The "Backward" Wisdom of God

Freedom and Slavery

Teaching t12601


Review series topic and key points from the first teaching:

Key biblical truths often seem backward, counter-intuitive, contrary to common sense—even crazy. Sometimes this is because they are stated in paradoxical ways (e.g., Matt.16:25)—but even when they are stated in a straightforward way they still strike us this way (e.g., Acts20:35). If biblical teaching has never struck you this way, you have probably not looked at it very carefully.

Why is this? According to the Bible, God’s truth seems “backward” to us because our own thinking is so backward! Like the people in “The Matrix,” we are deeply brainwashed and are in desperate need of deprogramming and reprogramming in our perspective on most major areas of life. The “jolt” caused by God’s “backward” wisdom is God’s loving call to immerse ourselves in His Word, asking Him to expose our brainwashed thinking and illuminate our minds.

This morning, we’re going to explore a key piece of this “backward” wisdom—God’s view of freedom and slavery. At first glance, the teaching of the New Testament on this subject seems confusing at best and contradictory at worst.

Consider these two statements by Paul in Gal.5. In 5:1, Paul asserts that Christ has set us free—and that we should not be subject again to a yoke of slavery (douleia). On the other hand, in 5:13 he calls on us to serve one another as slaves (douleoo). “You’re now free, so don’t submit to slavery—but use your freedom to serve as slaves.” Is Paul contradicting himself within 13 verses—or is more going on?

Or how about the fact that Jesus says He sets us free (Jn.8:36)—but that Paul calls himself Jesus’ slave (Rom.1:1). Peter tells us to act as free people, but to use our freedom as God’s bond-slaves (1Pet.2:16)? Is this self-contradictory?

Or how about this statement in 1Cor.9:19a (read). If Paul is free from all people, why on earth does he make himself a slave to all people?

Passages like these provoke two key questions: How does the Bible define freedom and slavery? What are the key relationships between freedom and slavery? When we tackle these questions, we discover that the New Testament teaches three key relationships between freedom and slavery: freedom from slavery, freedom for slavery, and freedom through slavery. The first one makes the most sense to us; the second and third are deeply counter-intuitive.

Freedom from slavery

When you hear the phrase “freedom from slavery,” you probably think of emancipation from human slavery. So did the 1st century readers of the New Testament, because one-third of the Roman Empire lived in slavery.

The Bible indeed stands against human slavery. It teaches that all people are created in God’s image, and this truth implicitly denounces slavery as a form of structural evil (contrast to Hinduism’s caste system based on karmic law). This is why the Old Testament law celebrated the Exodus (explain) and mandated humane treatment of slaves and their release for mistreatment and/or after six years. This is why Paul says 1Cor.7:21 and urges Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery. This is why there is no human slavery in the future kingdom of God. And this is why the great abolitionist movements in the west were driven by Bible-believing Christians.

But when the New Testament talks about freedom from slavery, it refers relatively rarely to human slavery. Instead, it focuses on two more radical and universal forms of slavery.

Slavery to the Law: This refers to the bondage of trying to earn God’s acceptance by keeping His commands. This is the way of religion—including “Christian” religion—but it is a dead-end. Because God’s Law demands moral perfection, it can only expose your violations and moral debt to God (like a runaway credit debt statement). And there is no bankruptcy option (because this would violate God’s just character).

The New Testament teaches that Christ frees us from slavery to the Law by paying our sin debt through His death – read Acts13:38,39.

Right now—today—you can be freed forever from slavery to the Law. The only condition is that you admit your debt to God, agree that you can never pay it—and then ask Christ’s death to pay it for you. When you do this, God will permanently forgive you of all your sins. This provides the foundational security for a healthy relationship with God.

If you have made this decision, stand firm in this freedom (re-read Gal.5:1)! Refuse to listen to legalistic preachers who deny your eternal security (e.g., ongoing confessing and asking God for forgiveness to stay forgiven; “backsliding” that forfeits God’s acceptance; necessity of ritual observance to keep God’s acceptance)!

Slavery to Sin: Read Jn.8:34. Sin is not only a legal crime – it is an enslaving power. When you try to make your life work independently from God, you wind up becoming addicted to the substitutes. We use alcohol and drugs to elevating our moods—but they wind up enslaving us and ruining our emotional lives. We use romance and sex for intimacy—but we wind up relationally fragmented and alienated. We use shopping to alleviate stress—but the credit debt is incurs creates more stress. Some of these addictions are more socially acceptable addictions than others—but all of them enslave us.

Jesus alone has the power to free you from slavery to sin (read Jn.8:36). He has delivered many of us in this room (including myself) from addictions that were destroying us! How does Jesus free us from slavery to sin? This is where “freedom for slavery” and “freedom through slavery” come in...

Freedom for slavery

God set the nation of Israel free from slavery to Pharaoh (through Moses) so that they might become His slaves (read Lev.25:55). Their choice to freely embrace this role was what ensured God’s power to protect them from their enemies.

In the same way, Jesus sets us free from slavery to the Law so that we might become God’s slaves. He has “purchased” you and He calls on you to freely embrace this role (read 1Cor.6:19,20). God doesn’t require you to do this to be forgiven, but it is what unleashes God’s power to liberate you from sin’s power (Rom.6:16).

What helps us to make this decision to give ourselves to God in this radical way? It is experiencing God’s love. There is a beautiful Old Testament picture of this. If a Hebrew became a human slave, God commanded that after six years his master had to set him free and set him up. But if he loved his master because of his kindness and justice and goodness, he could willingly pledge himself forever (Deut.15:16,17). The piercing of his ear marked him as a bond-slave.

This is why Paul’s favorite way to identify himself was not “Benjamite,” or “Graduate of Gamaliel University,” or even “Apostle of Jesus”—but as Jesus’ “bond-slave” (Rom.1:1). He deserved God’s judgment because of his rebellion—yet Jesus forgave him and poured out His love in his heart (Rom.5:5)! In response, Paul freely gave himself to Jesus as His slave. In a world (like our own) where “slave” was a hated word, Paul gloried in calling himself Jesus’ bond-slave as a way of communicating how good and worthy Jesus was. So with us (see Rom.12:1).

Our translations tone this down from “slave” to “servant.” Joseph Tson notes the significance of this: “In (21st) century Christianity we have replaced the expression... ‘slave’ with ‘servant.’ But there is an important difference. A servant gives service to someone, but a slave belongs to someone. We commit ourselves to do something, but when we surrender ourselves to someone, we give ourselves up.”

What about you? Has Jesus freed you from slavery to the Law? Have you experienced the goodness of His love? Will you freely become His slave (re-read 1Pet.2:16)? Will you give your whole life (AREAS) to belong to Him, or will you insist on being your own master? This is the way to true freedom...

Freedom through slavery

How can slavery set us free? This sounds “backward” because our definition of freedom is faulty. Westerners define freedom as the absence of restraint. But God defines freedom as the ability to live according to His design.

What if you were swimming underwater and met a talking fish who complained that he longed to be free from the water? Because he was designed to live in water, to leave the water would bring death, not freedom. He may think he is confined by the water, but in truth he is free only in the “restriction” of water.

God designed you, not for unrestrained self-indulgence, but trust His love by serving other people. Therefore, you are truly free only when you embrace this design. This is why Paul said Gal.5:13,15 (read). Sure, you can do anything you want and still be free from the Law’s condemnation. But using this freedom to serve yourself is self-destructive and relationally destructive (5:15 – 2 PEOPLE GNAWING AT EACH OTHERS’ TOES, COMPLAINING “IT’S MY TURN TO TAKE A BITE!” – THIS IS WHAT KILLS MANY MARRIAGES, FREINDSHIPS, ETC.). This is why the more selfish freedom you seek, the more enslaved to sin you become.

The tragic irony is that our generation has experienced more of this kind of freedom than any other (SOCIAL; MONETARY; GEOGRAPHICAL; SEXUAL; etc.)—and yet it has produced more destructive addictions than any other generation!

“Unless you are willing to experience the loss of options and the individual limitation that comes from being in committed relationships, you will remain out of touch with your own nature and the nature of things(i.e., true freedom) ... You were made for... self-giving, other-directed love. Self-centeredness destroys the fabric of what God has made (you to be).” Contrast to our culture’s exaltation of independence, moving on, “connecting” without commitment, etc.

But the more you are willing to limit your own options to serve the people God brings into your life (NAME ARENAS), the more true freedom you will experience.

This is why Christians speak positively about being “used by God.” This sounds weird to many people, because being used by anyone else is a total drag (EXAMPLES). But because God designed you to be His instrument of service, being used by Him is the most freeing and wonderful experience you can have!

You have a clean conscience (1Tim.1:5), instead of feeling soiled about how you used people, damaged yourself, etc. after a bout of self-indulgence.

The more you give God’s love away to others, the more your capacity to experience His love increases (Jn.15:10,11; MORE LATER IN SERIES).

This way of life provides the positive replacement that overcomes sinful addictions (ME WITH DRUGS).


SUMMARIZE the three relationships between slavery and freedom

NEXT WEEK: “Hope through Despair”

Quoted in Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p.18.

One dictionary defines freedom as “the absence of hindrance, restraint, confinement, repression.” Another dictionary says to be free is to be “not enslaved, not imprisoned, unrestricted, unrestrained, unhampered.” From John R. W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p.52.

Tim Keller, The Reason for God (Riverhead Books, 2008), pp.226,227.