The Freedom of the Cross
Mike Harmon cannot tell you how he lost his willpower, but he is certain that it is gone. On a recent Thursday night, sitting in a grungy recliner at the Stop Smoking Hypnosis Clinic of Baltimore County, the middle-aged man shrugs his shoulders. "I don't have it anymore," he says. "It's gone."
Neecy Riley, a woman sitting next to him, also could not locate her willpower. "I need something beyond me," she said. "My willpower isn't doing it."
Mike and Neecy headlined a recent story on NPR. The whole story had to do with how you and I go about changing our behaviors: you know stopping bad habits, putting down the cigarettes, shutting the refrigerator door when that Edy’s French Silk is just calling your name and you want to just get you a spoon and dive into the little round . . . O, I’m sorry I was losing it there for a minute. What were we talking about? O, yeah, WILLPOWER.
Anyway, that story on NPR went on to discuss an interesting experiment on will power. It said that one person who has looked at this question in detail is a psychology professor at Columbia University named Walter Mischel. Mischel, who is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of self-regulation research, designed a series of very famous experiments in the 1960s now popularly known as the marshmallow tests.
To do the experiments, he put hundreds of 4-year-olds in a room, one by one, with a marshmallow or cookie on the table in front of each. He told them he was going to leave the room and that the child could either eat the treat immediately or, if they could wait until he got back, and have two instead.
Some of these kids could hardly last a minute. Others waited as long as 20. And Mischel believes you can learn much of what you need to know about the process of exerting willpower from the strategies employed by these children. They basically used two. The first one was distraction. The children that lasted the longest would distract themselves: They kicked the table, they sang little songs, they played with their hair. They did anything they could do to keep themselves from thinking about that beautiful yummy marshmellow.
The other strategy the successful children used was to change they way they thought about the marshmellow. So, for example, to help the children resist the treat, before leaving the room Mischel told the kids to imagine the treat in front of them differently. He told them ". . . to think about those marshmallows as if they were just cotton puffs, or clouds. Those instructions to the 4-year-old had a dramatic effect on their ability to wait for the thing that they couldn't wait for before.”
So let’s get this straight. What the research says is that, if we want to develop willpower, if I am going to successfully avoid diving into French silk, I’ve either got keep myself from thinking about ice cream or lie to myself about what ice cream is. Hmm. I’ve just got to tell you that these strategies just don’t sound very effective to me. Sounds like to me that, if I’m going to really get free of some sin or failure that’s been plaguing me, I need to look somewhere else besides psychological experiments.
Which is why we have this book. This book talks of bondage and freedom in very deep spiritual terms. It tells us that spiritual freedom is not about mind games and psychological tricks; it’s about understanding and appropriating real God-given truth.
Now, even as I say that this morning, I realize that there are some of us that are in denial. You, in fact, are just like the Jews that Jesus encountered. In John 6, Jesus said to the Jews who listened to Him: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
The Jews answered Him: “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” That may be you this morning. You’re saying, “Hey, Rusty, I know I’m not perfect, but I’m not a slave. I do sin, but I’m not a slave to it.” Well, then, hear how Jesus answered those who took issue with Him telling them that they were slaves. Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And my friend, that’s you! If you have ever sinned, you’re a slave.
Some of you doubt your bondage this morning, and my prayer for you is that God will open your eyes to see, not only that you are in bondage but that He can set you free.
Others of you have no doubt that you’re a slave. You’ve wrestled with cigarrettes and tried to quit, but you just can’t seem to lay them down. You’ve wrestled with drug addiction. Time after time you’ve promised yourself and you’ve promised others that this was your last binge, only to find yourself at another crack house, or stealing money from somebody else to indulge yourself again. You’ve wrestled with pornography. Time after time, you promised yourself that you will stop, but the computer screen is like a chain forged in the pit of hell that keeps calling you back to those images that excite and then sicken you. O you know you’re a slave, your only problem is that you’ve given up on freedom. You want to be free, you just don’t know how. Well you need to hear God’s word this morning. He wants to tell you how you can be free. This is what He says in Romans 6:11:
Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
These verses give us three actions we can take to be set free, and this Easter Sunday morning, April 12, 2009, you can be emancipated. You can be set free if you will first of all
DIV 1 - TRUST THE TRUTH THAT ENLIGHTENS YOU
That truth is found in v 11. It says, “Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Obviously, “likewise” refers us back to something that was said before. If you look back to the first part of Romans chapter 6, you find that Paul has been talking about the fact that, when Christ died on the cross, we died with Him. Because we are dead to our sin, we are set free to live a new kind of life that is not bound to it. The question is, “How do we activate that truth in our lives? How do we really experience this freedom he is talking about?”
The answer to those questions is in v 11. He says, “Likewise . . . reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God . . .” That word “reckon” is an accounting term. It means “to impute to one’s account; to count on it as being so.”
Let’s say that tomorrow I go to my mailbox and find a notice from the IRS. They send me the dreaded letter we all hate to receive. I have been chosen to do a complete audit. I am sweating bullets as I show up to talk to a guy with horn-rimmed glasses who has the appearance of Steve Erkel and the attitude of Ghengis Kahn. He finds a mistake in my tax return and tells me that I owe $1000.00 which must be paid by one week from today, or I am going to incur very significant penalties and interest.
Now I’m really in a dilemma. I don’t have $1000.00, and I spend all week trying to get it. Finally, I call you. I am desperate, and, out of the goodness of my heart, you agree to lend it to me. There’s only one problem. I’m supposed to show up at 11:00 a.m. with the money and its 10 pm at night. You tell me, “Don’t worry, Rusty, just give me your checking account number. I’ll go to your bank and deposit the money first thing in the morning. You can go ahead and write the check. The money will be there.”
Well, the next morning comes. I try to call you several times to make sure you deposited the money, only, I can’t get you. Do I go ahead and write the check or not? Well, it all depends on whether I “reckon” that you did what you actually said you would do. If I “reckon” that you did what you said you would do, I go ahead and write the check.
That’s what this verse is saying. God said that your sinful nature was crucified on the cross of Christ. When He died, you died. You are dead to sin, Go ahead and live like it! Write the check of freedom. The cross of Christ and the empty tomb backs it up! You are free because you are dead!
You might say, “Well I may be dead, but I sure don’t feel dead.” But, since when did your feelings determine reality? In fact, your feelings may be the opposite of reality. If you trust your feelings, you will never change
Your feelings can really deceive and endanger you. Consider what happened to the children of Barneveld Holland. They were playing in the town when they discovered an object they’d never really seen before. They tossed it around in some kind of game. It was so much fun that they returned to play with the mysterious object the next day as well. In fact, they played with it for several months.
That was when their game came to an end. Authorities discovered that the mysterious object the children played with was and uncovered World War II artillery shell. Let me revise that: It was a WW II artillery shell that was unexploded, still live, until containing high explosives. It never went off, however, until officials purposely detonated it.
The children had played with it because it had been interesting and, perhaps, fun. They had followed their emotions, never realizing that their feelings were greatly endangering them.
That’s what happens with so many believers. They never make any progress because they’re constantly being victimized by this or that emotion. They hear the voice of the enemy and they listen to it. He says, “You’ll always be the same. You’ll never stop smoking; you’ll never be able to stop overeating; you’ll never be able to stop giving into porn; you’ll never stop losing your temper.” He’s always saying “you’ll never,” and he discourages you and manipulates you through your feelings.
But Jesus tells you that “those He foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son.” and you are confronted with a choice. Will you reckon on the truth of God’s word, or will you live by your feelings. You see, victory for you begins when you start believing God. You can be free when you count on the truth that enlightens you and, secondly, you can be free when you
DIV 2 CHALLENGE THE SIN THAT CONTROLS YOU
Verse 12 opens with this clear command: “Do not let sin reign . . .” “Let” clearly states that you and I are in the driver’s seat. We are the ones who control the action. Now that wasn’t always the case. Before we became believers, we did not have the luxury of choice. We were hopelessly bound by our sin. Because we were born with a sinful nature and because we were totally depraved, we could do nothing but sin. Even those things we called “righteous” acts: the time we helped our neighbor or gave money to charity, even those things were done from a motive that did not seek the glory of God and anything short of that motive was simply sin for us and we sinned because that’s all we could do.
But now, because Christ has saved us, if we have really come to know Him, we have another option. We can choose to say NO when the tyrant of sin demands that we do like we’ve always done. We have a choice!
And notice where this choice operates. We are commanded not to let sin reign in our “mortal body”. That phrase symbolizes all the interactions between us and the world around us. We, through the power that Christ gives us, are able say “no” to our “lusts”. That’s what the end of v 12 says. It says that we no longer obey our “lusts.” A lust is simply a strong desire that arises from the sin living inside of us. For some of us it’s the anger that seems to either seep out like battery acid and corrode our relationships, or explode like a volcano and destroy those around us. For others it’s sexual desire that causes us to abandon our wives for some temptress at work or for some cyber image. For others its greed that makes us lie to our customers or steal from our company. Paul says here that, even though the desire of sin is strong, the power of the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to say “no”. We do not have to let sin reign over us, we can challenge the sin that controls us and choose a new master.
That new master is described in v 13. There we are told not to present our “members” that is our bodies as instruments of unrightesouness to sin, but to present ourselves to God as being alive from the dead. Because we died to sin, and are alive to God, now all of our interactions with this world can be different. We are set free to face every sinful situation and temptation with a new power. We can choose to be controlled by the Spirit of God and not by our own sinful nature. We can challenge the sin that controls us and we can choose the master who is going to control us.
Frederick Douglass grew up as a slave in Maryland in the early nineteenth century. For Frederick, slavery was brutal. He was taken from his mother when he was only a baby. For years as a child, his owner would dump runny corn meal in something like a pig trough, then call all the slave children to come and eat. They were given oyster shells to scoop up as much as they could. They were literally treated like pigs. Then he would work in the hot fields from before sunup until after sundown. If he did work well enough to please his master, he would be whipped. Many times he was whipped many times with a cowhide whip until blood ran down his back. On other occasions, he was kicked and beaten by his master until he almost died. Another time, he was attacked with a spike by a gang of whites.
But even so, when Frederick considered trying to escape to freedom, he struggled with the decision. He writes about his indecision in his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. He wrote that, for him, potential freedom held two great fears.
The first was leaving behind his friends. He wrote
I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore, friends that I loved almost as I did my life, and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would have escaped from slavery, who remained, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends.
His second fear was the fear of failure. He said, "If I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one. It would seal my fate as a slave forever."
That’s exactly what some people fear about turning their lives over to Jesus Christ. They’re afraid that they’ll fail. Even believers, who have been living in bondage, are afraid to escape to freedom. Somehow they think that its better to live the life of a slave than to step up into freedom. I want you to hear me this morning. If, whenever you are considering allowing God to change your life and challenge your addiction, you hear a voice that says, “You’ll never be free.” That’s not the voice of God! That’s the voice of Satan. Jesus said “Whomever I make free will be free indeed!”
Listen to me Christian! You can be free! I know you’ve tried before and failed. I know you tried to stop smoking and didn’t make it. I know you promised yourself that pornography was over for you, but you still go back. I know you said that the last drinking binge you indulged in was your last, and this morning you’re hung over. I know you said that you’d never hit your wife again, but you did. I know you said that lose those 20 pounds that are yours because of your addiction to overeating, but you’re heavier than ever before. You feel absolutely chained to this sin, or that sin, but I want you to know this morning, “Greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world.” “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” Listen to me, Christian, YOU CAN BE FREE! Your freedom comes when you draw a line in the sand and say to that sin that has controlled you, “No More!” and then you turn to God and surrender your life and your body to Him. You can be free when you challenge the sin that defeats you and choose the master that controls you. You can be free! Yes, you can. You can be free when you trust the truth that enlightens you, choose the master that controls you, and last of all.
DIV 3: UNDERSTAND THE GRACE THAT LIBERATES YOU
The key to everything we’ve said so far lies in v 14 of this chapter. The key to liberation is not found in rules that keep us in line. Actually, its just the opposite. Paul states it in v 14 when he says, . He tells us that sin cannot rule in our lives because we are not under law. Now it’s a good thing he said that because if you look over in the very next chapter you discover that it is actually the law that creates an even greater desire on our part to do wrong. V 7 says:
For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.
Have you ever noticed? Giving someone a rule book doesn’t make them better, it makes them worse! You see a rule book divides any group into at least three groups: You have the “keepers”. These are the ones who are so hungry for the approval of whomever is in charge that they do their conscientious best to keep all the rules. They even take pride in it. O, but that’s just their problem. Of all the things God hates, pride tops the list. The law doesn’t make them better, it makes them worse.
And then there are the “breakers”. These are the people who can’t wait for you to make a rule so they can break it. They were born to rebel, and they take a delight in the slogan, “You can’t tell me what to do.” And that’s just the problem: God says that the sin of rebellion is as bad as witchcraft. The law doesn’t make them better, it makes them worse!
And then there are the “enforcers.” These are the people who love the rules because of the power it makes them feel as if they have. They are like Barney Fife of Mayberry fame. They want to “nip it . . . nip it in the bud.” In their self-righteousness they pass and enforce judgment on others. And that’s just the problem. There was no group more condemned by Jesus when He was here than the Pharisees who were the “enforcers” of their day. Jesus one time even said to them: “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” You see, the law didn’t make them better, it made them worse!
Well, if the rule book won’t do it, what will? What will infuse me with the power to be free from sin. Well, lets finish v 14. It says: For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
What is impossible through a list of rules is only possible through a vital relationship with Jesus Christ. When I really get to know Him; when I am immersed into Jesus Christ, something happens in my heart. The things about sin that made it so appealing to me lose their appeal. The pet habit that used to bind me through the wee bit of pleasure that it brought, now sickens me when I think about doing it. The computer screen that used to flicker stolen moments of sexual pleasure now becomes a sickening thing to me. Why? Not because someone told me I had to stop or else, but because the relationship I have with Jesus Christ has become so much more important to me than anything else in my life. You see, rules will never change you; only a relationship with Christ will do that!
One of my best friends from my childhood illustrates this so well. We sort of grew up together. He was a couple of years older than me, but I spent a lot of time at his house, especially on Sunday afternoons. It was the highlight of my life to be able to go out to his house for Sunday dinner, then an afternoon of watching TV (we didn’t have one at my house then), and a game of football. He had three other brothers, so we always had a good time playing in their huge front yard.
But when my friend got into high school, something began to change. He still came to church. His father saw to that. In fact, his father saw to a lot of things. Don’t get me wrong, his dad really loved the Lord, but, when it came to his family, he was all about the law. When it came to the rule book, you’d call him an “enforcer,” and enforce he did . . . with gusto! I remember hearing the story of how that father actually broke down the door when their sister had, in rebellion, locked herself in her room, so, when I say he was an enforcer, I mean, he was an enforcer.
So, you understand what I mean when I say he came to church. His dad made sure of it. There was only one problem. While his father could make him come to church spiritually, he certainly couldn’t make him come spiritually or even mentally. As he got older, I began to hear gossip about him being involved with drugs and living a sinful life, and I later found out, first hand, that this was true. You see, the father was trying to enforce the rules, but somehow it wasn’t working. He was raising a rebel. You know, I remember many times looking across the sanctuary at him only to see him in an almost trance-like state, staring off into space. He never got up and shouted; he never ran from the room and slammed the back door in rebellion; I doubt that he ever argued about coming to church, but while his rebellion never showed outwardly, inwardly he was in the throes of an absolute insurrection. I remember during those times thinking: “He’s spiritual toast! He’s not going to make it. He’s going to end up out of church and maybe even addicted to drugs.”
But then came youth camp. It was probably around 1974. God really moved on that camp that year, and believe it or not, this rebel was touched. He didn’t get in touch with the rules, he got in touch with Jesus, and his whole life changed. He ended up attending FWBBC, became a Christian school principal, and today is in Afghanistan as a Chaplain’s assistant with the guard. Here’s the point: Where an earthly father’s rulebook failed, a real relationship with Jesus succeeded. When he came to understand the full of Christ, that rebellious heart that refused to give into the rules was infused with a love that made the rulebook unnecessary
I’m talking to some believers this morning who are having real trouble saying “no” to sin. You know that you shouldn’t read the kind of stuff you read, but you keep on doing it; You know that you should step up and give your tithe and even more, but you just can’t seem to let go of the money; you know that you need to get rid of your computer because that’s the only way you’re ever going to be free of porn, but you keep making excuses; You know that your gossiping tongue is destroying people, but you just can’t seem to stop. I could go on, but I don’t need to. If you are listening the Holy Spirit is telling you what your issue is and whatever He’s dealing with you about, here’s what you need to know: If you are unrestrained in your behavior, you are weak in your relationship. Let me say it again. If you are unrestrained in your behavior (that is, if you can lie or have illicit sex or live with your girl friend and not be married) if you are unrestrained in your behavior, you are weak in your relationship. When you really come into a love relationship with Jesus Christ, your life changes! The key to freedom, finally and at last, is a dynamic, deep, real, intense, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ!
So, are you free, this morning? The invitation to a cross-centered life is an invitation to freedom, real freedom from sin. It happens when we trust the truth that enlightens us, challenge the sin that controls us, and understand the grace that liberates us, so are you free?
I told you earlier of Frederick Douglass. He was the slave that wrote about what it was like to be in slavery and seek to be free. He said that there were two fears that kept people enslaved: One was the fear of leaving dear friends and the other, the fear of failure. It’s that last fear that he shares with many of us. We’re afraid that we’ll fail. Somehow we think that its better to live the life of a slave than to step up into freedom. Well if that’s you, this morning I want you to hear what happened to Frederick Douglass:
On September 3, 1838, he escaped to freedom. Here’s what he wrote about that:
I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind;. I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State;. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions.
Be watchful, the Bible says, because your enemy, the Devil, walks around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. And today he’s roaring at you. He’s telling you that you are enslaved and you’ll never be free, but greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world. Listen, you may be enslaved to sin today, but the wonderful cross shouts to you four beautiful, unbelievably liberating words: YOU CAN BE FREE!