God frees us – twice

Are we ever really free? Yes. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we’re freed twice over. His death frees us from our life of slavery to sin, and his resurrection frees us to his life of “living to God,” Romans 6:10. We’re “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” verse 11. We live in two worlds, therefore – this world and Jesus’ world – but because we’re “united with him in his resurrection,” verse 5, our “body of sin might be rendered powerless,” verse 6, meaning this world need have no power over us, whatsoever.

So we’re totally free – right now – to live the life Jesus lives. The gates to that life, that sin had constantly closed to us before, are now wide open. So what does that make us think? The doors are open, we can enter straight in, with no guards barring our way or asking for identification. Well Paul’s reaction was, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires,” or be “instruments of wickedness” anymore, verses 12-13. To let sin get a look-in is like rushing back through the gates into the old world again.

But we’ve already experienced that world. We know what it’s like. It constantly flooded our brains with stupid thoughts and evil desires. And how often did we become instruments of wickedness, making other people’s lives miserable by our stupid actions and thoughtless comments? We know that world all too well. It’s horrible. So dump it, Paul says, and try the new world instead, where it’s possible to be an “instrument of righteousness,” verse 13.

But how is it possible?

It’s been made possible by Jesus uniting us with him in his resurrection. He’s actually got us “living with him,” verse 8, meaning we’re in his presence all the time, where he can influence us directly, just like sin used to influence us directly before. We are literally under his control now, as much as sin used to control us before.

But what a different master we’ve got in Jesus, because under his influence he creates a lovely new heart in us, that “comes alive to God,” verse 11, to all the wonders of the mind, heart, love, grace and mercy that God is. This is what he so desperately wants us to see, because he’s seen and felt what God is like throughout eternity, and he loves it. So he’s a slave-driver all right, relentlessly filling our minds with what God is like, enabling us to love God as he does.

But that’s God’s gift to us “in Christ Jesus our Lord,” verse 23. And it’s ours all day every day, and forever.

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Free to live in God’s dimension, now

Slavery, to Paul, isn’t all negative. Slavery to sin is all negative, yes, but not slavery to righteousness. In Paul’s mind, slavery takes on a good meaning when applied to righteousness, but not when it applies to sin. How come?

It’s because of what righteousness isand what it does for us. So, what is “righteousness”? It’s defined in Romans 6:17 as “wholeheartedly obeying the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” It’s a love for everything that God is and says. And what does that do for us? Verse 22, “the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” So living a life of righteousness – or loving everything there is about God – leads to eternal life, a world that sin never let us get a look in on.

And when does this new world of eternal life open up to us? When we’re righteous. So if we’re righteous now, we enter eternal life now, which makes total sense, because what’s the point of God freeing us from a life in slavery to sin if there’s no alternative life we can enter instead? But there is an alternative, Paul says – it’s eternal life, which he defines as “the life HE (Jesus) lives,” verse 10.

Slavery to righteousness, therefore, has a benefit sin doesn’t have. Sin confines our lives to a life that ends in nothing, but righteousness opens up the eternal life of Jesus Christ to us. While sin controlled us we had no idea this other life of Jesus Christ even existed, but Jesus solved that for us by uniting us with him, and “if we’ve been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection,” verse 5. Once we’re freed from sin by his death, we’re free to live the life he rose to after his death. That’s the alternative we can now experience instead.

So, what’s the resurrected life of Jesus Christ like?

In verse 9, when Christ rose from the dead, sin and death no longer had any “mastery over him.” The same applies to us too, then, right? Yes, verse 11:.”In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Freed from the control of sin, we enter a whole new world where “sin shall no longer be your master,” verse 14. Instead, we come alive to God, to the world in which he lives, where no “evil desire” (verse 12) exists.

Imagine such a world where no evil, rotten desire exists. Who wouldn’t want such a world? But that’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection freed up for us to experience, starting in this life now.

Who wants to be “a slave of God”?

It’s that word “slavery,” or being “slaves to God,” Romans 6:22, that grates in the human mind. Slavery conjures up awful pictures of slaves in chains. Slavery restricts. Slavery is the absolute opposite to freedom.

Whatever freedom we experience in this life, though, leads to slavery of one kind or another. When we’re free to sin, for instance, there’s a brutal cost, verse 23, “For the wages of sin is death.” Our wonderful life of freedom comes to an end. It doesn’t last forever. And for creatures like us that age and die, that’s a scary thought. One day the lights go out.

But for many people that’s a price worth paying to be “free from the control of righteousness.” verse 20. Anything is better than having to obey God, because in their minds God denies us the pleasures of this life for the sake of some vague but unexciting future in a far off, fuzzy heaven. And who wants that? Life on the earth is so much better. It’s more real. It’s more fun. It’s more free.

But it’s only free while life lasts. That’s the catch. It may feel good at the time, being free to do what one wants without having to answer to any God, church, religion or priest, but what sane human would trade a life of potential eternity for a momentary life of freedom? It doesn’t make sense. But nor does it make sense to an atheist to trade a life of freedom for a life of slavery to God, either.

Unless, that is, we can describe slavery to God as something entirely different from the picture of slavery seared in our minds by this world. Fortunately, Paul does exactly that for us. When he talks, for instance, of being “in slavery to righteousness,” verse 19, it’s a wonderful state to be in because “the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life,” verse 22. There is eternal benefit to God’s kind of slavery. The end result is not lights out or a life restricted by death, it’s a life that goes on safely and wonderfully forever. To Paul, therefore, God’s slavery isn’t a restriction, it’s a marvellous gift.

But there’s still that sense of restriction, isn’t there? If we want eternal life we’ve got to become slaves. All we seem to be doing, then, is trading one type of slavery for another. But if you’re a slave in the household of someone who will protect you forever and share everything he has with you, which is exactly what God promises to do for all his believed children, slavery doesn’t sound quite so bad, does it? 

A life that’s pleasurable and satisfying forever?

We start off life totally free to sin. And in our growing years we can do whatever we like without any restrictions or intervention from God. He doesn’t force us to obey him, or hit us with lightning if we disobey. He lets us do whatever our hearts desire. The only restrictions on our freedom are our conscience, other people’s reactions, religious pressure and the laws of the land, but not God. He lets us be free.

There comes a point in our lives, however, when God does intervene, but only to free us yet again, this time from sin. So first of all we’re free to sin, and then we’re freed from it. Either way, it’s still freedom. Human life, then, really comes down to two freedoms – the freedom to sin or the freedom not to. So, which of the two freedoms is best?

Paul answers that by looking at the benefits of each freedom. It’s a very practical, human way of analysing something, but Paul realizes he needs to talk about this subject “in human terms.” Romans 6:19. Being human we choose what we want in life based mainly on the benefits. And why not? We live in two worlds, the world of the moment and the world of our hoped-for future, and both involve benefits. We want the present moment to be as beneficial to us as possible, and our future to be as beneficial as possible too, because that’s the way we’re built. Christian or atheist, we share the same dream, to live a life that works for us, in the best way possible.

For an atheist, the life that works for him is living the best way he can to make the moment as pleasurable and as satisfying as possible. The present is what counts. God also promises joy in the present for Christians too, but the word “life” in Scripture includes eternal benefits, and that’s what Paul focuses on. And why not? We’re finite beings, so wouldn’t we logically and reasonably be interested in a life that’s pleasurable and satisfying forever?

Paul, therefore, lays out the logic of a life that leads to eternal benefits: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God,” verse 22, “the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” When God frees us from sin it’s to enable us to experience what being holy is like instead, because holiness opens up the doors to another dimension of life that sin slammed shut on us. Doing what WE like, then, isn’t the ultimate goal in life, not when there’s an even better one on offer.

Can we ever be truly free?

Are we free? Well, wouldn’t most people say “Yes, of course I’m free”? – because what’s stopping us doing whatever we want? As religious people or atheists we all get up in the morning with the same power to be good or bad, helpful or irritating, or considerate or nasty. Religion may put the fear of God in our heads, or concern about consequences, but we’re still free to reject God and sow our wild oats. We have that power in us. Bottom line, then, we are free, aren’t we?

Paul’s answer is “yes – and no.” On the one hand “No, we’re not free” because we’re “slaves to sin,” Romans 6:20, but on the other hand “Yes, we are free” because “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.” That’s quite a statement because it’s talking of two powers that control our lives, sin and righteousness, and at no point in our lives are we free of them. We can be free of one of them, yes, but never both.

So where does that leave us? Well, logically speaking, we’d take a look at what each of the two powers has to offer, right? Which is exactly what Paul suggests, because he asks in Romans 6:21“What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?”

Looking back to the time when we were totally free to do whatever we wanted and we couldn’t care less about God or his wishes, what were the benefits of such a life? There were probably good times and good memories, yes, and maybe even a full, productive life doing some good as well, but there’s no denying the fact that all “those things result in death,” verse 21. Even choosing to lead a good life has a catch: It still ends in death. So, what was the benefit of doing all that good if at the end of our physical lives we die just like bad people do?  

And we’re still stuck with regrets too, things we said and did that we have no way of reconciling or solving. I remember one man on his death bed still regretting something he did in his teenage. He was still ashamed of what he did, and he’d never been able to rid his mind of it.

Being free to do whatever one wants has its benefits, no doubt, but if after seventy years or so life ends in nothing, and you’re still riddled with regrets, what sane person would be satisfied with that? How would that be classed as freedom? But, fortunately, Paul talks of another life that’s possible…

We control our destiny, right? Wrong…

How dare anyone challenge our freedom, right? Threaten our sacred right to do whatever we want whenever we want, and we will fight you. Dare to even hint that we don’t have free will or absolute control over our lives and we will spit fire at you. We are invincible gods who can turn our lives in whatever direction we like. Others may influence our choices, yes, but the bottom line of our human existence is that we control our destiny.

True?

Not in Scripture it isn’t. In Ephesians 1:11God is “working out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” And what is the purpose of his will? To “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross,” Colossians 1:20.

God controls our destiny, but aren’t we rather glad of it, that God is willing to work things out for us, because look what WE do (and did) with our will, verse 21: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour,” the result of which was Ephesians 2:1“you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” And “dead” means no control whatsoever over what happens to us.

In Romans 5:12, “death came to all men, because all sinned.” The idea we humans all have this invincible power within us enabling us to control our future is nonsense. Oh, it may seem like we have this power while we’re full of energy, but the strongest will in the world can’t stop a person dying, can it? And the other idea, that we can do whatever we want, is a lie, foisted on humanity from the time we humans first existed, because Scripture tells us we’re “slaves to sin,” Romans 6:6. We were all born with minds that soon focused on “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts,” Ephesians 2:3. And we all experienced that, didn’t we? And who among us ever managed to resist it? None of us did. Our sinful nature “controlled” us, Romans 7:5.

It’s not that we don’t want to do good things, or that we can’t do good things. We want to do good and we can, but as Paul discovered to his horror in Romans 7:23, there was this other power in his head “waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin.” Paul realized he had no more control over his life than a prisoner in jail.

It’s not just Scripture, therefore, that says we have no control over our destiny, it’s our own experience too.

Please close the door behind you

“Please close the door behind you.” What a final statement that is. The interview’s over. There’s no more to be said. You walk to the door, open it, walk through and close it behind you with a click, leaving behind whatever happened inside the room forever. But it’s the closing of the door that seals it. It’s like an impenetrable barrier to the past. There’s no going back.

And that’s exactly what Jesus’ death accomplished for us. It closed the door. Whatever happened in our lives before that moment was sealed behind that door of his death, never to be seen again. So when Paul said that Jesus “set me free from the law of sin and death,” Romans 8:2, he meant completely free. The door had closed on sin and death. Sin and death were on the other side of the door, left inside the room, and Paul could walk away from them never to see them again. Sin would still be a powerful influence in his life, yes, but never again could it kill him because Jesus had taken the death penalty of sin on himself.

That wasn’t all Jesus’ death closed the door on, either. Up to the time of closing the door, Paul “lived according to the sinful nature,” verse 5, meaning his mind was completely controlled by it. He had no choice in what he did, he simply did whatever his sinful mind wanted to do, the result being, he was “hostile to God,” verse 7, he didn’t want to obey God’s law, and he couldn’t please God, verse 8. But he could close the door on that too, because Jesus “condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit,” verses 3-4.

So that’s two things – the power of sin to kill him and the power of sin to control him – that Paul could close the door on. They could throw themselves at the door like rabid monsters in a horror movie, but the door would stay firm in its frame. From now on, verse 9, Paul would be under the complete and wonderful control of the Spirit, full of “life and peace,” verse 6, and never again would he be controlled by his sinful nature. Because once that door closed, that was it, Jesus’ death was an impenetrable barrier to the past.

I imagine Jesus saying to Paul, then, “You just leave those two monsters with me. Now go, and please close the door behind you.”