Christian Freedom May Not Mean What You’ve Been Told

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” –Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian (1520)

Christian freedom is one of the hottest spiritual topics today. To folks accustomed to moralistic Christianity and sets of rules that guide Christian conduct, Christian freedom is oftentimes a Copernican discovery, a worldview revolution. The gospel does not exist to make people buttoned-down and morose, grimly discharging duty to the divine, but explodes in the human heart, liberating it to live joyfully in Christ. Shame and guilt and moralism are alike defeated in Christ.

This is a profound biblical idea. Consider the simple translation of Galatians 5:1 by the NIV: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” This sentence unlocks the prison door of the heart. As believers, we are fundamentally free. We are in Christ, and he is freedom itself.

So this is a glorious truth, one that great theologians like Luther affirmed and championed. I love this concept. It has been freeing for me on a personal level. I’ll teach it and preach it ’til I die.

But I do wonder if our doctrine of Christian freedom today embraces the first sentence of Luther’s remarks (quoted above) while not necessarily promoting the second. Christian freedom is, above all, a freedom to serve the Lord. Here’s what I said in a piece I just wrote for Desiring God, “Jesus Is Not Your Sin-Manager”:

We’re free in Christ, but we’re not free to sin, or to flirt with sin. Whatever else Christian freedom means, it fundamentally means that we are free to be holy. There is no barrier to godliness. We have all we need for it through the Word and the Spirit (2 Peter 1:3).

Here’s the whole piece.

I’ll make this one point that I treated in the DG essay. Then you and I will get back to the hullabaloo of our days. Christian freedom does mean that we are free from the law. Amen. Absolutely. It means a freedom to exercise our Spirit-powered conscience on “gray matters” of the faith–what to watch, what to eat, what job to take, and so on.

But here’s the under-reported side of Christian freedom: it is fundamentally a freedom to be holy. Christian freedom comes through the cross of Christ (see Romans 6), and it is preeminently the freedom to obey the Lord. In other words, once we were enslaved to sin, before the personal miracle of conversion (see Romans 7). Now, through the regenerating work of the Spirit, we are a new creation (Romans 8). Now, we are a “slave to Christ” according to 1 Corinthians 7:22. This is a potent concept, but I think at base it means that our whole existence revolves around service to our Savior.

So, let’s get really excited about Christian freedom. But let’s remember that, in addition to our exciting ability to work out gray matters, and our full freedom from the sting of the law, Christian freedom is a freedom to be comprehensively holy in Christ. Holiness, after all, is not the duty-driven stuff of the Christian life. It is the good stuff, the joyful stuff, the privilege.

We are lords in Christ; but we are also servants.

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