“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” So wrote the noted 20th-century science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein.
He anticipated the thinking that has become commonplace in Western Society. Like Caligula in Albert Camus’ play of the same name, freedom has come to mean the absence of self-restraint.
A good question to ask is whether Caligula was really free? A careful reading of Camus’ play reveals Camus’ doubts about this. In the closing scene, we find Caligula saying, as he looks in a mirror: “I have chosen a wrong path, a path that leads to nothing. My freedom isn’t the right one…”
Properly understood, freedom is choosing to submit to good and wise constraints.
It is essential that we know in our minds and hearts that Christianity does not begin with rules. Rather it begins with a new life made possible by Christ Jesus. In Colossians 1:13 we learn that God is committed to rescuing us from this present world of darkness and sin, and giving us a new life in the new world where his Son is king.
In Colossians 3:1-4 Paul frames our new life with specific exhortations – on a vertical axis: If then you have been raised with Christ, set your minds on the things above; and on a time axis: For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Paul urges us to let the light of our resurrection state fall on every aspect of life— our priorities and goals, our words and actions, and our attitudes. Everything is to reflect our new identity.
‘Let this new life of ours be the governing principle’, he is saying. ‘Everything in our old world will die. But in Christ, we are now linked to a new existence on the other side of the grave. In one sense we’re in heaven already. If our physical body packed up now, we wouldn’t cease to exist.
It makes a great deal of sense therefore that we start living as members of the new age to which we belong. It’s logical that we should adopt a new lifestyle.
All the dos and don’ts that follow on in Colossians 3 flow logically from this. Since we have entered a new kingdom, we should …Put to death therefore what belongs to our earthly nature…
This is so different from the legalism Paul writes about in Colossians 2. The legalism he rejects is this: ‘Here is a list of rules, obey them, and one way or another you’ll maneuver yourself into God’s presence’.
Instead, he is saying, ‘Since you have been transferred into God’s kingdom, live accordingly’.
Let me identify three themes that Paul addresses – sexuality, the tongue, and relationships.
First, Put to death… what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. ‘If you say you are one of God’s people’, Paul says, ‘sex outside of marriage is not on’. People sometimes say they are ‘making love’. Rather, Paul is saying that it is ‘self-gratification’ – hence his reference to greed.
Second, Paul speaks about the tongue. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator (Colossians 3:8-10).
To us it seems strange that Paul speaks about controlling the tongue in the same context as controlling sexual appetites. Anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk are so much part of everyday language that it seems incongruous for them to be put alongside sins of the flesh. We forget that Jesus taught that angry words are the same as murder.
Indeed, James says that the tongue is a restless evil (James 3:8). Malice, obscenity, and rage cause damage. ‘Therefore’, says Paul, ‘put off this old self. It isn’t consistent with our new nature’.
Sometimes people say that to be interesting and attractive we need to be a little sinful. But that is to forget Jesus: he was hardly aloof and boring. He was man as man was meant to be.
Third, relationships: In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Colossians 3:11).
People today cry out for the breaking down of barriers that divide – be they race or religion or whatever. Most of us long for a world without antagonism, without need, and without loneliness – a world where there is genuine love.
Churches ought to aim at being such a society. That is the way of God’s new world.
Indeed, one of the purposes of ‘church’ is to set up a signpost to that other universe. So the world can see and wonder. We ought to be a microcosm, pointing beyond this age, this world, to heaven. Rule-keeping won’t achieve this. Lives that are being set free and changed by God’s truth, will.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com