Part 9: Our Liberty In Christ

by Pastor Cornelius R. Stam

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OUR POSITION AS SONS OF GOD

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).

We have seen the divine classification of the human race into, 1.) the natural man, 2.) the babe in Christ, 3.) the carnal Christian, and 4.) the spiritual Christian. We must bear in mind, however, that the last three of these, and the responsibility to grow from spiritual babyhood to full maturity, have to do entirely with our experience and conduct as believers and not at all with our position in Christ.

The believer’s position in God’s sight, be he but a babe or even a carnal Christian, is that of a full-grown son, simply because God sees him in Christ, His perfect Son.

How justly proud the Father was of His Son when, having beheld him already “numbered with the transgressors” at His baptism, He broke through the heavens to exclaim: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).

And now, in infinite grace, God tells us that He “hath made us accepted in the Beloved [One],” “complete in Him” and seated with Him in the heavenlies, far beyond the reach of all accusers and even of the law itself (Eph. 1:6; Col. 2:10; Eph. 2:6).

It is in the light of these glorious truths that we are to live, walking worthy of our high and holy calling; worthy of our position in Christ (Eph. 4:1; II Tim. 1:9). To go back under the law now would be to repudiate our position in Christ.

Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in Galatians 4:1-7, where the Apostle Paul, by the Spirit, deals with our position in Christ as full-grown sons, and our consequent freedom from the law.

SONSHIP

“Now I say, that the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be Lord of all;

“But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.

“Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:

“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law,

“To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.

“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.

“Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Gal. 4:1-7).

In looking up the word “adoption” in a Bible Dictionary, some years ago, we were disappointed to find the following definition:

“Adoption is an act by which a person takes a stranger into his family, acknowledges him as his child, and constitutes him heir of his estate….In the New Testament, adoption denotes the act of God’s free grace…by which, on being justified through faith, we are received into the family of God, and made heirs of the inheritance of heaven.”

That this is the meaning of the English word adoption in present popular usage, no one will deny, but that it is not the meaning of the Greek word rendered “adoption” in the Authorized Version, is clear from its usage in the New Testament and especially in the passage quoted above.

The adoption of children as we speak of it today refers to the taking of other people’s children into one’s family, but the word “adoption” (Gr., huiothesia) in the Authorized Version of the Bible means simply “placing as a son,” i.e., as a full-grown son. In the passage from Galatians, above, it affects those already children! This is not to deny, of course, that a stranger could also be taken in and given a place as a full-grown son, but the point is that Bible “adoption” does not refer to mere acceptance into the family, but to a declaration of full sonship, with all its rights and privileges.1

BABES ARE UNDER TUTORS AND GOVERNORS

Full-grown Sons are Not

In the life of the Hebrew boy there came a time, appointed by the father, when “adoption” proceedings took place and the boy was formally declared to be the father’s son and heir.

Prior to that time he had been a son, indeed, but “under tutors and governors.” He had been told what he might and might not, what he must and must not do. In this he differed nothing from a servant, though “lord of all.”

But finally the child developed into a grown son and the “time appointed” arrived. He would no longer need overseers to keep him in check. There would now be natural understanding and cooperation between father and son. And so the “adoption” proceedings took place—a formal and official declaration that the son had now entered into all the rights and privileges of full-grown sonship.

Such is the meaning of the word “adoption” (huiothesia) in the writings of Paul.

OUR “ADOPTION” IN CHRIST

Prophetically speaking, the “adoption” pertains to God’s covenant people Israel (Rom. 9:4) and this honor was offered to them by grace after they had failed to attain to it under law. The favored people rejected the distinction, however, and continued going about to establish their own righteousness, so that the fulfilment of this purpose now awaits a future day.

But God was not taken by surprise, for it was His secret, eternal purpose to show that all blessing is wrapped up in Christ. While Israel remains in unbelief, therefore, all who will trust in the perfect, finished work of Christ may have the “adoption” which Israel rejected—and more.

Thus the apostle writes historically, when he says:

“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law,

“To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4,5).

“The fulness of the time,” when Christ died, is where prophecy and the mystery meet, for we come into the place of fullgrown sonship, not in fulfilment of covenant promises but rather in fulfilment of an eternal purpose kept secret until Paul. It was God’s gracious plan to make us “holy and without blame before Him, in love having predestinated us unto the adoption of children [placing as sons]”2 (Eph. 1:4,5).

But how could He make us, sinners of the Gentiles, “holy and without blame before Him” and give us the honor of “adoption”?

There is only one answer: “by Jesus Christ,” and it is eternally “to the praise of the glory of His grace” that “He hath made us accepted in the Beloved [One]” (Eph. 1:5,6).

Thus the simplest believer is immediately given a place in Christ at God’s right hand as a full-grown son with all the rights and privileges of sonship, and forever free from the bondage of the law. It can but dishonor God to fail to recognize this position in Christ or to walk in the joy of it.

Yet the best of us fail and must often acknowledge with shame that we have not walked as the sons of God. The question arises, then: Does this imputed “adoption” work experientially—this giving us a place of sonship in Christ. Does it produce the desired results in the conflict that goes on between “the flesh” and “the spirit”?

DOES IT WORK?

The Apostle Paul deals with this matter at considerable length and insists that an appreciation of our position in Christ is the only thing that can help us to live a life truly pleasing to God.

The Galatians probably thought that they were pleasing God by voluntarily adding the law to grace in their lives in an attempt to overcome the flesh. But while they were giving themselves more things to obey, the apostle points out that by placing themselves under the law they were “disobeying the truth” and dishonoring Christ, who had died to deliver them not only from sin, but from the law (Gal. 3:1,13; 5:7).

Furthermore, their attempted solution to the problem was false. It is true that “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” and that “fleshly lusts…war against the soul” (Gal. 5:17; I Pet. 2:11) but the Galatians, like many believers today, were unaware of the true nature of the flesh, whose “lusts,” or desires, are expressed not only in the release of the baser passions but often also in the attempt to make something of one’s self; to be one’s own god. This form of flesh-expression is as contrary to the Spirit as other grosser forms.

Recalling Abraham’s attempt—and failure—to help God through the flesh, the apostle says:

“For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.

“But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise” (Gal. 4:22,23).

The comparison between these two sons of Abraham the apostle likens, not to living in open sin and living righteously before God, but to living under the law and living under grace. The son born after the flesh, says Paul, represents the principle of law in Christian behavior, while the son born of promise represents the principle of grace.

Nor—note it carefully—does the former help and encourage the latter, as though placing ourselves under the law might help us to grow in grace. On the contrary, they are opposed to one another:

“But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now” (Gal. 4:29).

This desire to make something of one’s self by becoming subject to the law is an expression of the flesh as antagonistic to the Spirit as any moral sin. With regard to it the apostle says:

“If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing….Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law” (Gal. 5:2,4).3

What need of Christ, if one can make something of himself? This was what had kept Israel from being saved:

“For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:3,4).

It will not be until the people of Israel cease struggling to establish their own righteousness, and find their all in Christ, that they will be saved and “adopted” at the same time, so that men will say: “Ye are the sons of the living God” (Hos. 1:10).

The Galatians, of course, had already been saved by grace, but now they “desired to be under the law” (Gal. 4:9,21). This amounted to a repudiation of Christ’s finished work, was disobedience to the truth and—sheer folly. “Are ye so foolish,” asks the apostle, “having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans we learn that “the law…was weak through the flesh” and that “the carnal mind [Gr., “the mind of the flesh”] is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:3,7). How, then, can subjection to the law help us live holier lives?

But “what the law could not do…God, sending His own Son,” accomplished.

“That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).

Galatian believers may seek to help God out by subjecting themselves to the law, and offering Him its works, as Abraham sought to help God out by marrying the bondwoman and offering Him her son,

“Nevertheless what saith the Scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman….Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 4:30; 5:1).

“The works of the flesh,” regardless of the law, “are manifest,” and they are all bad (Gal. 5:19-21). “But the fruit of the Spirit” is all good and, in its nature, needs no law to prompt it (Gal. 5:22,23).

As we have seen, the Holy Spirit does not take supernatural possession of us and cause us to do His will, but by God’s grace He dwells within us, always ready to help (the law was always ready to condemn!). Thus we may have spiritual victory in any situation. What God provides by grace we must appropriate by faith, always recognizing that He has already given us a position at His right hand in Christ and seeking to please Him out of sheer gratitude.

The only way, then, to grow experientially to a place of full sonship, with the liberty and privilege it implies, is to recognize that we are full-grown sons in Christ.

“For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).

“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6).

“This I say, then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

THE SPIRITUAL USE OF LIBERTY

Christian liberty is a priceless possession. It can be abused, of course, but legitimately used it is an ever-flowing source of spiritual joy and power.

God’s purpose with regard to the liberty of the believer in Christ is aptly summed up for us in one short verse in the Galatian letter. Falling naturally into three parts, the verse reads as follows:

“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty;

“Only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh,

“But by love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).

We have already seen that, as the cause of spiritual decline in Israel was always their departure from God’s Word to them through Moses, so the cause of spiritual decline among believers today is always their departure from God’s Word to us through Paul.

Now, if anything is made unmistakably clear in the epistles of Paul, it is the fact that believers in this present dispensation of Grace have been delivered from the law and “called unto liberty,” and the failure of God’s people to appropriate and enjoy this liberty today results in spiritual decline as surely as did the failure of the people of Israel to observe the law of Moses in their day.

Could anything be plainer than those passages in this same Galatian epistle, where the apostle says by the Spirit:

“Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3:13).

“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

“But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24,25).

“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law,

“To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons….

“Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Gal. 4:4-7).

In the light of this it would be unbelief and disobedience to place ourselves back under the law, even though all the Word of God, including the writings of Moses, is for us and “profitable.” Indeed, when the Galatians, at the dawn of the dispensation of Grace (the dispensation of Law having scarcely passed away) “desired again to be in bondage,” so as to obey more of God’s Word, Paul rebuked them sternly, calling them “foolish” and “disobedient” (Gal. 3:1; 5:7) because in going back to the law they had repudiated the further revelation given by God through him and the liberty which Christ had purchased for them with His own blood.

Thus, to reject the liberty of sonship and go back to the servitude of the law is to repudiate not only the Word of God, but the Word of God to us, and this must necessarily result in spiritual decline.

It is not for us to decide how we can best please God. It is for us to hear, believe and obey Him. This alone is the course of true spirituality. Indeed, the apostle remarks on the relation of true spirituality to our liberty in Christ, saying:

“This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh….If ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (Gal. 5:16-18).

To depart from these instructions is to depart from the will of God for our lives and go backward spiritually.

Little wonder, then, that when the Judaizers sought to bring the believers at Antioch under the law, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them” (Acts 15:2). Little wonder he contended so vigorously with those “who came in privily to spy out [their] liberty which [they had] in Christ Jesus” and “gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with [the Galatians]” (Gal. 2:4,5). Little wonder that he wrote to the Galatians, who were being influenced by the Judaizers:

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).

Surely we, who live nearly two thousand years after the law, should not, at this late date, be tempted to return to it again. Christ has died:

“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances [decrees] that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His Cross….

“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:

“Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body [substance] is of Christ” (Col. 2:14-17).

These and many other Scriptures on the subject of the believer’s liberty in Christ are too clear to leave room for controversy. To hesitate to accept and enjoy this God-given liberty is a sign, not of spirituality, but of carnality; not of humility, but of pride.

LIBERTY NOT LICENSE

The fact that we are given perfect liberty in Christ does not, however, mean that we should spend our lives in gratifying our own fleshly desires. Just the opposite is the case. We’ve been delivered from the bondage of childhood and given the liberty of fullgrown sons (Gal. 3:24; 4:1-7) and this advance from infancy to maturity in itself implies the acquisition of a sense of responsibility.

The doctrine of our liberty in Christ does not support, but rather refutes, the false theory that those who are under grace may do anything they please. Paul was “slanderously reported” in this connection (Rom. 3:8) but there were carnal believers then, as there are now, who actually did use their liberty as license to gratify their own desires. To turn from liberty to license in this way is fully as serious an error as to turn from liberty to law.

Many a believer, motivated only by his own fleshly desires and not at all by love for Christ or others, has indulged in pleasures of the flesh and of the world, justifying himself on the ground that he is under grace and has liberty in Christ. Taking others down with him in his spiritual declension, he complains of any who would help him that “They are trying to put me under the law.”

Such are actually guilty of departing from grace, for “the grace of God…hath appeared”:

“Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world [age];

“Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ;

“Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:11-14).

Peter emphasizes this truth when he exhorts believers to live,

“As [truly] free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness [as a pretext for evil] but as the servants of God” (I Pet. 2:16).

And John further emphasizes it, when he says:

“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in Him”4 (I John 2:15).

Paul, the great apostle of grace, left no room for doubt as to his attitude toward worldliness and fleshly indulgence, for he said he was “crucified unto the world” (Gal. 6:14) and exhorted the Roman believers to “reckon” themselves “dead indeed” to the sins of the flesh, explaining that sin should not have dominion over them because they were not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:12-14). Moreover, he wrote by inspiration, so that his words to the Galatians and the Romans are also God’s Word to us.

“For brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh…” (Gal. 5:13).

CHRISTIAN LIBERTY THE VEHICLE OF LOVE

The apostle is not negative in his attitude in this matter, only cautioning us against the abuse of our liberty. He is positive, explaining how our liberty should be used for the glory of God and for the good of ourselves and others:

“By love serve one another.” Here is an admonition so simple that none can misunderstand it, yet so sublime, so all-comprehensive, that it covers the whole range of the believer’s behavior toward his fellow-members in the Body of Christ.

If we but stop to consider the wonder of the fact that we should be entrusted with liberty—full and free—as fullgrown sons, while yet beset by temptation and sin, and often failing; if we contemplate the infinite love and condescension—and the infinite cost involved in bestowing this liberty upon us; if we reflect that this liberty, on the other hand, is give to us, not as unregenerate sinners, but that it is given to us in Christ, as those who have been crucified, buried and raised with Him, to “walk in newness of life”—if we take the time to consider all this it soon becomes evident that the only right use of liberty is “by love [to] serve one another.”

It is important to remember that we have been “called unto liberty,” but it is equally important to take care that we exercise this liberty in a life of usefulness for others. It is important that we “stand fast” in our God-given liberty, but it is equally important to heed the exhortation:

“…take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak” (I Cor. 8:9).

Referring to the eating of meat and observing of days, the apostle exhorts:

“Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way….But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably….Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth” (Rom. 14:13-22).

With regard to eating meat offered to idols, the apostle says further:

“Knowledge puffeth up, but charity [love] edifieth [builds up]….we know that an idol is nothing in the world….Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge… Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth…” (I Cor. 8:1-13).

As the late Dr. Bultema has well put it: “We have no right to cast aside our liberty, but we have liberty to cast aside our rights.” This is the very essence of Galatians 5:13.

Outside of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man, Paul himself was probably the greatest example of this use of Christian liberty.

Writing to the Corinthians he reminded them that he had the right as an apostle and as their benefactor under God, to live well and to expect them to care for his needs so that he might “forbear working.” Advancing argument after argument from daily life and from the Scriptures to support him in this contention, he reminded them that they owed him their financial support (I Cor. 9:1-14). But he also wrote to these carnal Corinthians:

“…Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ….For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more” (I Cor. 9:12-19).

Referring again to his use of his liberty in Christ, he says:

“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.

“Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth” (I Cor. 10:23,24).

There we have it again. We have been set at liberty, not that we might indulge in the gratification of our own desires, but that we might live for others. Nor do we lose anything by this; this is true liberty, for “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Thank God, we’ve been “called unto liberty.” Through Christ we can breathe the air of freedom. But to fully enjoy this freedom we must take care not to use it as an occasion to serve self, but rather as the means by which, in love, we may serve one another.

Notes:

  1. See the author’s pamphlet entitled, Sonship.
  2. We take it that the words “In love” belong to Verse 5.
  3. Logically, of course, not actually, for the context makes it clear that they were truly saved (4:28,31).
  4. It does not follow from this that worldly believers lose their salvation. The meaning is simply that it is impossible to love the world and love the Father at the same time. One love displaces the other. Fortunately, it is God’s love to us that keeps us safe (Rom. 8:35-39) but worldliness in the believer will surely result in loss at the judgment seat of Christ (II Cor. 5:10).