Come and Be Free
Imagine a scenario with me for a moment where you are imprisoned in an old dungeon, wrists and ankles in chains. You have been there a long time, your whole life in fact, because you had been born into this captivity. Because of this, you have no idea that darkness and pain and starvation are not normal or how everyone in the world lives. But then one day, a man comes and releases your chains, proclaiming excitedly that you are now free! He tells you of a glorious King who sacrificed his own life to rescue you as well as the other prisoners who had been jailed with you and invites you to walk with him out of the prison and experience life, light, and liberty. You quickly take his hand and go running from the place of your chains, full of anticipation and hope. However, as you go out, your joy is replaced with shock as your eyes burn from the sunlight you’ve never beheld, your chest aches as it inhales fresh air for the first time, your body shivers as it feels a breeze brush against it, and while you know intuitively that there is beauty and goodness waiting to meet you, the discomfort and trauma that is assaulting your body feels like it is all too much. Suddenly you pull your hand from your rescuer and go running back into the dungeon. You pick up those old chains that chafed your skin for years, and you begin to stroke them affectionately. The darkness feels comforting after the stinging sunlight, and you’ve been hungry and malnourished for so long that you are past feeling hunger pains anyway. You see other prisoners running back in to join you, and rather than reminding one another of the insanity that loving darkness, chains, and bondage is, you all encourage one another, “The King was so nice to die for us, and certainly we should not forget his great sacrifice! But I don’t think he realized how painful it would be for us to leave our home, afterall we have lived here forever! Those soldiers bidding us to leave this place are being so narrow-minded to think that true freedom and joy only exists on the other side of these walls. When we entered that bright light it felt as if we might die, and certainly the King does not want us to experience such agony. Because of what He did, we are now free to walk about our dungeons, and even visit our friends’ in theirs, such grace! And this way we can still be near those chains that have been with us through so much. We wouldn’t even know how to sleep without them! Yes, this King was good indeed to give us such freedom, and we are truly a most blessed people!”
When you hear this story in narrative form, the lunacy of the freed prisoners is immediately apparent. No prisoner in their right mind would choose to remain in those conditions. And certainly if one tried to run back to their chains there would be a hundred people telling them to stop acting crazy and get out of there. And yet, this picture is a fitting description of what so many believers in the American church are experiencing, both personally and corporately, as a Christian culture has sprung that nurtures sin under the guise of grace and writes off serious obedience to the Bible in the name of avoiding legalism. Borrowing some of the apostle Paul’s analogies, they have been left to look and act like natural people when they have been made spiritual in Christ, drinking milk when there is meat on the table, infants in the faith when they should be adults. So many Christians are walking around disoriented by the lack of fruitfulness manifested in their lives, or worse, comfortable in their worldly look-alike lives, unaware that there is so much more to be had if they would only come under the teachings of Scripture. Sin is the chains of our old captivity, the evidence of our previous enslavement, and it is false to view the call to obey the God-breathed Word as harsh, legalistic, or burdensome. Scripture is replete with verses equating our new life in Christ and a love for God to obedience, and when you understand the terrible nature of sin you are able to see that obedience is actually a call to life, light, and liberty. Yes, it is often painful, and in fact comes through a union to Christ’s death as your old self is crucified (Romans 6:6-7). But on the other side of our daily opportunities to die to ourselves is resurrection life, full of real grace, goodness, and glory.
Is Legalism Really Our Issue?
To understand what is wrong with so many in the modern church’s approach to sin and obedience, we have to begin with clarifying what legalism actually is and the sin of self-righteousness that is behind it. Legalism is adding on to God’s Laws or an attitude of self-righteousness because you think you’re really good at following them (plus all the extra rules the Legalist is prone to tack-on). So if you are really proud of how good you think you are at being godly, or if you think you can paint a picture of holiness above or beyond that which God has laid out in His Word, then that is certainly sin in need of serious repentance. Using the illustration from above, it would be like a person getting out of the prison only to put all their chains in a backpack to carry around and fasting four days a week because it brings back precious memories of starving in the dark, dank prison they were supposed to have left. As Paul says, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh,” (Colossians 2:23). However, though our flesh may legalistically desire to boast in what it has accomplished, I think it is fair to say in our current cultural context, self-denial and severity are not what sell. Rather, pride often takes a more devious path in our hearts.
The Humble Brag of a Non-Pharisee
Today, I would suggest that the form of self-righteousness most rampant in church culture is not the kind where people are trying so hard to not disobey God that they wrongly add additional standards to His perfect statutes. Rather, it is the kind where people make a lackadaisical approach to sin their boast, believing themselves to be superior to the stingy rule-followers that, according to them, give following Jesus a bad name. Imagine the tax collector overhearing the Pharisee’s boast in Luke 18, full of its evident pride, and responding in kind with a “Thank you, God, that I’m not like this arrogant Pharisee over here.” Certainly boasting in one’s attempts at obeying the commandments are evil and heartily condemned by Scripture, but what is equally condemned is a lack of love for the Law of God and an unwillingness to submit to it. As James 1:22-25 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” Those who make a feelings-driven, non-confrontational version of Christianity their boast are experiencing the same sinful pride as the Legalist, just with a bit of a backdoor approach. Sadly, this philosophy is leaving people to live in their dungeons while congratulating themselves for not being chained to the wall. Messages of cheap grace are a gross misunderstanding of the Lord’s purposes in calling us to lives of repentance and holiness, and they spring from a lack of comprehending the beauty of Christian obedience.
Defining Biblical Obedience
Biblical obedience is defined for us in Scripture in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.“ and 1 John 5:3, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Because we have experienced the love of God in the gospel, we are led to trust what He has outlined as good and avoid what He has called evil in His Word. This obedience is born of our love for Him and a passion for His glory, knowing He laid down His life, “that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised,” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Coming out of the dungeon that was slavery to sin admittedly feels like dying a lot of the time because we are still in the flesh, still in that body that was born in darkness. Ephesians 5:8b-10 tells us, “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Like eyes adjusting from a dark dungeon to the light of the real world, it will certainly be a shock to our system to open our eyes, but akin to the kind that will lead to visions of mountains and rivers and flowers and the ocean. Putting off anything that reminisces of our old dungeon lives and walking in the Light of our Lord will lead to glorious experiences of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness that are the fruit of a Spirit-led life. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit,” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). This is the magnificent hope of the sanctification offered to us in the power of Christ through the Spirit – freedom and unveiled glory!
Go and Bear Glorious Fruit
In the famous Vine and Branches parable, our Savior said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full,” (John 15:8-11). The call to obedience is the call to glorify God and to abide in the love Christ has for you, so that you may experience bountiful joy. How could we ever find that burdensome or restrictive? We should not be content with more dungeon space when there is a whole world of gospel glory awaiting us on the other side of obedience. Consider the sin of anger. Is it really “freeing” to be getting sinfully mad at your kids, spouse, the person who cut you off, the insurance agent on the phone, etc. on a daily basis and not feeling like you have to deal with it because of some nice Instagram post you saw about how you’re “enough” and “grace”? Because that is what I see being marketed to women everywhere. In the place of truth and calls to walk in the glorious freedom of obedience there are empty comforts and passing over of sins that God does not give us to permission to overlook. What if instead we were exhorting women with the truth of Scripture to be so secure in the love of God, so desirous of His glory over their own, that they might be liberated to respond to life’s most difficult people or trying circumstances with a peace that surpasses understanding, unconditional grace to give in light of the unlimited grace they have been given, and unshakeable joy that is built upon their trust in God alone? This is the reflective glory that our King not only died for, but rose again in glorious victory over death and sin: that we might become holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). He purchased our eternally secure position as His children, making us slaves to righteousness and freeing us to live out our blood-bought identities more and more as free women in Him as long as we are on this earth, until He brings our sanctification to a perfect completion (Philippians 1:6). Rather than being discouraged by the fact that we have to battle our sinful flesh or coping with it by diminishing our beliefs about the seriousness of sin and our response to it, we can resist growing weary in doing good knowing that through our perseverance we will be blessed (Galatians 6:9, James 1:22-25).