Jubilate Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| May 2, 2004
“As free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.” 1 Peter 2:16
Freedom is the opposite of slavery. A slave is not free. A slave must obey orders given by the master. If the master commands the slave must obey because the slave belongs to the master. The slave does not have the right to choose whether or not he will obey. He does not have authority over his own life. The master does.
Americans are very conscious about being free. Our children are taught the Declaration of Independence in which the fathers of our country stated their conviction that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our nation was founded upon the belief that the government has the duty to defend our liberty or freedom.
How does the government protect our freedom? It must prevent others from taking it away. How? By force, that’s how. How else can the government do what God gave it to do? The government must have the authority to pass and enforce laws. The Bible calls this the power of the sword. Unless the government has the power to coerce people to do what they do not want to do and to prevent people from doing what they want to do it cannot govern. The government cannot defend the freedom of anyone unless it has the legal power to do so and that legal power must be backed up by force – deadly force, if necessary. This is why the Bible makes it clear that we Christians are to obey the laws of the State. In Romans 13 St. Paul calls the government God’s servant. It rules by striking fear in the hearts of those who are inclined to disobey the law. In today’s Epistle Lesson St. Peter tells us to obey civil law for the Lord’s sake, that is, for Jesus’ sake. We serve our Lord Jesus Christ by submitting to the authority of the government. The Bible nowhere teaches us exactly what kind of government we should have. It teaches us to submit to whatever kind of government we have as long as such obedience does not require us to sin. In such a case we are to obey God rather than man.
Only an anarchist would argue that the government should not have the power to enforce the law. If it did not it could not protect our lives and our freedom. But when we start talking about what kinds of laws we should have we immediately find ourselves involved in a discussion about the nature of freedom. Just what is freedom, anyway? Does the government have the duty to protect the freedom of pornographers, sodomites, and abortionists to engage in the things they do? Is freedom the right to do wrong? Should each individual decide for himself what is right and what is wrong and then insist that the government protect his freedom to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it the way he wants to do it? This is the morality of a two-year-old. But a two-year-old is not free.
True freedom under the law carries with it the demand for self-discipline. We need a civil authority precisely because we lack self-discipline. The civil authority does not have the power to change the hearts of criminals. A thief who wants to steal your money is not going to stop wanting to steal your money just because the government passes a law that forbids stealing. But that thief might be persuaded not to steal your money if he thinks that he will get caught and spend some time in jail. He wants your money and he wants to stay out of jail. Since he wants to stay out of jail more than he wants your money he decides not to steal your money. It isn’t because he cares a bit about your welfare. If he cared about your welfare he wouldn’t want to steal your money. He chooses not to steal your money because he cares about his own welfare.
This is the way the civil law works. The powers that be must convince potential lawbreakers that they are better off obeying the law than disobeying the law. The State has no power to change anyone’s heart or will. It has only the power of the law and the law cannot change your heart or will. The only power the law has is the power to punish. Fear of punishment is not the same as love for the neighbor. It is nothing but self-interest.
What happens when the law demands that none of us behave simply out of self-interest, but always for the glory of God and the welfare of our neighbor? Well, the first thing that happens is that this law is taken out of the hands of any human government. Only God can see into the heart to know what a person really wants. The government cannot pass a law that requires you to love God above all things or to love your neighbor as yourself. But God can. And God has.
This law of God must not be confused with any civil law. The civil law works precisely because it appeals to the self-interest of those who are inclined to disobey. As the theme song from the television show Baretta put it, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time: Don’t do it!” God’s pure and holy law appeals not to our self-interest but to our will. Our will is what we want. God’s law commands our will to want only what is good and right and pure and holy. God’s law confronts our will and insists that we must want only what God wants. It requires us to rejoice in everything that God ordains and to hate everything that God opposes.
God’s law shows us that we are not free. It teaches us that we are slaves to the evil within our hearts.
It is important that we understand the great difference between the civil law that guarantees our political freedoms and God’s holy law that exposes our spiritual slavery. The civil law is the guarantor of our freedom with respect to the outward life we live in the world. This is why Americans have argued for a government of laws, not men. The law can be trusted to be fair and impartial whereas men are corrupt and corruptible. But God’s holy law that penetrates into the deepest core of our being does not bring us freedom. Rather, it condemns us all for not wanting what we should want and for not loving what we should love and for not honoring and worshipping and glorifying God and God alone. The rigorous application of the civil law will keep our nation free. The rigorous application of God’s holy and immutable law will show us all that we are spiritually enslaved to sin and are powerless to be set free from this slavery by means of any law at all.
The civil law is based on free will. Every individual is free to do what the law demands or to disobey the law and accept the consequences. Everyone is born free with respect to the civil law. Obey it and you will receive the benefits that accrue from that obedience. Disobey it and you will suffer the consequences, which may include the loss of your freedom. The rule of law is based on the understanding that no one is forced to obey or disobey but has a free will to do what he chooses to do. There can be no legal accountability without free will.
But just as surely as civil law requires us to affirm the free will, the law of God teaches us that we have no free will when it comes to spiritual matters. It teaches us that everyone is by nature bound by the power of sin. We are so tightly bound that we are utterly incapable of setting ourselves free. The notion of free will in spiritual matters is a diabolical lie. This is what this congregation teaches about the free will as it is set forth in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord:
Concerning this subject, our doctrine, faith, and confession is, that in spiritual things the understanding and reason of man are altogether blind, and by their own powers understand nothing, as it is written 1 Cor. 2, 14: The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he know them when he is examined concerning spiritual things.
Likewise we believe, teach, and confess that the unregenerate will of man is not only turned away from God, but also has become an enemy of God, so that it only has an inclination and desire for that which is evil and contrary to God, as it is written Gen. 8, 21: The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Also Rom. 8, 7: The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the Law of God, neither, indeed, can be. Yea, as little as a dead body can quicken itself to bodily, earthly life, so little can man, who by sin is spiritually dead, raise himself to spiritual life, as it is written Eph. 2, 5: Even when we were dead in sins, He hath quickened us together with Christ; 2 Cor. 3, 5: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything good as of ourselves, but that we are sufficient is of God. (FC, Epitome, III, par 2-3))
We cannot make ourselves spiritually free. No law can set us free. If we do the very best we can do to free ourselves we will become only more firmly bound. The nature of sin is not that it is some casual fault that can be avoided if we exercise the appropriate care. Sin is too deep and powerful for us to overcome. It captures our will and enslaves it. Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” (St. John 8:24)
We are not born spiritually free. This teaching is deeply offensive to us by nature. Our natural spiritual poverty is seen most clearly in our refusal to admit how spiritually depraved we are by nature. This is the source of every false religion known to man. If we are spiritually free by nature then we have the wherewithal to find our way back to God. This is what every human religion teaches, including those human religions that call themselves Christianity. They teach that our way back to God is accomplished at least in part by the right exercise of our own free will. They teach this because they are blind to their own spiritual blindness. We cannot do anything at all to begin or to complete our way back to God.
This is why we need Jesus to go to the Father. In going to the Father he sets us free. How does He go to the Father? He goes by way of the cross. He confronts the sin that enslaves the whole world. Only by His holy will could our wills be set free. The holy Man with the pure and holy will who always wanted only what God wants confronted sin. Sin tried to penetrate His will. Sin, the devil, and all the powers of evil tried to get this holy Man to desire anything less than to do the will of the Father. They looked on Him as a predator looks on his prey. They saw Him sweat drops of blood as His soul was filled with the deepest sorrow ever experienced by a human being. The pure will of the only pure Man was set against the evil inclinations of the whole human race. The innocent God become flesh confronted in the garden and on the cross the assault of sin. He overcame it. He overcame by His innocence.
And this victory is what sets us free. God forgives us all our sins for Christ’s sake and so we are free. When you stand righteous before God by God’s own decree, clothed in nothing less than the righteousness of Christ Himself, nobody can make you a slave again.
We can suffer under any kind of political tyranny. We can lose our cherished freedom as Americans. We would still be free, for we have been set free by no less of a power than the blood of Jesus Christ, our God and our brother, that has washed away all our sins. Not only has Christ suffered for the sins that we commit against human authority, He has suffered for the sin that we commit against God when we fail to want Him more than we want all the things that lead us away from Him. In that suffering – in that going to the Father – the Son of God has set us free. And, as Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” (St. John 3:36)
Using liberty as a cloak for vice turns liberty into slavery. Vice enslaves. Vice is devotion to self-gratification. It is the very worst kind of slavery. It is slavery to sin from which Christ has set us free. It is only when we are bound by our baptism to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit that we are truly free. It is only when we are bondservants of God that we are free from the power that would enslave us.
There is a popular religious myth that we live in a sort of spiritually neutral zone where we may choose between God and the devil. This is not true. We are either slaves to the devil or we are children of God through faith in Christ. Jesus said, “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” One may not walk in and out of sin as if after he has come out he was never in. Sin isn’t like that. When you embrace sin you embrace slavery. Sin is slavery. It is never freedom. You cannot choose what is evil and then change your mind and walk away from it as if you had never done it. When we choose the sin from which Jesus has set us free we choose slavery over freedom.
Jesus said, “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 8:31-32) This is why our lives are lives of daily dying and rising. We sin. We run back into slavery. The voice of the Good Shepherd calls us back to God by forgiving us our sins and setting us free. His words have the power to free our hearts and our wills and our minds from the slavery into which we run. It is a life between good and evil and we are caught in the middle. It can become discouraging, distressing, and downright depressing. But the joy of the Christian life overcomes the sorrow. It is the joy that comes from knowing that the Savior who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows will keep us in the freedom for which He has set us free.