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The Key to Freedom is Jesus Christ
The passages below are taken from John Stott’s book “Why I Am A Christian,” published in 2003 by Inter-Varsity Press.
The fifth reason why I am a Christian is that I have found
Jesus Christ to be the key to freedom.
Many people are preoccupied with a quest for freedom. For some it is national freedom, emancipation from a colonial or neo-colonial yoke. For others it is civil freedom, civil rights and civil liberties. For others it is economic freedom, freedom from poverty, hunger and unemployment. But for all of us it is personal freedom. Even those who campaign most vigorously for those other freedoms often know that they are not free themselves. They feel frustrated, unfulfilled and unfree. John Fowles, the celebrated British novelist, was once asked if there was any special theme in his books. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Freedom. How you achieve freedom. That obsesses me. All my books are about that.” 1
And freedom is a great Christian word. Jesus Christ is portrayed in the New Testament as the world’s supreme liberator. He had come, he said, ‘to proclaim freedom for the prisoners’ (Luke 4:18 NIV), and added later that ‘if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36 NIV). Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5:1 NIV).
Now freedom is a good modern word for ‘salvation’. To be saved by Jesus Christ is to be set free. Drop the word ‘salvation’ into a conversation, however, and it gives off very different vibrations. Some react with embarrassment and change the subject as quickly as possible. Others react with boredom. They yawn rather than blush, for to them the terms ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ belong to a traditional religious vocabulary that is now obsolete and meaningless. A third group are covered with confusion, because they have no idea how ‘salvation’ should be defined. Talk about ‘freedom’, however, and people’s interest is immediately aroused.
A delightful story, which illustrates this confusion, has long been told of B. F. Westcott, a New Testament scholar of great distinction, who was for some years Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, and became in 1890 Bishop of Durham. It is said that, while travelling somewhere by bus, he was accosted by a Salvation Army lassie. Undeterred by his lordship’s gaiters (bishops wore them in those days!), she asked him if he was saved. With a twinkle in his eye the bishop replied: ‘Well, my dear, it depends what you mean. Do you mean sözomenos or sesösmenos or sothësomenos?’---using the present, past and future tenses of the Greek verb sozö, ‘to save’.
My hope in this chapter is that I will not embarrass, bore or confuse you, but rather that we may reclaim and reinstate this great and glorious word ‘salvation’; for it is a biblical word (it cannot simply be jettisoned) and a big word (it includes the whole purpose of God). Then we should be able to echo what Paul wrote: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16 NIV).
I well remember, as a very new Christian, being shown this verse and being introduced to what are called ‘the three tenses of salvation’. They go like this:
Firstly, I have been saved (or freed) in the past from the penalty of sin by a crucified Saviour.
Secondly, I am being saved (or freed) in the present from the power of sin by a living Saviour.
Thirdly, I shall be saved (or freed) in the future from the presence of sin by a coming Saviour.
It is a simple structure, which encapsulates what the Bible means by ‘salvation’; and it enables us, whenever the word occurs, to ask ourselves which tense of salvation is in mind: past, present or future. The fact that we have been saved frees us from guilt and from God’s judgment. The fact that we are being saved frees us from bondage to our own self-centredness. And the fact that we shall be saved frees us from all fear about the future.
1. FREEDOM FROM
First, then, salvation means freedom from guilt and from the judgment of God. For we are not only sinners, but guilty sinners, and our conscience tells us so. Moreover, our sin provokes God’s wrath and brings us under his just judgment. This is unfashionable language today, but mainly because it is misunderstood. The wrath of God has never meant that he is malicious, bad-tempered or vindictive, but rather that he hates evil and refuses to compromise with it.
We should be thankful that there is a considerable reaction nowadays against Freud’s teaching that guilt feelings are pathological, symptoms of mental sickness. Indeed, some are pathological, especially in some forms of depressive illness. But many---perhaps most---are not. Not all guilt is false guilt. A number of psychologists and psychotherapists are now telling us, even if they make no Christian profession themselves, that we must take our responsibilities seriously. Then (if we fail to do so) our guilt and our need of forgiveness remain.
Nobody is free who is unforgiven. If I were not sure of God’s forgiveness, I could not look you in the face, and I certainly could not look God in the face. I would want to run away and hide, as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. For it was in Eden, not at Watergate, that the device called ‘cover-up’ was first invented. I would not be free. Yet we long for the freedom that forgiveness brings. Nor long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candour on television, Marghanita Laski, one of Britain’s leading novelists and atheists, blurted out: ‘What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.’
‘But’, as David cried out in Psalm 130:4, ‘with you there is forgiveness.’ The only way by which we can be set free from guilt and judgment is through Jesus Christ. For when he entered our world, he became one of us, assuming our nature, and on the cross he identified himself with our sin and guilt. In total self-sacrificial love he paid the penalty of our sins. We deserve to die---he died our death in our place. In the awful darkness of the cross he even tasted the horrors of hell, in order that we might go to heaven. It takes a hard and stony heart not to be moved by such amazing love.
Secondly, salvation means freedom from the cramping bondage of our own self-centredness. I still remember what a revelation it was to me, as a young man, to learn (mainly through the teaching of Archbishop William Temple) that sin is self, and salvation is freedom from self. Sin is the rebellious assertion of myself against the love and authority of God, and against the welfare of my neighbour. God’s order is that we put him first, our neighbour next and self last. Sin is precisely the reversal of the order---me first, neighbour next (when it suits my convenience), and God somewhere (if anywhere) in the distant background.
Luther’s favourite definition of a sinner was homo in se incurvatus, ‘man curved in on himself’, and in our day Malcolm Muggeridge frequently spoke of the ‘dark little dungeon of my own ego’. For Jesus once said to some Jewish believers, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin’ (John 8:34 NIV).
Christians believe there is only one way to be rid of this imprisonment or slavery, and that is through Jesus Christ. He not only died but was raised from death and now lives ‘in the power of his resurrection’ (see Ephesians 1:19—20; Romans 8:11 NIV). For the living Jesus by his Spirit can enter our personality, establish himself there as our permanent guest, subdue our sinful desires and transform us into his own likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV). I am not of course claiming a complete deliverance from all self-centredness. But I am claiming a substantial change from self to unself.
And we have to be willing for it. During a mission in a Canadian university some years ago I found myself talking to a young lecturer. I was trying to explain to him that, if he were to accept Jesus Christ, he would have to put him at the centre of his life and himself move out to the circumference. ‘Gee!’ he blurted out, ‘I guess I’m very reluctant for this de-centralization!’
Thirdly, salvation is freedom from our crippling fears. Those who lived in the ancient world were paralysed by fear. They believed that certain ‘powers’ dominated their lives and their destiny. Many people are similarly haunted by fear today. There are the common fears that have always plagued humankind: fears of sickness, pain, disability and incapacity, the fears of unemployment, financial misfortune and bereavement. Then there are occult powers, the principalities and powers of darkness, for which it is right to have a healthy fear. There are also irrational and superstitious fears. Educated people in Europe still cross their fingers and touch wood. In West Africa they carry jujus (charms). And in North America they refuse to sleep on the thirteenth floor of a high-rise hotel, apparently oblivious of the fact that it is still the thirteenth even if you call it the fourteenth! Education and superstition do not seem to exclude each other. As for the British, a recent National Opinion Poll revealed that twice as many of us read our horoscope each week as our Bible.
I single out for special mention the fear of death. One New Testament author refers to ‘those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’, but now have been set free (Hebrews 2:15 NIV). If this writer were addressing our contemporary society, he would not need to change a single word. Apart from Jesus Christ, the fear of death and dissolution is extremely widespread. For us in the West, Woody Allen typifies this terror. It has become an obsession with him. True, he can still joke about it. ‘It’s not that I’m afraid to die,’ he famously quips. ‘I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’2 But mostly he is filled with dread. In a 1977 article in Esquire he wrote: ‘The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless.’3
Bertrand Russell tried to put a brave face on his stoicism, but seems to have had no basis for it: ‘I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive.’4 Again, he affirmed his conviction that
no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined for extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.5
Reviewing these many human fears, none seems greater than this ultimate threat of personal and cosmic extinction, whether its form will be nuclear, ecological or unknown. One thing is sure: no-one who is afraid is free. And Jesus Christ holds the key to freedom, because he died to free us from guilt, rose to free us from self and was exalted to free us from fear. Where then are the things we fear? God has put them under the feet of Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 1:20—22 NIV). Once we have seen them there, they lose their power to terrify. Their spell has been broken. I have been learning that fears are like fungus; they grow most rapidly in the dark. We need, therefore, to bring them out into the light, especially into the light of the supreme victory of Jesus Christ---his death, resurrection and exaltation.
Christians have been given a beautiful confidence about the future, for our Christian ‘hope’ (which is a sure expectation) is both individual and cosmic. Individually, we are promised resurrection bodies like Jesus’ body after his resurrection, and they will have new, undreamed-of powers. Our hope for the future, however, will be cosmic too. We believe that Jesus Christ is going to return in a cosmic event of spectacular magnificence. He will not only raise the dead but regenerate the universe; he will make all things new. The whole creation is going to be set free from its present bondage to decay and death. The groans of nature are the labour pains which promise the birth of a new earth. There is going to be a new heaven and a new earth, which will be the home of righteousness, joy, peace and love (see Romans 8:18—25; 2 Peter 3:13 NIV).
So then, the living hope of the New Testament is a ‘material’ expectation for both the individual and the cosmos. The individual believer is promised neither just survival nor even immortality, but a resurrected, transformed body. And the destiny of the cosmos is not an ethereal ‘heaven’ but a recreated universe. And the resurrection of Jesus is the ground of both expectations.
2. FREEDOM FOR
We have seen what Christ sets us free from (the negative aspect of freedom). But whenever we are thinking about freedom, it is important to think of what we are set free for as well (the positive aspect).
Let me now develop this thesis, that true freedom is freedom to be one’s true self, as God made us and meant us to be. We begin with God himself. God is the only being who enjoys perfect freedom. You could argue that his freedom is not perfect. It is certainly not absolute in the sense that he is free to do absolutely anything whatsoever. There are several things that Scripture itself says God ‘cannot’ do. He cannot lie. He cannot sin. He cannot tempt and he cannot be tempted. So his freedom is not absolute. But it is perfect, because he is free to do anything that he wills to do. The things God cannot do all come under the general ruling that he cannot deny or contradict himself (2 Timothy 2:13 NIV). He is always entirely himself. There is nothing arbitrary; nothing capricious, nothing impulsive in God. He is always the same. He never changes. He is steadfast and immovable. And he finds his freedom in being his true self as God. If he were to contradict himself, he would destroy himself and so cease to be God. But instead he remains himself and never deviates from being himself. What would the universe be like if God were to deviate for a moment from being entirely himself?
Now let us move on from God the Creator to all his creatures, and we will find the same principle operating. Absolute freedom, freedom unlimited, is an illusion, an impossibility. The freedom of every creature is limited by its own created nature. Take as an obvious example a fish. God created fish to live and thrive in water. Their gills are adapted to absorb oxygen from water. They find their freedom to be themselves within the element in which a fish finds its fishiness, its identity, its freedom. Mind you, water imposes a limitation upon fish, but in that limitation is liberty. Its freedom is to be itself within the limits which the Creator has imposed upon it. Supposing you have at home one of those old-fashioned, probably Victorian, spherical goldfish bowls. And supposing your little goldfish swims round and round its blessed bowl until it finds its frustration unbearable, and it determines to make a bid for freedom by leaping out of its bowl. If it should somehow manage to land in a pond in your garden, it would increase its freedom. It is still in water, but there is more water to swim in. But if instead it were to land on concrete or a carpet, its bid for freedom would spell death. Fish can find their freedom only within the element for which they have been created.
We come now to human beings. If fish were made for water, what were human beings made for? The biblical answer surely is that if fish were made for water, human beings were made for love, for loving God and loving our neighbour. Love is the element in which humans find their distinctive humanness. As Robert Southwell, the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic poet wrote, ‘not where I breathe, but where I love, I live’6. He was consciously echoing Augustine’s epigram that the soul lives when it loves, not when it exists. An authentically human existence is impossible without love.
This brings us to a startling human paradox. Let me state it simply like this: true freedom is freedom to be my true self, as God made me and meant me to be. But God made me for loving, and loving is giving, self-giving. Therefore, in order to be myself, I have to deny myself, and give myself in love for God and others. In order to be free, I have to serve. In order to live, I have to die to my own seif-centredness. In order to find myself I have to lose myself in loving. I have read somewhere that Michelangelo put it beautifully in these words: ‘When I am yours, then at last I am completely myself.’ For I am not myself until I am yours (God’s and others’).
So freedom is the exact opposite of what most people think it is. I remember a Finnish student at the University of Helsinki, who said to me: ‘If only I could be free of responsibility to God and other people, then I could live for myself. Then I would be free.’ But true freedom is the opposite. It is liberation from a preoccupation with my silly little self in order to be free to love God and my neighbour.
Jesus himself taught this fundamental paradox of freedom. According to the Authorized Version, he said: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it’ (Mark 8:35 NIV). I used to think that he was referring to martyrs, and to the literal, physical saving and losing of lives. But the Greek noun the AV translates ‘life’ is psyche, which in many contexts is best rendered ‘self’. Or it may take the place of a simple reflexive pronoun, ‘yourself’. In modern English one might translate Jesus’ epigram like this:
‘If you insist on holding on to yourself and living for yourself and refusing to let yourself go, you will lose yourself. But if you are prepared to lose yourself, to give yourself away in love for God and your fellow human beings, then in that moment of complete abandon, when you think you have lost everything, the miracle takes place and you find yourself’
Christ is the key to freedom, and this is the fifth reason why I am a Christian. (85-97)
1. John Fowles, The Magus (1966; revised edn Triad Panther, 1977), p. 10.
2. Graham McCann, Woody Allen, New Yorker (Polity 1990), pp.43, 84.
3. Ibid., pp. 43, 83.
4. Bertrand Russell, ed. Paul Edwards, Why I Am Not a Christian (George Mien & Unwin, 1957), p.47.
5. Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship (1902; University Paperbacks, 1976), pp. 10—17.
6. From ‘I dye alive’ by Robert Southwell, in D.H.S. Nicholson and A. H. E. Lee (eds.), The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (Clarendon, 1917), p. 236.
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