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The high cost of freedom

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 9:35-10:1

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Thus begins the most famous document in American history. Its fifty-seven signers would have been executed for treason if the nation created by this treatise had lost its War of Independence. The fifty-seven signatures appear beneath these words: “For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

They knew that freedom is never free.

On this July 4th weekend, we give thanks to the God who has given us freedom to worship him. We give thanks for those who secured the right to such freedom of worship, those visionaries who birthed the concept of a free church in a free state.

And with those courageous signers, we want to pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. We want to carry forward the torch they have passed to us. We want to be worthy of their sacrifice and trust. We want to serve the cause of freedom as they did. We want to give our children and grandchildren the same example of courage and honor that we have inherited from those who have gone before us.

Jesus will show us how.

Giving thanks for our freedom (Matthew 9:35)

Our text finds us in the midst of the Galilean ministry of Jesus. Matthew tells us that he was free to go “everywhere,” to all the villages in this northern part of the Holy Land. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, records the fact that there were no less than 204 such villages in the time of Jesus.

Our Lord saw that they were “fainting”–the Greek word meant to be flayed or skinned. They were “scattered”–cast down, wounded, lying around, abandoned by their spiritual shepherds. And so he was moved with “compassion”–a very strong Greek word meaning pity to the depths of one’s being. They were hurting, abandoned, and lost, and he felt their pain and suffering. He saw their need. And he was free to teach, preach, and heal to meet it. Free to minister as God led him.

Such freedom to teach, preach, and heal is still ours today. A free church in a free state is the most significant Baptist contribution to America’s history and political worldview. The state must not regulate the church in our work and service. And the church must not ask the state to support or accomplish our ministry.

John Leland was a Baptist minister and one of the foremost proponents of religious freedom in the infant United States. For instance, he once wrote, “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics.” He continued: “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.”

On Sunday, May 16, 1920, Dr. George Truett stood on the east steps of the national capitol in Washington, D.C. There, as part of the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in that city that year, he was asked by the Baptist churches of Washington to address the subject, “Baptists and Religious Liberty.”

Dr. Truett’s address fills 24 pages of manuscript. Of all he said on that remarkable day from the nation’s capitol, I quote only this paragraph:

“That utterance of Jesus, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’ is one of the most revolutionary and history-making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That utterance, once for all, marked the divorcement of church and state. It marked a new day for the creeds and deeds of men. It was the sunrise gun of a new day, the echoes of which are to go on and on and on until in every land, whether great or small, the doctrine shall have absolute supremacy everywhere of a free church in a free state.”

John Leland and George Truett were right. We celebrate today the privilege of a free church in a free state. The freedom to go where we wish and minister as God leads us. Let us worship today our God of freedom, in thanks for this free nation we love.

Exercise your freedom to pray (Matthew 9:37)

Oscar Dellet is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Camaguey in central Cuba. Our church has worked in partnership with Oscar for some five years now. He has preached for me in Dallas and I have preached for him in Cuba. His is the first name on my prayer list each morning. He is a remarkable visionary, courageous leader, and true man of God. I love him and trust him with my life.

Several years ago Oscar was visiting our church, and came to my home one evening for dinner. During the course of the evening, America’s religious history became the topic of conversation. Oscar told us that he had studied American history in great detail. He knew that while many of our Founding Fathers were godly Christians, many were not. He knew that while many of the colonists were very faithful Christians, many were not. “Why, then, has God so blessed America?” he asked. “For this reason: so America’s churches can bless the world.”

I have thought a great deal about that Cuban pastor’s assertion, and am convinced that he is right. God has blessed our nation with freedom and prosperity, so our churches would be free to bless and prosper the churches of the world. Jesus called his first disciples to use their freedom in the same way: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (vs. 37-38). You have freedom to worship and serve God–exercise that freedom first in prayer.

God has richly blessed the world whenever America’s Christians have prayed. The First Great Awakening began in colonial America, and swept the western world with revival. The Second and Third Great Awakenings began in our nation as well, leading to reform and reformation across western civilization. If we will exercise our freedom to pray for our nation, God will use our prayers to touch the world.

As we pray for our nation and her leaders, we join John Adams in his intercession, now framed in the White House: “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” And we claim God’s word to Solomon, one of the wisest of all men and rulers: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Exercise your freedom to give (Matthew 10:1)

Jesus next led his disciples to answer their own prayer: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Mt 10:1). And he sent them to give what he had given them.

God has determined to finance his Kingdom work through the faithfulness of his people. He could have done it another way, but he did not. We are his partners in the gospel, his hands and feet on earth, his body. He lives as fully through us as he did through his own flesh 20 centuries ago. As we work, he works. The more we serve him, the more we know him. And the more we make him known.

Will you give today so that our church can extend his love to more of our lost and dying world? To the 114,000 living within three miles of our church who are in no church today? To the one million in Dallas who are spiritually lost, to the 174,000,000 in America who need Jesus?

Celebrate your freedom to worship and to pray, by exercising your freedom to give. More than you can spare, to the God who spared nothing for us all.

Exercise your freedom to go

We are free to worship, free to pray, free to give, and free to go. Jesus called the Twelve to himself, then “these twelve he sent out” (v. 5). Our lost community will no longer come to us, so we must go to them.

Alvin Toeffler, in his influential The Third Wave, described America at her founding as a “first wave” culture. Agriculture dominated our economic and social lives. Families on the farm were the norm. In a “first wave” culture, churches are small, rural, and family-centered. They dot the landscape across the country, serving those who will come to them from their immediate community. To this day, the average SBC church has 220 members and 70 on Sunday morning. And all in the community knows that’s their church, and they go to it.

With the Industrial Revolution came the “second wave.” People moved from the country to the city, from farms to factories. Here was birthed “second wave” churches–institutions, programs, buildings, budgets. Megachurches, those averaging more than 2,000 per weekend, have grown from 50 in 1980 to more than 880 today.

But in the last generation, the Technological Revolution has moved us into the “third wave.” Now information is available anywhere to anyone. We no longer need the big city or big factory–we can work from our homes as we wish. After Vietnam and Watergate, we no longer believe in Big Government. Our culture has bought the idea that absolute truth does not exist, that sincerity is all that matters.

And so in the last generation, despite the explosion of megachurches, overall church attendance has remained flat in our country. And the number of Americans who profess no faith at all has quadrupled since 1991. They will not come to us, so we must go to them.

Now we are back where Jesus started–going through our towns and villages, teaching, preaching, and healing. The most patriotic thing you can do for your country is to serve your Lord. Find and use your spiritual gifts. Reach out to your neighbor. Look for ways to share his love in yours, his truth in your witness. Exercise your freedom to go. And the generations to come will be as free to worship, pray, and give as we are today.

Our faith is one generation from extinction. And on the edge of a great spiritual renewal for our time. The choice is ours.

Conclusion

Will we exercise the freedom purchased for us by those who birthed our nation? Will we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor? We are free to pray, to give, and to go. But freedom is never free. It costs our lives, and rewards our service now and in eternity.

In 1921, a soldier who had died in France during World War I was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. A massive marble tomb was placed on the site of the original grave in 1932. An inscription on the walls of the tomb reads, “Here rest in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” On Memorial Day 1958 two other unknown soldiers, one from World War II and one from the Korean War, were also buried in the tomb. On Memorial Day 1984 a soldier from the Vietnam War was interred, though he was later identified through DNA testing and buried by his family.

The poet W. H. Auden, thinking of these unknown soldiers, asked pointedly, “To save your world, you asked this man to die; Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?” Freedom is never free. It cost more than 1.5 million American men and women their lives. It cost Jesus his cross.

What price will you pay?