Theology 101

Freedom in the New Testament

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The predominant note of the New Testament is not political freedom but freedom in Christ from bondage to sin, the Law, Satan, the old man, and death.

It is not that political freedom or freedom from slavery was unimportant, but that there was an even deeper bondage that had to be overcome first of all. With the Greeks, the problem was with the mind, but in the New Testament, the problem was the bondage of the will.

The problem is that even if you were politically free, you could still be in bondage. Human will is not at this present time neutral, but it is captivated by sin. Humans by nature “love the darkness” and “hate the light” (John 3: 19:20).

The Truth Shall Make You Free

Jesus speaks about this freedom in the classic verses in John 8:31-32:

Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you abide in my words, then you are truly disciples of mine, and you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’

The scribes and Pharisees immediately respond to this statement of Jesus by arguing that they are Abraham’s offspring and have never been slaves, so how can Jesus say that “You shall become free?”

Jesus responds that anyone who sins becomes a slave of sin, but “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Jesus’ death and resurrection graciously applied to our lives liberate us from bondage to sin so that we can live a redirected life. Calvin points out that although we have freedom, it may not be perfect:

Freedom has its degrees according to the measure of their faith; and therefore Paul, though clearly made free, still groans and longs after perfect freedom (Romans 7:24).

It is the truth that will make us free.

  • We are, in our natural sinful state, captive to lies.
  • We don’t see reality as it is.
  • We deny what we know deep down is true, “exchanging the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:25).
  • We live in a state of unreality. If truth is that which corresponds to reality, then throwing off lies and deception frees us to see reality for what it is. We see our own slavery to sin and can receive forgiveness and new power to live in accordance with reality. We can be what we were created to be. Truth leads to freedom.

We are historical beings that have a past, present, and future. We don’t reinvent ourselves at each moment, but are influenced by past patterns and choices. We are according to the old self (sinful nature) directed away from God, saying, in effect, “My will be done.”

In Christ, we are freed from this bondage in order to say “Thy will be done.” We are headed down a road away from God and have been turned around 180 degrees by God’s grace so that we are now pursuing our Lord rather than running away from him.

We were serving sin, but now we are serving Christ.

Created to Function in a Designated Fashion

But how can service or being a servant be freedom? Because we are made in a particular way, for a purpose, and to function in a designated fashion.

One analogy sometimes used is a train.

  • If a train stays on the tracks, it can function well transporting people and goods from one place to another.
  • If the train goes off the tracks, it leads to pain (and death) for people and a destruction of its cargo.
  • The train needs the tracks to function well as a train. There are limits to where that train can go and the path it needs to follow.

To use another analogy, consider a car. All cars come with manufacturers’ recommendations for maximum efficiency.

  • You need to change the oil or the spark plugs at regular intervals.
  • For most cars, you don’t put diesel fuel in the gas tank because it causes real problems.
  • Similarly, you don’t put water or sugar in the gas tank because it will make the car run poorly or stop it altogether.

Just as with the train and the car, there are certain laws, rules, and norms that need to be followed in order to flourish as a human being. We need to follow the Creator’s instructions for recommended use as given in the Bible. God’s laws or Jesus’s commands are not arbitrary but show us the way to joy.

  • This way to joy must involve saying “no” to certain actions or patterns of life that will get us off track.
  • God’s character, his revelation in the Bible, and our own nature correspond to each other. We are to be holy because God is holy (I Peter 1:16). To act in an unholy fashion is to violate God our Creator, his word, and our own being.
  • There are direct consequences to us for violating God’s specifications for how to live.

There is a structure to reality rooted in God’s nature, his creation, and our own being. We can choose to live autonomously, attempting to be “free from” any restriction, but we will never experience true freedom by following that path. True freedom is living in the way we were created to live.

The Apostle Paul expands the implications of this freedom more fully. See especially Romans 6:18f where we are said to be “freed from sin” so that we can be “slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18). Later, he writes that we are “freed from sin” to be “enslaved to God” (Rom. 6:22). Being “enslaved to God” leads to “eternal life” (vs. 22 and 23) and a fullness of life in the present time.

Freed from Sin, Freed from Death

We are not only freed from sin but also freed from death. Christ has now freed us from the power of death. Note that, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting? …but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:54-57). We may fear dying but need not fear death itself.

We are also freed from the Law (Romans 7:3-6). It is not that the Law is bad. In fact, it is said to be “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). The Law is even said to be “spiritual” (Romans 7:14).

What are we, then, “freed from”? We are freed from trying to earn our salvation, from duty as a wearisome practice, from the condemnation in our own nature, from having disobeyed the Law.

We are not “under the Law but under grace” in that sense (Romans 6:14). But it is not a contradiction of this when Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” We are now freed from the condemnation and external adherence to the Law in order to now serve out of hearts full of grace, out of desire (not merely duty) and joyous obedience.

We are now called to freedom. Paul writes in Galatians that, “it was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal. 5:1) and “you were called to freedom” (Gal. 5:13). We now experience the glorious liberty of being children of God (Romans 8:21). We have the Spirit and “where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (II Corinthians 3:17).

We are free but nevertheless subject to the “law of liberty” (James 1:25; and again in James 2:12, the “law of liberty”). Peter Davids says of James’s phrase,

He feels perfectly comfortable with enjoying grace within the structure of ethical rules.

 Similarly, Alec Motyer maintains,

When we come into bondage to the Word of God we come into freedom, because the Word liberates us from the lustful pull of our own nature, and brings us on via the pathway of hard obedience, into new realms of living for God. It is the Law of Liberty.

Law and liberty are not contradictory. Just as a train needs tracks in order to experience “trainness,” and a car needs manufacturers’ specifications to continue in its “carness,” so humans need to follow the Creator’s manual of guidelines to experience “humanness.”

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