Liberty: Its Dangers and Duties – Charles E. Jefferson (historic sermon 1860-1937)
“Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” Gal. 3:15
The Epistle to the Galatians is of all Paul’s letters preeminently the letter of freedom. It is one of the mightiest cries ever uttered on behalf of liberty. It has done more to melt the shackles from the human mind than any dozen books ever written. It is a hot, fierce, uncompromising protest against all the legalisms and pedantries and tyrannies and despotisms of man. We might call it the declaration of independence of the human soul. The gist of the entire letter is summed up in the words with which the fifth chapter opens: “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.”
To this letter as to a beacon fire the champions of liberty have come to light their torches before setting out upon some new campaign; to this letter as to a fountain warriors of freedom, tired and dust covered, defeated and discouraged, have come back to drink, and found here refreshment for their souls; to this letter Martin Luther came for weapons with which to batter down the pretensions and tyrannies of the mediaeval church; to this letter two hundred years later John Wesley came for fire with which to warm the heart of a Christian world grown cold. In every land and time since Paul penned this letter, men chafing under the restraints of slavery have lifted up their heads and taken heart again whenever they have heard this glad announcement: ” Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty.”
But the letter to the Galatians is not easy reading. It is difficult because the thought is so condensed. Paul’s ideas are packed close together in sentences so short that they become enigmatic. It is one of the most concentrated of all Paul’s writings. It is not to be read in a hurry, or with a desultory mind. Moreover, the problem with which Paul here is dealing has lost something of the urgency which it had in apostlethic times. It is not easy for men of one age to throw themselves into the situation of men of an age two thousand years away. Paul writes in the phraseology not of our century but of the first. And even our English translation of his Greek must be translated into the vernacular of our ordinary life before his meaning becomes clear to our mind. Let us try this morning to go down into the central meaning of this epistle.
The supreme question of the human race has ever been: How can man win the favor of the Eternal? Professor James of Harvard in his latest book, entitled, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” has sifted the phenomena of the religious consciousness of the race and come to the conclusion that the one experience which has been constant from the beginning is the feeling that man is not right, and that it is well with his soul only when he has allied himself to the higher powers.
How is a man to win the favor of heaven? That is the age-long question, and to that question various answers have been given. One of the earliest answers was, man must humiliate himself, render himself uncomfortable and bring himself down in abject misery to the dust; only thus can he show his contrition, and only thus can he win the smile of the Eternal. Under the influence of this idea men in every age and in almost every land have starved themselves and beaten themselves and slept on stones and lacerated their flesh and mutilated their bodies and subjected themselves to all sorts of torture, thinking that by the degradation of their body they were doing something which would make their entrance into heaven certain. That has been the idea of barbarians everywhere, and the idea survives long after men have won the right to be counted civilized.
But sooner or later this idea of physical suffering is inevitably left behind. Men come to see that God is not to be appeased by the shedding of human blood. To the question: What must man do to win the favor of the Most High, the answer is: He must worship; he must offer sacrifices, he must put upon the altar that which is of value to him; he must observe certain feasts and fasts, he must go through the elaborate forms of a prescribed ritual. Only as he observes the ceremonies laid down by the ordained officials of religion is it possible for the soul to be at peace with God.
But even this idea does not long satisfy the growing human heart. Worship becomes monotonous and sacrifices lose the significance which they once possessed. The time at last arrives when the mind sees that it is not by religious forms and ceremonies but by the actions of the obedient will that God’s heart can be touched and his favor won. It is not by praying or singing, bowing or offering sacrifices, that God’s protection is secured, but by the performance of noble deeds, and the multiplication of good works. If a man, then, is to win the favor of the Eternal, let him go to work and fill the days with gracious deeds.
These are the three answers which the world has always given to the question, What must a man do to win the favor of God? All these three answers were given among the population of Galatia. There were men living there who believed that the eternal powers are never satisfied save by the humiliation of the body. The leading goddess of the country was Cybele, and her devotees won her favor by mutilation of the flesh. There were others to whom all such physical crucifixion was abhorrent, who found relief in offering sacrifices. They gave to the gods presents, they had their holy times and seasons, their appointed fasts and feasts. To be punctilious in the observance of every ceremony and in the keeping of every holy day, this was supposed to win for men abundant entrance into heaven. There were others to whom no word was great but the word obedience. All formalities of every sort were hollow and worthless in their eyes. Submission to God’s law, this and this alone was the price of the favor of the Eternal. A man, these men said, must earn God’s favor, and he must earn it by a life filled with obedient deeds.
But into this world ruled by these three different conceptions the Apostle steps, boldly declaring that all three conceptions are wrong. A man, Paul says, does not win God’s favor by physical degradation or ecclesiastical ceremony, or by obeying the Decalogue. There is nothing, he asserts, which a man can do which will win him the favor of God. It is not possible for him to crawl into it, or to climb up to it, or to earn it, or to buy it. A man has God’s favor at the start before he has done a single thing. God’s favor belongs to him because man is God’s child. God has manifested his favor in the gift of Jesus Christ his Son. The favor of the Eternal Father, therefore, is not to be earned even by obedience to the law, but is simply to be accepted with thanksgiving and joy. The just, Paul says, shall live by faith. He must believe that God is indeed his Father and that he has manifested his love in the heart of Jesus. This for Paul is the starting point. Unless you start there you miss the secret of Christianity altogether. Believe that God’s favor is something to be earned either by sacrifices or by noble deeds and you have missed the glory of the message which the Son of God came to bring. Believe that you have been redeemed by what God has done in Christ, and then go on, and live as a redeemed man ought to live.
But is not this dangerous doctrine? Indeed it is. There is nothing so dangerous in this world as liberty, except the lack of it. Wherever this doctrine of salvation by faith has been preached boldly and with passion, it has been wrested by men to their own destruction. There were men in the first century who listening to Paul’s preaching said, Very well, if we are dead to the law and the law has passed away, let us eat, drink, and be merry, for whatsoever we do is right. If the greater the sin the more abundant the grace, then let us sin more, that grace may still more abound. In the sixteenth century,under the preaching of Luther, crowds of men and women seized upon this idea of liberty and used it for an occasion to the flesh. Law, they said, has passed completely away. For the redeemed soul there is no law at all. Whatever a Christian wants to do and does, is right.
Church historians call these creatures Antinomians because they were opposed to law. And what took place in the sixteenth century under Luther took place in the eighteenth under Wesley, and what took place under Wesley takes place under the preaching of every man who preaches boldly the great doctrine of liberty in Christ. Is the doctrine false, then, because some men wrest it to their own destruction? Nay! Truth can never be proclaimed in a world like this without the possibility of somebody abusing it. Nobody will ever be hurt by St. Paul’s doctrine if he will take the trouble to find out what St. Paul’s doctrine really is. When Paul says that Christians are no longer under law, he means that they are no longer under law as external restraint. When he says that the law has passed away, he means that it has passed away as a measure of coercion, but he does not mean that the life of man can ever safely depart from the principles ordained of God.
While in one sense law passes away, in another sense it comes back with new significance and authority. In one sense it dies, in another sense it lives with a rekindled life. It is no longer external restraint but internal constraint, no longer external compulsion but internal impulsion, no longer external coercion but internal aspiration. The law is no longer written upon stone, it is now written upon the tables of the heart. It no longer hangs over a man’s head, it is incorporated as a ruling principle of his life. It is no longer shackles by which he is bound, it is within him a new nature. His soul is the home of the spirit of law, and he looks up to God and calls him Father.
A simple illustration will make all this clear. Every boy in the years of his boyhood is under law. His mother lays down the law that he must comb his hair and wash his face every morning before he comes to the breakfast table. That law is fixed and the boy is under it. Sometimes he chafes and wriggles under it. He wishes he could get out from under it. To wash one’s face every morning, that seems the climax of bondage. If one could only escape, now and then, life would have new zest and value. Probably the boy never lived who did not at some time during his boyhood stand appalled at the idea that it would be necessary for him to wash his face and comb his hair every morning of every week of every month of every year of his life. The boy is indeed under law, but little by little the law loses its force. Little by little it vanishes from sight, until the young man is no longer under this law at all. But does he wash his face and comb his hair? He does. Not because he is under law, but because the law is now in him. The external rule has become a guiding principle, the tyrannical command has now become a second nature. He no longer washes his face because he is compelled to do it, but because he wants to do it.
It is his nature to do it. He would be uncomfortable if the washing were not done. He is dead unto the law because the spirit of the law has found its home in his soul.
Now the ideal Christian life is the life in which all law has passed away. There is no longer any feeling of restraint from without. All life is ordered and directed from within. And just as a man rises in the art of living he finds that laws of all sorts lose their sovereignty over his mind. How many laws on the statute books are dead laws to us. We never think of them. We care nothing for them. So far as we are concerned, they have completely passed away. You and I are not under the law against murder. We never on waking in the morning sigh at the thought that it will not be possible for us to kill some one before night. We do not want to murder. It is not our nature to do such things. The law is not over us, it is incorporated in our heart, and we are not conscious of its presence.
And as with murder, so with drunkenness. There are men in our community for whom all laws against drunkenness are irksome and tyrannical, they interfere with freedom. “What business is it of the city,” these men say, “whether we are drunk or not?” Life to such men would be far more pleasant if every man were permitted to get drunk when and where he pleases. They are yet under the law. For us the law has died and we are free. And so with thieving. There are men who feel that their personal liberty is curtailed because the legislature has declared that a man must not steal. They are under the law. You and I are unconscious of the law. It has no existence for us. We are never tempted to break open a man’s house and steal his silver spoons. We are no longer coerced, we are free. I once knew a man in New England who had a record. How many crimes he had committed I do not know, but he was a man known to the police in many cities. One day he came to my study here in New York. He was in a fever of excitement. He looked like a wild animal pursued by dogs.
The first thing he said to me was, “They have recognized me. I have got to get out of here. It will not be safe to stay another hour.” I asked him who it was that had recognized him. He said it was the policemen. He no longer dared to walk down Broadway. The eyes of all the policemen were on him. And to be arrested meant imprisonment for some offense long since committed. Walking the streets of this free city was misery to him. He was under the law, and the law was to him a curse. But you and I are not under the law. We do not look at the policemen nor do they look at us. We go where we please, in any part of the city, and no officer of the law molests us or makes us afraid. We are not under the law because the law is in us.
When, therefore, Paul tells men that they are no longer under the law, he takes care to guard himself against misconception. He will not close this letter without sounding a solemn word of warning. Brethren, he says, you have been called unto liberty, only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh. Of all St. Paul’s warnings, this is the one most needed by our times. The trouble with America is not too much liberty, but liberty used in mischievous ways. The Christian church is not too free, but there are too many people in the church who do not know how to use their freedom. Many men have been obliged to buy their freedom at a great cost, but you and I were born to freedom; we breathed the atmosphere of liberty when we were rocked in the cradle, and all our life has been lived under a flag every star of which is suggestive of liberty.
There is no need of any man urging us to stand fast in the liberty wherewith we have been made free. But, alas, thousands of Americans need to listen to the warning which Paul gave to the Galatians: “Brethren, you have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” The duties and responsibilities of liberty, these are things concerning which all of us should think. The abuses and dangers of freedom, against these every thoughtful man should be on his guard. See what havoc is wrought in the Christian church because men use their liberty for an occasion to the flesh.
It was once supposed that a man could win God’s favor by attending public worship. You and I believe that no longer. It belittles God to make him a Being capable of opening his heart only on condition of our willingness to go to church. Churchgoing is not essential to win his favor. We have his good-will already. We are therefore free, and, believing this, many a man uses his freedom for an occasion to the flesh. He does not go to church. He sits at home and lolls in an easy chair and skims the Sunday newspaper. The law of public worship has passed away as external compulsion, and the law has not appeared in that man’s soul as reverent desire to know God.
It has been taught and believed that unless a man took the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper he would forfeit his place in heaven. You and I have never accepted that. We do not believe that the heart of the Eternal God can be opened by a man’s willingness to eat a crumb of bread or take a sip of wine even though he may do this inside the place of prayer. We have been called unto liberty and none of these things are binding on us, and, puffed up with the knowledge of this, many a man never comes to the Lord’s table at all. Because he is at liberty to stay away, he uses his liberty for an occasion to the flesh. One would suppose that a man, although a free man, if he had in him the spirit of Jesus would be glad to comply with his dying request.
You and I do not believe that by the giving of our money we can ever earn the love of our Heavenly Father. The little contributions which we lay upon the plate are poor and paltry things, and what are we but stewards entrusted with what God has first given unto us? It is not necessary to give, then, in order that God may smile upon us. Misled by this, many a man spends his dollars in the store and the club and saves his pennies for the church. Realizing that he has been called to liberty, he uses his liberty for an occasion to the flesh, and consents to do an unmanly thing. In many parts of Christendom it has long been customary for the Lord’s followers to confess their sins to church officials. The confessional was swept away by the Reformation, and you and I would not endure it, no, not for an hour.
But because Protestants are not obliged to confess their sins to their pastor, too many professing church members never confess their sins at all. They use their liberty for an occasion to the flesh. Many Christian congregations have done away entirely with all books of prayer. It was once supposed essential to order and decency, that all members of the congregation when they came together should pray the same prayer. We have thrown prayer books away, but many of us, exulting in our liberty, use our liberty for an occasion to the flesh, and when we come into the Lord’s house we do not pray at all. O, Saul of Tarsus, if thou wert here upon the earth thou surely wouldst say to us what thou didst say to the Galatians: “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty: only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.”
And is not this warning needed by our poor Republic, all torn by many dissensions and heavy laden with many burdens! We Americans are not too free, but we are great abusers of our freedom. Ours is a free press, and we would not have it anything else than free. We could not endure a press doctored by the Sultan, nor could we be content with papers scissored by a censor appointed by some Czar.
One of the crowning glories of America is its free press. A press muzzled or gagged is a press of which to be ashamed. But how has this freedom been abused! In every American city unscrupulous and greedy men, eager to swell their circulation in order to increase the size of their fortune, have made their papers minister to the flesh. They have gone through the sewers and the cesspools for material with which to fill their columns. They have uncovered the ulcers and the leprosies of society and spread them out before the eyes of growing boys and girls. They have exploited the doings of rich fools and harlots and suicides and murderers. They have hounded men in the secrecy of their homes and shouted from the housetops things that should never have been told. They have been vultures plunging their accursed beaks into the putrescent carcasses of vice and crime, harpies that have defiled our breakfast and our dinner tables. What shall we do? Take away the freedom of the press? Never. All we can say is: Brethren of the press, you have been called unto liberty, only use not your liberty for an occasion to the flesh.
We have a free government. Ours is a country for the people, of the people, and by the people. In many a land no such liberty as ours is known. In parts of Europe the safety of the country is supposed to depend upon the existence of a large standing army. Every young man on reaching a certain age is compelled to give himself up to army discipline. He is taught to stand erect and to keep step with his fellows, and in his heart there is built up a steadfast devotion to his fatherland. Whether men believe in the army or not, whether they care for military discipline or not, to the army they must go and to military discipline they must submit. In this country we have a standing army, but our soldiers are armed, not with bayonets but with ballots, little pieces of paper. These are placed in every hand, and by the use of these bits of paper the glory of the country is augmented or tarnished. But no one is compelled to use his bit of paper ; he is free. And because we Americans are not compelled to vote, thousands of us have been negligent in the performance of one of the most sacred duties which the Lord God has placed upon us. The doctor has too frequently on election day attended to his patients and forgotten to vote, the lawyer has gone on pleading his cases, the merchant has gone on selling his goods, the bookkeeper has gone on counting up his figures, the mechanic has gone on with his work of building while the interests of the city were left neglected and the destiny of the nation placed in peril. Brethren, you have been called unto liberty, only use not your liberty for an occasion to the flesh.
We have a free church. In many European countries religious life is bound. The life of society is gathered up into the hands of religious teachers and shepherds. Men are told what they may read and what they must think. Days are established on which they must fast. In the confessional they are obliged to pour into the ears of their pastors the inmost secrets of their hearts. Thousands of men and women thus brought up have crossed the sea and landed on our shores. On arriving here they heard it said that under our flag every man is as good as every other man. They read it in the papers that every man must do his own thinking and stand on his own feet and answer to God and to God only for his thoughts and his deeds. They heard church authority derided and religious leaders pooh-poohed. And taking all things into their own hands they began to do as they pleased.
In every American city there are thousands and tens of thousands of men and women brought up under the church discipline of other lands, who have drifted completely away from their church and are living without God and without hope in the world. The superficial observer looking on this great crowd of the godless says, “Ah, there is Roman Catholicism for you!” You are mistaken, my friend, that is not Roman Catholicism, that is the first effect of liberty upon people not prepared for it. In the fullness of time they were called to liberty, but when the external framework by which they had been bound was taken away, they had not sufficient strength of character within to sustain them, and so their liberty became an occasion for the flesh. Unprotected by the safeguards to which they had been accustomed, they were swept into divers kinds of folly and madness by the hurricanes which sweep across this land of the free. The Roman Catholic church has no more serious problem on its hands than to catch the ear once more of the men and women who were reared within its fold, and who under the influence of our American atmosphere have drifted away from church influences altogether.
Let me say a word to those who have recently come into our city. A city is the home of liberty. New York City is the freest place in all the land. You have greater liberty on this little island of Manhattan, where every square mile has its eighty-seven thousand people, than you could possibly have in the middle of the Sahara Desert, for you can do a thousand things in this city which are impossible in the sand. And what a delightful thing liberty is, especially after one has felt for years the bondage of a little city or a narrow rural town. In a little town one cannot dress as he pleases. It is unsafe to think, there, outside the routine channels. There are always spies looking out for every false step and for every one who dares to go contrary to established customs. The espionage of a town is galling and exasperating beyond expression. But in the city people are too busy to look into one another’s affairs. One can dress as he pleases, think what he likes, go where he will, and the big city is neither alarmed nor amused.
In the city man is free. But how difficult it is to use this freedom! Only a few are strong enough to do it. In a little town a man is held up largely by his neighbors. He votes because the voting list is short, he becomes a member of the church because the church is needy, he works in the Sunday school because teachers are few. He dares not be anything else than what he ought to be, or do anything else than what he ought to do, because held in the grip of hundreds of pairs of eyes in the heads of those who know him. But when that man or woman comes into the city, there are no eyes upon him save the eyes of God alone. Men can save us in the country ; only God can save us in the city.
Every Christian who comes to New York City to make this his home comes to judgment. Not until he arrives here does he really know what he actually is. Here his life will be determined, not by restraint from without but by constraint from within. And if there be no internal constraint, New York is a dangerous place to be. The number of professing Christians who make shipwreck of their religious life in this great city is something appalling. In the town they joined the church. Somebody asked them to do it and so they did it. They supposed they did it because they wished to be the true disciples of the Lord. But now they are in New York City, and they do not identify themselves with the church. They neglect it. They turn their back upon it. They shun its services. They refuse to help bear its burdens. No love of Christ constrains them to do what he would have them do. It is evident that their Christian life in their former home was only a hollow sham.
In the old home church they were teachers in the Sunday school or workers in the missionary society. They heard the call: Go into my vineyard and with alacrity obeyed it. In their ignorance they supposed that they were led by the Spirit of God and were working in order to please him; and now they are in New York City, but they are doing no church work whatever. They teach in no Sunday school, their names are to be found on the book of no religious organization, they are constrained to do no Christian service, because the love of Christ is not in their heart. In the old church home they were led to work for divers reasons and from various motives, but their working was not Christian, it was not offered as a sacrifice to God. In the life of this great city the hollowness and mockery of much that has passed for religion in smaller places is made evident to the eyes of men. But I imagine I hear some one saying: “Oh, I am not needed. I worked in the old home church because I was needed there. But certainly New York churches need no assistance from such a humble Christian as I am.” Who told you that you were not needed? If you have heard such an assertion, you must have heard it from the devil, for it sounds like one of his lies.
Not needed in New York! You do not mean it! You have said it without thinking! Not needed in a city which is a vast Pool of Bethesda, where the porches are full of sick and impotent folk, men and women who have come here in search of health and have not found it, who have come seeking fortune and have missed it, who have come dreaming of fame and have failed to obtain it! On every hand there are the discouraged, the disappointed, the lonely and the forlorn and you dare hold up your head and say that in such a place, at such a time, you are not needed? You are in the midst of a great mass of human beings created in God’s image, hungry for the consolation of the gospel, and you, a professing Christian, won’t help!
You forget what New York is. It is the metropolis of the new world, where fashions are molded which will dominate the lives of millions of our fellow-countrymen, a city in which standards are fixed by which thought and conduct shall be bound in many a section of the land, a city in which every year fifteen thousand students are educated to go out to become leaders of society from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the arbiters of the destiny of communities and commonwealths, and it may be nations. And in a city where it is so important that the atmosphere should be warm with the breath of Christ, and where it is so necessary that standards should be high, and that tone should be true, you hold up your head and say that you, a Christian man, a Christian woman, are not needed in New York! Brethren, you have been called unto liberty, only do not abuse your liberty. You wrong yourself when you do it. You injure your own soul. For your own salvation I urge you to throw yourself into the life of the church and to abound in the works of the Lord.
Let us now complete St. Paul’s sentence. “Brethren, you have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another.” Does he say servant .-‘ That is the word. Do servants and liberty go together? Most assuredly they do. There is no liberty in this world aside from servantship. Only those who are bound are free. This is one of the paradoxes of the gospel. If you would be free you must take the yoke. Stand fast in the liberty, brethren, wherewith Christ has set us free. Revere it. Fight for it. Keep it. Only do not use it for an occasion to the flesh. Look constantly unto Jesus, who was the freest man who ever walked our earth, and yet who walked it always as a slave. When only a boy he learned to pronounce that hard word “must.” “I must be about my Father’s business.” Later on, a young man, he said: “I must work the works of him that sent me.” Still later he declared: “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, I must be crucified, I must rise again.” And so he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, and as he went he said : ” I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished.” Always free he was, but yet always bound, bound by the life of God within him. ” Lo, I come to do thy will, O God.” Unto his disciples he could say: “I do always those things that are pleasing unto him.” Would you be free? Then listen to his exhortation: “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me.” “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”