Sunday, December 11, 2016

Life as It Ought to Be - Part 1: Set Free…to Serve

 Overview:  Here we begin a series of articles on the theme of “Life as It Ought to Be.” First we look at what it means to be "set free" in Christ.  Then, we will consider how a Christ-centered worldview can illuminate our understanding of science-related issues like climate change, the origin of life, and the science of human behavior.
The future is uncertain, but it's not the first time.

Christmas 2016 comes as we near the end of another tumultuous year.  America has weathered a most unusual presidential election that seems unlikely to heal a very divided nation.  America’s divisions are rooted in deep disagreements over moral issues including the rights of the unborn, how to address the plight of the poor and the alien among us, and how to respond to the cries from minorities with respect to ethnicity and gender.  Besides these tensions, Americans live daily in the threat of expanding war abroad combined with violence and terror in the homeland. 

More and more Americans are seeking freedom from their pain and despair by turning to alcohol, drugs, and violence; even suicide.  Many are entering the Christmas season with little hope that things will get better.   Yet as in many dark periods of history, the clear message of Christmas still rings with the promise of hope across a dark, cold landscape.
Jesus our Savior: Born to die, to set us captives free.
On that first Christmas night, the message of the angel to the lonely shepherds of Bethlehem was a message of hope for us today:  Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2: 10-11)Several months earlier, the angel had said to Joseph concerning Mary who would soon be his wife, She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1: 21)

When He became a man, Jesus fulfilled these prophecies about His coming as a Savior.  In fact, Jesus Himself stood in the synagogue at the beginning of His ministry and read Isaiah’s prophecy foretelling His coming: The spirit of the lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed(Isaiah 61: 1; Luke 4:18).   Yes, Jesus Christ came into the world to “set free the oppressed.” But Christ came not only to “save us from the consequences of our sins” but to empower us to serve God the way we were created to serve.

But how is it that people “set free” become “servants?”  Seems contradictory, doesn’t it?  And how is it possible that true fulfillment in life can only be reached when we understand that God has set us free to serve? 

The answer lies in the fundamental truth that God loves His creation including mankind.  He created humankind to love and serve Him.  We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).  The love of God within us then spills out as we love and serve our neighbor and the creation (the physical world in which we live).  These relationships are possible because God is personal and created us with a “personality” and with “free will” to make moral choices.  When we are in right moral relationship with God, we are free to worship our Creator by serving Him, our neighbor, and creation.  This responsibility is best described as stewardship (Gr. oikonomia (οἰκονομία), oy-kon-om-ee'-ah).

“Okay, so I am set free…to serve.”  But, you ask, “Set free from what?”  We are set free from the human tendency to serve other masters and not God.  God created us to love and serve Him above all other masters.  Jesus taught us in His “Sermon on the Mount,” No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6: 24).  Notice Jesus didn’t say, “don’t serve two masters.” Rather, He states, “You cannot serve two masters.” We are simply unable to do this.  In fact, our futility in attempting to serve both God and our own selfish pursuits of material possessions, personal fame, or power will be evident to God, to us, and to others.  It is precisely from this frustration that God can free us.

When we serve God as stewards, we offer back to God the provisions He has granted to us; namely, our talent, time, and treasures.  We become devoted and constrained by His love and power through the help of His abiding Spirit.  The Apostle Paul wrote that the love of God controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14).  The psalmist testifies that his God satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness (Psalm 107: 9).  The person who has known and experienced this kind of love relationship to his or her Creator knows what it means to be free.

But the Bible also teaches that our freedom in Christ does not automatically come prepackaged along with us when we are born.  The psalmist David writes in Psalm 51: 5 as if to say, “Hear this!  I was born a rebel from God!  My very nature is to go the opposite direction from God (Isaiah 53:6) to serve my own interests and not God’s will.”  Soon after God created them as the first humans, Adam and Eve chose to reject God and serve another master, the Tempter, named Satan (Genesis 3).  Since then, all of Adam’s offspring carry his rebellious nature and by default will choose to follow the priorities of Satan’s kingdom.  Satan’s nature spills out of those enslaved to him in the form of lust for possessions, power, and pleasure. But, while these pursuits can bring satisfaction for a season, Satan’s subjects experience emptiness, despair, and ultimately eternal death--separation from God eternally.

Pilgrim is set free from burden of sin at the cross
It is from the enslavement of the sin nature we inherited from Adam that we have an inclination to serve Satan’s priorities.  But God through Christ has set us free!  If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature, not just reformed, but transformed--…old things have passed away, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5: 17).  For…the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so… (Romans 8: 7).  It is only when God’s Spirit gives us the conviction that we are enslaved by sin (Romans 6: 12), dead in sin (Ephesians 2: 1), hostile to God, and must die to sin (Romans 6: 11) that we cry out to God for His forgiveness and His righteousness through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf.  The Apostle Paul declares …having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life (Romans 6: 22).

Practically speaking, how does a sinner who still lives in a fleshly body capable of sin against God but who is set free from the slavery to the sin nature act as a servant of God?  Here are a few traits that I have found helpful in my discipline to live free as a steward in service to God:

1.   I must forget past failings while forging ahead with a lighter load.  I must apply what Paul wrote in Philippians 3: 13-14:   I do not regard myself as having laid hold of [perfection] yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  We press on victoriously by laying aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and [running] with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…(Hebrews 12: 1-2).   But, although Christ has set me free, at times I can still hear Satan accusing me of past sins of which I have repented.  Yes, even sins placed under the cleansing blood of the Cross.  In order to continue to live free as a steward of God’s forgiveness, there is another trait I must cultivate.

2.  I must feed regularly on God’s Word to foster a lifestyle of repentance.  Remember Jesus’ challenge to Satan from the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 8: 3, Man shall not live on bread alone.  (Luke 4: 4).  Just as I must regularly nourish my material body with food, so I must “feed” my inner man on the “Bread of Life” through God’s Word.  I do so when I read, study, meditate, and memorize Scripture.  Then, God’s love and grace assures me of my freedom like an echo of the heavy chains that fell off when Christ set me free.  That echo reminds me of the great price Jesus paid to set me free; and, it drowns out the accusing voice of Satan.  But it also reminds me that I still have a sin nature that wages war against the Spirit within me (Romans 7: 23).  So, God prompts me to apply another trait of a free man in Christ—prayer.

3.   I must find regular times for communion with God in prayer.  When I am convicted of my sin, the Spirit of God through His Word urges me to confess my sin, repent (turn from) my sin, determine to avoid the situations that caused me to sin (1 John 1: 9), and accept God’s cleansing from unrighteousness.  Knowing my depravity and cultivating a sense of poverty of spirit (Matthew 5: 3) can create a “lifestyle of repentance.”  Far from being morose or despairing of life, such a lifestyle draws me closer to the precious bosom of God Who longs to walk in fellowship with me.  Freedom in Christ spurs us to offer adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession to God in Spirit-led, Scripture-fed prayer.

4.  I must fellowship with other believers on a regular basis.  The assembly of believers, the church, is God’s prescription and plan for His Great Commission (Matthew 28: 18-20; Acts 1:8). When we assemble together we benefit from teaching, edification, accountability, and corporate worship (Hebrews 10: 25).  We do well to join a church in which Scripture is the authority for faith and practice, and in which the spiritual disciplines outlined above are encouraged.

In Part 2 of “Life as It Ought to Be” we will consider traits of those who “Walk in Humility.”  In order to realize a sense of poverty of spirit and cultivate a spirit of utter dependence on my Father in Heaven, I must, as Paul said, “die daily”  and accept Jesus’ invitation to die to self and take up His cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9: 23). 

For now, I close with a very meaningful poem I found in A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy (Harper) that expresses what it means to be free in Christ with free access to our Father in Heaven—all made possible through the Gift of His Son, born that first Christmas in a stable in a Roman colony, and then crucified on a Roman Cross in order to set us free:

Arise, my soul, arise;
     Shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice
     In my behalf appears:
Before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His bands.

My God is reconciled;
     His pardoning voice I bear:
     He owns me for His child;
     I can no longer fear:
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And "Father, Abba, Father," cry.
                                 --  Charles Wesley

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