On January 1, 1863, the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, issued an executive order which changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans. We know this directive as the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was a major turning point in the history of our country. It was the first bold step to correct a black spot in our history. In it, Lincoln said all those who are held as slaves in any State shall be, “thenceforward, and forever free.” Freedom, it seems to be the natural state of things, the way things ought to be. When I first learned about this chapter of our history, it was hard for me to understand. It did not make any sense that one person would, or even could, own another person. Slavery is wrong, it is evil, it is against everything we stand for. We rightly resist it. We ought to fight against it. To do what we can to be free and set others free seems to be the only correct reaction to slavery.
What a shock it must be, therefore, when you realize how you yourself are not free, because you are not. Or at least as you came into this world, in your natural state, you are not free at all but a slave. Now, in your defense, you did not know it, you seemed free. You could go where you wanted. You could pursue the course of action you thought best. You can make your own choices and reap the consequences. Freedom seems to be the ordinary state of things. But there is a slavery which remains. Black or white, Jew or Gentile, man or woman, young or old, we all hold in common a deep and hidden slavery. It effects every part of life, it touches every relationship, every choice, everything you do.
And this slavery is so devious because it is not a type of slavery you can easily eradicate. In fact, it is not even one you want to emancipate. The slavery binding all mankind is a slavery you all love, a slavery you want, a slavery you are drawn towards. In Saint Paul’s letter to the church in Rome he speaks a lot about this slavery. In fact, in the first chapter as he speak about the rebellion of mankind against God, he says, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:24-25). God gave mankind up to do what they wanted to do. He bound them to their own desires, to their selfishness and pride and glory seeking.
This is your slavery. You did not know it. You thought you were free. You did what you wanted. In fact, you could not do anything else. It was not until the Word of God came that you even knew its hold on you. Think about it, you were going along just fine until you set foot in this place. You were living life, going through the motions and then, for whatever reason, you showed up here. Perhaps it was your parents who brought you. Perhaps it was some sort of curiosity. You were searching for big answers to life’s big questions and you figured you might as well check out the Church. So, in you come, just like everyone else and, “Bam!” Everything changes… and not for the better. You come in here and you enter a very uncomfortable situation. People start confessing they are sinners. They have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what they have done and by what they have left undone. Normal people, people just like you, from all walks of life begin to highlight the slavery, the bondage to sin and death and condemnation they are trapped in.
It is unpleasant business to learn about such slavery running amuck among us. This helps explain the shock felt by some of Jesus’ disciples when He suddenly and surprisingly says to them, “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Now these are not just some stragglers who started following Jesus during His time out in the Gentile lands. They did not worship strange gods or follow false prophets. These were His own people, people who knew the command and decrees of God. They had studied and learned and worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And so, they say to Him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’” (John 8:33)? It is a bit unnerving to find out you are a slave when you have never felt the pain of the shackles or the lash of the master’s whip.
But Jesus does not pull back from his assertion. They are sinners and He has all the proof you need. To be a sinner is to be a slave to sin. You do exactly what you want to do. And the more you ponder this, the more you think about your own life and your own thoughts and desires, you know there is truth in this. There are good things you want to do, you know you should do and, yet, you never quite seem to do them. Perhaps you do them in part or you do them when they suit your time and needs, but more often than not you stumble and fail in doing the good you know you should do. Then, on the other side of the coin, there are all the things you know you should not do. There are the thoughts and actions that destroy relationships and promote disunity, the lusts and anger and coveting filling you day-in and day-out.
The temptation here is to try and build some sort of means by which you can overcome this slavery, some way you can find freedom. Perhaps if you prayed more diligently or meditated on the goodness of God you might make strides to overcome. Maybe if you stopped consuming the lies and propaganda of the world, if you secluded yourself from your neighbors and focused more on the reading of the Bible, then you would resist the sins lurking around you. Or you could actively fill your lives with works of righteousness. Go out of your way to lend a hand to those in need, then you might find freedom. Possibly you will be the one to pull it off, but I doubt it. Others have tried, they try all the time. And at times, perhaps, they think they are truly free. But the uncertainty always remains. Did they do enough? Were you faithful enough? Did you pray enough, or give enough, or love enough, or care enough?
From within yourself there is no assurance and, so, there is no freedom. How free are you if you still sin? How free can you be by your devotion and love?
Real freedom, true freedom, comes to you from outside of yourself. Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). If Jesus is the one who does the freeing work, then it is complete, total, not even a little bit is left over for you to accomplish on your own. You are free, because the Son has made it so. He alone took your sins in his flesh and atoned for them on the cross of Calvary. He alone paid the price for your freedom and declared to His Father in Heaven, “It is finished.” He alone clothed you, not in your incomplete works, but in His perfect and holy righteous deeds. He has done what you could not.
This is the great message we possess to share. This is what it is all about. It is about freedom from a slavery that binds all mankind. Jesus directs you right to the source, to the way freedom comes, “Abide in my Word,” He says, “and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This is what the Reformation was about. This is what every Sunday is about. This is the heart and soul of your hope and confidence. To abide in His Word is to know the truth, to know the gifts of Christ.
How free are you? You are completely free in Christ. So, go forth this day to live in His freedom. You are free to love and care for others, not out of obligation to get out of slavery, but in the assurance of His freedom. You are free to struggle and to fail, to face trials and temptations, to have doubts and worries. And yet, none of that changes what He has said about you. None of that changes His love for you. None of that alters His work for you. The Son has set you free, my friends, so you are free indeed!