For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
You’re gonna have to serve somebody. This was Bob Dylan’s memorable refrain in the 1979 song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Dylan’s point was that every one of us, no matter how rich or famous or powerful, no matter how high or seemingly untouchable, will be a slave to someone or something — if we don’t already know it, then we will soon enough. And Dylan was especially perceptive when he sang at the end of the refrain, “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Whoever knew that a widely adored singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan could sound so much like the apostle Paul. In Romans 6:17–19, he writes to believers,
Thanks be to God that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
The question is not whether or not you will be a slave. The question is to what, or to whom, will you be enslaved. And paradoxical as it may sound, there is one slavery that is true freedom. When we are enslaved to God, we are truly set free. Or as Jesus says in John 8:36, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Paul goes on to say in Romans 6:20–22,
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
We Christians, then, are people who have been set free from trying to earn our salvation; and now we are free to live in such a way that aims to please our loving heavenly Father. You could say, we have been accepted and are learning to live acceptably.
Throughout the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul calls this “acceptance” justification. This is the key to our freedom, as Paul focuses on in Romans and Galatians. We have been accepted fully by God, through faith alone, not through anything we’ve done to earn it, and because of Jesus — and what he did to win God’s full acceptance for us.
Pause for a second, and give amazement a chance. That the God who made you, and everything in the universe, fully accepts us rebellious sinners because of Jesus is almost too good to be true. And that God’s full acceptance is not based on our doing — whether past, present, or future — but on Jesus’s perfect doing, and comes to us through believing in Jesus, is the best possible news anywhere.
But how does God’s total acceptance relate to Romans 12:1–2 and the instruction to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice”? It’s anchored to that little word therefore — maybe one of the most important therefores ever written. It sits here as a reminder of the massive reality of God’s mercy that Paul has moved us through for eleven chapters. He has told us about what terrible sinners we all are, and then what astounding mercy God has shown us in Jesus’s life and death and resurrection for us.
And now in chapter 12, having heard of God’s acceptance, we begin learning what it means to live acceptably to God. First we are accepted fully, then we learn to live acceptably. Or in the language of Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
The Hand That Reaches Out
So, for the Christian, living an everyday life of worship, which is true freedom, is not about getting ourselves in line with external standards — following rules, keeping lists, checking boxes, behavior-modification. Rather, the mercy of God in the gospel works on us everyday to grow us into a certain kind of person. Through his mercy in Jesus, God writes his own heart on our hearts so that his will becomes more a part of who we are on the inside, not merely an external standard we conform our actions to while our hearts go in different directions. This is what it means to really be free.
As the amazing mercy of God in the gospel — that he has already fully accepted us and laid all the groundwork for our freedom — begins to deeply adjust our hearts and mold our minds, we learn to make daily decisions and exercise everyday wisdom that honors God. We grow in living out his will not through mere external conformity but in and through our hearts, and so we live lives increasingly acceptable to him.
It is only in the gospel, by the Spirit, we learn in experience what Jesus says in John 8:31–32, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”