The Gospel and Our Freedom

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 8:9-13

Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:9-13 rsv

“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God, I know not what course others may take but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” Those words of Patrick Henry strike fire in every human heart. Liberty, says our American Declaration of Independence, is one of the inalienable rights with which all people are endowed by their Creator. Every heart yearns for genuine freedom. I will remember the words of a song I heard when I was growing up. “We gotta be free, that old ego and me.”

In a way that many have not fully realized this liberty that we all long for is one of the fruits of the biblical faith. Listen to Horace Greely, “It is impossible to enslave mentally or socially a Bible-reading people. The principles of the Bible are the ground work of human freedom. Liberty, he goes on, cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith. Alexis D put it this way: “Christianity is the companion liberty in all its conflicts, the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims.

One of the freedoms which the biblical gospel brought to the ancient world was freedom from idolatry, from the fear and superstition of a thousand false gods. Listen to Paul the apostle writing in the eighth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, “We know that an idol has no real existence and that there is no God but one. For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God the Father from whom are all things and for whom we exist and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom are all things and through whom we exist. What a freedom to know the one true and living God as revealed in His Son Jesus and to be liberated from all the darkness and bondage of worshiping that which is not God.

For those who cherish this faith, no political state, no beguiling ideology, no religious institution, no power in earth or hell can lord it over the human spirit. Believers know that God alone is Lord of the conscience, that we are to give our utter allegiance to Him and Him only.

For many Christians in first-century Corinth, that triumphant conviction freed them from any fear about eating food that had been dedicated to idols. In the world of that time, much of the food available for purchase had been previously dedicated in some idol temple. For those who knew the one Lord, however, that made no difference. They knew that the idols were nothing at all. They were the creations of men’s hands and hearts. They had no power to save or to harm. These Christians could eat whatever they wished to eat, knowing that all was from the hand of God and to be received with thanksgiving to Him.

Paul notes, however, that there were some in the church who had not fully entered into this freedom. They had grown up in a culture saturated with idol worship. They still had lingering fears that there might be some reality to all this. The gospel of Christ, though they had received it in faith, had not yet permeated their thinking and scattered all their darkness. For them to eat food that had been dedicated in an idol temple seemed a sacrilege. Their consciences were anything but free in this matter. They really believed that to do such a thing would be to participate in the worship of a false god.

In the light of this situation, Paul has something to say to those whose consciences had been liberated, to those who gloried in their freedom in Christ. It’s a word about responsibility toward others, about concern for another’s conscience. Take care, he warns, lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged if his conscience is weak to eat food offered to idols? And so, by your knowledge, this weak man is destroyed. The brother for whom Christ died, thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

Here is a word about freedom that is desperately needed in our time or in any time. What is it to be free? Does it mean that I now can do whatever I please without regard to anyone else? Does it mean that I insist on my personal rights whatever the cost to my brother or sister. Or is true freedom rather the liberty to do what I ought to do? We said by a great orator in U.S. history that it is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate habits cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters. Simply to indulge ourselves, friend, is the worst slavery imaginable. To insist on doing what I want to do without regard for anyone else’s interests is a terrible travesty of true freedom.

Now these Christians of strong faith in the church of Corinth could argue truthfully that for them to eat that food sold in idol temples was perfectly acceptable. Their conscience was clear. They could eat as unto the Lord, giving thanks to Him. But that wasn’t the only thing to be considered. There were also the scruples of their weaker brethren. Paul says, “Suppose they see you sitting down at table in an idol’s temple? They know that you are strong believers, fine Christians. They may be influenced to do the same. But for them such partaking would be a disaster. They would feel themselves condemned in heart as though they were turning from Christ to an idol. So though you are free in your own spirit to eat this food, your doing it in some circumstance would be tragically harmful to your fellow Christians, even destructive to their faith. Is the exercise of your personal liberty worth that?

Think of who these persons are, the apostle urges. They are your brothers and sisters in the faith. They may be babes in Christ, imperfectly instructed, but they belong to the fellowship. They are numbered among those for whom Christ died and rose again. What kind of Christian freedom can it be that could damage such precious lives?

And that’s not all. Paul continues, “Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding your conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” The church, remember, is the body of Christ. Believers are living members of the new community created by the Spirit. They are joined to the risen Lord and to one another in a living bond. In Jesus, the risen head of the church, is identified with all of His people. Paul learned on the Damascus road that when we persecute His followers we persecute Jesus. And if we sin against our fellow Christians, if we offend their consciences, if we cause them to stumble, we bring that pain, God forbid, upon the Lord Himself. We grieve His heart. We rend His body.

Paul would agree with these strong believers in Corinth that it is a sad thing for people to remain in any kind of bondage. But he reminds them that it’s a far greater sadness when in the exercise of our personal freedom we deeply injure other people.

Now the apostle moves to personal testimony, “Therefore, if food is a cause for my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat lest I cause my brother to fall.” Now Paul, remember, is one of these strong believers. He has known the truth that sets people free. It’s no problem to him that someone has mumbled incantations over the meat he buys in the market place. He can receive it directly from the hand of the true and living God. He knows that he’s free to eat anything he wants to. “But,” he says, “if doing that will cause the most immature, unenlightened believer to stumble, Paul is determined not to do it. He won’t eat meat while the world stands. He won’t partake of the particular kind of food in question forever. For him no such exercise of liberty is ever worth causing a brother to fall.

Now think about that, friends. The gospel of Jesus Christ both bestows upon us a marvelous freedom and also guides us in how to set appropriate limits upon it.

All of us are glad for the first part. We’re delighted to know that Christ has freed us from the shadow of guilt by bearing our sins and putting them away. We are thankful He has taken us down to death with Him and freed us from the compulsive power of sin. We rejoice that having been raised from the dead He has freed us from the dread of that last great enemy and enabled us to say, “O death, where is thy victory?” We’re glad that in the knowledge of Himself, the Lord has delivered our spirits from all human tyranny so that whatever may be the political system under which we live, we are yet in heart the Lord’s free people. We celebrate, all of us, that freedom from the powers and chains and fears that have held us.

But perhaps we don’t celebrate enough the limits which the Christian gospel places upon us in the way we exercise our freedom. Listen again to Patrick Henry. This man, willing to die for liberty: “Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is impossible that a nation of infidels or idolaters should be a nation of free men. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chain. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience is incompatible with freedom.

Christ never freed us for that, did He? Listen to Paul, writing to the Galatians, “You were called to freedom, brethren, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh but through love be servants of one another.” That’s the heart of it right there. Every Christian has been called to a glorious freedom but we grossly misunderstand that if we look on it as a freedom to be selfish, to indulge our own whims, to pursue our personal goals without regard for Christ and His people. We are set free not to do what we please but what we ought, not to live the life of a libertine but to learn what it is truly to love and to serve our fellow human beings. Some has said, “The principle of liberty and equality if coupled with mere selfishness will make men only devils, each trying to be independent, that he may fight for his own interest.

May God teach us that in America and in every other country in the world. Yes, let’s long for freedom, pray for freedom, labor for it, suffer for it, if need be. And let’s remember that the only freedom worthy of the name is that which finds us living in obedience to the will of God and serving our fellow human beings in genuine love. The greatest freedom of all is to be liberated from our selfishness. Martin Luther long ago expressed the paradox, “Christian man is a perfectly free man subject to none.” On the other side is, “The Christian man is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.”

I hope you will celebrate the freedoms you have today. Whatever political freedoms you may enjoy, whatever religious liberty may be granted to you, I hope that you will so trust in Jesus Christ that you may find in Him freedom from guilt and bondage and despair. And I hope especially that you and I and all of us together will know that we are free from these evil powers in order to be free for something wonderful. We are liberated to be the bond slaves of Jesus Christ and to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and we are set free to care more about the real needs of our fellow human beings than we do about our personal freedoms. And along that road, we discover, all of us, what it is to be free indeed. Amen.