One of the things that Americans seem to hold dear is freedom. All the way back in 1789 it was clear that Americans stood for and respected freedom. It was in that year that Congress approved the Bill of Rights or the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press or the right to assemble… When we think of the Bill of Rights we think of freedom, but the Bill of Rights does not just tell us that we are free and certainly does not tell us that we are free to do anything we wish. In the First Amendment we see that we are free to exercise religion and we are free to speak our mind and make our opinion known — no matter how ridiculous. We have the freedom to assemble but within certain bounds — it must be peaceable. When it comes to the Second Amendment we see that we are free to keep and bear arms (A freedom for which I am very thankful) — there is no wonder when we think of America and more specifically the Bill of Rights that we think of freedoms — freedoms that those in other countries do not have.
When we think of freedoms that we gain from the Bill of Rights or the freedom that we have by virtue of living in the United States of America we often or should think of that freedom in terms of what we are able to do without fear of punishment — like bear arms or assemble peaceably. We are free to gather as Christians in Washington DC in support of life — we saw this not long ago in our country — thousands of people gathered together in our nations capital standing together for life peacefully protesting the practice of abortion — even when abortion is legal in our country. On the other end of the spectrum, June is a month in which we see a lot of LGBT parades and gatherings and in our country people are free to gather and celebrate together. Those in the LGBT community just like many Christians are very thankful for the Bill of Rights — not only for the freedom to assemble but for the freedom to express ourselves.
Often when we see the flag we are thankful for the freedoms that we have in the United States — we think of the people who gave their lives in order for people to have the freedom to speak freely and and assemble for whatever cause moves them. Often when we walk into church and we look around we are thankful for the freedom we have to assemble together because in some other countries around the world that freedom does not exist. I thank God for this: that I have the freedom to attend Bethel Church, to worship with this family without the fear of handcuffs — I think it is right to be thankful for that freedom — to recognize those who have fought and lost their lives for that freedom. My point in bringing up the Bill of Rights is that when we think of freedom we also usually think of freedom in terms of what we are able to do in light of that freedom. The Bill of Rights gives us the freedom to keep and bear arms for example.
Now having said this, there are many who speak of freedom without indicating what that freedom means. I think of the Lee Greenwood Song, “God Bless the U.S.A.”, “And I’m proud to be an American Where at least I know I’m free and I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me.” Of course what Greenwood says isn’t wrong he just does’t specify what freedom he is singing about — is it the freedom to bear arms or assemble or speak his mind? It is obvious though that he doesn’t mean that Americans are free to do whatever they want to do — just use that as an excuse when you are pulled over for driving 40mph over the speed limit in a school zone.
I think this is what we have done in the Christian faith — we have started to say that we are free in Christ without indicating what we are free to do in light of that freedom. I would also suggest that, for many of us, that we walk into the worship service and see the cross and our minds are immediately overwhelmed with thoughts of thanksgiving and gratitude toward our country and military for the freedom bestowed on us by virtue of the Bill of Rights and those who fought to protect it. I wonder if we have muddled what it means to be free in Christ with what it means to be protected by the Bill of Rights. I can wonder that because there are many who come into church and see the cross and think of the freedom given to us by our government not what it means to be free in Christ.
In Romans 1:1, Paul declares himself to be owned by Jesus Christ — he calls himself a slave and in that he means that his freedom from the bondage of sin and death is found only in giving his life to another master. Freedom for Paul wasn’t an abstract freedom — it was a freedom that defined him. Paul couldn’t speak of himself or give himself any credibility without speaking of Jesus Christ. Listen to this first verse again, “Paul, a servant (doulos) of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” Paul here introduces himself to the Romans in three ways and in each way he highlights the sovereign work of Christ Jesus in his life — in setting him free — in calling him to be an apostle and setting him apart for the gospel. How are we to be truly free? How can we experience true freedom? Recognize with Paul that freedom is found only in Jesus Christ — meaning that it is in Him and Him alone that we are free to live in obedience to Him. We were once held captive to sin and by nature and choice objects of God’s wrath — but now we are free from that — free from wrath — free from the penalty and power of sin. Oh that we would see the cross and be overwhelmed and flooded with gratitude that we are free in Christ — free to serve — free to live— free to tell — and free from wrath!
There is therefore now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus.
On Page seven of the book Slave: the hidden truth about your identity in Christ, John MacArthur is telling of the early martyrs of the Christian faith and writes this: “The Young man said nothing else as he stood before the Roman governor, his life hanging in the balance. His accusers pressed him again, hoping to trip him up or force him to recant. But once more he answered with the same short phrase. ‘I am a Christian’”. When this young man said that he was a Christian it had a very specific meaning. The man did not have to clarify what he meant by being a christian — he just simply answered his accusers with the phrase: “I am a Christian.”
In our world, very much unlike the first couple hundred years of the existence of the Christian faith, the phrase, “I am a Christian” carries a variety of meanings. For some the claim to be Christian is cultural or traditional. Perhaps one was raised in the “Bible belt” or in an area of the country that has a rich Christian tradition — for many to be a Christian is to be more associated with culture or tradition then the Christ of the Scriptures. For others being a Christian is about moral values and politics — it is more about defending that what they believe is moral than embracing the Christ of the Bible. For others being a Christian is about a past religious experience that really has no bearing on the present. Some might associate being a Christian with a general belief in Jesus and some might call themselves a Christian meaning that they desire to be a person with high moral standards. There are many people who fall in one of these or a combination of these categories. The fact is, that today calling one’s self a Christian carries a wide range of meanings that really render the term inadequate in a variety of situations without more explanation.
Another concern when it comes to the term ‘Christian’ in our world is that many who claim that label for themselves have little or no idea what they are claiming. The term has lost a great deal of its meaning over the years. The martyrs in the early church were crystal clear about what being a Christian meant — in fact they were so sure of it's meaning and sure that others understood it, that they were willing to die for being a Christian.
When it comes to being a Christian the Bible uses a great many terms to identify the followers of Jesus, like children of God, sheep, or members of His body. After going through these, John MacArthur says this, “Yet, the Bible uses one metaphor more frequently then any of these. It is a word picture that you might not expect, but it is absolutely critical for understanding what it means to follow Jesus. It is the image of a slave.” The image of slave makes one thing very clear that really places a dagger in the heart of many contemporary ways people understand what it means to be a Christian. Many today believe that being a Christian is primarily about us. Think of it this way, many expressions of the gospel are like a puzzle with a great number of pieces that represent your life and some people have a picture that is still in a lot of pieces and others have almost put their together but everyone has one thing in common — the puzzle cannot be finished without Jesus Christ. Jesus is the piece of the puzzle that we all need to complete us — to fulfill our ambitions and make our dreams come true. The problem with this, and John MacArthur says it well is that, “True Christianity is not about adding Jesus to my life. Instead, it is about devoting myself completely to Him—submitting wholly to His will and seeking to please Him above all else. It demands dying to self and following the Master, no matter the cost. In other words, to be a Christian is to be Christ’s slave.”
This is, I believe, what the early Christian Martyrs understood being a Christian to be — following Christ at all cost — seeking to please him above all else. When the Roman government said that being a Christian was illegal and punishable by death — these Christians gladly chose death because obedience to their master was far more important than life. Today this is not the case, and I believe that it is our task as the church to begin to restore meaning to the word ‘Christian’. The obvious question that follows a statement such as that is: How do we as the church go about restoring meaning to the word ‘Christian’? For our church — I would suggest that it begins with understanding what it means to be a Christian ourselves. What does it mean to be a Christian farmer? What does it mean to be a Christian Father? What does it mean for me to be a Christian? I think we need to deal with questions such as these for ourselves, and by doing that we will intern give meaning to the word Christian. One way we will start dealing with these questions is by working our way through the book of Romans. Even in the first verse of the epistle we see how Paul describes himself. Paul introduces himself to the Romans as a servant (doulos) or slave of Christ Jesus. Paul understood what it meant to be a Christian and he understood Christ Jesus to be his master — he was completely devoted to Jesus and longed above all else to please him by doing His will. If that is what it means to be a Christian — it has tremendous ramifications for our lives doesn’t it? Paul — we learn at the onset of Romans was crystal clear on what being a Christian means — are we?
Pastor Coalt Robinson