I once heard a praise song called "Jesus, We Celebrate Your Victory," by a fellow named John Gibson. One of the lines stuck with me. Gibson writes, "It was for freedom that Christ has set us free, no longer to be subject to the yoke of slavery." Although the line is a paraphrase of Scripture, I believe Gibson used it inaccurately.
The illustration of slavery and freedom, as a metaphor for sin and salvation, is powerful and evocative. It's not the slavery part of it that I have a problem with, either. I certainly don't dispute, nor can anyone who has a rudimentary understanding of the Bible, that unsaved people are in deep, inescapable slavery to sin. No matter how hard they try, they can't stop doing it. However, when we start talking about Christ setting us free, we have to clarify very carefully what we mean, so that we don't start spewing cliches that don't mean anything.
I think it's important at this point to observe that sin is not the only thing that enslaves humans. For example, one could accurately say that we are enslaved to oxygen. We're prisoners to it, because our bodies can't survive without it; if we go someplace where we can't get enough of it, we die. We're enslaved to water; after six days without it, we're done for. We're even enslaved to sleep, because without it, we grow fatigued and can't think straight. Sleep deprivation is a widely practiced form of torture, so extreme is our need for it. We're prisoners to all these things; we cannot escape our dependence on them, in the same way that an unsaved person cannot stop sinning. Christ obviously did not die to set us free from these things, since we are still slaves to them; therefore, he cannot have died for the sole purpose of setting us free. There has to be something more.
This is why I take issue with Gibson's claim that we, as Christians, are no longer under a yoke of slavery. We absolutely are. Although we are now free from sin, we are not simply free period. We're merely under a different yoke. Let's take a look at the first chapter of Romans, where Paul refers to himself as a "doulos" - a slave. How can this be? Paul is speaking post-salvation here. He has been set free from sin, yet he still refers to himself as a slave.
The fact of the matter is that God did not design us, as humans, to be self-sufficient or self-contained. He engineered our bodies in a way that they are dependent on a great many outside forces, lest they cease to operate. Similarly, he engineered our souls as well so that they have to be dependent on something - either on sin or on him. It's not possible for us to be totally free, unanchored to anything. Simply put, God set us free from sin so that we might be slaves to him.
The strange thing about all this is that slavery to God is both infinitely more strict and infinitely easier than slavery to sin. It is strict because all of a sudden we have a specific way in which we must live, whereas before we came to God, we felt free to live however we wanted. In actuality, we were not free at all; sin barred us from being righteous, but we felt as if we were free. We may contrast this feeling of freedom with Jesus' assertion in Matthew 7 that the road to life is narrow - it is confining, one might say, in that we are no longer free to do anything, but are now constrained to do what God says is pure, holy, and right. Indeed, Paul tells us in Philippians 4, "Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely...think about these things." We must think about these things, and must not think about other things; we do not have the freedom to think about whatever we would like. The freedom that Christ gave us is not all-encompassing at all! We have cast off slavery to sin, but we are now slaves to God, living in wholehearted devotion to him, unable to live any other way and still be true to who we are.
Yet I say that slavery to God is infinitely easier, in spite of the fact that it is much more strict. This is because the old life, the sinful life, was done under our own strength. We were as good, as righteous, as caring as we could be, and we were not capable of doing any better. Our results were completely dependent on our own efforts. However, when we voluntarily sign on as slaves to God - and what a strange concept this is, of voluntary slavery - he gives us his Holy Spirit to come live inside us and change us from the inside out. In Philippians 2, Paul says that God "gives you the desire and the power to do what pleases him." That's why slavery to God is easier; God not only gives us the ability to do what he wants, but even gives us the desire to do it, so that we don't have to fight against ourselves.
Let us not think, though, that simply because we are free from sin, we are free to do whatever we want. We are still under the obligation to "guard the good deposit that was entrusted" to us, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 1. We are still commanded to "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven," as Jesus says in Matthew 5. Indeed, let us not fall under the mistake of assuming that this life is about us at all, that our freedom is what we should be fixated on. Rather, we live on this earth for the purpose of glorifying God and making his name known; that is what we are still enslaved to, yet that is also the mission that we willingly and gladly embrace, because the master that we serve is a good master, better than any other master a person could have, and given a choice between slavery to him or slavery to sin, our desire is for the entire world to choose him.
Indeed, his mastery is good and gentle. Whereas sin is a cruel master, leading people toward pain and bitter disappointment, God is loving. He heals our wounds, strengthens us in our time of need, provides for us, listens to our requests, and accepts our worship although we have nothing to give him except for imperfect hearts. Yet let us make no mistake - he demands our whole hearts. He demands devotion, and does not permit us to serve any other master. Again, his reasons for doing so are good, because he knows that he is the only one who can provide what we need to be satisfied in our souls, but the fact remains that he insists on being our only master. We are willing slaves to him, but we are most definitely still slaves.
And thus we have to be, because at least in this life, we cannot be truly independent in any meaningful sense. If we were free from God, we would be in slavery to sin - and even if we could somehow free ourselves from both of those, we would still be prisoners to food, water, rest, and oxygen.
In context, Gibson's quote refers not to total freedom at all, but merely to a freedom from those who wanted to add things to the gospel. It wasn't for the pure sake of freedom itself that Christ set us free. It was for freedom from sin, certainly, but not simply for freedom itself, and that's not what Paul was trying to argue in Galatians 5. Paul is, after all, the one who in Romans 1 referred to himself as a slave to God, so obviously he believed that he was not set free for freedom, but for slavery. It's strange: we were set free from slavery, but we were set free into slavery. Yet if we must be slaves to something, let us be eternally grateful that we are slaves to the only master who is worth serving.
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