Freedom is a treasured concept and an important word in our vocabulary. We use it in a variety of ways including; freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, political freedom, financial freedom, etc., etc. Each of these is wonderful, but history shows us they can be diminished or even lost if one does not remain vigilant. However, there is a freedom that cannot be lost because it is the birthright of every person who is, “In Christ.” Jesus says; “If the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.” (Jn. 8:36) The Apostle Paul confirms that but adds a warning. “…Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free…” (Gal. 5:1) It’s important to recognize he does not warn us to; “make sure you retain your salvation,” because salvation was guaranteed when Jesus gave us his Holy Spirit. (Eph. 1:13-14). Instead, Paul’s warning to, “make sure that you stay free,” alerts us to be watchful because we have a tendency to drift or be led into a performance-oriented faith, which is the opposite of spiritual freedom. Most believers would not accept teaching that is explicitly legalistic, but it often happens unknowingly. That’s because it’s frequently cloaked in language that sounds spiritual but promotes condemnation rather than freedom. And Scripture is clear that condemnation is never from Christ. (Rom. 8:1)
Regrettably, I didn’t pay attention to Paul’s admonishment to, “make sure that you stay free,” and there were consequences. I will explain later why I believed and taught new covenant grace but was slowly losing my spiritual freedom. Now, after more than fifty-five years of church and Para-church leadership, I’m convinced that a significant number of Christians have a similar experience. It’s sad, but like me, most of them are unaware that it has happened to them. This motivates me to share a bit of my personal journey in the hope that it will help believers recognize and experience the freedom they already possess. I will share with you some of the roadblocks, dead ends, and religious cul-de-sacs that I encountered before God graciously taught me how to live a life of freedom in Jesus.
In every area of my life, education, sports, business and even the church, I learned that “acceptance is based on performance.” Even though I knew and believed in the doctrine of grace, I unconsciously allowed this concept to influence my spiritual life. This was in spite of the fact that I was in a great church with a Pastor who was an excellent Bible teacher. He taught that under the new covenant, salvation is obtained by grace through faith and that Jesus sets us free from the law of sin and death. (Rom. 8:2) He often spoke about avoiding any form of legalism because our acceptance is not based on our efforts but rather on the finished work of Christ on the cross. In spite of the fact that I strongly believed “salvation is not by works,” (Eph. 2:8-9) something caused me to subconsciously develop the view that it was by my efforts that “sanctification” was accomplished. I think it was because “spiritual disciplines” and living by Biblical principles were promoted as the way to spiritual growth and Godliness. This caused me to be more concerned with the external than the internal, with “doing” vs. “being.” Many who read this have had a similar church experience, and they like me turned out to be less than free. Since many of our churches have correct doctrine and the best of intentions, why did this happen to so many of us? Each church and each individual have their own story, but there are some experiences that are common to all believers.
It’s my considered opinion that one of the most significant is the sheer volume of input we receive over time. The commonly used phrase “information overload” comes to mind. Every story in the Bible contains several spiritual principles, and they become material for sermons. Every sermon has either a new list or an old list of Godly principles to live by, backed up by scripture. These ideas are also reinforced in most of the places we receive spiritual input. Like, Pastors, Sunday School teachers, guest speakers, retreats, books, Bible studies, etc. They explain the scriptures and normally end with an application or two.
I acknowledge that it isn’t intentional, but we are led to believe that a serious follower of Jesus should be living by ALL those Biblical Principles and spiritual disciplines. After we’ve been a believer for a few years, this can amount to thousands of Biblical principles that we have been urged to incorporate into our lives. Each person has a different response, but the typical result is that his or her spiritual freedom begins to slip away.
My response was to take copious notes, read books, go to conferences, and try to live by all that was taught. I had a quiet time every morning, kept a prayer list and prayed often, fasted one day a week for several years, memorized lots of Scripture and never missed Sunday school or church. Our church was quite large with a wide array of activities, and I was encouraged to get involved, so I did. The following is a partial list of my activities over those years. They had an emphasis on evangelism and discipleship, so after I was discipled by a man on the staff of the Navigators, I discipled 84 men…By the book. The church had a class on “Life Style Evangelism” so I took it and eventually taught the class using a book by that name written by Joe Aldrich. Additionally, I taught a large adult Sunday School class, led the Sunday evening High School group of a hundred and fifty kids, had a couple’s home Bible Study, and a small men’s group. Our church had several ministries to the homeless, so once a month I spent a day with the Union Gospel Mission in the inner city. Eventually, I became an elder of that church, and later, Chairman of the Board of Elders. During the 60’s and 70’s, I was very involved with the activities of Campus Crusade for Christ, The Navigators, and for ten years, led a weekly Young Life club at a local high school.
There must be people who can retain spiritual freedom while having this amount of ministry. However, I believe their numbers are few. That’s my conclusion after conversations with hundreds of people including many pastors and senior leaders of large international ministries. I mention all my activities to illustrate that even though I diligently followed all the teaching I received, it slowly took away my spiritual freedom. This happened even though I enjoyed the activities and received lots of affirmation and by most people’s standards, was highly successful with great results. That may be your experience as well, but I wonder if like me, you occasionally have a sense that something is not quite right. In a series of conversations with Dick Halverson, one of my mentors, his questions changed my life. They made me realize that Jesus was not the center of my life, “Ministry for Jesus” was. When that hit me, I was shocked that ministry had become the central focus of my life, because that was never my intention. This and several situations caused me to rethink the motivation for my spiritual activities.
After a few months of prayer and reflection, I concluded that I had neglected to nurture my heart connection with Jesus and had focused on outreach and discipleship, Bible study and correct interpretation of the Bible. I also enthusiastically encouraged these activities for those I was influencing. At the time, I would have been defensive if I had been accused of promoting a structured (legalistic) approach to following Jesus. However, I now believe that is exactly what I was doing. Over the years, I had unintentionally allowed myself to place an inordinate focus on correct doctrine and activities for Jesus. The result was that the freedom I’m writing about was missing. I now know that the focus of a “Christ centered life” is not ministry. The focus of a “Christ centered life” is a “Christ centered life.” Jesus didn’t ask us to devote ourselves to ministry; He asks us to devote ourselves to Him. For the serious, committed believer, the greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is often, service for Him.
Others and I think they are in the majority, have a different reaction to drinking from a fire hose of spiritual input. They give mental assent to what is taught but don’t try to incorporate every point into their life. Since they agree with the teaching but don’t act on all of it, the majority of Christians live their lives with a constant low-level sense of guilt. Most of this low-grade guilt falls under the ambiguous category of “not doing enough” or “not doing it right.” Both the Harris and Gallup polls indicate that this represents around ninety percent of the church. Even though I was more involved in ministry than my peers were, I still had the thought once in awhile, “am I doing enough.” You know you are not free spiritually if you feel like you don’t quite measure up. (i.e., not reading the Bible, praying, witnessing, giving or serving enough, etc.)
I’ve discovered that some pastors and teachers in their most honest moments have a little guilt because they are not living all they teach. Some years ago, I was meeting with a friend who is a Southern Baptist pastor in Texas. He and his church have a strong emphasis on personal evangelism, and he gives an altar call in every service. His people are regularly challenged that the “Great Commission” is a personal mandate for every believer, and they should be winning their neighbors to Christ. (Mat. 28:16-20) When that subject came up in our conversation, I casually asked him if he had ever led anyone to Christ outside the pulpit. He got very quiet, tears filled his eyes, and he said; “no, and I have felt guilty about that for years.” That led to quite a discussion about my own experience of feeling guilty about not living all that I had been taught.
I shared how my heart had yearned for some resolution even before I knew that this internal longing was to experience the reality of my spiritual freedom. As I prayed about this, I was hoping for an immediate answer, but it came slowly over time. It was a series of little aha-moments instead of a big aha-moment. One was when a friend of mine returned after spending three weeks with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He said that as he was leaving, he asked, “How can we pray for you.” Her answer was; “Please pray that my ministry to the poor won’t hinder my intimacy with Jesus.” Another was when she spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. where I heard her twice introduced as; “A woman who has devoted her life to the poor.” Her response each time was, “Sir, you completely misunderstand me, I am not devoted to the poor, I’m devoted to Jesus, and He asked me to help the poor.” At the time, I felt confident that God would approve of everything I was doing, but after hearing that, it made me wonder if the Lord would have the same evaluation.
One of the bigger aha-moments was in the middle of a sermon when the Lord dropped a thought into my head; “You should listen to spiritual input and the Holy Spirit at the same time.” I now know that this is crucial in order to retain spiritual freedom. The change that this brought was not that I stopped studying the Bible, listening to preaching, teaching, etc. It was that I needed to respond to the Holy Spirit, not the speaker’s list of Biblical principles or Godly things to do. What I had to learn is that not everything taught is meant for me, at that point in time.
Therefore, I have learned to use the metaphor of a tuning fork to help me evaluate spiritual input. If you strike a 440 cycle tuning fork (Musical note A) and hold another un-struck 440 cycle tuning fork next to it, without touching, resonance will cause the second one to vibrate in sympathetic vibrations. However, if you hold a tuning fork of a different frequency next to it, it will not vibrate. I believe that sermons, books, Bible studies, retreats, etc., are simply people striking tuning forks. They can be proclaiming the truth, but I am to be obedient only when the Holy Spirit causes a specific point to resonate with my spirit. Like the tuning fork, they are emitting a true signal, but my response is to be led by the Holy Spirit rather than take notes, and try to incorporate them into my life. My job is to listen with a desire to be obedient to what the Holy Spirit impresses on my heart.
Now when I hear a passionate, inspiring teaching or sermon, I don’t assume that I must respond to every challenge. That is especially true when the emphasis is on the heartbreaking stories of people in distress or difficulty around the world. My thought at those times is to listen with an open spirit expecting that if God wants me to respond to something, He will speak to me. My experience is, sometimes He does, and often He does not. I believe this is the way Jesus lived, so I take 1st John 2:6 seriously, “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.” I can’t do that perfectly but thinking about how He responded to his surroundings has helped me immensely. Let me give a couple of illustrations. He must have felt compassion for the multitude of people at the pool of Bethesda, but he only healed one and left. He must have walked by hundreds of lepers and blind people but only healed a few. Many people went to bed hungry when He had the power to make bread out of nothing. Or how many people died during His three years of ministry. We obviously don’t know the answer to that question, but we know more died than He raised from the dead. Point……Major Point; Need did not drive Jesus, he responded only to the will of the Father. (Jn 5:30) Scripture calls us to live like this, but it’s only possible when we learn to “walk in the Spirit.” (Gal 5:16)
Let me bring this to a close with a couple of cautions. We live in America that is known as the “land of the free.” However, we know that if our freedom is not used responsibly, it will be destructive to society, and it’s the same for spiritual freedom. That’s why Scripture encourages us to embrace our freedom in Christ, but use it wisely and for the good of others.
“Be careful that you exercise your freedom, so it does not become a stumbling block for others.” (1 Cor. 8:9)
“Live as people who are free, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Pet. 2:16)
“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal. 5:13)
My prayer is that these thoughts will help someone begin the process of responsibly embracing their freedom in Christ. Ask God to help you understand and appropriate your freedom, then RELAX; “For it is God who works in you, to will and to act according to His good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13) Whatever captures your attention captures you, so concentrate on Jesus, not a list of things to do. He will tell you what the first step is, then, be obedient to that and He will give the next step. It’s called walking in the Spirit, which brings the abundant life that the Apostle speaks of in John 10:10.
Additional unconnected thoughts about maintaining your freedom in Christ.
Here’s a verse to help you chose the right setting for your spiritual input. “For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17) If spiritual freedom isn’t emphasized where you worship, you should find a place where it is. Your pastor/teacher may be called to focus on the poor, evangelism or missions, and may with passion, challenge you to do the same. However, unless the Lord leads you to do so, don’t respond to the challenge. We follow Jesus, not men.
Jesus said; “…You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free”(Jn 8:32) Secular people use that phrase often, by which they mean information that is true. Let me state emphatically that facts even though true, will not set you free, and that also applies to the Bible. Since the words of the Bible are true, many people act as if it means; “you shall know the Bible, and the Bible shall set you free.” The Bible is meant to lead you to Jesus who said; “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” (Jn. 14:6) Truth is a person not information about Him. Only Jesus can set us free, not correct doctrine or even the trustworthy words in the Bible about Him.
Another contributing factor to the loss of our freedom happens when we compare ourselves with others in our church, small group, books or TV. The Apostle Paul says; “why are you so foolish as to compare yourselves one with another.” (2 Cor. 10:12) If you come out unfavorable, it usually doesn’t inspire new heights of faithfulness. Instead, it makes you feel that you aren’t as valuable to God as the others are. Ironically, if your comparison causes you to see yourself as living by a higher standard, it usually leads to spiritual pride, so avoid comparisons at all costs.
One of the greatest threats to spiritual freedom is mixing the old and new covenant, which the Bible calls, Spiritual Adultery. This is as old as the First Century Church, which struggled with this. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul addressed it in verse six of the first chapter. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the …grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” He goes on to tell us that the “different gospel” is the mixing of “Works and Grace,” and God uses some very harsh words about this. As believers, we are the bride of Christ, which means that we’re married to Jesus and He’s very jealous. Therefore, when we have an affair with the law (Works), God calls it Spiritual Adultery. (Rom. 7) “Whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, but we are not under the Law, but under grace”(Rom. 6:14) Many believers are suffering the negative consequences of committing spiritual adultery. (I.e., Mixing the old and the new covenants)