THE PROMISE OF FREEDOM IN PAUL
Freedom in Paul’s world did not exist. He was persecuted, imprisoned and ultimately executed for his loyalty to Christ. It was under such uncertainties that Paul advocated freedom as being a state of mind. “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let that trouble you –- although if you can gain your physical freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men” (I Corinthians 7:20-23). “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:13-14). In Paul’s freedom, the slaves behave and serve as if they were the masters and the masters behave as if they were the slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9).
The first step to any kind of freedom is to adjust the mind so it can cope with adversities. The words of the wise man were, “A peaceful mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30). “A man’s spirit can endure hardships, but a broken spirit adds to his burden” (Proverbs 18:14). Paul, more than any one of the apostles, had to readjust his mind and spirit. His own religion had created a hostile world for Christ and his followers. He knew what it meant when the mind was misinformed and misdirected. “Do not be conformed to this word but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and fulfilling (teleion)” (Romans 12:2). Christ Jesus became Paul’s example. “Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
Paul’s mission in this world was to practice the will of God and his guide was Jesus the Christ. “If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). What Paul was and still is saying in Romans 12:2 is that Christians or God’s people must prove that God’s will “is good, acceptable and fulfilling,” and that He rewards or exalts those that do. It was not the impossible that Paul was looking for, but the things that make it easier to be a Christian. One does not lower the requirements for athletes that intent to succeed, neither should we do it for Christians. “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the world of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Philippians 2:14-16). “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, and serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality” Romans 12:9-13).
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21). It is remarkable what Paul wrote regarding Christian behavior in a hostile world before the “Sermon on the Mount” was compiled. It is unfortunate that it has become impossible to follow the instructions of Jesus in the Western world when it is possible in countries where Christians face persecution and death. In my own childhood and youth, because of our faith and race, we had no problem with following Paul and Jesus just to stay alive. It kept us going after we lost everything even some family members, but not our faith. Had we chosen to attach our faith to God and Country, like modern Westerners do, we would not have survived? God is not attached to any country but to us by faith and that in itself is the greatest gift of freedom. Paul himself had met that test when his own people had taken God for granted. “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
Freedom for Paul was not cosmic, universal, national, communal but personal. The whole world could be at peace; yet, the human spirit or soul can be in turmoil. The same is true in reverse. The world can be in turmoil while the human heart is calm. How then, can man who is so low on God’s scale, become liberated from his demise? God sent a man to stop the fall. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9). “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to his grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing in the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2). For many of us Paul stopped with grace. Grace has become man’s easy way of conversion. Paul was far more radical. This is what he believed. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into his death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-4).
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passion. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Again, Paul’s people did not connect and he had to repeat what he had said before. His point was that the dead no longer sin and the law has no more jurisdictions over them that are dead. Under grace, the desire to sin has to be curtailed by the new person in Christ. “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who once were slaves to sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (Ro. 6:15-19).
The burden of freedom, as well as salvation, rested on Paul’s shoulders, and on everyone else’s that follows Christ. This was crucial to Paul because humans reneged their accountability and responsibility. They always looked for a Messiah that would take care of their failures and negligence to deal with their problems and sins. Christ became man’s perfect scapegoat. All one had to do is believe and confess (Romans 10:9-10). To his chagrin, Paul began to realize that his converts were not separating themselves from their sinful ways (Romans 6:1-14). They had not submitted to God’s law and that made their behavior hostile to God (Romans 8:6-8). He admonished the Corinthians, “I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 15:50). And the Romans he told, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –- which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). The Ephesians were keen on grace, but not so eager on being blameless and holy (Ephesians 1:4-5). The reason God had been gracious to them was that He had a job for them. Sin stood in the way of working for God (Ephesians 2:1-10).
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul left the impression that God and not man did all the saving even before man was born (Ephesians 1:4). Interpreters delight in the idea of predestination; namely, regardless of what some people do, they shall be saved. Yes, Paul too was delighted, but not over his predestination. Before the world was created, God had determined to choose (exelezato) Christ in whom man can be saved. Apart from Christ, there is no predestination. Man must be in Christ, if he wants to enter the kingdom of God. He must die to sin in this life (Romans 6:8-12). To live in Christ, one has no longer any desire to violate God’s Law (Romans 6:13-14). To remain in Christ becomes a constant struggle. Paul had to continue to work out his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). He had to discipline and control his desire (body) (I Corinthians 9:27). He had to practice what he preached (I Corinthians 9:27). He had to stay in the race to the finish (I Corinthians 9:24-26). He was racing against himself. He competed against no one. And to be a good competitor, he had to separate himself from baggage that kept him from reaching his finished line.
Freedom from sin was not an easy road for Paul or his converts, neither is it for us. At the time of his death, very few remained with him (II Timothy 4:11). It was painful for Paul to see his converts return to being slaves of idols and useless observances. He pleaded with the Galatians, “How can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and seasons, and years. I am afraid I have labored over you in vain. Brethren, I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are (Galatians 4:9-12). Freedom was not, and still is not without human compliance. To keep it, we must work at it! No one will drop it into our lap. We can come to God through Jesus as we are, but we must leave our sins behind. Jesus final words were, “Nothing impure will enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful, but only those whose names are written in the lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27). The only time and place where we can be cleansed is here and now on earth (Hebres 3:7-11; 10:26-30). Leaving our sin behind sets us free and makes us a far better person. Remember, sin causes death and death separates us physically and spiritually from each other and from God (Romans 6:23; Revelation 2:11; 20:14).
Paul was also freed from religious regulations and observances, but not from the “Ten Commandments” that governs all life. Like Jesus, Paul also separated the tradition of the fathers from the Commandments of God (Mark 7:1-8; I Corinthians 11:2; Galatians 1:14). We should wonder why the translators of the Greek text in Romans 10:4 chose to contradict Matthew 5:17-18? “Christ is the end of the Law,” instead, “Christ is the fulfillment and the completion of the Law.” The Greek “telos” means to fulfill or complete that otherwise was not finished or beyond someone’s ability to keep. To end something, the Geek has the word “omega.” For man to be justified some one like Christ had to meet all of God’s Laws and requirements, in order to purchase or secure man’s freedom from sin. In Paul’s words, “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). It guided Paul’s behavior. “But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:13-14). The Law kept Paul out of trouble because it highlights the pitfalls of sin. The perimeter of sin had become a serious problem for Paul’s followers. The Grace of Christ gave him a chance to separate him from sin. Paul believed that one could die literally to sin and begin a new life in Christ. That is why he insisted that his followers imitated him (I Corinthians 4:16). It was the Christian’s job to stay out of sin or literally die to it. Christ had paid for all the sins that were committed in ignorance or unintentionally, but not for those that use His sacrifice to continue in sin (Romans 6:1-14; Hebrews 10:26-31). Remember, sin causes death and death separates us physically and spiritually from each other and from God (Romans 6:23; Revelation 2:11; 20:14).