Freedom isn’t free

Whenever I teach communication skills to couples, I give them some simple principles and guidelines to follow. Few of us, after all, were ever taught such principles explicitly; for better or worse, we learned to communicate mostly by osmosis. But I also make sure that they understand that these guidelines are only a means to an end. The goal, as I’ve suggested before, is not be a good rule follower, but to communicate well, for the sake of the relationship. “If you have some other reliable way of reaching the goal,” I tell them, “then feel free to do that.”

Nothing I tell them, therefore, must be taken as an ironclad rule or law. They are free to communicate in whatever way they please.

Problem is, depending on what they do, they may not then be “free” to have a marriage based on mutual understanding. Freedom from doing what someone else tells them to do may not free them to improve their relationship. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much we want to do something; if we don’t have the knowledge or skill needed, it’s not an option.

. . .

Previously, we’ve been exploring the letter of James and his understanding of the nature of true faith and its relationship to “works.” He speaks of the faithful looking intently at the “law of freedom” in a way that may sound odd to those of us who think of law in the context of legalism and as opposed to a gospel of grace. Thus, I’ve tried to make a case for using the distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from” to understand the relationship between law and freedom.

In this post, I’d like to call my next witness: the apostle Paul.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul seems to deal with people who took their understanding of grace to an extreme. At the beginning of chapter 6, he asks, “So what are going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it?” (6:1-2, CEB). Apparently, some people in the church believed and may even have taught that being under grace instead of law meant freedom from moral constraint and thus the freedom to sin.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that people were advocating sheer hedonism: Do anything you want, because God has to forgive you! But at the very least, they were missing the point of why they were freed from the law in the first place: to live righteously, following the way of Jesus.

Thus Paul responds that as believers, we have been united with Christ in his death, and raised with him to new life (vss. 3-5). He uses the striking language of slavery: we have been freed from slavery to sin. But the consequence of that is that we are now free to give ourselves as slaves to God and his righteousness (6:15-23).

We are freed from the law and freed from sin. But, Paul says, that doesn’t mean that the law is sin itself. In a manner reminiscent of James’ teaching that temptation arises from our own desires and not from God, Paul teaches that the law reveals our sinfulness to us. Again, in striking language, he personifies sin as taking advantage of the law to wreak havoc:

But sin seized the opportunity and used this commandment to produce all kinds of desires in me. Sin is dead without the Law. I used to be alive without the Law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life, and I died. So the commandment that was intended to give life brought death. Sin seized the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and killed me. So the Law itself is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good. (Rom 7:8-12)

Paul continues, but I won’t belabor the point. Both James and Paul think of the law as righteous and good, as representing God’s way for humanity. The cross has freed us from slavery to sin, freed us from its death-dealing consequences, freed us from having to save ourselves through our own manufactured righteousness. But all of this has a purpose: we were freed from the law that we might be free to live the way we were intended to live in the first place.

. . .

Each May in the United States, on Memorial Day, we can expect to be reminded that “freedom isn’t free.” In that context, the saying means that the freedoms we take for granted in our country come at a price, a high cost paid by the sacrifice of the men and women who have served in our military.

But there is also a biblical sense in which freedom isn’t free. Our freedom from being judged by the law, our freedom from slavery to sin, have come at a cost, paid for by the sacrifice of God’s son on the cross. That is a gift of grace, a “free” gift because it is given freely.

Here’s the thing about gifts, though: we don’t like gifts that come with strings attached. And sometimes, we preach the gospel of the free gift of grace accordingly: Jesus took your punishment; you get to go to heaven for free! Who wouldn’t want a deal like that?

That’s not, however, the whole story. If we accept such a watered down gospel, it may be because we don’t experience both the desperation and the grateful relief of Paul’s words in Romans. We don’t really see ourselves as slaves to sin; we’re just fallible people who get it wrong sometimes, just like everyone else. And without that sense of sin, we may miss the corresponding gratitude for the cost of our rescue, the gratitude that would fuel our devotion, our desire to enslave ourselves to righteousness.

Freedom isn’t free. We were rescued for a purpose. Paul knows it. James knows it.

And they want us to know it as well.

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