The Bible’s View
Why the Emphasis on Christian Freedom?
“CHRIST set us free. Therefore stand fast, and do not let yourselves be confined again in a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1) “Be as free people, and yet holding your freedom, not as a blind for badness, but as slaves of God.” (1 Pet. 2:16) These and similar statements in the Christian Greek Scriptures stress the high worth of Christian freedom and the importance of safeguarding it. An examination of the circumstances existing in the first century C.E. can help us to appreciate why such emphasis is to be placed on Christian liberty.
Before Jesus Christ came to the earth to give his life in sacrifice, Almighty God dealt exclusively with the nation of Israel. By the first century, the Israelites had been under the Mosaic law for over 1,500 years. The religious leaders of Judaism, especially the Pharisees, believed that they could gain merit with God by their strict observance of the Law according to the traditional interpretation. Instead of looking humbly to Jehovah God for his mercy and favor, these men prided themselves in being better than other Israelites and in having a superior standing with God. Their attitude was like that of the Pharisee whom Jesus, in one of his illustrations, represented as praying: “O God, I thank you I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give the tenth of all things I acquire.”—Luke 18:11, 12.
In actuality, however, the Mosaic law condemned even the Pharisees as sinners. For example, Paul, while a Pharisee, realized that he could not keep the Law perfectly. He found that, despite his best efforts, the command against coveting condemned him. In his letter to the Romans, he wrote: “I would not have known covetousness if the Law had not said: ‘You must not covet.’ But sin, receiving an inducement through the commandment, worked out in me covetousness of every sort, for apart from law sin was dead. In fact, I was once alive apart from law; but when the commandment arrived, sin came to life again, but I died.”—Rom. 7:7-9.
One of the prime objectives of the Law was that of leading the Israelites to the Messiah by making them conscious of the need for that one’s redemptive work. Therefore, after Jesus Christ completed his sacrificial course and presented the value of his sacrifice to his Father, the Law had accomplished its purpose. (Gal. 3:24, 25) All of those who exercised faith in God’s arrangement through Christ to have their sins forgiven were freed from the condemnation of sin and also from the Law that made such condemnation manifest.—Rom. 7:6; 8:1, 2.
Failing to appreciate this vital truth, certain Christianized Jews in the first century C.E. insisted that salvation could not be gained apart from the Law. Believing that acceptable moral conduct depended on strict adherence to the Law, they wanted to impose it on believing non-Jews. (Acts 15:2, 5) Such Christianized Jews lost sight of the fact that the Law in itself could not ensure fine conduct and that God’s spirit operating on those who exercised faith in Christ is a far stronger force for righteousness. (Gal. 5:16-18) The spirit of God produces love within the individual, and “love does not work evil to one’s neighbor.”—Rom. 13:10.
Persons who insisted on Law observance denied the value of all-essential faith and continued to look to works as the means for making themselves righteous. Their legalistic approach in matters of worship would have brought Christians back under an arrangement that only exposed individuals as being sinners and deserving of death.—Rom. 3:20; 6:23.
Hence, insistence on Law observance as a means for gaining salvation was really a returning to a slavery from which Christians had been set free on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice. The apostle Peter pointed this out to those who felt that the requirements of the Law should be enjoined on believers among the uncircumcised non-Jews. Referring to the fact that the Italian Cornelius and others had received God’s spirit while in an uncircumcised state, the apostle drew the following conclusion:
“God, who knows the heart, bore witness by giving them the holy spirit, just as he did to us also. And he made no distinction at all between us and them, but purified their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you making a test of God by imposing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke [the Mosaic law] that neither our forefathers nor we [Jews] were capable of bearing? On the contrary, we trust to get saved through the undeserved kindness of the Lord Jesus in the same way as those people also.”—Acts 15:8-11.
Since Jehovah God, through his Son, poured out his spirit on believing non-Jews, those who wanted uncircumcised believers to come under the Law were actually finding fault with God. They made it appear that the Most High did not know what he was doing in accepting the non-Jews without first requiring that they keep the Law. This was indeed an improper ‘testing of God.’ Christian freedom had to be defended so that believers would not displease Jehovah.
Today, too, we must safeguard our Christian freedom. This does not mean that we can be lawless. To the contrary, we are slaves of God and Christ. Our becoming practicers of sin would constitute a denial of the very purpose for which God’s Son died in our behalf, namely, to liberate us from sin. How wrong it would be to presume on the unmerited mercy that has been shown us! (Rom. 8:2-11; 1 Pet. 1:17-19) Yet, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that we gain the gift of everlasting life by the performance of certain works. This could cause us to think too highly of ourselves, as did the Pharisees, and give credit to ourselves for the work that God is accomplishing through Christ and the holy spirit. (Compare Romans 7:21-25; 1 Corinthians 3:6, 7.) Our fine works and conduct are but an expression of our active, living faith. (Jas. 2:26) They prove that we are allowing ourselves to be used by our heavenly Father and his Son as their instruments. Thus, all glory goes to Jehovah God and to our Lord Jesus Christ.
May we never lose sight of the value of Christian freedom in rendering properly motivated service to God. A perfect code of laws cannot make any person righteous. To be divinely approved, we need a stronger force in our lives than law to override our sinful fleshly tendencies. That stronger force is God’s spirit, which operates fully toward persons who have genuine faith in God’s arrangement for salvation through Christ. To exchange Jewish legalism for Christian freedom, therefore, constitutes a denial of Christian faith.