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Matthew 19: On Freedom and the Bondage of the Will

Good morning, church. Please go with me to Matthew, chapter 19.

One thing to know about me: I love naming things. For example, I’ve named my car “the chariot,” because it’s small and that highborn name makes it seem ridiculous, and that makes me laugh. I named my backup hard drive at work “the miser,” get it? Because it saves everything—it would have been funny if you’d realized before I told you. Sometimes I even give new names to things and people who already have names. A running joke/threat I have with my son is that I’m going to legally change his name into something ridiculous, and whenever I joke about it I remind him I’ve already changed his name once, and I have full legal authority to do it again. I name all of my sermons. This one is named “On Freedom and the Bondage of the Will.”

I’ve been meaning to talk about freedom for some time, because we talk a lot about freedom in our culture. A lot of people point to freedom as the primary driving idea of our culture, and certainly the idea of freedom is written into almost every foundational document of our nation and culture you could point to. But, to quote a favorite movie of mine, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

And you may think, wait a second. Freedom? Aren’t we supposed to be talking about singleness and marriage?

But freedom has a lot to do with singleness and marriage, so long as it’s Christian singleness and marriage you have in mind, and not some other sort. I’ve already talked about singleness being especially characterized by freedom, but there is freedom in marriage as well, just pointed in a different direction, and I’ll explain what I mean by that.

Phil preached last week on understanding marriage as a covenant with God rather than a contract with another person, and that’s an important distinction to make if you want to talk about a marriage being Christian, but another important distinction you need to make if you want to have a Christian marriage is the distinction between worldly and Godly freedom. Our passage today is about marriage and divorce, but really the question central to the passage is about covenant and freedom. People ask Jesus, essentially, are married people free to get divorced? And Jesus responds, essentially, that freedom has nothing to do with marriages falling apart, but it has everything to do with God and his desires for us, his children.

Let’s read it, Matthew 19, and we’re going to read vs. 1-12. […]. This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

I’ll start with this. On principle, I never apologize for the Bible. As the ritual teaches us, this is the word of the Lord, and so as Christians we give thanks to God for revealing truth to us in his Son, but also in his word. In revealing himself, God only always sets us free. So, we can say, simply, one thing this passage is teaching is what you’ve probably understood on the surface level: Ideally, if you get married, you should stay married until death does you part. If you are pursuing godliness in your marriage, staying together is part of what you should pursue. You should commit to working towards resolving conflicts in forgiveness, not leaving each other alone for long unless you have to. With a few exceptions, here he mentions infidelity, elsewhere we find abuse and abandonment mentioned as reasons one may pursue divorce—and by that, I mean you should, in those circumstances, recognize that sin has already caused the death of the relationship.

But while I never apologize for the Bible, on principle, I always want to apologize, confess, when I or other Christians have misunderstood a passage of scripture and fallen to the temptation to use shame or accusation when we speak about things like marriage or divorce. You see, shame and accusation are both weapons of the enemy, and the weapons of the enemy only ever serve the purposes of the enemy in the end. No matter your intentions, if you use the weapons of the enemy, you will only ever eventually end up doing his work.

So I hope you’ll understand when I apologize for the way this beautiful passage has been used to bring shame on people who have been divorced, or heaped anxiety on marriages experiencing issues, because you think you’ll be hated among the people of God if your marriage falls apart. I’m sorry for that. For those of you who have been through a divorce, or gotten close, or kept marital issues secret in the church because you were afraid of shame—so this includes me, now, and probably most of the couples in the room—I hope, my honest prayer is that you will walk away from this sermon today feeling completely free of shame, and free in the Holy Spirit’s conviction about what is good and healthy in marriage.

But before we talk about marriage, or divorce, let’s start with this word, freedom. We have to dig through a lot of cultural baggage if we want to uncover the truth about freedom in singleness and marriage. I don’t want to go too deeply down the philosophical rabbit hole—or rather, I would 100% like to do that, just not right now. We can save that for small group. But we can look into the rabbit hole, right? Put a toe in? I’ll borrow from Plantinga, and start here: a lot of people say “freedom is having the power of contrary choice.”

In our culture, in the world, people assume freedom is the ability to choose, having the power to do what you want to do, instead of what someone else wants you to do. Take off the mask, get the abortion, not get the vaccine, say the very thing you know will make the person most angry, because you’re free. You don’t have to do what they, whoever they are, want you to do. Do you recognize this idea in our culture? Philosophers call this understanding of freedom libertarian freedom. I would like to spend a little time pushing back on this idea of freedom, and I want to start here: ask yourself this question: what are you longing for, when you long for freedom? What are you longing for, when you long for freedom? Is it just the ability to reject the desires of the people around you, or is it something else?

We begin in our understanding of freedom with the idea of a relationship then, and competing desires. Maybe she wants you to do the dishes, but you want to watch tv. Most people in our culture would say freedom in that relationship means the ability to choose tv over your roommate’s—ha! You thought I was going to say wife, but no, this example is for the single people—the ability to choose tv over your roommates desires. I say freedom is more like having the ability to choose to watch tv, not being under compulsion, but also denying your own desires, submitting them to your friend’s, out of love for her and a deep desire to serve this person in front of you who has expressed an honest and reasonable request.

Another example to unsettle our usual idea of freedom: we have a toddler with us right now through foster care, and he’s at that stage where he’s crawling and curious. The other day, he crawled up to an outlet I had just unplugged something from, before I could get the outlet cover back over it, and he reached out his hand to put his fingers in the outlet. So, naturally, as any good parent would, as he’s reaching for this outlet, I took some time to consider my ethical and philosophical position on freedom.

Now, the ethics of the thing are easy. I am pro freedom. I’m for it. Every time. As much freedom as this child can possibly have, I want that for him. For people in general, all of God’s creatures really, I want them to be set free, and I think God does as well. So, of course, I allowed the toddler to touch the outlet and electrocute himself. I’m just kidding, of course I didn’t do that. I slapped his hand away and told him no, as any good parent would. Why? Because allowing this child unwittingly to kill himself is not freedom at its best. That’s not what we are longing for when we long for freedom.

Another example, one we see often here: addiction. I’ll talk about my own struggles with it. There was freedom at the beginning of smoking for me, the kind I had longed for all my life—that adult freedom of doing what I wanted, because I could, and no one had any power to stop me. I wanted to smoke because it helped me think, and my friends were into it, and it felt good. In the beginning we would sit for hours and toss around ideas, cigarettes and coffee and bright young minds—that is at least a part of what I was longing for, those relationships. But something happened to my will in the midst of smoking. I lost my freedom somehow, not from anything outside of me, but my will, itself, my desires became bound. Even when I wanted to stop, I couldn’t, not for a long time. I remember one time in Maine, it was negative 32 degrees, we were with friends inside—again, bright young minds trading ideas—and I had to leave that table, took ten minutes to get dressed, and I’m standing outside switching hands with the cigarette because of the cold, thinking to myself, “What am I doing?”

The problem with understanding freedom as the ability to follow your desires, against the desires of others, is that our hearts are sinful and broken—yes, even if you’re saved, you’re not yet fully like Christ. We want evil things. The truth is, even if we always get our way, every time, we still aren’t free, because our desires themselves are not free. A person who gets what he wants all the time, and no one can stop him, is not free, he’s a tyrant, because his desires, his will is bound. It’s that internal boundness, what Luther calls “the bondage of the will,” that we so often forget to account for. Sin in us has the ability to enslave and haunt us. And the problem with your own sin enslaving you is, there’s nowhere you can go and be free. They follow you, your demons.

What you’re longing for, when you long for freedom, is not the ability to choose the opposite, but the ability to choose the good. What you’re longing for, when you long for freedom, is not the ability to choose the opposite, but the ability to choose the good, even if others would have you choose differently.

In Christianity, this idea of freedom is closely connected to the doctrine of the image of God. God is free—not only does his will sovereignly uphold all creation, but he always chooses good—and in his creation of humanity, he shared his own infinite freedom with us. Psalm 115 tells us, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” He always has a choice, and he always chooses what’s good. That’s freedom. And listen: our wills are free, too, if they are aligned with his. If your desires are aligned with God’s desires in the world, those things you desire will always be coming to pass, and they will always be good.

I want you to notice, too, God’s freedom did not break or mar one bit even in the midst of our world. Even under Roman foreign rule, even in captivity, whatever our God chose, it was done in the world. I think of our Lord standing before Pilate as Pilate condescends him, telling him, “Don’t you know I have the ability to choose whatever I want to do with you, whether you live or die?” Only Jesus saw the irony. Christ was choosing in that moment to die so that we might live. There, in captivity being sentenced to die, he was more free than any of us have ever been. Jesus’s freedom was indominable, and he offers it to us. His freedom is boundless enough to break our bonds, too—the boundness of our will, and any other chain or oppression upon us in the world. If we allow him to set us free.

Paul writes in Romans 7, “[18] I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

[21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my [body] another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Amen.

Going back to our passage in Matthew, though, what does freedom have to do with marriage and divorce? Are you free, in your marriage, to get a divorce, or is divorce sinful? Now, in Jesus’s day, divorce was legal and not seen as shameful to the man. The religious leaders saw no problem with it. Men were able to divorce women, and send them away in shame, everyone believing that she was unable for whatever reason to please her husband. Usually she wouldn’t be able to remarry, so he was condemning her to a life of poverty or exile.

And you may notice in that how much has changed, but I want you to notice how much hasn’t changed. In our day and time, that word, sinful, tends to carry with it a weight of guilt, and increasingly with the emergence of social media, shame. If you are sinful, our culture tells us, you should feel ashamed, you should feel guilty. So divorced people, in our culture, have two options. Either they can deny that divorce is sin, or they can be ashamed. In Jesus’s day, anything considered a sin in the culture was actually against the law—if you did something sinful, you could be arrested, imprisoned, even executed.

So when the Pharisees, the pastors of Jesus’s day who had all of the power, came to ask him whether or not divorce was sinful, they were looking for him to say something which might be grounds for some kind of charge against him, to imprison him, discredit him. It was a tense and dangerous situation. I’ve been in a very similar conversation before, and ironically, it was right outside this door, but long before I was a pastor here.

I was in seminary and working as an intern for something called Greer-Heard, which was basically a forum where the best Christian scholars we could find would sit in a room with the best non-Christian scholars we could find and have what was hopefully a really smart conversation about whatever the topic was that year. I was asked, that year, to drive the non-Christian scholar, a brilliant philosopher of science, and his wife was with him. I was supposed to get them from the airport, entertain them, and show them around town in the morning before the evening’s conversation. So I took them to the most interesting place I knew: the French Quarter.

As we walked and saw the sights, we chatted, got to know each other. I tried to talk science with him and understand his work, but he had pity on me and turned the conversation to more personal things, family, that sort of thing, and it came up that for both of them, this was their second marriage, and we were walking past the church. I pointed it out and told them one of my friends from seminary goes here (Adam). Then he asked a question, like the Pharisees did, which for me held a little danger in it. Of course he wasn’t going to throw me in jail if I got the answer wrong, but being a brilliant philosopher, he was extraordinarily able to make me feel like a fool, if he wanted to do so. The danger was in whether or not one of us should be ashamed.

He asked, to test me, “Why do Christians consider divorce a sin?” Which is essentially the same question asked of Jesus in this text. I’ll stop my story there. We don’t need to know my answer, but we all need to hear Jesus’s answer this morning. I want to start by pointing out what he could have done. Jesus could have toed the party line, quoted Deuteronomy 24, and said, yes, of course you can divorce your wife if you’re not pleased with her. Or he could have gone the other way with it, like I’ve seen in many churches, use a messy divorce like a weapon to tell that person “I told you you were wrong for whatever you were doing.” Probably at least one of these Pharisees, these pastors, had been divorced, Jesus could have made him feel ashamed about how it ended, but he doesn’t.

Jesus starts talking about creation, before the fall, before sin enters in at all, before relationships are messy, or marriages are unhappy. This is before any children die, before any adultery, before any emotional or physical abuse. Jesus quotes Genesis, and the pastors quote Deuteronomy, but Jesus brings it back. There’s something in the creation story he really wants them to see. He says in v.8, “in the beginning, it was not so.” In the beginning, marriages didn’t fall apart.

Jesus is quoting Genesis to show the pastors the way marriage is meant to be, so that they can see how far divorce is from what marriage was created to be. Before sin entered the world, no wife displeased her husband, Adam cries out in the garden, “at last!” Before sin, there was no adultery, no doing things behind each other’s back, they were naked and unashamed. Before sin, there was no petty bickering, no bad choices, there was walking with truth, himself, in the light of the day and hearing from him what was right to think or do, which way to go, how to spend your days. And they were living everlastingly together, no death to do them part. And remember from Isaiah, sin is the distance between what is and what was meant to be.

Realize—relationships only ever end because of sin in the world. Just like divorce was never the plan, death was never the plan either. Death is a result of sin in the world, too. I think because we say “til death do us part” as part of the traditional vows, we have it in our heads that death is meant to do us part, but that’s not the way it was in the beginning. Til death do us part isn’t in the Bible, because that’s not the ideal. The ideal is what Jesus quotes from Genesis: what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Before sin in the world, people didn’t die. Relationships didn’t fall apart, because sin and death were not known.

Marriage is a beautiful and powerful thing. Imagine an enormous oak shading a home—when it falls, it does incredible damage. Sin in a relationship can be hers, his, or the world’s, and usually it’s a combination of all three that finally kills the marriage. I’m not saying that divorce should in any way be looked upon as things the way they should be. I’m trying to say we should approach divorce, as Christians, the same way we approach death. Because it is a death of sorts, the death of the relationship, and the person you were with them. Confessing our own part, our own wrongdoing in how it’s come to this. Confident that this is not the way our lives were created to be, confident that God is able to heal and restore us, confident that we are able to get through this, because one day God will one day make it right. What God joins together is never supposed to fall apart.

The ideal would be that no marriage would ever end until his return. The real is messy and mournful because of our own brokenness and because of the world’s. Sometimes people are abused. Sometimes they’re abandoned, and not for good cause, so they’re left with this enormous weight of mourning and sin because their marriage has fallen apart, and they really had very little to do with it. Sometimes people have affairs, and it causes such a tear in the fabric of the marriage that it can’t be mended until the kingdom comes. Sometimes there’s so much hurt, or shame, or bitterness for so long that the marriage is dead before the divorce ever is made legal. So we mourn, we confess our wrongdoing, we forgive, we wait and long for the kingdom even while we work in this world to seek his kingdom and his righteousness, living “at peace with everyone as far as it depends upon you.” So are you free to get a divorce, the Pharisees ask? No, Jesus answers, freedom has very little to do with relationships ending. That’s not what the Lord desires, so it’s not freedom. That’s not the way it was in the beginning.

My invitation to you this morning is, for those of you who are married, to commit to each other to have and to hold, and not let anything man has made tear apart what God has joined. Tell each other, I’m with you in this. We’re going to go through it together. And my invitation to those who are divorced and to take off any shame that you’ve put on, or that’s been put on you. Any accusation, any guilt. In conviction, search your heart to know your part in that relationship ending, and confess it believing that “if we confess our sins one to another, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And to each and every one of us, everyone who has sent someone away, or in bitterness, hurt, or shame, hidden ourselves from another, I would invite you to mourn and confess, repent and forgive. Pray with me now.