What stirring words! Filled with deepest longings for racial equality and the end of oppressive segregation, they were the words that moved a nation. Dr. King, over the roar of that vast crowd, came finally to the close of his greatest message: “[And] in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” It was evocative, powerful and unforgettable. And for a new Christian, it was thrilling, too, because I was, thank God almighty, saved by grace; I was free at last!
Freedom. It seems safe to say that this is a universal longing in the human heart – to be free from slavery, oppression, captivity. Was this not what stirred Moses to lead his people out of Egypt? Can it not be seen behind Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? And in recent memory, did not the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of oppressive Communism in eastern Europe serve to underline this yearning, even in our time? “Free at last” rang out again!
But are men ever really free? From heaven’s perspective, there is a vast difference between the emancipation of bodies and the liberation of souls. The popular notion of personal freedom is overshadowed by a sobering truth, articulated so clearly by the Lord Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).1 We are not, the Bible says, merely influenced by sin; we are securely in its grasp.
Through this lens, we see that human freedom is an illusion, really, for when men think they are free – morally, socially, politically – they are actually slaves in a dark spiritual kingdom. Enslaved internally by sin in their nature and, externally, clutched tightly in Satanic tyranny, they are anything but free. With unexpected honesty, Kris Kristofferson once wrote (and Janis Joplin famously sang), “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” It was a tragic homage to the two-edged sword of human freedom; so much is promised (think Adam and Eve), but, ultimately, disillusionment and death are its grim reward.
Of course, this leads us to the “good news” of the gospel, where we learn the emancipating power of our “great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Heaven’s message, heralded to a sinful world, declares that through Calvary’s finished work, sin’s shackles can be broken, and man can be set free. Proclaiming redemption by blood and liberation by power, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of stunning triumph! Christ’s words radiate hope to sin-bound souls: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). It’s no wonder that believers love Margaret Carson’s triumphant hymn:
My chains are snapt,
The bonds of sin are broken,
And I am free;
O let the triumphs of His grace be spoken,
Who died for me.
So Christ has set me free. But what is the nature and what are the boundaries (if any) of that freedom? Am I now at liberty to follow every fleshly whim, to pursue any worldly path? May I even go so far as to deliberately sin “that grace may abound” (Rom 6:1)? May I, in the expression of an old hymn, say that I am “Free from the law, O happy condition, I’ll sin as I please, and still have remission”?
This brings us to the ancient/modern error of Antinomianism. It supposes that my new-found freedom in Christ is an absolute freedom, hence “anti” (no) “nomos” (law) – therefore, “no law”. Originally an argument about the role of the Mosaic Law in the new dispensation of grace, it has metastasized into the carelessness of 21st-century “Christianity”, a religion that knows little propriety and observes few boundaries. It is often worldly, vulgar, immoral and ungodly. In the name of freedom, it ignores the holiness of God and perverts biblical liberty. Peter describes this so-called “freedom” in startlingly earthy terms: “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption…It would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire’” (2 Pet 2:19-22).
No, we are not under the Mosaic Law. Paul clearly asserts that “we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom 7:6). This “new way”, directed by the Holy Spirit who indwells us, brings us not into independence or lawlessness but rather into voluntary obedience to the Scriptures and progressive conformity to Christ. This is the truth of practical sanctification and the foundation of holy living.
And so I learn that Christian freedom is not about what I can do but rather the obligation to do what I should do by God’s enabling grace. We have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Paul described this new position very simply: “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom 6:22).
Once I fancied myself to be free, but was, in fact, a slave to sin. Now, by grace, I am the slave of Jesus Christ, and “free indeed”. How obscure to the world! How amazing to my heart! Paul prayerfully exulted in this glorious freedom: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:17-18).
Dear believer, let us flee lawlessness and joyfully submit to the law of Christ. God grant that we will have grace to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts (Titus 2:12), and pursue “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).
(Originally published on truthandtidings.com and used with permission)
- All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.