Contrary to modern notions, true freedom is not the casting off of all restraint, but freedom from the power of sin.
The Meaning of Deliverance
Our culture today, like many before it, professes to love freedom, but freedom has been in short supply for most of history, and with good reason – profession and practice are altogether different. For the most part, the cry for liberation and freedom in the modern era has been a pretence. Because human beings are fallen and sinful, outside of Christ we are in fact slaves to sin (John 8:34). Far from being controversial, this is a fact every person knows deep in their own being. Tragically, the ‘freedom’ that the modern world craves and demands is freedom from God, which produces only a dreadful slavery and allegiance to evil: “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free from allegiance to righteousness” (Rom. 6: 20).
One of the most glorious aspects of the gospel is that it promises us deliverance (or, rescue) from the evil of the age, from the dominion of sin. In Galatians 1:3-4, Paul writes: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” The basis for this freedom and rescue is the regenerating grace found in Christ: “Therefore if the Son sets you free, you really will be free” (John 8:36).
The Greek word for rescue in Galatians 1:4 denotes not rescue out of the world like sailors escaping a sinking ship, but rather rescue from the power of evil. “This present evil age” is used here to refer to ownership or allegiance to a particular power. As John Calvin puts it, “for so long as we are of the world, we do not belong to Christ.”[i]The will of God is not that we escape creation – which the pagan dreams of – but rather that sin and evil should have no power over us as we serve God, spreading gospel freedom to all of creation, in every sphere of life. It is helpful to read Galatians 1 in tandem with Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17:
I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours…; the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.… As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
Jesus’ prayer explicitly rules out any interpretation that would lead to a doctrine of retreat or escape from the world. Similarly, Calvin continues:
“What then is meant by the word “World” in this passage? Men separated from the kingdom of God and the grace of Christ. So long as a man lives to himself, he is altogether condemned…Christ, therefore, died for our sins, in order to redeem or separate us from the world.”[ii]
Both “keeping” and “rescuing” in these two passages carry the sense of being guarded or delivered from the corruption, power and spirit of worldly ways and thinking and living, rather than being evacuated or retreating from God’s creation.
It is equally important to note that the word Paul uses for ‘evil’ in Galatians 1:4 is ‘poneros,’ from which we derive the term ‘pernicious.’ Indeed, Satan is the poneros one, who seeks to pollute and corrupt God’s world. Pernicious evil therefore seeks to corrupt, bringing life to ruin in chains of sin and death. But in the gospel, the Christian is delivered from the power of this corruption to live and serve the cause of true freedom and liberty, bring healing and deliverance to a diseased and broken world.
The dominant cultural elites of our present age, and their acolytes, are not content to be slaves of lawlessness themselves (Rom. 6:19); they want to corrupt all that is good and pollute God’s creation, drawing the innocent into their evil practices – even the church, if that were possible (cf. Mark 13:22). The great English preacher Charles Simeon drew attention to the fact that a compromised church has a false faith, which knows neither grace nor law and, as such, has no power to overcome the world:
The truth is that Christians in general differ very little from either the Jews or Heathens. Christianity occupies their heads, but heathenism their hearts.… They pretend to have faith but as for ‘the faith that overcomes the world’ they know nothing about it. Their whole life, instead of being occupied in a progressive transformation…after the divine image, is one of a continual state of conformity to the world; and instead of regarding ‘the friendship of the world’ as a decisive proof of their enmity against God, they affect it, they seek it, and they glory in it.[iii]
A church that does not have the gospel of freedom in Christ, that has no understanding of the grace that delivers from the power of sin so that we are conformed to God’s holiness in obedience to his perfect law of freedom (James 1:25), is a captive church, impotent in the face of a pernicious era. All too many Christians today regard the approval of a lawless culture as a badge of honour; they seek its endorsement, and glory when their adulterated message finds acceptance. Freedom is exchanged for slavery and the church is found in exile as a captive people.
Historically, true freedom was birthed when the gospel of grace was preached and embraced in its fullness. Where people are regenerated and freed – not just from the fact of guilt, but from the power of evil and the pollution of sin – boldness before the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16) leads to boldness before men and a declaration of freedom under God (Acts 5:29). As such, over time, Christendom gradually brought liberty and freedom to the social and political spheres of life, as gospel truth penetrated more deeply into hearts and minds. As free men and women in Christ, our Christian forebears called for kings and parliaments to be subject to the gospel and righteousness of God, so that freedom might be realised and extended in the lives of people.
This liberty is possible because, as Paul writes: “Since you have been liberated from sin and have become enslaved to God, you have your fruit which results in sanctification” (Rom. 6:22). First, we are justified before God by grace, through faith in Christ’s atoning work. But that is not the end of God’s grace in our lives. What God offers by grace results in an ever growing freedom from the power of sin – this is sanctification, where we are set apart to God, his service and purpose. As people transformed by that grace, God’s law of liberty (James 1: 25) is freedom from the tyranny of man’s autonomous law, which constitutes an ever-expanding power claim over man, by man, shaped by a pernicious spirit. When we receive the gospel, God’s law is written into our hearts and becomes basic to our new nature (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:7-12). This is progressive freedom from the governing power of sin. Because all people are sinners, as the sovereign Lord, God sets real limits on law and government. Moreover, His law does not continuously expand to limit freedom, encroaching on our lives from without, but by His Spirit he renews and converts us from within (Ps. 19:7) so that we are law-abiding, loving righteousness, and hating evil.
Mankind’s self-made law, on the other hand, has no discernible limits. When people reject God and His law, the need for binding law and authority is not eliminated, it is simply transferred from the transcendent God to the immanent world – embodied in man’s ideas, where the prerogatives of God are usurped. Moreover, without an eternal perspective and confidence in God’s ultimate justice, mankind will enforce his own autonomous interpretation of justice in this life, claiming legal sovereignty for himself expressed in the power state. In fact sinful man, if he rejects God’s transcendent government, limiting states and principalities, will seek rule without restraint and passes endless laws that multiply greatly every year in hopes of saving people from themselves and their environment and transforming the future in terms of an elitist ideal. Whilst God is content with 613 laws, summarised in 10 and comprehended by two (Matt. 22:37-38) – that is liberty!
Unlike the legalism which stems from man’s self-righteousness, God allows us freedom to learn, to fail and to grow – he needs no ‘thought police.’ But fallen man, who cannot regenerate himself or anyone else, must substitute his coercive and, he believes, ‘redemptive’ law for new birth in Christ. The inevitable result is the development of a coercive, covetous and intrusive social order which, masquerading as a form of liberation, steadily destroys freedom, because there is no other means to conform people to their ideal world. This is the great slavery of our era. The need once again, as it was in the ancient Roman world into which the gospel was first preached, is freedom from sinful man, an evil time and the ‘saving’ state, by a Christian renaissance of gospel freedom. As John Frame has put it:
Christians should settle for nothing less than the comprehensive Lordship of Christ. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. To say this is not to advocate violent revolution in Jesus’ name. He has forbidden us to take that course. But by his word and Spirit, by his love and by wise use of the means available to us, we seek to exalt him, not only in the church, but in the whole world.[iv]
This faith alone can bring the rebirth of freedom and rescue us from the power of the present evil age.
[i] John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, William Pringle, trans. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.iii.iii.i.html, accessed October 22 2015.
[ii] Calvin, Commentary,
[iii] Charles Simeon, "Commentary on Galatians 1:1," Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae, "http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/shh/view.cgi?bk=47&ch=1. 1832. Electronic resource.
[iv] John Frame, “In Defense of Christian Activism vs. Michael Horton and Meredith Kline,” Frame-Poythress.org, May 21, 2012, accessed September 18, 2015, http://www.frame-poythress.org/in-defense-of-christian-activism-vs-michael-horton-and-meredith-kline/.