What’s Freedom For?
In the fourth century a Christian scholar named St. Jerome was working on his Latin translation of the Bible. It was to be one of the first editions of the Bible in a language other than Greek or Hebrew. In his introductory notes on the translation of Ephesians he made reference to what he called a “common saying.” This common saying was: “Equi donate dentes non inspiciuntur.” A rather wooden translation of this into English would be: “A given horse’s teeth are not inspected.” Now, for those of you in the room who are of an age which has allowed you ample opportunity to have amassed a fair bit of idiomatic wisdom, this phrase that was common almost 1,700 years ago may have a bit of a familiar ring to it. You perhaps know it as, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” This is one of those phrases that everybody knows (and apparently has for a long, long time), but whose meaning we don’t think about too much. Now, of course we know what it means, but that doesn’t mean we give it much consequential thought. Quick survey, though: who knows what this phrase means and would explain it for us? Yeah, it means it isn’t wise or gracious to examine a free gift with a lot of scrutiny. It comes from the fact that as horses age their gums recede, making their teeth appear longer (which, by the way, is where we get the phrase “long in the tooth” to describe one of those people who are of an age which has allowed them ample opportunity to have amassed a good catalogue of phrases like “long in the tooth”). If a person came to you and wanted to give you a horse for free, it would not be polite to look at the animal’s mouth to see if it’s really worth taking or not. That would be a loud expression of ingratitude. Instead, you take the horse with a thank you and go on about your business.
But, while we hear a wise saying like that and know what it means, there’s still something inside of us that wants to protest. What if I don’t need the horse? What if somebody’s just trying to pawn an old beast off on me so that I have to deal with its end-of-life expenses instead of him? What if this “gift” will somehow jeopardize other animals I have? What if this “gift” comes with strings attached that are more like iron manacles? What if this “free” gift is like a free puppy? So yes, we hear the admonition to receive gifts graciously, but something cynical in us rises up to say, “Not so fast.” This thing inside us is sometimes expressed today with the simple question: “What’s the catch?”
We have come to expect that good things come with a catch. Where’s the part where this works out less to my advantage and more to yours? Maybe it’s that you have an old, sick horse that’s going to be too expensive to care for and too emotional to put down so you give it to me so I have to deal with the hassle. Maybe it’s that you have a bunch of junk lying around your house that you don’t want to have to take to the dump and so you offer it to me as a potential treasure trove of goodies so that I have to take it to the dump once I figure out that it really is all junk. There was an episode of Duck Dynasty a few weeks ago where Jep asked Phil for some old newspapers so his wife could do some decoupage. Phil offered Jep all the newspapers he wanted, a whole shed-full…as long as he loaded up the several hundreds of pounds he didn’t want and take them to the recycling center. Or maybe it’s a business that offers a great deal, but you have to sign a contract that in order to break requires the sacrifice of your firstborn son. It seems like there’s always a catch. What more, the greater the gift we are offered, the greater the level of cynicism with which we meet it.
So then, and think about this here, imagine how someone might react when a Christian comes along and tells them that Jesus offers them eternal life in Heaven as a free gift. I mean, isn’t that the heart of the Gospel? Isn’t that what we talked about just a few weeks ago? Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God so that we can be free from the chains of sin and death. Is there a bigger gift available than that? Even if you don’t really buy into the whole Christianity thing, imagine if you could be made totally right with whatever else it is you happen to designate the higher power in your life. We both know you’ve been at least playing at trying to do this for a long time to no avail. What if someone came along and offered the thing that would push you over the edge at no cost to you? How would you react? Well, sitting here in this room where we are programmed Pavlovian-like to give churchy answers to questions like that I suspect many of you would say, “Well, of course I’d accept that. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, after all.” Yet in the quiet of our hearts you and I both would be doing some major second guessing of that notion. A gift that big has to come with some kind of a catch. Whatever it turns out to be, there’s going to be some kind of hitch in which the deal rounds back on us and we somehow lose more than we gain.
But…what if this gift really did come with no strings attached? What if this life and freedom really were offered to us without a single catch? What if this was a gift horse you didn’t have to look in the mouth because it was just as good as it appeared to be? What if we were given life and set free in Christ simply so that we could enjoy being free? How would that change things? What kind of an impact would that have on both how we talk about the life of Christ and how we live it ourselves? I submit to you this morning that it would—and should—change everything.
Well, this morning we are launching a brand new series called Leave Your Chains Behind. The whole idea for this series comes out of the fact that when the guys who contributed to the Bible talked about living apart from Christ—to use a familiar phrase, living an anti-do over lifestyle—they did so most often by using the word “slavery.” When we are not connected to Christ, we are slaves to that which is not Christ, namely, sin. A big part of embracing the Christian life, then, is becoming free. When we accept the do over lifestyle we leave our chains behind in order to walk in the freedom of Christ. No less an authority than the executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, John Upton, when asked to summarize the Bible in a word chose the word “freedom.”
And yet, what does it mean to be free? We talk about living in a free country. We desire to be free people. We want to have the freedom to pursue our dreams. We talk about being free in Christ. Optimus Prime himself told us that freedom is the right of all sentient beings. But again, what do we mean? Do we even know? We spend all this time talking about thinking about freedom yet we too often find that there are a million different ways in which we cannot actually do what we want. It may be the law getting in the way. I’ll confess that I would prefer to drive 95 on I-95, especially in the no man’s land between Colonial Heights and Route 10, to make trips to town faster, but these cars with loud sirens and flashing blue lights keep getting in the way. It may be a work situation thwarting our progress. I know that some of you would prefer to spend all day, every day out in the woods hunting or fishing. But whatever your thing is, you keep getting these ugly little letters in your mailbox with people saying you owe them money for this or that and the person who gives you the money to keep all of these folks off your back expects you to be in a certain place at a certain time doing a certain thing or he won’t give you the money anymore. I know, right! How utterly inconsiderate of him! Maybe, though, it’s somebody else getting in the way of your freedom. Your kids participate in every activity under the sun. Now, it’s really your fault because you kept saying yes, but still, they’re in everything…which means you’re at everything…all the time. If you have to sit through another 12 hour dance recital or baseball tournament when it’s a million degrees outside when you’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else you’re going to scream. Or just maybe it’s your own failures getting in the way. You’d love to be able to enjoy the freedom of a close relationship with your son or daughter, a parent or sibling, but you made some choices along the way that have rendered that impossible right now. Whatever it is, we desire freedom yet constantly seem to find ourselves bound by chains of one kind or another. How can we leave our chains behind and live with this freedom we so desire?
For the next several weeks leading up to Easter we are going to talk about this very thing. Now, if you were here last summer you might remember that we spent several weeks working through Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia. That series was called Living Free. So why come back to the topic of freedom again so soon? Well, what we found in Galatians was mostly Paul describing the importance of freedom and how to attain it. Neither he nor we spent a lot of time on how to actually live as free people. In other words, we know that we should leave our chains behind, but we don’t yet really understand how. I want to take care of that over the next few weeks. For the next several weeks leading up to Easter, I want to take a look with you at how we are to use this incredible freedom we have so that we can get the absolute most out of it.
This morning, though, as we get started on this journey, I wanted to take a few minutes with you to lay some important groundwork. I should also pause here to say that this series is going to build from week to week. Each week is going to make more sense in light of the week that came before it. If you happen to miss any part of the series you can go to the church’s website and listen to or read any of the parts that you miss. This morning in particular is the introduction to the whole thing. If at the end of the sermon this morning you are sitting there thinking, “That doesn’t feel like it’s the end of things,” you are right. It won’t be. Keep coming back: there’s more to come. Anyway, in the spirit of introducing things, again, this morning we are going to lay some groundwork. In fact, we have to understand this in order for anything else we talk about in this series to make much sense. What I’m getting at is this: if we are going to try and understand how to use something, we first need to understand why we have it. For example, say you were given a brand new shotgun that was enlaided with gold and silver and encrusted with every precious gem you could imagine. Really, it was a work of art. What would be the best way to use it? Well, with such a fine piece of art you might think that it was intended to be a display piece. You could mount it above your fireplace and take a really big insurance policy out on it. But, what if it was given to you because it was the only firearm available and a horde of zombies was amassing right outside your front door? Understanding the purpose of something helps you better understand how it is to be used. The same thing applies to our freedom. If you have taken up the journey of following Christ, you have been given an incredible gift of freedom. You are able for the first time in your life to truly do whatever you want.
And just so we’re clear, I should add that if you have not taken up such a journey yet, you don’t have this freedom, but I’m not trying to rub it in your face. Instead, you are going to want to listen really closely and not miss any of the next few weeks because you are going to get an insider’s look at the kinds of expectations that come with the freedom Christians like to boast about and it may convince you that you don’t actually want to sign up for all this after all. I hope this isn’t the case, but at least you’ll know. So you need to be here for the next few weeks too so I can possibly save you from getting into something without realizing the full implications of what you’re doing.
Anyway, so you have this incredible freedom in Christ if you would count yourself among His followers. What’s it for? Why are we given this freedom? Knowing the answer to that is going to play a huge role in making sure that we use it correctly. Trying to sort this out on our own, though, would be like finding a yellow needle in a whole mountain of hay. It would be like if someone gave you a million dollars, had a clearly defined set of expectations for how you were to use it, but then didn’t tell you those expectations. You could try and do some good with it, but what if you didn’t do the right good things? I mean, without some guidance, the Christian life would be open to all kinds of different interpretations for how to do it resulting in a whole plethora of different approaches some of which would be entirely at odds with one another…Okay, so we have that anyway, but I would argue the reason for it is most folks who have freedom in Christ don’t actually know what it is for in the first place so of course they don’t get it right. Thankfully, we don’t have to swim in this sea of confusion for long. And, if you’ll grab your Bible, whatever form it happens to take, and find your way to Galatians 5, you can take a look at this with me.
After spending four whole chapters unpacking what freedom is and why it is so important, Paul shifts his focus in chapter five to explain what all this means. What does it look like to live free? And he starts this whole conversation off by establishing the very baseline we are seeking. Why do we have this freedom in the first place? Take a look at this with me right at the beginning of the chapter. From Galatians 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free…” Now, let’s do some grammatical detail work for just a second and then I’ll explain what this means. The phrase “for freedom” at the beginning of the sentence is actually one word in Greek and is in what’s called the dative case which is usually used to indicate to what or for whom some action is directed. So if I threw a ball, any phrase that would indicate why I did it, how I did it, who was on the receiving end, where I aimed it, and so on, would be covered by the dative case in Greek. In this particular instance, scholars believe the dative in play here is a dative of purpose indicating the reason for the main action in the phrase (Christ setting us free). In other words, the grammar of this phrase suggests that Paul here is giving us the reason for our being set free. What more, he puts this phrase right at the beginning of the sentence which in a culture without the ability to change the font style to bold or italics was where you put something to really emphasize it. And so the reason for our freedom seems to be this: freedom. We are set free…for the sake of freedom. Another way of putting that might be: we are set free simply to enjoy our freedom. In case that’s not clear enough, Paul is saying: There aren’t any strings attached to this offer of freedom in Christ. We are set free to live free.
Now, if you’ve been around the church long enough to think like a church person, your response to all this might be, “And your point is? . . .They’ve been telling us that since my VBS days.” But not so fast. There are some very reasonably minded people sitting around you who are thinking something totally different. They’re thinking: “Really? We’re set free simply that we might be free? What about the whole ‘if you love me you’ll keep my commands’ thing? It seems more like Jesus has come along and said, ‘Yay! You’re free…now do everything I tell you to do.’ That’s the catch. We’re not set free to live free. We’re set free to do what Jesus says. And if I’m doing whatever somebody else says then I’m not really free, am I?” To these folks I say: Well…sort of.
The truth is that Paul’s right. We are set free for no other reason than that we might live as free people. We are set free to live free. Indeed, if there were any other stipulations on that it wouldn’t really be freedom. The skeptical folks are exactly right on that score. In fact, that’s a major part of Paul’s point in this letter. If you have any rules you have to follow, that you have not freely elected to obey without any outside pressure, then you are not free. But, the fact is that there are some rules that are part and parcel with living in this particular universe. Take the law of gravity. You don’t have a choice but to obey that one. You can not like it all you want, but at the end of the day, you are powerless before its demanding pull. Well, in light of this revelation, how do we avoid being forced into a completely pessimistic attitude regarding our freedom? How can we believe Paul’s claim that we are set free to live free? How do we avoid giving up on freedom entirely? The answer: by changing our understanding of what freedom is.
You see, most people think about freedom as the ability to do other than what we actually did. If I could have done something else had I wanted to, then my decision to do what I did was a free decision. In philosophical terms that is called libertarian freedom. But, as long as we define freedom like this, there are some ways in which we’ll never be truly free. I’d like to be able to fly around like Superman. I choose not to, but the other option is not present to me so this is, in a sense, not a free choice. But, what if we defined freedom as living in a manner totally accordant with reality. You have to define reality really accurately in order for this to work, but I happen to think the Christian worldview does. In a verse from the Gospel of John which we are going to examine in much greater detail in a few weeks, Jesus said that knowing the truth is what will set us free. Well, gravity is one of the physical truths that God designed into this universe. If we live in a manner consistent with this truth then we are free to do as we please with regard to it.
Here’s another important truth of this universe: there is a God and you aren’t Him. If we are going to live lives that are truly free, we have to live in light of this. If we think we are God, we are going to make a whole lot of decisions and try to run in a whole lot of directions away from the tether of this truth. Ultimately we are going to get pulled back against the pole every time. Furthermore, if you take guys like Paul seriously, our own wills—which were designed in the beginning to recognize God as such—will not be calling the shots when we make these forays into folly. Instead, it will be the sin virus inside us. Now, we go happily along with this virus because it promises us the moon before pulling the rug out from under us and slapping the chains on our hands and feet, but still our truest selves are not in the driver’s seat meaning we are not free. But, if we take this deeply spiritual truth to heart and further, if we accept the identity of this God as described by the guys who contributed to the Scriptures over its 1,400 year composition process, then doing whatever He says is kind of like living with the law of gravity in mind. We can try and run from it, but we’ll be pulled back every time. What more, if we keep putting stress on our tether, it’s going to get all stretched out and won’t pull us back as urgently as it once did, leaving us adrift, unable to make the choices that are truly free. All of this means that if we are going to live free, doing what God says is part of how that happens. When Jesus said that we’ll keep His commands if we love Him, He wasn’t adding a condition to our freedom, He was merely describing what real freedom looks like.
With this all in mind we can come back around to see that Paul was exactly right. We are set free for freedom’s sake. We are set free to live free. Christ makes us free for the sake of being free which means doing what God says because He is God and we are not. We are set free to live free. The purpose of our freedom is to be free. We are set free to live free. So then, how do we live as free people? We leave our chains behind. And as you keep coming back over the next few weeks for the next several parts of this series, we’ll together find out how. Don’t miss a single week.