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Freedom From and For
Let me introduce you to three dogs: Fido, Felix and Fred.
Fido spends his days chained to a post, whining, barking, and desperate to be free. But since he has known nothing else, he is fearful of what that ‘freedom’ might look like. The question is: is he a happy dog?
Felix however, was born to be wild. He roams the streets, answerable to no one. He eats scraps from the bins, sleeps rough and terrorises whichever kitty happens to cross his path. Is he a happy dog?
Fred on the other hand walks proudly by his master’s side. There is no lead, but he rarely strays far and is always within earshot to answer his master’s call. Is he a happy dog?
I think the answers are obvious in each case don’t you? Only the third is truly happy.
And you know there are three types of people whose way of life mirrors those three dogs.
First, there is the strict moralist. These folk are always on the lookout for the approval of others, forever in an OCD kind of way trying to keep to the strict code they have devised for themselves to make sure their consciences are clear so they can hold their heads high and proud. But deep down they resent it, they are full of envy of others, longing to be free, but too afraid to change.
Then there is the libertine. They have no moral inhibitions at all. Their motto is: ‘If it feels good: do it.’ As far as they are concerned the only reason moral codes exist is for them to be broken. These are not so much for fostering the permissive society, but the transgressive society. They cheat, lie, sleep around with whoever they want, when they want and as many times as they want. But scratch beneath the veneer of their nonchalant, carefree smile and you will find a frown.
But there is a third person. They have discovered genuine freedom which stands over and against the false freedom of the libertine. The false freedom claims to be free to do what you want. But true freedom is being free to do what you ought. And this is the freedom discovered by those who have turned to Christ, acquitted by him at the cross and now being sanctified by him by the Spirit which Paul is about to unpack.
First, we have freedom for, vv 13-18
Right at the outset, Paul makes it plain that our liberty in Christ is not to be used as an excuse for licence to sin, what he calls a ‘freedom to indulge in the flesh’. When Paul speaks about our ‘flesh’ in this way, he is talking about our moral weakness. What was it that Oscar Wilde said, ‘I can resists anything but temptation’?! That is the flesh. So it is not a matter of thinking, ‘It doesn’t matter if I sin because God will forgive me anyway, I am no longer under the law but under grace.’ No, no, Christ came to set us free from that kind of self-centredness which is all about gratifying my desires, fulfilling my wants, ‘being myself’ regardless of how it affects others.
Now here is the paradox: we are set free in order to become slaves. Verse 13 literally says, ‘through love slave for one another.’ And this is not as self-contradictory as it may sound. Freedom is the ability to make choices to act. We either act to serve ourselves or to serve others. Just think about it: no being has any greater freedom than God. But in Jesus we see God using his freedom to become a slave according to Philippians 2, in order to serve and save the creatures who have rejected him. And so when we give up the false freedom in which we are slaves to our own desires, and embrace the true freedom in Christ to slave for others in love- we are actually being God-like. Martin Luther put it like this: ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.’ In other words we are freed to serve.
And for those who are obsessed with the law, like the false teachers who have snuck into the churches in Galatia, the Christian can claim that by acting out their freedom in Jesus they are fulfilling the whole point of the law, which is to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Lev. 19:18). In fact, the problem with the false teachers saying that you have to obey certain laws and rituals in order to be saved and remain saved is that they introduce division and resentment into the church because there will be those who look down on others who they feel are not keeping up with the law and so there will be others who will not like being looked down upon and told what they should and shouldn’t be doing. As Paul says in v15, ‘watch out or you will be destroyed by each other’- literally ‘biting and devouring each other.’ In other words you can end up like a pack of wild dogs savaging each other-that is what legalism does. But that is not why Christ came. He came so we can love each other properly.
So here’s the question: You are a Christian, Christ has set you free from the crippling burden of the law and the self-destruction of selfishness; how are you using your freedom? In what ways are you slaving for your fellow Christians in love?
Paul then gives a command in v16, ‘Live (literally, ‘walk around’) by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.’ It is not that on becoming a Christian God zaps you to live a life free from temptation and desires so you just free wheel your way into heaven. But God has given you his Spirit which makes all the difference in the world. You no longer battle with sin by yourself, you do it with God working in you, behaving, walking around, as the Spirit wants you to behave, leading where he leads.
Paul then tells us why he has given this command in v17, ‘For [here is the reason] the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so you do not do what you want. But if you are being led by the Spirit you are not under the law.’
Only Christians can know this conflict Paul speaks of for only Christians have the Spirit of Christ inside them. That is why the Christian will often experience an internal struggle more intensely after his conversion than before and sometimes it worries him. The non-Christian gets used to losing to sin, so it is much easier to come to the point of giving up, following the line of least resistance. But the Christian is never allowed to give up, the Holy Spirit will not let him settle down to an uneasy truce with sin, he will always be spurring the Christian on, making him feel uncomfortable with those tendencies towards self-gratification, reminding him that it is from these fallen inclinations that Christ came to rescue him and that he is not the person he once was because he now has this other person living inside him. Now that is what this supernatural personality is doing to you if you are a believer, the Spirit of Jesus, slowly reproducing within you the image of Jesus.
A few weeks ago we heard how the law was given to act like a school master, a pedagogos, or as it could be translated ‘childleader’. The law points out our faults and failings, it can chide us but never change us. By way of contrast we now have a ‘Spiritleader’, he not only teaches us the way to live as Jesus lived, but because this is the Spirit of Jesus living in us he gives us the power to start living this way.
But what does this look like in practice? Let me give you an example.
A number of years ago the American evangelist, Billy Graham, was being interviewed on TV by Sir David Frost and was asked outright: ‘Are you ever tempted by the lusts of the flesh?’ And in response Dr Graham told this story. He said, ‘One of my evangelist colleagues was in Paris some years ago and one night he phoned me. He said that he had been to a Christian meeting and as he walked back to his hotel past some of the seedy night clubs and sex shops of the Pigalle, he felt these powerful temptations to give in. They were so strong. He said, ‘Billy I just want you to know that was the battle that was going on within me last night, but this is what I did. I took the key to my hotel room, locked the door from the inside and I threw the key out of the window so I couldn’t get myself out of the room for the rest of the night. It was the only way I figured I would be able to fight it.’ Then Billy Graham went on to say to David Frost: ‘If you are tempted God has promised to provide a way of escape. If it was Joseph who had to leave his garment behind and flee or this evangelist who locked himself in his room. I tell you the Holy Spirit provides a way for Christians to escape and the world does not know this.’ You see God changes not only what we do but what we want to do. He doesn’t do it for us, he does it with us. The Holy Spirit didn’t miraculously throw the key out of that window, the evangelist had to do that, but it was the Holy Spirit who gave him the desire and the strength to do it. Freedom for.
Secondly, we have freedom from vv19-21; ‘The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality [that is, any sexual activity outside marriage], impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’
Paul tells us that fallen, human acts are ‘obvious’, you don’t need a law to recognise them and he gives us a sample list, not an exhaustive list. In other words, the law is needless as well as powerless. Outside of Christ we are moral and spiritual wrecks- that is the picture. These things Paul lists are not up for debate or for revision they are denounced and repudiated. And if we need any reason at all to see why this is so, he gives a dire warning-‘I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ The stakes could not be any higher.
A number of years ago a very well-known Christian speaker and writer, a very promising theologian and worker in the student world was sent to prison for sexually assaulting a 14 year old boy he met through an internet chat room. In court this man said that he started struggling with his sexuality five years ago after seeing images of gay pornography on a borrowed computer. At the time he was married with a six month old baby. He went on to described his home life as happy and content but was excited by homosexual pornography. When the police raided his house they found hundreds of gay porn magazines and videos hidden from his wife. Imagine the effect that has had on his family, his friends and his church-let alone the poor man himself who was sentenced to three years.
The Christian writer, Dr Carl Trueman, was a friend of this man and in the aftermath of what happened, with a heavy heart he wrote these words: ‘The problem with evangelicalism in the West is not its lack of intellectual credibility; rather it is its lack of moral integrity, its tendency towards materialism, and its lip service to a doctrinal position and code of ethics which it often despises and ignores in practice. The church needs men and women, boys and girls who are distinctively different from the world, who live for Christ, not for self, who maintain the absolute moral antithesis between the worship of the triune God and the crass idolatry of all that is not Christianity…..such an uncompromising attitude to their own morality is born out of a knowledge of their own sinfulness and God’s glorious holiness and unmerited grace in Christ.’
That is really the kind of thing Paul is driving at in these verses.
Finally, freedom’s fruit-v22-26, ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’
Here Paul contrasts the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ with the ‘works of the flesh’ and so we might have expected him to talk about the ‘works of the Spirit.’ But by speaking of fruit, Paul is underscoring the fact that this outward fruit is the result of an inner transformation. These are not simply things Christian do, this is what Christians are, in other words we are talking about character- being loving, joyful, peaceful, forbearing, kind, and gentle people. This is what Christians are and increasingly becoming. And like fruit they don’t appear fully formed all at once, they take time to grow and mature. There is the need for watering and nourishing through pondering God’s Word, meeting with him in prayer, fellowshipping with and serving God’s people. There will be pruning when through hard experiences the rough aspects of our character are slowly sandpapered away, giving us a more refined and attractive finish.
And the reason Christians are different is because something has happened to them when they turned to Christ- they ‘have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts’. Not that they are crucifying, but they have crucified (past tense). Paul is talking about the death of Jesus. He is saying that our moral weakness-the flesh- put Jesus on the cross. But also that moral weakness and our old self was put to death on that cross too so that in God’s sight that old rebel we once were is no more. Someone has put it like this: ‘Paul is trying to get us to see ourselves in an entirely new way. He’s trying to get us to grasp the fact that what we strive so hard to accomplish has already been accomplished by God in Christ. He’s trying to help us see that we are, as he calls it “under grace”. That is, the power which moves our lives, the ultimate driving force isn’t the awful demand, a miserable imperative that asks for more and more if us and never relents pushing us to perform. Rather, what moves us and makes us into the people we are is grace. And grace is a little New Testament shorthand for the miracle of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.’
Jesus now lives in us and so, as Paul says in v25-26, ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.’
Think back to our dog Fred I mentioned at the beginning, the really happy dog. He was happy to keep in step with his master, walking by his side. Sure he had freedom to explore and do whatever doggy things dogs do. But, he always kept within earshot of the master’s voice. He loved that voice because it was not only one of authority but love. Fred would be mad to want to be chained up, however secure that may have made him feel. He would have been even more deranged to seek the ‘freedom’ of roaming the streets, abandoning the affection and direction of his master. No, he was secure and satisfied, keeping in step with his master.
And when Christians are walking with Christ, one step at a time, steadily going in the same direction, day after day, month after month, year after year-they won’t have time to be squabbling or being conceited, which law keeping always produces- arrogant know-alls- instead they will for ever be amazed that Jesus chose them, that he died for them and will constantly be with them until they arrive in glory.
 John Webster, ‘Dead to Sin’, in Confronted by Grace, (Lexham Press, 2015), p 37
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