Oppressive freedom sounds like an oxymoron. How could freedom possibly be oppressive? Such a question betrays our cultural conditioning and prejudices. Paul challenges us to think more deeply. Could Paul actually lead us to conclude that freedom is not always the goal, not always a blessing?
To fully appreciate Paul’s message, we first need to explore a scene involving a worship service on a particular Sunday. Imagine a Christian sitting near the front weighed down with an enormous burden. Although it was not intended, a friendship with a coworker over time had blossomed into a secret affair.
Living as someone trying to follow Jesus while at the same time intimately involved with another person’s spouse became complicated. Sundays entailed not only participating in the Lord’s Supper and remembering that Christ’s death made forgiveness possible, but also being reminded that God’s people are to put off sinful ways in order to live holy lives. Yet on other days, the desire for the relationship remained too strong to ignore.
All of this background brings us to a particular Sunday where the sermon’s message exalted freedom in Christ. The preacher announced that Christ had set people free from every law that could be used to condemn them. To drive home his point he emphasized that grace meant no teaching or law would ever condemn those belonging to Christ. They were free from all regulations.
As soon as the words left the preacher’s mouth, a wave of relief washed over that Christian near the front. This believer sensed an enormous burden being lifted. This individual perceived freedom in Christ to mean everything was all right with his life. Grace would cover the affair!
To hear that you have been freed to pursue your own desires might be liberating. However, just because someone experiences the thrill of freedom neither makes what is understood right nor biblical, even if scripture might have been used. Is such a life blessed or oppressed?
Sin is oppressive, whether a person belongs to Christ or not. When people abandon God’s ways, they pursue destruction. In Paul’s words, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Romans 6:16).
In other words, some forms of freedom can be oppressive. Freedom is not the ultimate goal, serving God is.
The previous paragraph summarizes my intended message. Yet, several matters need to be clarified. Christ’s blood can forgive us of all sin. However, it does not empower us to remain in sin. We are called to repent.
Furthermore, the sermon portrayed above misrepresents scripture on several points. First, grace does not empower rebellion and sin, although some have distorted grace into a license to sin (Jude 4). A proper understanding of grace leads us away from evil (Titus 2:11-12).
Second, Paul taught that Christ liberated us from the need to show ourselves right by the Law (Galatians 5:1-6). He did not insinuate that Christ sets people free from following God’s ways.
Third, Paul admonished Christians to abandon sin (Romans 6:1,15; 8:12-13).
Fourth, the language of Romans 8:1 does not define grace, rather it exalts forgiveness.