The Dark Side of Christian Freedom

By the 1770s, the American colonies had suffered under what they considered unfair treatment by their sovereign in England, King George III. Starting with the Stamp Act of 1765, many colonists began to resent British taxation without American representation in Parliament and sentiment for independence began to grow.

On March 23, 1775, Virginian attorney and politician, Patrick Henry, made an impassioned and persuasive speech in Richmond at St. John’s Church before the delegates of the Second Virginia Convention. As state representatives debated sending troops into the conflict that would become the Revolutionary War, Henry’s closing words became an exclamation point that swayed the vote. “Give me liberty or give me death!”

A Troubling Revolutionary Slogan

In addition to Patrick Henry’s slogan that crystallized war sentiment, the American Revolution produced other slogans such as No Taxation without Representation and Don’t Tread on Me. There is a lesser-known, five-word slogan that is equally significant, and potentially troubling. Those five words? We Serve No Sovereign Here.

In its context, we get it. The colonists were fighting for freedom against the British monarchy, whose King was called the sovereign. Their revolution was a reaction to injustice.

The troubling part of this slogan is that, while we may not serve an earthly King, Christians by definition do serve a sovereign. Not just a King, but the King of Kings. When we come to Christ Jesus as our Savior we offer ourselves as willing subjects to his benevolent reign. There is a reason why he is called “Lord Jesus” over one hundred times in the New Testament.

He is the Lord who as Savior has secured our freedom, not from the unjust reign of a human ruler but from the just demands of God’s righteous law. The American colonists may not have seen themselves as traitors to their king, but we as sinners are traitors to ours, having rejected his authority time and time again by going our own way, like sheep without a shepherd.

Gospel Freedom

This is why the cross is such a big deal to Christians. As Isaiah 53 says, although we had gone our own way, God laid on Jesus the penalty for our rebellion, crushing the Christ in place of the criminal. With the execution of Jesus on our behalf, the law’s demand for justice is fulfilled and we are declared free of all charges. The law holds no more threat of punishment over us.

This is gospel freedom. As Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

It is this freedom that Paul celebrates throughout his letter to the church he had founded in Galatia, in what today is the region of southern Turkey just north of the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. Writing around 48 AD, the epistle of Galatians is not only a polemic against a mingling of human works and faith as the ground of a believer’s salvation but it is a testimony of how a pure grace gospel is intended to transform believers from being flesh-driven to Spirit-led people. Theologically, this dual thrust of justifying grace and sanctifying grace indicates that these twin graces of the gospel are intended to work together.

Let me show you what I mean from Galatians 5. In verse one, Paul states in the strongest of terms, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

At the very heart of the gospel is the message of freedom from the penalty of sin. We are saved by grace and grace alone. This means that to keep the purity of the gospel from being corrupted by any forms of legalism, we must be vigilant to affirm and protect the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus alone.

A Warning

At the same time Paul extols the greatness of grace and demands we protect the purity of the gospel, he warns us that there is another ditch to avoid. If one ditch is a works-based justification the other is a flesh-infested justification where love is neglected under the guise of freedom.

In verses 13–15, we read,

“13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has set us free from condemnation. There is nothing we can do to deserve it nor anything we can do to sustain it — or lose it. For our justification, we look away from ourselves and to the perfect righteousness of Jesus, because justification is a gift we receive by faith, not a reward we earn by our works of any kind.

But as we’ve said, Jesus is not only our Savior. He is our Lord. Our King. Our Sovereign. His decrees are, above all, our constitution.

Dual Citizenship

Sixteen years after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, A.D., the church father Augustine published a book called The City of God, in which he outlined how believers are citizens of two cities, one earthly and the other, heavenly. One temporal, the other, eternal.

Of course, the primary citizenship for the disciple of Jesus is the heavenly, eternal Kingdom of God, with a secondary citizenship in a particular country or nation, which is our Earthly City. In this Earthly City, believers are to be the best citizen possible, honoring those in authority and contributing to the prosperity of the culture. So far as the civil laws do not require us to disobey or forbid us from obeying our true and greater King, we are to be law abiding citizens.

Remember, we are people who do serve a sovereign. And the constitution he has established for his people not only establishes how a sinner is saved but also directs how saved sinners are to live as his ambassadors in the Earthly City. But living as his ambassador is not as easy as it may sound. Living a life of grace and peace is a tall order for those of us with a remaining sin nature, which the Bible calls “the flesh.”

Maybe this is why Paul introduces so many of his letters with the salutation, “Grace and peace to you.” He knows what the flesh lacks the Spirit is able to provide. And extra doses of grace and peace are desperately needed among believers, because the flesh is so evil and deceptive that it will take something as good and glorious as the grace of gospel freedom and wield it as a device that divides and destroys relationships, families, churches, and entire communities. This is why Paul warns us in Galatians 5:13–15 about the dark side of Christian freedom. He knows that preaching radical grace could be used by the flesh as an opportunity for the abuse of grace.

The Dark Side of Christian Freedom

Grace abuse almost always results in the command to love being neglected in the name of Christian freedom. Let me say that again. Grace abuse results when the command to love is neglected under the pretense of Christian freedom.

A classic contemporary example is the consumption of alcohol. While the believer is free to enjoy alcoholic beverages in moderation, there are contexts in which it would be unloving to exercise that freedom. For example, if I am having a dinner guest whom I know to be in recovery, I would be within my rights to have a beer with my meal. But would that be loving?

In that case, freedom would be the decision to forgo the alcoholic drink. If I cannot or will not abstain, it shows that I am not actually free but in bondage either to alcohol or in bondage to my own preferences. In other words, to flaunt my freedom to the neglect of love is not the exercise of freedom but is the denial of the Lordship of Christ, who has called us, above all, to love our neighbors as ourselves, even if that means sacrificing our freedoms, rights, and preferences in the name of love.

Can you see how this relates to our context of reopening churches? We can ask it this way, “What does it look like to love our neighbors more than demand our rights?” Is there a time when we have to say, “Jesus, for your honor and to bless your people, I will lay down the full scope of my freedom, gladly inconveniencing myself and conceding my preferences in order to submit my agenda to your agenda.”

What I have found among those who are members in the Creekstone family is that grace has become such a pervasive, defining truth for us that the Spirit is winning the war over the flesh monster within. So many of you have expressed that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make the most susceptible among us welcome as we begin to gather for in-person services. It is such a joy and delight for me to see you taking up the agenda of Jesus!

The Agenda of Jesus

That agenda is made clear by Jesus himself in the Gospel of John 13:34–35

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

It is this agenda that governs the context and extent to which Christians exercise their freedoms, or as Paul writes in our primary text, 

“Do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

It doesn’t take long to scroll through social media and see a lot of sharp teeth out there among people who claim to be disciples of Jesus. Folks with differing views and practices are biting and devouring each other with posts that wreak with a spirit of arrogance and rivalry. It is unseemly, unloving, and unlike Jesus.

Maybe we need to remember that being right is not our highest aspiration. And what we say as we respond to and engage with others may not be as important as how we say it. Tone matters.

The church, as a community of grace, has a huge opportunity right now. Last week, we read from Philippians 2:3–5, 

“3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

How was the mindset or attitude of Christ revealed? Not by his demanding rights but laying them down by laying down his very life. Rather than protesting before heaven for having to endure the inconvenience and humiliation of death, he allowed himself to be stripped, beaten, and crucified for sinners like you and me, because if he hadn’t, we would have faced an eternal death of suffering the consequences of our sin.

But Jesus took the road less traveled. In choosing the cross, he chose love.

I want to ask you to choose love, too.

But be aware. It will be tempting to neglect love in the name of freedom. When you feel that heat in your body rising to claim rights and demand your freedom, remember your primary citizenship. Consider your King, his scars, and the rights he laid down for you.

Then we may ask questions like this:

  • What am I willing to do to make the most susceptible feel as safe as possible when we gather?
  • Will I submit to what others need rather than to what I am tempted to demand?
  • Or will gathering for worship be more of a statement of my freedom to do what I want than it is an opportunity to humbly serve others in love with the mindset of Jesus?

Our D-Day

June 6, 1944 was the day that turned the tide in the global conflict known as World War II, when American soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy in France on D-Day. I believe the attitude we bring to the re-opening process will be such a turning point. Like so many soldiers, if we are willing to sacrifice freedoms for the liberation and protection of others, we, like them, will win the day.

I believe the next several months either will be a massive set back or a glorious step forward for the cause of the gospel, depending on how believers engage with each other and the world.

That second option is my hope, prayer, deep desire, and great expectation. So, with the cross lifted high as our battle flag, let’s get ready to regather the troops, storm the gates of hell together, and set the captives free.

Listen to this post.

Watch this post.

JOIN the Mustard Seed email community to receive “beyond the blog” content and conversation in your inbox as well as a special gift.