Set Free From What?
The importance of “naming our enemy”
I enjoy the song “No Longer Slaves” by Bethel Music. It is a proclamation of one of the most exhilarating messages of Scripture, namely, that those who follow Jesus are enveloped by God’s love and are therefore (as the title states) no longer slaves. The very truth it proclaims is as beautiful as it is scriptural.
But there’s something about the song that bothers me. That something is the very entity that the song proclaims we are no longer slaves to. That entity, according to the song, is fear.
Again, this is a very scriptural message. So what could be wrong with it?
Simply this: before we can be set from anything, we have to be set free from sin itself. The song makes no mention of this.
Failure to “name our enemy”
My beef is not so much with the song as it is with the American Christian culture that trumpets the benefits of the gospel more than it trumpets the gospel itself. We in the American church have become the proverbial kid who wants the desert without having to eat those yucky vegetables first. We want the grace. We want the prosperity. We want the freedom from fear.
But do we want to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our sin is at the root of the problem (Isaiah 59:2)?
One of the frequent accusations leveled against the “war on terror” (remember those days) was the failure to “name the enemy.” The argument was that as long as we tiptoed around dealing with the root source of terrorism, we would never stop it. Well, so it is in the spiritual realm. As long as we don’t “name the enemy,” we will never truly be free from it.
What this has led to
The result of this failure is a flight from reality that leads to moral chaos. Indeed, that’s what has played out in American society over the last several decades.
But the one force that can stand in the way of such chaos — namely, the church of Jesus — has instead played “follow the leader.”
Dr. Michael Brown, in his book Jezebel’s War With America, asks us some piercing questions:
“When is the last time you heard a message on the coming judgment? When is the last time you heard a strong message on hell? When is the last time you left a service shaken to the core?”
As if to answer his own question, he goes on to say:
“There was a time in America when Christian leaders were expected to speak out against sin. As a nonbeliever, when you heard evangelist Billy Graham preach, you expected him to call you to repentance. When you saw him as a guest on a TV show, you expected him to talk about the Ten Commandments or sexual purity or hell or the like — but always seasoned with incredible grace, kindness, and respect. Today you expect the preacher on TV to sound more like a life coach, more like a motivational speaker, more like a slick salesman.”
A stunning rebuke to the American church is a book written nearly 50 years ago by a secular psychiatrist. The title says it all: Whatever Became of Sin? In this book, Dr. Karl Menninger forcefully argued that as we reject the concept of sin, we devolve into a society with no moral boundaries. I repeat: Dr. Menninger was a secular psychiatrist. He was not a pastor or Christian teacher. Yet in this one book, he displayed more prophetic courage and insight than the majority of the American church.
The problem is understandable — and deadly
On the one hand, I understand the reticence to “confront the enemy.” We humans have a proclivity to want to be liked. Rare is the person who thrives on controversy. Rarer still is the one who can’t wait to be trashed and vilified the world over.
Yet this need to be liked can be a snare. It can lead to compromise — both outwardly (a la Peter — see Matthew 26:69–74) and inwardly (a la the Pharisees — see Matthew 12:42–43). Worse yet, it can lead to enmity with God (James 4:4). If we value man’s approval more than God's, then when push comes to shove our behavior will follow.
Could this explain the voluminous supply of sermons on “how to have victory in your life” as compared to the dearth of messages that dare even touch sin and repentance? Could this be why there (to my knowledge) no popular Christian songs that celebrate our freedom from sin itself?
A good emphasis
Again, I’m not denigrating the song. To the contrary, I love its message! As someone who grew up with immense fear and self-hatred, I can testify to the power of Jesus to destroy the foul spirit who was behind my dysfunctional behavior.
I also love the song’s emphasis on being surrounded by God’s love. You see, my first years as a Jesus-follower were spent in a church environment that taught salvation by grace but placed little emphasis on God’s abiding love and presence. I knew next-to-nothing about my identity in Jesus. It was not till years later that I encountered the fulness of His love and was able to drop any “works-based” identity.
In many ways, my early church experience is parabolic of the American church experience of the last 100 years or so. For the first part of the 20th century, our predominant view of God reflected that of society: the emotionally distant male figure who expected you to conform to the rules and pick yourself up by your bootstraps. But with the Jesus Movement of the ’60s and ’70s came a fresh re-discovery of the magnitude of His love and grace. This movement saw scores of young people being swept up by the life-transforming power of Jesus. Many of them (myself included) knew nothing about church culture. We only knew a Messiah with a magnificent love for us. And as the churches opened their doors to us, they too re-discovered that magnificent love. The result was an entire church revolution.
Putting it all in balance
Now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. As society has ditched the concept of sin and has made “love” the be-all-end-all, so too has the church (to a large extent). The result is a gospel as lifeless today as was the legalistic message of yesteryear.
We desperately need His grace and love. But without first coming to grips with our sin and rebellion, we will never truly know that grace and love.
It’s past time for us to preach “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”