Does Jesus Really Set Us Free?
I was present in a group meeting recently when a new Christian was asked how he was doing in his struggle with Internet pornography. He had previously confessed his sin and we prayed that he would be delivered. When asked if he was ‘free’ his response was telling. He said “I don’t know if I’m free, I just know I haven’t done it in two weeks”. I understood his reply but was saddened that the only way he could gauge his deliverance from the power of sin was based on his own effort and behavior and not on the truth of the gospel. He was fighting his battle in the arena of the flesh and not the in faith by the Spirit. He needed to hear that in Christ he was dead to Internet pornography. He needed to hear that because he was in Christ by faith that he could consider himself dead to Internet pornography and that being led by the Spirit would allow him to walk in freedom.
I felt prompted by the Spirit to ask him to recall the most grotesque thing he had ever eaten or drunk. After running through a couple of options he settled on something (which I don’t remember). I asked him if he would ever eat that again and as you might expect his reply was an emphatic “No way!” In the same way he expressed a confidence in never again eating the grossest food he could recall eating, the promise of the gospel is that he could grow in maturity in Christ and be similarly confident in his freedom from slavery to sin … not because he hadn’t given into temptation in two, four or even fifty-two weeks but because by faith in the standing we have in Jesus as declared in Romans 6 and the power of the indwelling Spirit. That is God’s freedom, real freedom. That is how we reign in life. This is the "normal" Christian life!
Freedom for Israel
It is quite commonplace to make a connection between Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the New Testament experience of salvation. Personally I think it can be a helpful analogy, and, I trust, helpful for what I would like to share about the normal Christian life in this post.
First a quick recap - the story of the Exodus begins with God (no surprise there) hearing the cries of the Israelites. Their lives were bitter with hard labor, suffering at the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters. Upon the threat of their own death they were ordered to throw every male child into the Nile River to drown. The point I am stressing here is that is that life in Egypt was really bad for the Israelites. Then God raised up Moses as a deliverer whom he sent to Pharaoh with the message, ‘Let My people go so they can sacrifice to [worship] the Lord God’. God promises to deliver Israel from bondage - to redeem them and to give them the land of Canaan – a covenantal promise made to Abraham.
How odd would it be if this story ended with the Israelites remaining in Egypt? Pharaoh even proposed this as a compromise after suffering through a few of the plagues – “Go sacrifice to your God within the land” (Exodus 8:25). It would have been pure nonsense for Moses to declare that Yahweh had delivered Israel and then leave them in Egypt with their slave masters! Israel had to be delivered from Egyptian slavery so that they might worship God and become a people of his own possession. It is the same for the new covenant believer.
Freedom in Christ
The deliverance that God achieved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus does not leave the believer ‘in Egypt’, i.e. in slavery to sin. Paul expresses this when he writes, “knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Jesus, in order that our body of sin might be rendered ineffective so that we would no longer be slaves to sin … You, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:6,18) So just as Israel had to be delivered from slavery in Egypt in order to walk in God’s plan, the Christian is delivered from slavery to sin in order to walk in newness of life, a newness inaugurated by being in Christ – we died with Him and are born again to new life by the indwelling Holy Spirit. What good news! What a Gospel!
I remember when God made these truths real to me, what a day! But within a few days I sinned, and within a few months I really blew it. My experience of the ‘new life’ seemed out of step with these truths. Based on my experience it was only natural to wonder if I had really been set free from slavery to sin. Had my old nature really died and been crucified with Christ Jesus?
What did Paul mean?
A very common way to process this dilemma is to believe that the truths Paul expressed in Romans 6 are only partly true in the present. Those that hold to this view look at the latter half of Romans chapter 7 as descriptive of the normal Christian life. In that passage Paul makes comments such as:
- but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. (v. 14)
- but I practice the very evil that I do not want. (v. 19)
- me, a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. (v. 23)
Because Paul is writing in the first person and the present tense it is only natural to think that Paul is describing his own present, post-conversion, condition. Although this description of a way of life seems to fit our experience, is Paul really describing his experience of normal Christian life? I don’t think so – even though it may seem to line up with our experience. (It should be noted here that many a theology teacher has cautioned that experience is not the deciding factor in determining good theology).
After considering the surrounding context of this passage, concluding that Paul is describing his present way of life in Christ is simply not an option. Here are some of his statements regarding the position of the believer in Christ from Romans 6 (note Paul’s use of the past tense):
- Believers have died to sin (6:2)
- Believers have been buried with Jesus (6:4)
- The believer’s old man was crucified (6:6)
- Believers are no longer slaves to sin (6:6)
- Believers are freed from sin and slaves of righteousness (6:18, 22)
Again, note the past tense Paul uses in describing what has already been accomplished for us in Christ Jesus. I suggest reading Romans 6 and letting Paul’s words sink in. Paul’s statements in chapter 6 make it clear that chapter 7:14ff simply cannot depict the normal Christian life. It would be like God declaring deliverance for the Israelites but not taking them out of slavery in Egypt! To conclude that the struggle with sin Paul describes in Romans 7:14ff is the believer’s normal life would deny the power of Sprit-filled resurrection life. Would a gospel that imputes righteousness to us but then leaves us in turmoil, ill equipped to actually live in a manner pleasing to God really be good news? I don’t think so.
Check back soon for my next post in this series where we reconcile these messages from Paul!