How Free Is Free?

by Charles F. Stanley

What does it mean that Christ died to set you free? Do you ever feel like one of the least-free people in the world? Do you find yourself working to gain God’s acceptance, trapped by your own expectations of how religious you should be? All too often, believers feel compelled to serve God in order to earn His love and favor.

Often this is the result of a theological error they have been taught since childhood. “You better be good or else.” On other occasions it stems from growing up in a home where parental acceptance depended on their behavior. “Be a good girl, and daddy will love you.” This pattern of thinking can become so entrenched that adults will work themselves into the grave in an attempt to prove they were not a failure to their parents. I have met men who were driven by a desire to gain their father’s approval long after their father had passed away.

When this system of performance-based acceptance is transferred to out heavenly Father, the result is legalism. Legalism is an attitude. It is a system of thinking in which an individual attempts to gain God’s love and acceptance through good works or service. Some people sincerely believe their salvation is at stake. For others, it’s a vague feeling of divine disapproval of which they are trying to rid themselves. Either way, legalism always leads to the same dead end: a lack of joy, a critical spirit and an inability to be transparent.

Freedom from legalism comes through accepting the truth about our favored position in the family of God. Those who have put their trust in Christ have been adopted into His family (Romans 8:16-17).

There is no concept that speaks any clearer of God’s acceptance than this picture of adoption. Whereas a pregnancy can come as a surprise, adoption is always something that is premeditated and planned. While you and I were still without hope, God set the stage to adopt us into his family: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Your heavenly Father loved you unconditionally––before you did anything that could win His approval.

You’re probably so familiar with this concept of God loving you that you might have become a bit numb to it. Do you realize it means that God actually likes you? If He were to show up in bodily form, do you think He would seek you out? Would you be someone He would enjoy being around?

Isn’t it strange how much more comfortable we are with the concept of love than with the concept of like when it comes to God’s feelings towards us? Why do you think that’s true? Many believers have not come to grips with the real extent to which God has forgiven us. Consequently, we live with a subtle sense of condemnation. We say we are forgiven, but in our hearts we are never fully convinced that God isn’t still a little angry with us or a little disappointed in our service.

The truth is, the Cross dealt with every reason God had for being displeased with us. Our forgiveness is so complete that God is not only free to love us, He can like us as well. Think about this: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). If you have placed your trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, the Bible says you are positionally in Christ. And once you were placed into Christ, you were separated from the guilt that once brought divine condemnation. You are not condemned. Jesus was condemned on your behalf, and now you are free!

“But why don’t I feel forgiven?” you ask. “Why don’t I feel free? Why do I feel like I have to work to earn His favor and approval?” It’s probably because you have not made up your mind to take God at His Word. Instead, because of your upbringing, personality, or environment, you have learned to measure your worthiness based your performance.

To be free from feelings of condemnation, you must renew your mind with powerful truths from the Word of God. Because you received the Father’s mercy, no further effort is required on your part. Not only are you accepted as part of His family, but He has declared you “chosen,” “holy” and “God’s own possession” (1 Peter 2:8-10).

You can let go of your exhausting efforts to “be good” to win God’s approval. You can say good-bye to your martyr’s attitude about your service for the Lord. You can stop criticizing those who do not work with the same fervor as you.

When you are completely resting in the finished work of Christ, you don’t doubt your total acceptance by the Father. Jesus’ death and resurrection settled the question of your acceptability once and for all. It provided you with an eternal place in the family of God, and allows you to call the God of the universe your Father. Lay aside your prison of condemnation, legalism and performance. Take to heart the words of Christ: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Adapted from “A Touch of His Freedom,” by Charles F. Stanley, 1991, pp. 31 and 35.