What is the scariest word in the Bible? What word stirs up the most anxiety amongst believers? Whenever I ask Christians this question the most common answers are: "judgment," "wrath," "damnation," and, "hell." And as much as those words can evoke horrible images from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, they are more the consequence than cause of a Christian's troubled conscience. No, the most terrifying word in the Bible for baptized sinners is "freedom."
The French Enlightenment worked this out politically several centuries ago. Rather than keep propping up monarch after monarch, which always gave rise to revolution amongst a citizenry who demanded more freedom from tyranny, politicians and philosophers realized that offering the common man a choice from a group of pre-selected candidates would pacify the population. In this way, the ruling class maintained power and influence without the messiness of having to put down another revolt. The people got to elect their leader now. They received the freedom to elect their political leader, they now had (in small part) the freedom they had always desired. And the result? At the first hint of difficulty or crisis people could not give back their freedom fast enough. People, it turns out, love the idea of freedom, just not the actual, real messy consequences that come with it.
Likewise, in the church, Christians love the idea of Christian freedom, they enjoy listening to it sermonized about come Sunday, but when the first temptation or affliction comes, they demand to be told what to do to solve their problem. They insist someone give them a list of rules to follow to escape their malady. Freedom, they argue, just opens sinners up to more temptations, more sin, more difficulty escaping damnation and hell.
But is true Christian freedom the freedom to be tempted by sin? Is too much freedom a one-way road into hell? Only if the basis for Christian freedom is not Christ Jesus. Christian freedom only leads to bondage to sin and death if it is not moored by the power of the Gospel. And that is what Christians so often ignore. The preacher whom Jesus chooses and sends to deliver the good news of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is THE power of God unto salvation for ALL who believe.
In Christ we are freed to be for our neighbor without fear of sin and damnation falling upon us.
When the Gospel of Christ is preached the Spirit is moving and active, penetrating into ear holes, plunging the Word of God into our heart and down into our very marrow. The Gospel sets us free to be people of God. It does not set us free from our heavenly Father and His will, it draws us in, binding us to our God in the most intimate way imaginable. We are set free by the Gospel to be in Christ, and in Christ we are freed to be for our neighbor without fear of sin and damnation falling upon us because God tempts no one to sin..
We fear freedom, true Christian freedom, because we fear ourselves. We are wholly bent on standing in God's place, to become gods in God's place. Unfortunately, even though we are like God knowing good and evil, we are not God. This means that when our flesh is overcome by the power of sin we cannot save ourselves. We cannot reverse engineer the hurt and harm we do to ourselves, family, friends, and neighbors. We cannot forgive ourselves, or receive an unconditional absolution that will calm our terror-stricken conscience. We can only go from bad to worse. So we treat freedom as a curse word because we are not turned toward Golgotha where Jesus becomes sin for us that we may be declared the righteousness of God.
Instead, we erect false gods, gods that give us rules to live by, rewards to pursue, and threats of damnation to work around.
True Freedom in Christ
But, in Christ, freedom is truly freeing. In Christ, freedom means we have a heavenly Father and we are His dear children. In Christ, freedom means we don't have to worry about the scoreboard. We are in, not out, and Jesus' bloody suffering and death sealed the deal for us one time, for all time. Freedom in Christ means we are set free to love and serve our neighbors, come what may, not so they can serve as stepping stones by which we ascend heavenward, holy people climbing Jacob's ladder, but loved by the Good Shepherd we therefore love as we have been loved. And when we mess it up—and we inevitably will (sinners that we are)—we are welcomed home by our Father who dresses us in His Word, in the blood of the Lamb, and throws a feast for us every single Lord's day!
True freedom in the Gospel draws us closer to Savior Jesus.
True Christian freedom is not a fearful thing, a land mine strewn battlefield on which God intends to destroy us. True Christian freedom is the power of the Gospel that sets people free to worship and love their heavenly Father and to serve their neighbor in grace, mercy, and kindness. It is freedom grounded in the forgiveness of sin. True freedom doesn't set us free to flee God, or godly behavior. True freedom in the Gospel draws us closer to Savior Jesus who will be all in all for us just as He promises. The scariest word in the Bible, it turns out, is the key that opens our jail cell and announces that we have received a one time for all time commuting of our sentence, because when the Son says we are free, we are free indeed. Free in Christ to laugh and cry, love and be angry, despair and hope, sing for joy and wail in lament, worship God and give up our spot in church to our neighbor.
We are free in Christ because we are forgiven, covered in the blood of the Lamb, today and always.