What Christian Liberty Really Is
I have called Paul’s letter to Philemon the “Emancipation Proclamation” of the New Testament; it plainly shows that the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to liberate people, first and foremost from sin, and second to sacrificial love and service unto others that they too may come to know the Savior. Man was created in the image of God but shattered that image through sin; that image begins to be restored in the believer Christ’s image that the believer may look less like himself and more like his Lord and Savior. Freedom in the Bible is never about autonomy, self-fulfillment, chasing after dreams, following my heart, and all the self-centered meanings with which man has filled and thereby cheapened the word today. Christian liberty begins with being born again, chasing sanctification by sloughing of our real slave masters—the world, the flesh, and the devil—and putting on the virtues that show others that there is another Kingdom that puts the kingdoms of this world to shame. The Christian sets his mind on things above and in doing so makes this world a better place.
In the rest of the letter, it is plain that the Apostle is appealing to Philemon to release Onesimus from his servitude because the former useless slave has been redeemed through the blood of Christ and is now useful for Kingdom service; in a word, Onesimus has a different Master now. This argument offends us because Paul does not attack the institution as such, nor does he speak to the inherent human worth and dignity of Onesimus which demands emancipation—all of which is true and may be argued from the doctrine of man as created in God’s image in the first chapter of Genesis. But this argument, so popular today, is not Paul’s argument to Philemon and this should be instructive for us. Where Paul could have provided a tour de force against slavery as such, he fails us. In other words, he will not appeal to human dignity or Onesimus’ worth as a person, nor does he speak of Onesimus’ inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The New Testament knows no such definitions of liberties and human rights, though it has certainly been the inspiration of such modern ideals.
Paul appeals instead to the work of Christ and what he has done in the lives of Philemon and especially Onesimus. Both men have been set free to serve a new Master, and before that Master they are brothers. Having been liberated from the servitude of sin and self, they are now free to serve Christ, which is the only freedom there is. Real freedom has nothing to do with the U.S. Declaration or Constitution and everything to do with Christ.