The "Backward" Wisdom of God (2003)

Freedom and Slavery

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Gary DeLashmutt


A key contrast throughout scripture is freedom and slavery. The Bible stands against human slavery, while focusing on the real freedom God offers to other forms of slavery, including to the law, sin, and other people's judgments of us. God offers us the chance to become slaves to Christ, serving him from gratitude for what he did on the cross. As we live more and more for Christ, we experience increasing freedom from being enslaved to selfish desires and ways of life.


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Key points from the first teaching:

Key biblical truths often seem backward, counter-intuitive, contrary to common sense—even crazy (e.g., “Christ crucified”). Sometimes this is because they are stated in paradoxical ways —but even when they are stated in a straightforward way they still strike us this way. If biblical teaching has never struck you this way, you have probably not looked at it very carefully.

Why is this? According to the Bible, God’s truth seems “backward” to us because our own thinking is so backward! Like the Korean War POW’s, we are deeply brainwashed and are in desperate need of deprogramming and reprogramming in our perspective on most major areas of life. This is why we stumble over God’s “backward” wisdom. This is why we need to immerse ourselves in God’s Word, asking him to expose our brainwashed thinking and illuminate our minds.

This morning, we’re going to explore a key piece of this “backward” wisdom—God’s view of freedom and slavery. This is a vast subject. We will survey several passages. At first glance, the teaching of the New Testament on this subject seems confusing at best and contradictory at worst.

Consider these two statements by Paul in Gal. 5. In 5:1, Paul asserts that Christ has set us free—and that we should not be subject again to a yoke of slavery (douleia). On the other hand, in 5:13 he calls on us to serve one another as slaves (douleow). “You’re now free, so don’t submit to slavery—but use your freedom to serve one another as slaves.”

Or how about the fact that Jesus says he sets us free (Jn. 8:36)—but that Paul calls himself Jesus’ slave (Rom. 1:1). Has Peter gone crazy when he tells us to act as free people, but to use our freedom as God’s bond-slaves (1 Pet. 2:16)?

Or how about this statement in 1 Cor. 9:19 (read). If Paul is free from all people, why on earth does he makes himself a slave to all people?

These are the kinds of questions God wants us to ask. And to answer them, we must learn how God defines freedom and slavery and the key relationships between them. I want to survey this part of God’s “backward” wisdom by exploring what the New Testament teaches about three key relationships between freedom and slavery: freedom from slavery, freedom for slavery, and freedom through slavery. Each has a surprising twist . . . 

Freedom from slavery

When we think about being free from slavery, we think primarily about emancipation from human slavery. And so did the 1st century readers of the New Testament, because one-third of the Roman Empire lived in slavery.

The Bible affirms that human slavery is evil—a horrible social manifestation of human rebellion against God in which people use their power to oppress and exploit other human beings. It undercuts slavery by asserting basic human equality because we are all made in God’s image (contrast to Hindu caste system). This is why the Old Testament law mandated humane treatment of slaves and their release for mistreatment and/or after six years. This is why Paul urges Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery. This is why there is no human slavery in the future kingdom of God. And this is why the abolitionist movements in Great Britain and the USA were driven by Bible-believing Christians.

But (and this is the first surprise) when the New Testament talks about freedom from slavery, it is relatively rarely about human slavery. Instead, it focuses on how Jesus came to free us from more radical and universal forms of slavery.

Slavery to the Law: This refers to the bondage of trying to earn God’s acceptance by keeping his moral laws. This is the way of religion—including “Christian” religion—but it is a dead-end. Because God’s Law is moral perfection, it can only expose your violations and moral debt to God. Like runaway credit debt, it turns God into an enemy to fear—and there is no bankruptcy option.

The only liberation is redemption—God releasing you from this debt slavery by paying the debt himself. This is exactly what Jesus came to do (read Gal. 3:13). By living the perfect life that you owe God, and by voluntarily paying for your violations on the Cross, you are free forever from God’s judgment—once you personally receive this gift from him (read Acts 13:38,39)! This is what Paul was referring to in Gal. 5:1. This is what transform your relationship with God from slavish fear to security on his love (Rom. 8:15). Have you admitted your hopeless debt to God and asked Jesus to redeem you from this slavery? If not, this is the main point for you tonight . . . 

Slavery to Sin: Read Jn. 8:34. In this conversation with the Jews, they are offended because he says they need to be freed. They are offended because they are focused on a superficial form of slavery (human slavery). But Jesus is talking about the root slavery (to sin).

Our society calls these “addictions.” We think we have the power to use things and people for our own ends—but somehow they wind up using, corrupting, and enslaving us. We use alcohol and drugs to liberate our moods—but they wind up enslaving us. We use romance and sex for intimacy—but we wind up more alienated and fragmented than ever. We use hobbies and shopping to handle stress—but they wind up creating more stress. Some us are more aware of our addictions than others, some of have more socially acceptable addictions than others—but all of us have them.

Jesus came to free you from this form of slavery as well (read Jn. 8:36). Many of us here have been delivered by Jesus from addictions that were destroying us! 

Slavery to Other People: This refers to the bondage of living under the false judgments of other people. Through Jesus, you can be freed from the bondage of pleasing people to get their acceptance (1 Cor. 4:2-4), submission to unbiblical religious restrictions (Col. 2:18,20,21), and inferiority based on racial, gender, educational, or socio-economic differences (Gal. 3:28). When you receive Jesus, God gives you a new dignity as his beloved son/daughter—and the more you live in the light of this new identity, the freer you can become from this form of bondage.

We’ll talk more later on about how God frees us from these last two forms of slavery—but first we need to understand another key relationship (Surprise #2). God not only frees us from slavery to the Law; he also frees us for slavery to himself . . . 

Freedom for slavery

God set the nation of Israel free from slavery to Pharaoh by raising up Moses to deliver them. Through the Exodus, God proved that he was loving and good as well as righteous and mighty. And having freed them from slavery to Pharaoh, he called them to freely become his slaves (Lev. 25:55). This choice was the key to their enjoyment of the political freedom he was giving them.

In the same way, when you receive Christ God sets you free forever from slavery to the Law. Through the Cross, God proved his love and mercy (as well as his wisdom and power) in a far greater way than he did through Moses and the Exodus. And having freed you from slavery to the Law, he now calls on you to freely become his slave (2 Cor. 5:14). God doesn’t require you to do this to be forgiven, but it’s the key to your enjoyment of freedom from Law.

In the Old Testament law there is another beautiful picture of this freedom for slavery—the beauty of the bond-slave. If a Hebrew became a human slave, God commanded that after six years his master had to set him free. But if he loved his master because he had proved himself to be kind and just and good, he could willingly pledge himself forever (Deut. 15:16,17). The piercing of his ear marked him as a bond-slave.

David uses this same picture in one of his predictions of the Messiah (read Ps. 40:6-8). Because of his trust in God’s love and wisdom and goodness, he would come as God’s bond-slave to do his will—even to the point of laying down his life for us.

Likewise, Paul’s favorite way to identify himself was not “Benjamite,” or “Graduate of Gamaliel University,” or even “Apostle of Jesus”—but as Jesus’ “bond-slave” (Rom. 1:1). He deserved God’s judgment because of his persecution of Messiah’s people—yet Jesus forgave him and called him to a privileged role in his service! In response, Paul freely gave himself to Jesus as his slave. In a world where “slave” was a hated word, Paul gloried in calling himself Jesus’ slave as a way of communicating how good and worthy Jesus was.

Our translations tone this down from “slave” to servant. Joseph Tson notes the significance of this: “In (21st) century Christianity we have replaced the expression ‘total surrender’ with the word ‘commitment,’ and ‘slave’ with ‘servant.’ But there is an important difference. A servant gives service to someone, but a slave belongs to someone. We commit ourselves to do something, but when we surrender ourselves to someone, we give ourselves up.”1

What about you? Do you realize that Jesus freed you from slavery to the Law so that you can freely become his slave (1 Pet. 2:16)? Do you know that the best way to thank him for his mercy through Jesus is to give your whole life (BODY, MIND, MONEY, POSSESSIONS, RELATIONSHIPS, PLANS, TALENTS, TIME, etc.) to him? Are you still trying to use Jesus to advance your own agenda—or have you abandoned your agenda/life to him? For some of you, this is the main point tonight . . . 

Freedom through slavery

Now we’re ready to appreciate the third New Testament relationship between slavery and freedom. God frees us from slavery to the Law, God frees us for slavery to himself—and God frees us through slavery to himself. This is the third surprise . . . 

How can slavery to Jesus set us free? This sounds “backward” because our definition of freedom is faulty. We define freedom negatively—as the absence of all restraints.2 But God defines freedom as the ability to live according to live as he designed you to live.

What if you were swimming underwater and ran into a talking fish—and he complained that he longed to be free from the water? Because he was designed to live in water, to leave the water would bring slavery to death, not freedom. He may think he is confined by the water, but in truth he is free only in the “restriction” of water.

God designed us, not for unrestrained self-indulgence, but to love him and other people (Matt. 22:36-40). Therefore, we are truly free only when we abandon ourselves to this design.

This is why the more selfish freedom you seek, the more enslaved to sin you become. The tragic irony is that our generation has experienced more of this kind of freedom than any other (SOCIAL; MONETARY; GEOGRAPHICAL; SEXUAL; etc.)—and yet it has produced more destructive addictions than any other generation!

But the more you serve God and other people, the more true freedom you experience. This is why Paul said Gal. 5:13,15 (read). When we use our freedom from the Law to serve ourselves, we destroy ourselves. But when we use it to serve others in love, we become truly free.

If you understand this, you will also understand why some Christians talk so excitedly about being “used by God.” We actually ask God to “use us” and we talk about how cool it is to be “used by God.”

Believe me, I know why that sounds so weird! It’s because being used by anyone else is a total drag. But because God made you for himself, and because he loves you and wants your good more than anyone else—being used by God (to serve others) is the most freeing and wonderful experience you can have!

If you understand this, you will also understand that the only way to get freed from slavery to sin is by replacing it with a lifestyle of serving God and other people. You can’t overcome true addictions by just stopping the destructive habit—you’ll either fail or substitute another destructive addiction. You have to replace it with the life of loving service for which God designed you.

I’d like to tell you that I overcame my drug-use habit by educating myself and then just stopping. The truth is that I knew what it was doing to me, I had vowed to myself that I would quit the day I knew it wasn’t helping me, etc.—but I couldn’t quit. I got freed from drugs after I found Christ and began to get a taste of sharing God’s Word with others. That was such an exciting experience that in pursuing it I found progressive freedom from drugs.

This is why if you’re a porn addict, you won’t get truly free without pursuing deep love relationships with others. That’s why if you’re a shopaholic, you won’t get truly free without embracing a life of serving other people for Jesus’ sake. That’s why if you’re enslaved to pleasing other people because you fear their rejection, you won’t get truly free until you live to please God and righteously serve those very people.


1 Quoted in Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 18.

2 One dictionary defines freedom as “the absence of hindrance, restraint, confinement, repression.” Another dictionary says to be free is to be “not enslaved, not imprisoned, unrestricted, unrestrained, unhampered.” From John R. W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 52.

Copyright 2003 Gary DeLashmutt