A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on July 4, 2010.
Philip Dennis, pastor at Monticello (GA) Presbyterian Church, called the children to the front of the sanctuary for the children’s sermon. It was the Sunday before July 4, so he told them about the freedom of this country and, more importantly, our freedom in Christ.
One little boy, obviously inspired, exclaimed, “I’m free!” Not to be outdone, another little boy proudly announced, “I’m four!”
234 years ago today, through the pen of Thomas Jefferson, American colonists proudly announced to Great Britain and all who would listen, “We’re free!” Today, we remember those famous words that appear in the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. One biographer of Thomas Jefferson argues that the following 55 words are “the most important words in American history—and possibly all modern history.” Let’s listen to them again:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
These 55 words fueled a revolution not only here in America but in other countries that lived and labored under tyranny. These words imply that human beings are born free and equal, and they will always be restless until their governments grant them their God-given freedom and equality.
Should we be grateful to Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson? Well of course, because they created the foundation for perhaps the finest government in human history. Should we be grateful to the thousands of Americans who have given their lifeblood to safeguard our country’s freedoms? Absolutely! All you have to do to appreciate our freedom is visit a country that has none.
But Christians in America are called to reserve their first loyalty not to the government in Washington but to the Kingdom of God. Our Commander in Chief is ultimately Jesus, not the President. And our ultimate governing document is the Holy Scripture, not the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
And what I want you to see today is that our scriptures feature another dynamic freedom fighter. He was an apostle of Jesus, the one who claims to be the Truth that sets us free. And his name was the Apostle Paul.
Not once, not twice but eleven times the words “free” or “freedom” appear in the book of Galatians. In fact, Galatians has been called “The Magna Charta of Liberty” in the Bible because this epistle written by Paul is so focused on and passionate about freedom.
Of course, Paul was not battling against the British crown. He was waging a campaign on two fronts against two groups of people who were abusing freedom in different ways. One group, called “Judaizers”, consisted of zealous Jewish Christians who insisted that before Gentiles could become Christians, they had to be circumcised. No circumcision meant no salvation and no admission to the body of Christ—it was just that simple to the Judaizers.
At the other extreme were the so-called “libertines”, the freedom fanatics who argued that once you accepted Christ and were full of the Spirit you were free to do as you please. Most of all, you were free to make yourself happy. If being happy meant sinning against God—so be it. You were free to do that, too.
On one side Paul is dealing with people who want to eliminate freedom.On the other side he is dealing with people who want to elevate freedom above all else. How does he respond to this conundrum?
Listen again to these 54 words from Paul that speak even more profoundly about freedom than those 55 penned by Thomas Jefferson: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…You, my brothers and sisters were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Long before Thomas Jefferson proclaimed we are free Paul observes that freedom is our birthright. We are children of God, called to freedom. Like Jefferson, Paul understands that God created us to be free, and far better than Jefferson Paul knows that the human soul, including the souls of minorities and women, will never be content until they are free at last.
Unlike Jefferson, Paul points to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the final guarantee of our freedom. It’s not enlightened reason or an inspiring declaration or a representative government or a strong military that sets us free. Truthfully, you can live in a free country and still not be free. Our own sin is our ultimate taskmaster, and only the cross rescues us from that. Our own death is our ultimate prison, and only the resurrection of Christ delivers us from that.
We are born to be free, and Jesus makes it possible for us to be free. Which is why it’s so astounding to Paul that folks would let themselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.Paul is flabbergasted that believers set free by the cross would willingly enslave themselves and others to the yoke of the law in general and circumcision in particular. Stand firm, Paul says, and never submit to such slavery.
Thomas Jefferson recognized the human tendency to substitute one yoke of slavery for another and he understood that any government, even the new American government, could become a new tyrant. That’s why he tried to limit the powers of government. But Paul sees this truth at an even deeper level. He understood that our own passions could become our taskmasters, that lust and anger, jealousy and ambition can tyrannize our souls just as easily as power-hungry governments.
In fact, Paul recognizes that the totally free person is an illusion. Everybody is a slave to something or someone. The key is to pick the right form of slavery, and the only deserving slave owner.
So Paul says in Romans 6:22, Now that you have been set free from sin, (you are to) become slaves of God. Paul recognizes that the freest people in this world are bondslaves of God as we know him in Jesus Christ. And this leads to the next paradoxical truth that Thomas Jefferson apparently missed—the happiest people in this world live not in the pursuit of their own happiness, but in the service of others. There’s a good reason Jefferson died a somewhat frustrated man on July 4th, 1826 despite his many monumental accomplishments. You don’t gain happiness by pursuing it for yourself. You gain happiness by serving others in love.
You see, life is not about you and your comfort. Jesus, the smartest, most powerful man ever to live could have used his divine freedom to enjoy the splendors of heaven for all eternity. But he didn’t. He willingly served us and gave his life for us in love. That’s true freedom that leads to true joy. And so Paul, whose ministry would land him in prison, says, “Don’t abuse your freedom to indulge yourself, and your own sinful nature. Serve others in love.”
Every time we eat of this bread, and drink of this cup, we remember that out of love Jesus used his freedom to liberate us from sin and death. And we remember that we too are called to freely serve others in love.
The great American lie is that you are happiest when you are using your freedom first and foremost to make yourself happy. Don’t believe it. Life is ultimately not about you, or serving you—it’s about serving God and others. Become a slave of Christ, and on this July 4th, you will become free indeed, free at last.
 Quoted in Time Magazine, “Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Thomas Jefferson”. Walter Kern, July 5, 2004, Pg. 48.