What is freedom? For some it might mean freedom from debt or from worry. Sadly, for many people in our world it would still mean freedom from slavery, oppression, persecution, even fear of their own government. For many, particularly in the West, it might suggest freedom to do whatever we feel like, pursue whatever goals we have, and for some it might mean freedom from constraints of social imperatives and the law. The Bible says, “for freedom, Christ has set us free,” and “if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.” At its heart, a major theme of Christianity from start to finish is freedom, but what does this actually mean? Some Christians seem to not be free at all, but burdened by guilt and hemmed in by restrictions and rules. Other “brands” of so-called Christianity espouse a prosperity-oriented gospel that promises a life of comfort and financial security. But neither of these demonstrate the true freedom to which Christ calls an enslaved world.
To an original reader of the scriptures in the ancient world, the obvious antithesis of “freedom” was slavery. Actual physical slavery characterised the life of many. People could be enslaved because they had been conquered, or as punishment. They could be sold, or even sell themselves, into slavery because they were poor. Although many types of ancient slavery were horribly oppressive, and masters literally had power of life and death and over the very bodies of their slaves, sometimes slavery was lifesaving. With no universal health care, social service, income protection or unemployment benefits, if a peasant farmer’s crops failed, or the breadwinner of the family died, there was little option but to work as a slave. The Law of Moses turned slavery from a harsh and evil institution to something akin to welfare provision. There were strict rules about fair and compassionate treatment of slaves and compulsory release after seven years. A period of indenture could save one’s family. In the Roman empire at the time the New Testament was written, the lot of the slave covered a spectrum from cruel and wretched toil, brutal treatment and the likelihood of crucifixion for transgression, through to being virtually a member of the household with significant responsibility for the education of the children or management of household affairs. Freedom could be purchased, and some slaves were permitted to become freedmen. One estimate puts the number of slaves in the Roman empire as high as 25% of the populace (http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/ancient-rome/roman-slaves/).
It’s not surprising then, that slavery features very strongly in the Bible, not only in terms of legal prescriptions for Israel, exhortations for Christian slaves and masters but as a metaphor for redemption. God redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the defining point in their existence as a nation. Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as the One who brought his people out of the land of slavery, the foundation of the ten commandments (Ex 20:2). Magnificent as this redemption was in its own right, it was also a type of the greater redemption God would bring about in and through Christ. As a consequence of Christ’s atoning work, sinners of all nations have been redeemed, purchased out from slavery to sin. The Greek words “ransom” and “redeem” (lutron, lutrosis, apolutrosis) as applied to the atonement, relate unequivocally to purchase out of slavery. Christians have been purchased (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 6:20; 1 Pet 1;18–19; Rev 5:9). Jesus declared that his life was to be given as a ransom (lutron) for many (Mark 10:45). In the Graeco-Roman world, a slave could be set free by payment of a sum at the shrine of a god, effectively purchasing them for that deity, never to be enslaved again. The expression used was payment “for freedom,” and this familiar term was used by Paul to speak of the liberation achieved by Christ (Gal 5:1).
To what or whom are humans enslaved, then, which requires the costly ransom payment of the blood of Christ to redeem us from? And to what freedom has the Christian been redeemed? In John 8:32–36, Jesus was disputing with the Jewish leaders. He told them that the truth would set them free. They replied indignantly that they were Abraham’s offspring and had never been enslaved to anyone (conveniently forgetting their enslavement in Egypt!). Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Only the Son can truly set them free. Paul’s letter to Romans systematically explained that sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Our archetypal parents committed the archetypal sin; they disobeyed God because they wanted to be autonomous. God had allowed them access to the tree of life, but forbidden the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The essence of the serpent’s temptation was that if they ignored God’s silly rule (implied to be a lie!) they would be like gods, knowing good and evil (Gen 2:9, 16; 3:1-7). This had great appeal, so they took it upon themselves to be masters of their own destiny, arbiters of good and evil independent of their Creator. Adam and Eve sought freedom, but it was the wrong sort; it was an illusion. They claimed the freedom to do as they pleased and it brought the freedom to sin and to die, which is no freedom at all. In fact, they shook off what they thought was a divine restriction on their freedom, only to become enslaved to sin. As Augustine put it, they were now unable not to sin. They unseated God from the throne of their hearts and put themselves in his place, but the self is a very poor master. We likewise were once enslaved (Titus 3:3).
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth,” wrote Paul (Rom 1:18). Humans willingly ignored God and began serving created things rather than their Creator, and God gave them over to the sinful desires of their hearts (Rom 1:21–25). The result is all the sin we see that stems from selfishness and the worship of other than God (Rom 1:2–32). Humankind thus reaps the wages of sin; death, just as God had warned. Whatever or whoever we obey enslaves us. If we obey the inclinations to sin, we are slaves of sin, which leads to death (Rom 6:16). “You once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness,” Paul reminded the Romans. This might have seemed like freedom, “in regard to righteousness,” but it was in fact slavery to sin “Freedom” to do whatever we want, to follow our own sinful inclinations, appears to be true freedom but this is an illusion. It brings forth shameful fruit and no eternal gain whatsoever, only death (Rom 6:19–23).
But just as sin entered the world through Adam, and death through sin (Rom 5:12) so grace came through Jesus Christ. His death bought our redemption; “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers. not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18–19). By aligning ourselves with Christ, accepting his gracious sacrifice on our behalf, we are united with him in his death and resurrection. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom 6:6–8). Sin no longer has dominion over us, its reign is broken, we are no longer its slave (Rom 6:8–14; Heb 2:15). Yes, we still sin, but we are now motivated and empowered not to. By God’s grace and strength we can say “no” to sin, because his law is now written on our hearts. We are not motivated to sin and we present our “members” — all our faculties — to God as instruments of righteousness rather than as instruments for unrighteousness (Rom 6:12–14). Augustine again: we are now “able not to sin.” (That’s not the same as “not able to sin,” which will happen at the final consummation of our salvation). Because Christ has achieved our redemption and justification, Paul could triumphantly proclaim, “The re is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1–2). Not “will set you free eventually,” or “might set you free if you’re good enough,” but has set you free! There is NOW no condemnation! We are no longer debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh and therefore die, Paul continues. Like the man sold into slavery for indebtedness and then ransomed, we are free of that debt to our old master. The reason is, by the Spirit we have been made sons of God (Rom 8:12–16).
Reading through Romans and other New Testament writings that contrast slavery to sin with freedom in Christ, the reader is struck by the repeated contrast between slavery and sonship. Not only has Christ purchased us from slavery and freed us from its mastery, he has made us not merely slaves, but sons. In the ancient world, the contrast would have been well known. Even the most elevated, useful, trusted slave in a household was still a slave and well below the level of any of the sons, even if the slave might be their pedagogue. By contrasting the Christian’s sonship with their previous slavery the point was powerfully driven home. It is by the Spirit (not by our own strength) that we put to death the deeds of the body and are enabled to live. But even more, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:13–16). Even the non-sentient creation, which was also subjected to futility and bondage to corruption on our account, will ultimately obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, when Christ makes all things new (Rom 8:19–23). We currently have the firstfruits of the Spirit, who has been given us as a guarantee of our ultimate complete adoption and the redemption of our very bodies also. This will complete our redemption so that we shall be like Christ and finally “not able to sin.” Paul had earlier written on this theme in Galatians. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Gal 4:6–8). Adoption through the Spirit — sonship — no longer enslaved; these are inseparable concepts for Paul.
In related claim which would have evoked the redemptive acts of God in the Old Testament, John was able to rejoice that “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth… who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev 1:5–6). The kingdom of priests, the holy nation, (Ex 19:5–6) God’s own people, found fulfillment beyond the national borders of Israel to embrace the children of God out of every nation. The Jews could not appreciate this, for a veil lay 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” (2 Cor 3:15–17). The Law which God gave Israel was holy and good, but because it relied on obedience, it was of no use in restraining sin. In fact, sin became amplified by being more thoroughly defined. External imposition of rules does not change the inherently sinful heart; only death to sin and a renewed heart can do that. Paul contrasts the Galatians’ former enslavement under the Law, which could only bring condemnation by highlighting sin, with the freedom of the Christian. To illustrate this, he uses the allegory of the slave woman Hagar who represents Sinai and the Law and could only produce children of slavery, with the freewoman Sarah, who represents new Jerusalem and bore the child of promise (Gal 4:7–31). Paul’s intent is to drive home the message to the Galatians, that now being free in Christ as God’s very sons, why would they want to return to slavery? How could they possibly think that performance of “works” would make them right with God? The only way to be right with God is to become his child.
“So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal 4:7–10). For Paul it is not just about the Law of Moses no longer being their master, but the whole futile attempt to be saved by human works. He writes of the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” to which they would be returning if, through being circumcised they became once again debtors to the whole law, fall away from Christ and become alienated from grace (Gal 3:10; 5:2–6). We, as Isaac typified, are born according to the Spirit, children of the free. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!” (Gal 5:1). Being under the law means relying on the flesh and opposing the Spirit, but the flesh can only produce fruits of corruption. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law, is produced by those who walk in the Spirit (Gal 5:17–25).
Paul takes up this theme again in Ephesians. God predestined us for adoption as his sons through Christ (Eph 1:5). In him we have redemption through his blood (1:7). When we believed, we were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (1:13–14). Once we were dead in trespasses and sins in which we once walked, following the course of this world, carrying out the desires of the body and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy “made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved…” (Eph 2:1–7). He reiterates, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8–9).
This is why legalistic denominations which impose rules on their members and preach the necessity of works for acceptance by God are so harmful. “Touch not, taste not, handle not!” (Dress a certain way, act a certain way, speak a certain way, play a certain type of music, avoid activities that fit the denomination’s definition of “worldly”). Legalism destroys the gospel. It denies the sonship God has graciously granted and seeks enslavement once again. It repeats the sin of Adam and Eve, by grasping at a self-made righteousness by works, becoming indebted once again to the “whole law.” It says, “thanks but no thanks, I’ve got this,” to God’s grace. It demoralises and embitters Christians by setting standards to which they must aspire, and reach by the effort of “doing.” It denies the Spirit whom God has given us as his guarantee of our sonship, the righteousness which comes from God, the reassurance and empowerment. Legalism denies “that the Gospel alone will save, without the obedience of Christ’s commandments.” (Christadelphian Statement of Faith, doctrine to be rejected #24). Sonship of God means so much more than formal titles of “brother” and “sister.” It means there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because we are no longer slaves, but sons. It means God’s Spirit indwells and testifies to that sonship and enables us to call God “Papa.” It does not mean more rules and a return to fear of not being counted “worthy.” As we contemplate the complete and finished work that Christ has done, this Easter time and beyond, let Paul and Peter have the last word, from Colossians 2: 20–23 and 1 Peter 2:16:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch,’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) —according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”