Our Call to Freedom in a Time of Crisis

Struggle is one of the chief characteristics of the church in all ages. This is not so much the struggle for survival, since we have the promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world [ages]” (Matthew 28:20). It is rather the struggle for purity of doctrine and life within the church.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians affords a dramatic picture of the early church’s struggle against the Jewish levin of justification by the works of the law.

Again and again this leaven entered the life of the Christian communities and paralyzed it. Was not its result a kind of dualism, a Janus-like mentality, a looking a two directions? Was it not the dualism of and...and instead of either . .. or, the dualism of Christ and the law rather than that of either the law or the “skandalon” of the cross?

Paul must face this situation in the church of Galatia. Here is confusion, a broken unity, unrest. In such a struggle we would be greatly tempted to use the power of law and proscription, the power of “Thou shalt not” in order to clear up a confused situation. But Paul has a stronger weapon. He simply says to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brethren.”

Freedom: A Confusing Word

What a wonderful word is that little word : freedom. During the War of Independence both the Taunton flag of 1774 and the Fort Moultrie flag of 1776 carried the great word Liberty. The slogan of the war was “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In our day the slogan of the country is liberty, independence, self-government. Even Communism parades under the flag of freedom. Liberate man from the capitalism of the potentates, and happiness is assured!

That is true not only in the big world of the nations; it is also true in the smaller world of our daily lives. What is the main theme of the movie series which are watched night after night on the TV screen, such series as the Defenders, the Reporter, the Man from UNCLE? It is once again freedom. No wonder these movies are watched with so much interest. Here the heart of man finds its echo, a response to the reality behind that seemingly small word freedom.

Freedom has led men to deny God. Philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre have organized their atheistic philosophy on the basis of the statement, I am free! And isn’t this the same excuse we meet so often in our evangelistic endeavors: I am myself; I don’t need any God?

When we analyze the reason why some church members veer off into sectarianism or repudiate all authority within the church or insist on living according to the winds of their own religiosity or their own kind of “private” church life, aren’t we again confronted with the same thought-patterns: I am myself; I go my own way; I want to be free?

What is the reason for juvenile delinquency, for the rebellion of students against teachers and of employees against employers, and for the “pleasure” of defying a police proscription? Isn’t it always the same: I am free, and I want to show my freedom?

Freedom is a word with a hundred meanings, perhaps the most confusing word in man’s vocabulary. It can lead to both the highest form of religiosity and the most complete denial of God. It can produce a refined morality and a brutalized immorality. It can lead to happiness but also into the darkness of egoism, of selfishness.

Freedom Is Obedience

Paul (and his situation did not differ so much from ours) uses that specific word, that confusing word, that word with a hundred meanings, in order to clear up the confused situation in Galatia, “You were called unto freedom, brethren.” Yet Paul does not speak about freedom abstractly as we so often do. Paul qualifies that word with another which gives us the meaning of true freedom. Paul says, “You were called to freedom.” This means that we are free because God, the sovereign and independent God, wants us to be free. That means that we cannot understand our freedom apart from our understanding of God. That we cannot understand how to live in our freedom apart from understanding what God wants us to do.

Here we have already eliminated every freedom which wants nothing to do with God; every freedom in which God is not the center, the focal paint; every freedom which is not a call from God.

The freedom to live without God is no freedom. Freedom to do what I want, to sin as I please, is not freedom at all but slavery. There is no freedom apart from God. Freedom is basically of one kind—it is obedience to the call of God who is the God who seeks to make us free. In such obedience to God, who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, the church of Galatia will be free, free from the law. This means simply that in the way of salvation which is the way of sanctification and of happiness and of the self-realization of man God has taken the initiative. God has the reins in his hand, and thus we are free from all things that could mislead us. This means also that God gives us the power and strength to be free, free from sin, and thus the strength to love. “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal. 5:18)

Paul explains all this by giving a catalogue of what it means to live according to the flesh. The works of the flesh are: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, etc. Those that do these things are not free. They arc captives of the law of sin, sold under the law of sin. (Rom. 7:23) But the fruit of the Spirit is different. The fruit of the Jives of those who live in obedience to God, that is, according to the revelation of Jesus Christ and thus in the power or by the breath of the Spirit, is: love, joy, peace, patience, etc.

Stephen Andres, a German author, has written a book entitled The Knife of Mercy. In it he says also the following: “Take your heavenly share-certificate, I mean, your freedom;. it is your possession. But remember one thing; the capital that is behind it, which is yourself! It is by the calling of God that you possess what you possess and that you are what you are. This is indeed a weighty check-book. I wonder to whom you will be writing out your checks. where you will distribute piece after piece of freedom. Remember but one thing: the final check must be made payable to Love!”

We would say: All checks are to be made payable to Love. That is true obedience to God. For that is the only bank-account which carries the sign of freedom.


No Contradiction

Who in the world could ever imagine that freedom and obedience are not contradictories? Yet this reality has been revealed to us. So long as that big “I” stands in the center of our freedom, there is no freedom.

Is it not wonderful that amid the great confusion. the crisis of our time. we may go back to the fifth chapter of Galatians? Is it not wonderful to find here the solution to anarchy, to criticism of the church, to the many modern trends which are in the church? The solution lies in the little word freedom. There are so many problems in our time. We are confronted with the darkness of our own hearts, with the blind alley of philosophical theology, with the roulette-wheel of relativism, with the dark influences of a modem technical age. Confusion is everywhere!

But when we see the true relationship between obedience and freedom. as God reveals it to us, there is a solution. And this solution creates peace in our hearts. even though many of the problems remain unsolved.

Obedience is not the naive surrender of a “pure and simple soul” to a creed or book, to a great theologian or powerful churchman or good church custom or that “which has always been tradition.” The great Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, once said, “Sometimes you must have the courage to be disobedient in order to become obedient.” I don’t mean to imply that we need not listen to the authority of the church, to great leaders in the church, to the tradition of our church. But the center of our obedience and our freedom is God, God precisely as he has revealed himself to us and still reveals himself in the actual life of the church today. And the leading hand is the Spirit, not what we call spirit but what is Spirit. And Spirit is faithfulness to the will of Cod as revealed in his Word.

If there was one thing which Calvin achieved in the difficult time of the Reformation, it is this: the pointing of his finger to the sovereign God as the focal point of all of life, of all of history. Only in this specific turning unto God do obedience and freedom become one, instead of a contradiction.

A Thrill for the Heart

Is there not a place for a thrill in our hearts because of our freedom in God? To be Sl1l’e there is. But this thrill is much more than a momentary impulse of the heart. The joy of being free is more than an artificial flower, more than some Christmas decoration which adorns a downtown street. All of life becomes joy. If there is no such joy, then perhaps you aren’t a Christian at all. But a thrill can also be a lie. A thrill can be made something like whipped cream. A thrill can be a mask.

Here some questions arise. Is not our situation as Christians on earth always bound up with our sinfulness? Are not we as Christians always reminded that we are sold under sin, that sin still has a place which it occupies in our lives? Is not this the reason why we need every Sunday morning the reminder of Sinai’s law? Is it not possible that although we live in the great promise of God, we nevertheless walk in a valley of darkness with Psalm 130 upon our lips?

Yet joy in our hearts, because we are free in the calling of God, can thrill us. Philippians 3 and 4 witnesses t9 this. But such joy is rooted in a deep, faithful assurance that we are called by God even though called within the human condition which has prevailed ever since Adam’s fall.

When we realize this high calling to freedom and thus live in the Spirit, with eyes directed to God and feet planted on this earth, then we will march through the history of today—struggling, falling, standing up again, always marching with the assurance of final victory because God called us. Then, also, our lives will not be led into the slavery of legalism. And, frankly, are we all not in danger of slipping back into this attitude in which the law is directed to man instead of to God? Look at our Sundays, our well-organized but often empty Christian life, our theological patterns, our devotional patterns which we have made absolute. Indeed, one need not be a Jew to become a slave of the law. One need not be a monk to become a slave of codified religiosity.

We are called unto freedom. This freedom is obedience in God. This freedom is the joy of our heart. This freedom is the challenge of a witnessing Christianity. This freedom is the life of the church led by the Spirit. This freedom is the rock on which we rest in the storm of a time which we call the time of crisis.

Each week-day morning the faculty and students of Calvin Theological Seminary gather for chapel. Not long ago devotions were led by Mr. August J. de Berdt, who presented this message and kindly prepared it for publication in these columns. 

Mr. de Berdt was for some years a Roman Catholic priest serving in Vienna, Austria. By strange ways God led him into the full light of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He is now preparing for the Christian Reformed ministry. Some of our readers will remember his brother, the Rev. Michael de Berdt, also once a Roman Catholic priest and now serving with the Christian Reformed missionary force in Japan.