April 29, 2012
1 Peter 2:11-20
Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men; as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.
A Christian is perfectly free, subject to no one. A Christian is perfectly submissive, subject to everyone. These two assertions appear to conflict with each other. How can a Christian be perfectly free and perfectly dutiful at the same time? In what way is a Christian free? In what way is a Christian bound?
St. Peter says that we are free. He says, “As free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.” St. Paul says the same thing. In Galatians 5:1 we read, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made you free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians 9:19, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all.” The freedom we enjoy as Christians is essential to being Christians. It is, simply put, what makes us Christians. If we are Christians we are free. If we are not free we are not Christians. This is a fundamental Christian truth. Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-21)
In what way are we free? Our souls are free. We are forgiven of all our sins for Christ’s sake. We are heirs of eternal life. We are free with respect to our status as children of God. We belong to the family of God. We are not outsiders looking in. We aren’t at will employees who can be fired if our performance doesn’t measure up. We own the company. We are redeemed. That means we are set free. The price of our redemption was the holy, innocent, obedient suffering and death of Jesus. This was our ransom price. Jesus, our God and brother, paid this ransom price to God as our representative. God accepted his payment by raising him from the dead. This means that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead sets us free from death.
In baptism God calls us out of sin and death into the forgiveness of sin and eternal life. He calls us to faith. He makes us Christians. A Christian has what Christ has won by his holy living and innocent suffering. All that Christ has to give – freedom from guilt, peace with God, the forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death, eternal life – he gives to us. We receive Christ and his treasures through faith and through faith alone. We are Christians. Only a Christian can do a Christian deed. It is only a good deed when it is done freely. It is done freely because we are free. It is done freely because it is done of our own free will. It is does freely because it is done without any hope of payment for services rendered. The good deeds of Christians are free in every sense of the word.
St. Peter teaches us how to live a life of freedom. There are three things we must keep in mind. First, we must not submit to our own desires. Second, we submit to human authority. Third, life is not fair.
The soul is free. The body would enslave the soul if it could. We don’t let the body do it. St. Peter writes, “I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” The soul is free because we are forgiven, at peace with God, and heirs of eternal life. But our bodies still are subject to sinful desires. Peter refers to them as “fleshly lusts.” St. Paul provides a list of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. He writes:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Note his warning. Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. That’s because the flesh wars against the soul, as St. Peter says in our text. The flesh lies within and he is our enemy. The most serious and dangerous enemy of every Christian is the enemy that lies within.
There’s a lie that says the answer lies within. Don’t you believe in the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t he live within you? Of course we believe in the Holy Spirit. Of course he lives within us. He’s the one who keeps us free. He keeps us trusting in our Savior Jesus who took away our sins and made us heirs of eternal life. But the flesh lies within as well. And the flesh won’t be converted. The flesh is an unbeliever. He cannot be converted. He can only be killed. So we do battle against our sinful desires, recognizing that following them is the life of slavery, not freedom.
We live as foreigners in this world. It is our Father’s world. He created it. He governs it. But it is filled with people who do not know God, do not believe in him, do not love him, do not obey him, and resent the fact that we do know him, believe in him, love him, and obey him. Wherever Christians live they will be slandered. People look to find fault with them. Our very existence is an indictment against those who live to please their own flesh. They’re standing in judgment. Don’t give them ammunition. They may badmouth you, but eventually they’ll have to acknowledge – before God himself – that they were wrong.
The second thing we must keep in mind as we live lives of freedom is that we submit to all human authority. Submitting to authority and being free don’t appear to jibe. This is especially the case when the authorities are incompetent, corrupt, petty, and legalistic. How can submitting to such authority make you free?
It doesn’t. That’s the whole point. People resent submitting to authority because they want their freedom. But if God has set you free from every human imposition, regulation, judgment, and criticism and has elevated you above this world, establishing you in heaven above in perfect freedom and has guaranteed you that no power in this world can take away from you this exalted status, then clearly your freedom is secure. God gives it to you. It’s a gift. You don’t lose it by submitting to unfair, arbitrary, unkind, and downright stupid authority. So you submit. You submit for the sake of peace. You put up with whatever you must put up with.
There is, of course, a good rationale for good government. With no government at all anarchy prevails and that’s just dog eat dog with the strong bullying the weak into submission. The government is a servant of God to punish the bad guys and to protect the good guys.
But we don’t first prove that the government is worthy of our obedience and then obey. We obey all human authority for the Lord’s sake, that is, for Jesus’ sake. He submitted to the government. He paid his taxes. He humbled himself before Pilate. He went to the cross. It was unfair, unjust, cruel, and just plain wrong – but he submitted, giving us an example to follow.
Freedom is not walking here and there, eating this or that, spending money, pleasuring our bodies, enjoying civil rights, and so forth. Freedom is a conscience set at peace with God. Freedom is knowing that the God who created us and sees us exactly as we are and knows exactly what we’ve done wrong and hates all sin does not regard us as sinners, but as saints, covered in the blood-bought righteousness of his dear Son. When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.
The third thing we keep in mind as we live lives of freedom is that life is not fair. When you do what is good and right and get in trouble for it God commends you. He approves of you. There is nothing in this world as valuable as God’s approval. God honors those who suffer wrong, put up with wrong, and don’t strike back. Blessing those who curse you is a brave thing to do and there is only one kind of person who can do it from the heart and with all sincerity and that is someone who has nothing to prove or gain because he already has it all.
This precious truth is compromised when people change the Christian religion into a political version of the spiritual reality. The freedom we enjoy as Christians is a spiritual freedom that comes from a spiritual authority. It is not a civil freedom coming from civil authority. Whatever civil freedom we have is guaranteed by law. It relies on force. Spiritual freedom is guaranteed by the gospel. It relies on the Holy Spirit. When the Church trades off the spiritual freedom that is hidden under the cross of Christ for a political freedom that seeks to transform social institutions in the name of Jesus to guarantee an end to poverty and injustice she betrays her own soul. And she loses it. The Church lives on what the Holy Spirit provides. The freedom we enjoy as Christians is freedom from the accusations of God’s law and the power of the evil one. We can live as Christians whether or not we enjoy the civil liberties we cherish as Americans. But when we confuse the one with the other we are lost. Political freedom is for the body only. Spiritual freedom is for the soul.
Living as God’s people in this world means living as foreigners in a strange land. We don’t think like the world. For us, the gospel that tells us our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake is more precious than any civil right enshrined in a human constitution. The peace with God we enjoy as Christians is a greater good than anything any human authority can protect. A sound economy, a good job, justice, a safe neighborhood, and a secure retirement are all outward blessings that God, out of his fatherly goodness, gives us and for which we give him thanks. But we are what we are on account of the freedom to which God has called us in Christ. The gospel sets us free. It liberates our conscience. It sets us above all human requirements. There is nothing we must do, no one we must obey, no rules we must follow in order to have and enjoy true spiritual freedom. We are free by the declaration of God’s grace. Christ has set us free and no power in this world can take that freedom away from us.
This is why we can submit to every rule set before us by human authority. No rule can oppress us. No civil authority can own us. We belong to him who purchased us by his blood and he will keep us free forever. This is why we can willingly submit to all human authority for Jesus’ sake. Amen