Freedom in Christ

Dr. Brian Allison

Many Christians are hungering for spiritual freedom in Christ, and yet they do not know how to achieve it. Ephesian 4:8-10 and John 8:30-36 provide helpful teaching in this area. First, let us consider Ephesians 4:8-10, "Therefore, it says, 'WHEN HE [Jesus] ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.' (Now this expression, 'He ascended,' what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all heavens, that He might fill all things." The ascension of Jesus Christ should be viewed on the backdrop of the descension of Jesus Christ. It is the descension that precedes, and provides significance for, that ascension.

God sent the Son into the world. He sent the Son into the world to do His will and, as a result of that sending, the Son descended from heaven in order to do the works of God through which the will of God would be realized. The will of God was simply the salvation of a people; the works of God were simply the display of God's power in preparing for, and making possible, that salvation. Now part of the works of God that the Son accomplished in the fulfilment of God's will consisted of confronting and conquering Satan and his host of demons. So 1 John 3:8b reads, "The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil." So the Son descended from the courts of heaven to engage in 'hand to hand combat' against the forces of wickedness. This very fact is the reference point for understanding the import of Ephesians 4:8-10.

The Context of Ephesians 4:8-10

Ephesians 4:7 reads, "But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift." The apostle Paul is here considering the reality of the body of Christ. This body consists of individual members upon whom Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church, has freely bestowed His grace. This bestowal of grace is according to His personal good pleasure. Christ freely offers His favour to each believer in varying proportions.

The apostle proceeds by explaining how this spiritual fact is even possible, as well as how this bestowal of grace is particularly manifested. He says, "Therefore, it says, 'WHEN HE [Jesus] ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN'" (4:8). When Christ Jesus arose from the dead and ascended into heaven to sit down at the right hand of the Majesty on High, He took with Him those who had been spiritual prisoners of another; He made it possible for spiritually enslaved people to be set free. Consequently, in this triumphant ascension, resulting in exaltation, Christ poured forth His grace by His Spirit (which is simply realized and applied salvation), and He particularly gave spiritual gifts to believers.

Now having mentioned the ascension of Christ, Paul proceeds to develop this fact. He says that Christ ascended triumphantly. "(Now this expression, 'He ascended,' what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?" (4:9). Paul implies that to talk about the ascension of Christ necessitates first addressing and understanding the descension of Christ because the ascension derives significance and meaning on the backdrop of that descension. He first descended to the lower parts of the earth; not under the earth. Christ did not descend into Hades or hell, but He came down to the depths of this world. The contrast in this passage is between the depths of this world and the heights of heaven. Having descended to the depths of this world, He was subsequently exalted. "He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all heavens, that He might fill all things" (4:10). This Jesus ascended into the higher spheres of the cosmos to be enthroned above all principalities and powers.

So through His ascension, our Lord is exalted, and in that exaltation He is the universal, sovereign Lord who pours forth His Spirit on the church and gives His church grace manifested in spiritual gifts to the end that He may have pre-eminence in everything. That is the context of our verses; and the central point is this: The Son of God descended to the earth (via the incarnation) in order to engage His arch enemy, Satan, and to set His imprisoned people free.

All are in a state of bondage

All are born as natural prisoners of Satan, and thus are captives to sin and death. The Scriptures read, "With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, that they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by Him to do his will" (2 Tm 2:25,26). These verses aptly describe everyone who is born into the world. Everyone is in the snare of the devil, held captive to do his will; and it is that will that leads to enslavement to sin and to the fear of death. First, then, enslavement to Satan's will is enslavement to sin. We read, "I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented yourselves as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification" (Rm. 6:19). Second, the enslavement to Satan's will is enslavement to the fear of death. We read, "That through death He [Jesus] might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives" (Hb. 2:14b,15).

So all in their natural state are spiritual prisoners, captive to Satan, and thus are in bondage to sin and to the fear of death. Now the contemporary person, the modern man, believes himself or herself to be free and autonomous. They apparently are free to make their own decisions; they seemingly are autonomous to carve out their own destiny. They are their own master; so they think. The truth, however, is that everyone naturally exists in chains. Jean Rousseau, the well-known French philosopher, though speaking in another context, aptly said, "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains." There are many people who are slaves to passion; slaves to lust; slaves to desire. There are many people who are trapped in some bad habit, some selfish ritual, some evil practice. There are many people who are prisoners of some wicked thought, some immoral feeling, some profane speech; and yet are deceived into thinking that they are free and autonomous.

When I was a guidance counselor in a Christian high school, a young man in grade 13 came to see me, and he made a confession that he was hooked on pornography. Apparently his room was filled with pornographic material. He had become obsessed with such debauchery. This situation is, unfortunately, a typical one. A few weeks ago I was asked to talk to a young lady who is identified as a kleptomaniac. In the course of our conversation, she indicated that she was utterly obsessed with the need to steal food, like an orange or a loaf of bread, because in the eating of that food, she experienced tremendous ecstasy, an emotional and physical rush that was very gratifying. She was hooked. I submit to you that that is the condition of many people, though they probably would not admit or acknowledge it. They are self-deceived that they are free and autonomous, but really they are bound by some habit, driven by some passion, absorbed by their own carnality - enslaved to Satan, and thus in bondage to sin and the fear of death.

Christ is the great emancipator

Now on the backdrop of this stinging truth of spiritual bondage, we are presented with Jesus Christ as the great emancipator. He is the great freedom fighter. He came down to set sinners free. He came down to redeem His people. Redemption simply means being bought back from the slave market of sin, death, and Satan. Jesus Christ bought us back by His precious blood. He sets free from addictions, obsessions, compulsions, and entrenched habits. Awhile ago, I heard the testimony of one of the greatest con artists or impostors in the history of America, Frank Abignail. One time he pretended to be an airline pilot; another time, a surgeon. He was the great pretender, a compulsive liar. Yet he gives this testimony that Christ set him free. Christ is able to do that. You do not have to be in bondage to sin or have some habit be your master.

Well you may say, "That sounds very good, very interesting, but it really sounds rather simplistic. If you knew what I was wrestling with, then you would realize that what you are saying is rather simplistic. It is not that easy." I am not saying that it is easy, but I am saying that it is possible. You say, "It is not that easy to quit smoking when you have smoked for 35 years." Well, my mother smoked for some 35 years, and she quit. You say, "Well, it is not that easy to quit drinking when you have been an alcoholic for 35 years. It is not that easy to be set free." Well, my stepfather was an alcoholic for some 35 years, and he has been set free. I am not saying that it is easy, but I am asserting that it is possible. I do not care what your habit is; I do not care what your obsession is; I do not care what your compulsion is - eating, sleeping, sex, etc., Jesus Christ sets free.

Freedom through the truth of the Word

For the believer, Christ offers real power in order to be set free. Believers need to appropriate that power. John 8 is helpful and instructive at this point. In this chapter, Jesus is speaking to believing Jews. The Scripture reads, "Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, 'If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of Mine'" (vs. 31). Jesus says that it is not enough simply to confess or acknowledge Him. The demonstration of the reality of (saving) faith is that you remain in His word, that you give yourself to His word, that you become addicted to His word, that you take the word in and personally apply it. The evidence of true discipleship is living in, and according to, the teachings of Christ.

Jesus further says, "And you shall know the truth [by abiding in that word], and the truth shall make you free" (vs. 32). Jesus says that if you live in His word so that it controls your thinking and informs your will, you shall know the truth at the spiritual level, and it is that truth, for you who believe, that will set you free. But set you free from what? Sin. So we read further, "They answered Him, 'We are Abraham's offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone [Self-deception! People naturally think that they are okay. That they are just as good as the next person. Of course, no one could possibly know what they do in private. They certainly appear to be Christian]; how is it that You say, 'You shall become free?" (vs. 33) Jesus responds to their query, "Truly. truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the Son does remain [in the house] forever. If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (vss. 34-36). Jesus says that in your yielding to sin, you demonstrate that sin is your master. He who commits sin is enslaved to sin (cf. Rm. 15ff.). Notice that Jesus draws a contrast between the slave and the son. The son receives the inheritance, the son is the free man; but the slave is in bondage. Those who are truly Christ's disciples (who abide in His teachings) are sons because they have truly been set free. The slave, the one in bondage to sin, does not abide forever; he is going to be cast out. Are you free today? I am not asking if you are struggling with sin because we all struggle with sin; I am asking if you are free in Christ and not bound to some sin, some habit, some pattern, some obsession, some compulsion? Are you a son of the living God, adopted into His family?

Desire, will, and faith needed for freedom

You may say " How can I be free?" Let me address that question at an elementary level. First, you must have a desire to be set free. This is a simple fact, yet foundational to this whole matter of freedom in Christ. Often this is where the obstacle comes for many people. They say they want to be free, but deep down inside they really do not want to be free. Do you know why? There is a perverted sense of satisfaction in their sin. I made reference earlier to a kleptomaniac. After about 3 hours talking with her, she made this confession: "I do not want to give up this obsession. I like it too much, and I am not sure what will take its place if I do give it up." She received perverted pleasure in her sin, which was personally satisfying. Do you have a desire to be free from your sin or are you comfortable in your sin? This is where freedom begins. There has to be a desire to be free if you are going to be set free. You need to be honest with yourself. Do you really want to be set free? Then the Son can set you free indeed.

Second, you must have a 'will' to be set free. You must evidence a sense of responsibility and commitment to be free. Admittedly, you may have the desire, but may not have the will. My stepfather had the desire, at different times, to be set free from his alcoholism because of the destruction and hurt that he caused. He showed remorse and regret, and thus a desire to change, but, at that time, no will to change. Some people who are in their habit say, "Well, things will get better some day. God will zap me one day." No! In your commitment to be free, Christ can make you free. This attitude of laying back, letting go, and letting God is not Scriptural.

Third, you must have faith to be set free. You need to believe what God's Word says and practice it. You need to meditate on that Word, and apply it. You need to accept it, and you need to submit to it. This is a key to freedom: absolute submission to the Word, which is simply absolute surrender to God. Do you know what it is to surrender?

Further, faith necessarily entails obedience. Obedience is not merely the result of faith, it is an essential part of faith. If you have real faith, then you will be obedient, and that obedience will soon mushroom into discipline. Remember, there is no easy road in overcoming bad habits, obsessions, and compulsions. It requires discipline fueled by obedience. Discipline! You do what you should do whether you feel like it or not. I am tired of those who say, "I don't feel I can do this. I just need to get my feelings right." Again, the issue is not your feelings. The issue is your obedience. You do what is right whether you feel like it or not.

So freedom in Christ requires desire, will, faith. Jesus says that you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free, and if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed. Do you believe that?

My final word is to my non-Christian friend. Today, outside of Christ, you are in bondage to sin. You have possibly said to yourself that tomorrow will be a new day, a fresh start; that tomorrow you will try to do things just a bit better, that you will conquer, but you never do. You cannot do it because the principle and power of sin have a hold on you, and only Jesus Christ can break the power of canceled sin and set the prisoner free. My non-Christian friend, it is not a matter of turning over a new leaf, or progressing in positive thinking. How many times have you been frustrated because of those strategies? No, freedom is according to His power, through His grace, and by His Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ offers you real freedom now, freedom that the world cannot offer, freedom that you have never experienced before, if you will simply come in repentance and humility to Him whom God has sent. Won't you surrender to Christ now?