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Please explain: Does Christian freedom give me the right to do anything?

For a prisoner walking out into the light after a long jail sentence, freedom can be overwhelming. He can go anywhere he wants, but he has nowhere to go: no job, no apartment, no schedule at all. After so many years of structure, choices might seem like a burden. He can do anything he wants, but that isn’t always the best way forward. It would be easiest for him to slide back into the old familiar habits, things that led him to jail in the first place.

As we celebrate our Savior’s birth and see him revealed as our Savior, we rejoice to hear of the gifts he brings us: hope, peace, joy, forgiveness, and freedom! Does that mean we can do whatever we want now? To answer with a simple “yes” or “no” doesn’t tell the complete story.

“I” dominance

Can I do whatever I want? It depends which “I” is asking. At birth we were unknowingly enslaved to sin, guilt, and death. But now we hear Isaiah proclaiming—and Christ fulfilling—“freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

When the Spirit brings us to faith in Christ, we are released from the slavery of sin and death and are given new birth, new life, new strength, and new freedom. Each of us is a new creation, clothed in Christ’s innocence and empowered to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. The guilt of our sin is gone, removed forever in Christ. Our penalty of punishment is paid in full.

And yet, sin and death remain in our daily lives. We have freedom to choose what we say or do, but our individual weaknesses and selfish desires keep tugging at our thoughts and attitudes. Old familiar habits pull us back to slavery and away from the freedom we have in Christ. We stumble and choose the cruel grip of sin instead of the joy in Christ. Guilt waits for us back in that slavery. Death also awaits, hiding somewhere up ahead, constantly breathing threats to us and our loved ones.

We are free to do whatever we want, but we want to please the One who has freed us.

Which of those two paragraphs describes who we are now? In this life, the answer is both. We are saints, cleansed and forgiven. At the same time, we remain troubled by our own sinful weaknesses. The apostle Paul describes precisely what we go through every day: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me?” (Romans 7:15-17,24). Look back and read the passage again, with a focus on each time Paul says “I.” Sometimes “I” refers to the sinful nature, sometimes the new creation in Christ, and sometimes the struggle between the two. Which “I” gets to choose?

Freedom in Christ

Thankfully, Paul already knows who has rescued him. He tells us in the next verse. “Thanks be to God , who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). We are not free from the struggle against our sinful desires, but we are free even in our struggle. In Christ we have new power, new motivation, and new insight to seek and follow God’s will, not just our own. We are freed from sin and death and free to choose a different path. We look for—and we strive for—every opportunity to align our will and our behavior with what pleases the God who loves us despite our sins.

So we are free to do whatever we want, but we want to please the One who has freed us. Paul did not want to do the evil his sinful nature wanted. He wanted to live for the One who freed him and avoid what would displease him. Paul can do that because he also received the power to choose a course that pleases his Lord. Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing, but when we remain in him, we will bear much fruit.

Set free to serve my neighbor

Paul sums it up this way: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). Now that we are God’s own free children, forgiven and redeemed by Jesus, we don’t have to work off a penalty, because our penalty was paid in full on the cross. Our eternal future is already secure.

For me, this means that Christ set me free; now I am determined to serve him as I share his love with my family, my friends, my church, and my community. I think of them before I act, wondering what I can give instead of what I can withhold or take from them. I look for people in need of food or clothing or of something more personal like a listening ear, a word of encouragement, or a shoulder to cry on. My eyes are open for the good works that “God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). I sacrifice time or money or energy in order to benefit my neighbor.

How do I know what to do?

But because we are still tempted and influenced by our sinful nature, our choices can be difficult. God doesn’t choose for us—after all, that would not be freedom, would it? His Word doesn’t give step-by-step instructions for every possible situation. At the same time, we do have principles that guide our decisions.

The broadest principle is love for God and neighbor that comes from a thankful heart. So each of us asks ourselves: What should I eat? How much can I drink? Can I spend my money on whatever I want to do or have? Can I say whatever I think? Can I do whatever I please?

All of these are good questions, and our answers are best when in Christian freedom we ask follow-up questions like these: How can I best honor the God who made me, redeemed me, and brought me to faith and forgiveness in Christ? How can I best use what God has given me for the good of the people closest to me right now? How can I best represent my family, my church, and my Lord? How can I show the joy I have of knowing Jesus, and maybe even make him known to anyone who is watching or listening?

If our answers come from hearts of faith in Christ, then Christian freedom fills our days with joyful opportunities because we want what pleases God and benefits the people around us.

Author: Eric Schroeder
Volume 108, Number 1
Issue: January 2021

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