|6th September, 1998|
THERE IS ALWAYS A PARADOX INVOLVED in tying your life down to being a Christian. That limits what you will do now you have become a Christian. There are habits you will now avoid, words you will now not say, places you will now not go and refresh-ments you would now not drink. Yet despite the restrictions, you know now you are freer than ever. The very things you once thought were signs of liberation, you now see as signs of bondage. The freedom you now have is because you are in Christ. You have bound yourself to Him, but found you are bound to be free! You sing a paradoxical hymn: "Make me a captive Lord, then I shall be free."
We are free when we give ourselves completely to Christ. For many that is a contradictory statement. We want to be our own masters. We want to do what we like, go where we like, drink what we like and all the time we are doing it we are saying "I'm free. I'm free. I can do what I like."
And in the very acts of being free you are committing yourself to a terrible bondage of drugs or alcohol, debt or bad habits or wrong thinking with the horrible result that just when you thought you were free, you were in fact being trapped in the most terrible bondage. To give your life over to Jesus Christ, on the other hand, seems to be limiting your options. But when you do, you discover you have the freedom to be yourself and to reach your maximum potential. God had made us, bound to be free! We see this in the teaching of the Apostle Paul. Paul had three objectives in his letter to the Galatians. First, he defended the fact that he was an Apostle with a right to preach the gospel. 1:11-2:21
Second, he argued that it is by grace alone entirely apart from human works that the Christian is freed from the curse of the law and brought into a right relationship with God. 3:1-4:31 Third, he proclaims that as Christians are now free people in Christ, our liberty means responsible living, through the power of the Holy Spirit. 5:1-6:10
Chapter 5:1 is a summary of all before and a transition to what follows. It is the key verse of the entire Epistle. The believer is to turn away from legalism and instead rest in Christ's work for him. 5:1"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. This verse is in two sentences: the first, a declaration of Christ's purpose in saving us "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" and second, an appeal based upon that purpose "Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery". The first part sums up the message of the early chapters. The second introduces the last chapters which have to do with responsible living.
The Jews of Paul's time spoke of "taking the yoke of the law upon oneself." The yoke was the beam across the necks of oxen used in pulling a plough. This meant the Jew had to live a life under the burden of the Law of Moses with all its commandments and regulations. To take up the law's yoke was the essence of their religion. But to Paul it was a symbol of slavery. To be obedient to the Law of religion was a burden, a weight upon the shoulders and a restricted life. Paul remembered that Jesus had called His followers to take His yoke upon themselves when they followed in His way.
Jesus had said Matt 11:28-30 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." To be a Christian was not to bear the heavy yoke of the Law but to bear the yoke of Jesus, one that is easy and light. We are made right with God through God's grace and mercy, not through our struggling to bear God's commands and our efforts to be better than other people. Even our ethical and moral behaviour is not a struggle, but a gift of God's grace. "Do you want to be right with God and lead a holy life?" Paul seems to be asking. "Then have faith in God and avoid trying to achieve it yourself. Christ gives you liberty. The other way is legalistic and a burden."
Paul picks the most treasured regulation of the Jews - the act of circumcision for all baby boys. He says that even circumcision which marked a man as a Jew, does not make you right with God. Rather it is a sign that you are living under the burden of the Law and not under the grace of God. 2 "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." Today baby boys are circumcised for hygiene reasons, but Jewish boys are circumcised as a sign they are accepting the yoke of Moses. Circumcision has no religious value, but is a sign of commitment to the Law and therefore not to Christ. It is a sign of vain human effort.
Paul does not condemn Jewish Christians who had been circumcised. But he indicates that being right with God does not depend upon anything that we do, not even the penis mark that identified a Jew. Being right with God is solely of divine grace. It is of the Spirit rather than of the flesh. Instead 5 "by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."
We are made right with God and enabled to live a holy life not by any effort or act of ours - not by traditional rites involving babies, or keeping festivals and regulations by adults. Our salvation is by faith in God's grace alone. We do not work for our salvation but simply eagerly await it. We receive "through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope." Once we are right with God, we now live a life of holiness and good deeds to help others. Our good deeds are a sign our faith has already made us right with God. Once right with God, "the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."
Our faith must issue in a genuine and self-denying love for others. We are made right with God through our faith in the Lord Jesus. Hence nothing we do by way of ceremony or obedience to the Law counts. Instead, through faith in God we express love towards others. The yoke of the Law which was a burden is replaced by the yoke of Christ which is easy and light. By God's grace, our faith in Jesus has liberated us from all bondage and given us a freedom to live as we love.
1. CHRIST SETS US FREE FROM FAILURE.
There are many who not see the relevance of that today. But perhaps Geoff Bullock could tell them of his experience. Geoff Bullock, more than any single person has changed church music in Australia. His popular songs like "The Power of Your Love", "The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit" and "This Kingdom" are sung in churches around the world. His CD's have reached gold and platinum status. He started "Hillsong" through his ministry in one of Sydney's great Pentecostal churches. But at the height of his popularity his life started to fall apart. He still believed but was exhausted by uncertainty. He sinned. His church drew back from him. His marriage fell apart. His ministry colleagues re-wrote the history of their church leaving him out. He was devastated. He withdrew from public life.
I interviewed Geoff on our television program this week. He said: "I struggled with a sense of failure for years. The higher I climbed, the lower my self-esteem. The greater the success, the more profound the cloud of failure. My life was finally shattered around me. The success had gone. I had fallen from the heights. I was publicly exposed as having failed. I was a failure. I was sure that everyone knew. If they didn't, they were certainly going to find out. Jesus faithfully walked with me while I searched for a way to resolve the crisis. I searched with all the strength I could find. I receive A+++ for effort. I broke many hearts. I was convinced the only way was to try harder. I worked harder to believe what I should believe. I found Him? Wrong! wrong, wrong! He found me." Geoff became right with God not because of what he did but because He fell into the gracious hands of God.
2. CHRIST SETS US FREE FROM DEFEAT.
One Queensland prisoner who watches my TV program each week, and who has become a Christian since being in jail, sent me a poem this week. It is a testimony to how Jesus Christ had freed him from defeat. James E. as he is known, wrote from maximum security in Queensland's toughest prison:
Free to be me, what a wonderful Saviour,
Free to be me, what a wonderful Lord.
Saved from sin's condemnation,
Saved to be free,
Clothed in Christ's righteousness,
Free to be free.
Accepted just as I am,
By grace I am free,
The gift of grace fills my life,
Free to be free.
Desiring to serve Jesus daily,
By faith I am free,
Peace and joy strengthen my walk,
Free to be free.
Inside the strongest prison cell, Jesus Christ has set him free. His defeat because of sin has been reversed. His negative and destructive attitudes that brought him to prison have been turned round to positive and constructive attitudes that have made him a new person. His earlier attitudes destroyed other people, exalted self and all that was bad and cruel. He is spending years paying for his crime. But he lives with the burden lifted desiring now to exalt God and help others. He has been freed in order to love God, live morally and help others. As Paul said "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery."
3. CHRIST SETS US FREE FROM BONDAGE.
There are many kinds of imprisonment we bring upon ourselves. My father always said he was free to stop drinking alcohol anytime he wanted. Only he did not want to until his body said "No more." He stopped but it was too late. He died six weeks later, aged 38.
This week I listened to a successful woman who offered her firm in a free capacity to help Wesley Mission. When leaving, she said simply: "I must thank you for what you did for my mother and father and indirectly for us kids." I said that I did not think I knew them. "No. They only came to the Mission once. You were preaching in the Lyceum Theatre. You spoke of the dangers of alcohol, and made the point that the social drinker was of no benefit to anyone. In fact you said they were a menace to society because they gave alcohol a respectability and a wrong example to other people. My mother and father came home and said they would never drink alcohol again. And they never have."
We are better off personally, as families and as a country if we abstained from all drugs of addiction. Why place yourself in a bondage to drugs and alcohol? "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." In your old life, just when you thought you were free, you were in fact being trapped. But when you gave your life over to Jesus Christ, which seemed at first to be limiting your options, you discovered freedom to be yourself and to reach your maximum potential. We are bound to be free! Take upon yourself not the yoke of slavery but the yoke of salvation.
HANDS OF GRACE Geoff Bullock. Strand 1998.