Discussions about Christian liberty all too often seem to focus merely on what it’s not. I sometimes feel that the only thing some folks understand about liberty is not using it as an occasion to the flesh. “Liberty doesn’t mean you should do whatever you want.” OK. I agree. But what does it mean?
Unfortunately, Christian liberty often seems to be presented as merely a matter of ethics, what we are and are not allowed to do, and as a secondary issue to the core of the faith. But Scripture says different. Our liberty is the core of the gospel. It is the gospel.
Galatians 5:1- “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
What is the bondage that he is contrasting our liberty with? The previous passage speaks of the analogy of Hagar and Sarah, teaching that Hagar (Sarah’s slave, given to Abraham as a concubine to try to achieve the promised offspring a different way since Sarah was too old to have children) is representative of the bondage to the law. This analogy is made explicitly. Hagar represents a covenant, made on Mount Sinai. That covenant was the Ten Commandments, and the whole system of law and religion that arose out of that. That covenant gives birth to bondage according to Paul.
Why is this so? Did God make a mistake? Did He give us something bad? Of course not. May it never be, as Paul says in another place. The fault, of course, lies in us. We are sinful, carnal, unable to keep that covenant. But Paul attributes our bondage to more than simply the obligation before God to be righteous, which we could never keep. He attributes it to circumcision, which is the emblem of the religion of Moses.
The Mosaic system was a system built around guilt. Every sin, every defilement, every shortcoming had to be faced, called to attention and dealt with. In every aspect of life they were reminded of their wickedness and their uncleanness, and had to constantly pay attention to every detail of their lives to avoid coming into contact with defiling things. All of the ceremonial aspects of the law simply called attention to the fact that they lay under a great weight of sin, a weight which was constantly accumulating. The only possibility for dealing with this sin was in throwing oneself on the mercy of God.
Those Old Testament saints who had faith in God’s word knew this. They knew that the sacrificial system was not a way of clearing away their sin debt with God. The sacrificial system could not reconcile them with Jehovah. Their sins had not been ceremonial sins; how could they be reconciled to God with ceremonial observances? And so David says, after his terrible lapse, Psalm 51:16-17
“For you do not desire sacrifice, else would I give it: You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart — These, O God, You will not despise.”
The sacrificial system, rather, kept in front of them their guilt. It highlighted to them the impossibility of ever achieving freedom. It brought them into bondage.
Abraham, unable to father a child through Sarah, attempted to father a child through Sarah’s slave, Hagar. The result of this union was Ishmael. Ishmael was not the child of the promise, and in fact mocked Isaac when he was born and was an oppressor and enemy to Israel all their days. Sarah said, when Isaac was born, that the child of bondage shall not be heir with the child of the free, and Abraham, recognizing the wisdom of this statement, sent Ishmael and Hagar out of his house.
It was after the birth of Ishmael, when God told Abraham that the child would come by Sarah, and by promise, not by the works of the flesh, that God gave the rite of circumcision. Circumcision, according to Romans 4, was a sign of Abraham’s faith in God’s promises, but it was not given when he first showed that faith, but rather when he attempted to accomplish God’s promise by his own efforts. It was therefore a reminder to Abraham that he could not make God’s promise happen by his own effort. It was a reminder of guilt. And so, Peter says in Acts 15 that circumcision, and the whole regime which it symbolized, was a burden which neither he nor his fathers could bear, and Paul says in Galatians 5:2 that if we are circumcised, then Christ does not profit us. Not that the physical act itself has significance, but that if we look to circumcision and the observance of the law as the means by which we will achieve the promise of God, then we fail to understand circumcision, we fail to understand our need for a redeemer, and that redeemer who has come will not benefit us at all.
The child of the promise, the child of the freewoman, was Isaac. Isaac came by the power of God alone, miraculously rejuvenating Sarah’s body who was far past the time of childbearing. We become free when we recognize that it is God’s power which accomplishes God’s promise.
But every creature of God has an intended purpose. Our purpose was to glorify God by reflecting His image. Being free means being at liberty to be what we are intended to be. We don’t make a fish free by throwing him up on land. The fish is free when it’s in the stream, where it’s supposed to be. When Christ freed us, he freed us from the curse of the law, and from the bondage of sin. No longer does Sinai loom over us constantly reminding us of our worthlessness and defilement. But does that mean we can now revel in our worthlessness and defilement without worry? If we understand our liberty, we understand that it means that having been freed from that condemnation, the way is now open to us through Christ by the power of the Spirit to become what we are supposed to be.
Romans 5:14ff makes it clear that men were in bondage long before the law of Moses was ever given. This is because the Law of Moses was simply the amplification and restatement of the law of God which is written on the hearts of men. To be free from that law requires being free from sin itself.
Jesus says that he who sins is the slave of sin. Being free in Christ must ultimately mean being free from sin. But if we go back to the law as the means of achieving that freedom, we again come into bondage. The law teaches us about the moral nature of God, and when freed from the curse of condemnation, the law plays an important part in the life of the believer, showing us that intended state. But it will never provide us with the power to achieve that state. It is the gospel of Christ, ministered to us by the Spirit of God, which provides that power.
So if we were to use our liberty as an excuse for vice, it is not that we are taking liberty too far. We are failing to understand liberty. We are failing to understand what it is that we have been freed from. We are not called to be free just a little bit. We are called (John 8:36) to be free indeed. That is, not freed just partially, not freed just in some respects, not freed just in appearance. Free indeed, in reality, completely. Free to be what we are intended to be.
And to do this, according to Paul in Galatians, it is necessary to cast out the bondwoman and her son. What is the bondwoman? The covenant on Sinai. What is her son? Bondage engendered by that covenant. Guilt. A covenant is a means of disbursing some benefit or blessing. The blessing promised by the covenant was perfection and fellowship with God. The means of achieving that was law-keeping (Exodus 19:5; Deut 4-6). We must accept the New Covenant, which is in the blood of Christ (Matthew 26:26; Luke 22:20). The end is exactly the same- fellowship with God and perfection. But the means could not be more different. It is accomplished by God’s promise of grace and forgiveness, not by our righteousness.
The New Testament worship reflects this. We have a worship focusing on grace, not on guilt. We have a worship constantly holding before us the forgiveness of sins, and the new glorious path of freedom which now stretches before us, the path which leads to heaven and perfection, and fellowship with Christ.