The Love of Christ Controls Us

My Sunday post about Sabbath and the Lord’s Day went viral. Okay, I’m speaking in relative terms. But it has certainly struck a chord: That post has already been viewed over 600 times, which is already more all-time views than any other single post or page on my website. (Even more than the one about kissing in the first century. Which is strange, because I enjoy kissing more than working on Sunday. Or most any other day. I digress.)

Freedom Recap

I am excited by this response. People love good news! We love the good news! And the gospel of grace through Christ does indeed bring freedom. It brings freedom from sin:

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-36)

And from “good cop” Sin’s “bad cop” buddy, Death:

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Rom. 8:2)

The gospel of Christ brings freedom from everything that the Law could not free us from:

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39)

And it brings freedom from the Law itself:

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:19-20)

(Note closely: The previous famous verse is not about “dying to self,” but about how we, in Christ, die “to the Law,” so that we now live instead by faith in Christ, relying on all the benefits of his cross-work. Read the rest of Galatians for context!)

A few of you might have thought that my post on the Sabbath wasn’t very “conservative.” Maybe it sounded rather “liberal.” But I submit that it is the very essence of true conservatism to hold faithfully to Scripture, without adding or subtracting. It is very “liberal,” indeed, to add to God’s word, even if what we are adding is rules. (This is why some scholars suggest that the Sadducees were actually more conservative than the Pharisees.) Insofar as I have faithfully explained Scripture, I make no apologies for my post. Insofar as I have failed to do so, please instruct me.

So I am excited over your excitement about our freedom in Christ! (I could even add more about how Christ is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, based in part on your insights. What a rich reality!)

A Potential Danger

Yet, as I reflected on our joy, I became aware of a subtle danger. I found this danger lurking within my own heart. Here is the danger: It is possible to be more excited about our own freedom than about Christ.  So I’m writing this post as a follow-up sermon to myself and to you.

Let’s pursue Christ, not freedom! After all, freedom isn’t our end goal. In Romans 6:18, Paul writes, “having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness.” This sounds ironic, but is true: Authentic freedom from sin involves “bondage” to righteousness.

So what does authentic freedom from the Law look like? Or, to put it another way, what does authentic freedom from legalism look like?1  How should we finish this statement: “Authentic freedom from legalism involves ‘bondage’ to                      ?” What is the opposite of legalism? These questions sound a bit topsy-turvy, I realize. We might want to stick “freedom” in the blank, but we’ve already used that word in our sentence. Is there another word that fits?

I’d like to suggest two good ways to fill in our blank: “The word of God” and “Christ.” Let’s consider them in order.

“Bondage” to the Word of God

Authentic freedom from the law involves “bondage” to the word of God.2 Let me explain.

Legalism and lawlessness are two variations of the same problem: disregard for the word of God. If you reject legalism simply because you don’t like to be restricted, then you will probably end up embracing some measure of lawlessness. If you reject lawlessness simply because you want law and order, then you will probably end up preaching some legalism.

Here is the key: We must not simply turn away from legalism or lawlessness; we must also–and primarily–turn toward the word of God. Jesus makes this abundantly clear in Mark 7. On the one hand he strongly condemns legalism because it sucks all the life-shaping power out of the word of God:

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:9-13)

In this chapter, as Mark observes, Jesus undermines both human traditions and also, by implication, even the OT food laws. (See Mark 7:19 in translations such as the ESV: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”)  Yet Jesus equally firmly rejects any hint of lawlessness:

21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

The word of God, as taught by Christ, brings freedom from both legalism and lawlessness.

This begs the question: Am I more excited about my freedom from observing a mandatory day of rest, or about being devoted to living out the word of God? Am I excited about ridding my heart of all things the Bible labels “evil” (by diligently walking moment-by-moment with the Spirit)? Or am I only excited about tossing aside the Law of Moses and all human traditions?

“Bondage” to Christ

Authentic freedom from the law also involves “bondage” to Christ. Paul understood this well:

…My brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Rom. 7:4-6)

Notice: Paul says we died to the Law “so that” we may belong to Christ. He says we are released from the Law “so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit.”

For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. (1 Cor. 7:22)

And for Paul, “bondage” to Christ meant “bondage” to his fellow man:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (1 Cor. 9:19)

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Gal. 5:13)

Here is one of the most memorable ways he put it:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Cor. 5:14-15)

So, here is my question: What is controlling you, Dwight? Is it love of freedom? Or the love of Christ? Are you controlled (compelled, driven, guided) by Christ’s love for you–by the grace that is yours thanks to sharing in his death and resurrection? Are you controlled by your love for Christ (a possible secondary meaning of 5:14), serving him from a heart of gratitude? Or are you merely happy to be free from the Sabbath law?

How sad it would be if freedom from the Sabbath law wouldn’t turn our hearts toward Christ, the fulfillment of the Sabbath!

Are you running from legalism, or are you running in step with the word of God? Are you driven by your love of freedom, or are you compelled by the love of Christ? Does the freedom Christ has given you awaken delight in Christ and stir devotion to him? Are you listening, Dwight?

May Christ’s love compel us!

Do you ever find yourself greedily enjoying Christ’s gifts while forgetting the Giver? How do you cooperate with God to keep your heart devoted to Christ? How can we use our Christian freedom regarding the Lord’s Day to serve Christ and others? Freely share your comments below.

  1. Legalism is a slippery term. In this post I am using it with imperfect consistency, referring specifically to bondage to the Law of Moses but also broadly to the practice of multiplying rules to achieve or enforce holiness.
  2. Word of God is another slippery term. By word of God here I mean primarily Scripture, although it is important to remember that the two terms, as used in Scripture, are not identical in scope. Word of God sometimes refers more narrowly to the gospel message, and sometimes more broadly to any communication from God to man, including Jesus himself. But I believe all Scripture is properly called “the word of God.”

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12 thoughts on “The Love of Christ Controls Us”

  1. Really good balance to your other post. We need both sides. So often people run from legalism only to lose themselves in the other ditch.

  2. Almost seems that the early church was so excited about knowing and living for Christ that they couldn’t rest (from that) on the Lord’s day. But their pursuits were unselfish, at least what I have read about them.
    I think our own desire for a day of rest or the obverse, desiring to have the liberty to do whatever we want on the Lord’s day, can be selfish, and does not ‘celebrate’ the Lord’s day in a way that honors our Lord.

  3. Splitting hairs or straining at gnats, for some random reason I got to thinking about ‘controls’ in your heading re 2 Corinthians 4:15. I remembered the KJV uses ‘constraineth’, (my KJV roots go pretty deep), so I spent a bit of time on the word. I think I almost prefer the KJV or the NIV, compels, (which you mentioned).
    One source says that the Greek word has the practical meaning of “pressure that produces action”. I kind of like that in the context of the passage.
    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be controlled by Christ, but the compulsion to service is apart of being controlled.
    I must have too much time on my hands or something.

    1. Interesting thoughts, Wayne. Those questions crossed my mind while writing, but I didn’t check things out. I think at least two issues are in play:
      (1) The underlying Greek word has a range of meanings (according to BAGD): a. hold together, sustain something; b. close by holding, stop, shut; c. press hard, crowd someone; d. hold in custody; e. seize, attack, distress, torment someone; f. be occupied with or absorbed in something; g. urge on, impel. So translators need to decide from context which meaning(s) is/are intended here. It seems to me that context could point both in the direction of control/hold together and compel/urge on–Christ’s love controls whether Paul is beside himself or in his right mind, and Christ’s love compels him to adopt both options in turn all for the sake of serving Christ.

      (2) English words likewise have a range of meaning. The KJV “constraineth” and ESV “controls” have a wider range of meaning than the NIV “compels.” Constraineth can mean “restrict” or “compel,” and controls can be used expansively as in a political party “controlling Parliament” or restrictively as in me “controlling my temper.” The range of meaning for compels seems to be narrower.

      In short, I think the NIV probably catches the main force of Paul’s thought, but the KJV and ESV retain more of the range of possible meanings, including the possibility that Paul believed Christ’s love controlled his choice of demeanor (appearing in his right mind or not).

  4. I venture a comment merely because this verse has been rolling in my mind since reading it this week: “because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold” Matt 24:12 NASB not sure if or how this fits into your discussion, but your post added some good structure to my musings. And, for what it’s worth, political law would demonstrate that liberalism creates increased laws (eg. Canadian lawmakers are now mandated with creating multiple protections for legalising of human life termination.)

    1. Thanks for sharing. I’d have to ponder that verse more to know how it connects here. I’m thinking in that verse that the lawlessness might refer to unbelievers rather than believers, but I’m not sure. Certainly it is also true that when Christians are lawless, it doesn’t awaken love for Christ or the church.

      I agree with your observation about political liberalism, and share your concern about recent developments regarding euthanasia in Canada. The difficulty with the word “liberal,” of course, is that it means different things in different contexts (and to different people and historical periods). For example, it could mean that one is personally generous, affirming social programs for the poor, affirming individual rights, affirming group good over individual good, affirming non-religious secular values, affirming modernist non-miraculous theology, or deviating from narrow standards of outward dress and behavior. This makes it complicated. For example, it is possible to hold to be very liberal with personal generosity while also holding very conservative social values. It is also possible to be very conservative theologically while dressing in a way that appears very liberal to those who prefer a quieter look. Unfortunately, these distinctions are hard to sort out, given how the words have been used differently over time, and the different categories are often confused and assumed to be the same. Part of my point in the post was that we should shape our beliefs by Scripture rather than by our (shifting) sense of what is conservative or liberal.

      Sorry for this long rabbit trail, and thanks for venturing a comment! 🙂

      1. Thanks for your diligence. That would have been my initial impression. As for my use of “liberalism”, I can see it is as slippery a term as “legalism”. I was thinking of it (and the euthanasia example) in relation to your aside about the sadducees and Pharisees; which leads me down a bunny of thoughts. . . How much of the Pharisees’ problem was mixing political power and spiritual leadership? But that is a different. discussion for another subjects.

    2. “em,” I looked at the Matt 24:12 verse more, and have changed my mind. 🙂 I now think it probably refers to lawlessness both inside and outside of the Christian community, especially since the previous verse speaks of false prophets, which would try to position themselves as true believers.

      Thanks again!

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