We all have childhood experiences that have shaped us. One such experience for me was watching my parents fight their way out of debt after a job loss and a move across the state. My parents portrayed this set-back as an adventure, and to them it was, for they had both grown up during the Great Depression. Then to top it off, my dad spent almost four years in North Africa and Europe during World War II. Times were tough in those days, so this current life-adjustment was small potatoes compared to their previous history.
Yet, what seemed like a bump-in-the-road to my parents – selling their dream home, moving us back to their hometown, and buying a smaller “fixer-upper” house, put its mark on me as a child. It left me with a fear of being in debt. I dreaded being obligated to someone who would have power over me. A dictionary definition of “obligation” bears this out:
The action of binding oneself by a social, legal, or moral tie – a duty or requirement that compels one to a certain course of action.
The words that grate on me in this definition are: “binding,” “duty,” and “requirement.” I do not like these concepts because they threaten my freedom to follow my own course. So, as a young man living on my own, I worked hard and saved, saved, saved. My debt phobia caused me to pay off my first car loan a year early. I lived a no-frills Spartan lifestyle as I was determined to preserve my freedom. Yet, when I began my studies for the ministry, I had to set my debt-fear aside as school and living expenses ate up my bank account faster than I could replenish it.
There is an interesting paradox when we look into the Bible at the issue of “obligation” verses “freedom.” The Bible tells us that as God’s children, we can only be “free” when we are “obligated” – obligated to God and his gracious dealings with us in Jesus Christ. In God’s economy, we are not free at all unless we are debtors to his grace given freely in Christ; set free to live as his children, dependent on him, experiencing his friendship with us and purpose for us. Without God’s liberating grace, we are just slaves to our old sinful natures, and fodder for the devil, as Helmut Thielicke observes,
The devil lives in the medium of love of self. I do not love the devil by name, rather I love myself by name – and precisely in doing this I deliver myself over to him.
So, when it comes to freedom, Romans chapter 8 is worth our careful reading. It begins with God’s absolution, “there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1) and ends with his tight embrace, “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:39). Between these two statements, the Apostle Paul explains that being a debtor to God’s grace sets us free to live with him.
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, (Rom 8:2-4, NASB)
The face of God’s liberating grace is the face of Jesus Christ, who lived the perfect law-abiding life in the flesh that we could never live, and then paid our sin-debt off in his flesh by dying in our place on the cross. This liberator has changed everything for us. Reading on in Romans 8 we encounter ourselves in him, as former slaves but now adopted into God’s loving family,
For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons and daughters by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom 8:15-16, NASB)
In Christ, we live beneath an open heaven having the definitive proof in the cross of Christ that God is outrageously for us, not against us. Afterall, what more could God do than to give his own Son to demonstrate that he is fully invested in us?
He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Rom 8:32)
We even get a new perspective on time as we are given vision to see ourselves as God sees us, on his timeline, stretching from his foreknowledge of us, to his justifying us, to his glorifying us (Rom 8:28-29). Seeing our lives from God’s eternal perspective changes our worldview and gives us eyes to see our lives in the here-and-now as lived out against the backdrop of God’s eternity. So profound is this perspective that it even changes our view of hardships experienced in this fallen world,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18, NASB)
This spring, as we watch our world come back to life, celebrate God’s gracious actions for us in Christ for they have brought us true freedom. Revisit the cross of Christ and his empty tomb, for these are the acts of God’s grace by which he has made us into his free children – be bound to this, be free, and live! To God be the glory.