The Cross of Christ Restores. . . Our Freedom
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. ROMANS 6:22–23
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”. . . “Truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” JOHN 8:31,34–36
We live in a time when “truth” is often thought of, even among Christians, as something subjective and up for grabs. This has greatly weakened the ability of the Church to bring the gospel of Christ to the world. Any appeal to the Church as the guardian of truth is met with a litany of accusations against those who have preached one thing and lived another. The fact that members of the Church remain enslaved by sin, despite the liberating claims of the gospel, can be explained by our inability to “continue in the word” of Jesus. Jesus told his disciples that if they persisted in their faith, they would know the truth and it would set them free. Freedom would be theirs only if they picked up their crosses and stepped out in obedience, following Christ even to death.
More than a few people are immersed in lives ruled by addiction—the most evident slavery to sin. Many wish to disassociate sin and addiction, arguing that those who suffer from addictions are not culpable of their acts. However, the effects of sin may be seen both in the life of the addicted person and in the people around him or her. In addition, behavior scientists are demonstrating that those with substance addictions to drugs and alcohol often engage in other activities that can be just as destructive. Some studies show a release of certain chemicals in the brain that mimic the high of drugs and alcohol and lead people to engage in other addictive behaviors to reach this “high.” All of this is proclaimed in the teaching of the New Testament, of course, and even the therapy devised to rescue someone from such behavior is biblically based. The Scriptures teach that sin is both destructive and enslaving. The destructive element is not apparent to the human eye—in the opening pages of Genesis, the forbidden fruit was “a delight to the eyes.” Unfortunately, by the time the person recognizes his addiction, he is already caught in its deadly grip. Sin is by nature enslaving, and we cannot free ourselves from it. We can be freed from future bondage only through a “higher power.” Jesus offers us this free gift, but we must continue in his Word in order to experience true freedom.
Just Do It
Father Val Peter, executive director of Boys and Girls Town in Nebraska, wrote a book called Rekindling the Fires: An Introduction to Behavioral Spirituality. This spirituality is based not on feeling but on truth, a sort of “just do it” approach that encourages others to act on the truth of the gospel in faith, continuing over a period of time the “forced” activity becomes more natural. In many ways Father Val’s book is a modern version of living the virtues in order to become a virtuous person. Every parent grieves when they see a child make the same mistakes they once did; what most parents do not realize is that we are still bound by those “blinders.” The details change with age, but if we are not serving God, we are still slaves to some other master that in the end will bring us down to the depths of hell To the person obsessed with anything that is not God, being freed from that “master” seems impossible. Even taking the first steps toward Christ and away from the “master imposter” is painful, indeed a crucifixion. It is impossible to imagine any other way of living. Yet if we allow the words of Jesus to soak into our minds, bringing us to true repentance, we will wonder how we ever could have been so misled. As the late Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann once observed, there is a joy in following Jesus that transcends the suffering that is entailed by taking up one’s cross: “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus warns us (Jn 16:33). Anyone who would in the smallest degree follow the path of Christ, love him and give himself to him, has this tribulation, recognizes this suffering. The cross is suffering. But through love and self-sacrifice this same tribulation is transformed into joy. It is experienced as being crucified with Christ, as accepting his cross and hence taking part in his victory. “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). The cross is joy, “and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16:22).
In medieval art, the cross of Christ is portrayed as the tree of life, both as a vine (referring to John 15) and as the source of the Eucharist. Angels are depicted as offering the bread and wine, the fruit of the cross, to those who stand at the foot of it. This image points to the alternative to enslavement that Christ offers us: to be fed by him at the foot of the cross, receiving from him what the others falsely promise. The false gospels lure us with promises of joy and fulfillment—yet in the end they ensnare us, delivering only misery and despair. Sometimes one has to follow these false masters down a long road to discover that truth. By contrast, the path on which Christ leads us appears arduous and dreary, one to be avoided. In reality, it is the path that leads to true joy, for it delivers everything that our hearts desire most. “Enter by the narrow gate,” our Lord urges us. “For the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13–14). Two roads, two gates. Which are you traveling?
The Power of the Cross is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.