – for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16). True liberty from the death grip of depravity comes through divine power, the result of knowing God in Jesus Christ. That alone provides the way to escape corruption in the world caused by evil desires, as Peter has pointed out at the beginning of his letter (1:3-4).

And as Peter Davids remarks:

His concern with the teachers is not that he is angry at their behavior per se (they will suffer for it, so it should be more a cause for sadness than anger), but that he is upset at the damage that they can do to others. Naturally this is not unknown in the church today 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, just as he would have had little patience with those Christian leaders who through their indulgent lifestyle indicate that living according to the values of the culture around us is fine.

Yes Christians are free. As Jesus put it in John 8:36, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” But our freedom from sin is meant to put us in servitude to another: to Christ. As well, we become servants to one another. Christian freedom is always freedom to service – to God and to others. It is not freedom to sin.

As James Montgomery Boice has 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.”

Or as R. C. Sproul rightly 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.”

So we need to stand firm in the freedom which we have as believers. But we must never let this freedom become an excuse or a means to live a licentious life. Having once been set free from the slavery of sin, self and Satan, we dare not go back to that place.

If we do – persistently and determinedly – we may well demonstrate that we were never really set free in the first place.

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2 Responses to On Christian Freedom (and Bondage)

  • Thanks Bill,
    A goodly part of the book of 1 Corinthians also deals with this tension.

    Paul’s startling declaration “Everything is permissible…” in 6.12 and again in 10.23 fair stops one in ones tracks. We are, no doubt, tempted to think that Paul has gone too far with this, and tempted to explain it by saying that he really did not mean it. We can bury it in the context of rules for eating etc and not take notice of what he is really saying.

    The glory and power of a paradox is that both extremes are true.
    This invites us think in a new dimension.

    Paul is often at pains to show that we should live in relationship with God, AKA “living in the Spirit”.
    It is the life, and truth and love and wisdom, which come from a full relationship with God that will guide us into what is “beneficial”, and “constructive”, and what we should “not be mastered” by. The question arises then; How directive is our relationship with God?
    It is no longer the law; i.e. what is, or is not “permissible”, that is to direct our behaviour.
    We may well end up behaving in the same way, but the source of our wisdom is gloriously different. It should no longer be the law that tells us what to do.

    Some might argue that I sound like a Penetcostal.
    Well I am.
    But don’t think I have neglected the guidance of the Scriptures, or the Apostles’ Doctrine.
    A “full relationship with God” must include the working paradox of both the Spirit and the Word”.

    Ahhhh these paradoxes!!

  • Hi Bill,
    I agree with your article, and I believe Christians are free to practice the fruits of the spirit which includes self-control. Today, I contacted the attorney-generals office and I enquired how I could make a submission, as the attorney-general is currently revising the Australian guidelines for gender and sex. However, they refused to give me the details to make a submission. I asked the attorney-general officer a number of other questions relating to this gender and gender guideline. However, I am deeply concerned about the response I got when I asked, “In Australia, are medical doctors and registered nurses removing healthy sexual organs and breast tissue, as well as mutilating hormone levels based on sexuality and gender theories? The officer refused to answer my question a couple of times, but he asked me, “why are you concerned about this matter and why should this distress you?” I replied, “Is it normal for medical doctors and registered nurses to removed healthy body parts and tissue, as well as mutilate hormone levels? Unfortunately, Australian laws have changed to allow minors to legally consent to this practice, and this practice allows surgeons, drug companies and health services to profit from people’s mental illness.

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