Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.
2 Corinthians 3:17
This verse is often spoke of and sung about within the Christian community. Many times it is spoken of in the context of freedom to worship in a church setting without the boundaries of tradition. Those who use this verse to support their style of worship are saying they are free to worship God by raising and clapping their hands, speaking in tongues, sharing words of knowledge, etc… While they use this verse to support their style of worship, they sometimes criticize churches who do not display such “freedom” in worship of God. They criticize by saying these churches are bound by religious tradition or denominationalism. In comparing their church of “freedom” to the churches in “bondage”, they imply the Spirit of the Lord is in their church because of the freedom of worship they express and the Spirit of the Lord is not in the other churches because those churches are bound by religious boundaries and denominationalism.
Before we take a closer look at the context of 2 Corinthians 3:17, it is important to know that I am not criticizing or advocating for any form of worship within the Christian community, I am just commenting on what I have observed and heard. Different people enjoy different forms of worship. Therefore, they are attracted to different styles of churches. The style of worship or music a person enjoys is really a Romans 14 issue, meaning, we should not let our preferences of worship or music cause divisions within God’s family, the church. Rather, we should accept one another’s worship preferences, not criticize them, because we worship unto the Lord and are accountable to him. In the place of criticism, we should seek peace with and seek to edify one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. With that out of the way, let’s now take a closer look at 2 Corinthians 3:17 so that we do not apply 2 Corinthians 3:17 in a way God never intended, but apply it in the way he intends.
Any time we read a verse in the Bible, its context will help us determine its meaning. So let’s look at the context of 2 Corinthians 3:17. Again, this verse says:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.
Beginning in 2 Corinthians 3:1, Paul starts a defense of his message of grace and his credibility to teach grace (2 Corinthians 4:15 and 5:18-6:2) in light of the criticism he was receiving within the Corinthian Christian community (2 Corinthians 10-12:13). Unlike the other teachers, he had no letters of commendation from any religious organization authenticating his message or credibility to teach. Yet, Paul states the true authentication of his message of grace was those who experienced changed lives after accepting God’s grace (2 Corinthians 3:2-3, 4:15).
Paul shares in 2 Corinthians 4:15 how the message of grace was reaching more and more people resulting in life-change for them. As people accepted grace, they expressed gratitude back to God. Paul explains God’s message of grace in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21:
All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself in Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them…Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This is God’s message of grace which Paul was an ambassador. He clearly (2 Corinthians 4:2) communicated to people wherever he went that God desired to be in a love-relationship with them (reconciliation). Yet, because of our sins, we are guilty before and separated from God. Furthermore, because of sin, we are under the penalty of death. However, because God loves us and wants a relationship with us, God came to earth as Jesus Christ to pay our sin penalty. He paid our penalty and died our death completely and fully. He took all of our unrighteousness upon himself at the cross. This is grace!
As a result of grace, the good news is that God is no longer counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19). Why not? They were all counted against Jesus. All sins for all time, for all people were counted against Jesus. Sin no longer separates us from God. Through grace, the barrier of sin has been removed. The only thing that separates us from God is refusing to accept his grace. Jesus referred to this as unbelief. Once we accept God’s grace, we not only enter into a love-relationship with God, but we are declared to be righteous before him (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:22, 5:17).
This is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:1 when he writes about receiving God’s grace in vain, which in the original Greek language means hearing about God’s desire to be in a love-relationship with us and that he is not counting our sins against us because of Jesus’ payment for all our sins, yet remaining unreconcilied to God by rejecting his grace through unbelief.
Paul states it was God who initiated the message of grace, commissioned him to teach the message of grace, and gave him the competence and confidence to share the message of grace with people (2 Corinthians 3:4-5, 5:18-6:1). Combined with God commissioning him to share grace with people and their response to God’s grace seen in their life-change and gratitude to God (2 Corinthians 3:2-3, 4:15), Paul said this was his letter of commendation. The credibility of his message was that God gave him the message of grace and that people’s lives were changed through grace resulting in gratitude toward God.
Paul compared this inner-life-change of people’s heart produced by grace to a letter read by all who see the life-changing power of grace in those who receive it. The only letter of commendation he needed was the letter written on the hearts of people by the Spirit of the living God when God’s message of grace was shared. The Spirit of God takes the message of grace and begins changing the lives of people from the inside out (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
(Remember, we are in the process of seeking to understand 2 Corinthians 3:17 by looking at it in context.)
Paul states the work of the Spirit of the living God inside people’s hearts when they receive God’s grace is called the ministry of the new covenant. In Corinthians 3:4-4:18, he compares the ministry of the new covenant of grace with the ministry the old covenant of law. According to Paul, the old covenant of law is the Ten Commandments written on stone and given by God to Moses to be delivered to the people of Israel. Paul clearly says the ministry of the Ten Commandments brought death and condemnation and the ministry of the new covenant brings life and righteousness. He goes on to say that the old covenant of law was temporary and the new covenant of grace is eternal. Furthermore, Paul says that the old covenant, the Ten Commandments, has no glory now and has faded away. It has been eternally replaced and surpassed by the new covenant of grace!
A person has to be very bold to teach the truths of the new covenant of grace in full. This is because when the full message of grace is taught, criticism will surely follow. The credibility of the person teaching the full message of God’s grace will be called into question. Not only will his credibility be called into question, the very message he is teaching will be called into question as well. That is why Paul said he was very bold in teaching the new covenant of grace (2 Corinthians 3:12). It takes guts to teach grace! It takes guts to teach we are fully forgiven by God, totally righteous before God, completely removed from the law of God, and in a love-relationship with God. Paul said his message, competency, and boldness, his “guts”, came from God himself.
He also said he did not lose heart when teaching the message of grace (2 Corinthians 4:16). It would have been easy for Paul to lose heart since so many of those in the religious crowd were constantly criticizing and condemning him. Yet, even though many in the religious crowd were rejecting God’s message of grace and criticizing Paul, many other people were accepting God’s message of grace and praising God. It was because of the life-change in those who were accepting God’s grace and the gratitude overflowing from their hearts to God’s heart that Paul did not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:15-16).
Paul went through great difficulty to deliver God’s message of grace to people (2 Corinthians 4:7-16). Yet, in the face of difficulties and criticism, Paul continued to take God’s message of the new covenant of grace to people everywhere he went.
The old covenant of law is on the outside of people demanding they change. The word for disobedience to the law is called sin. The punishment for sin is death. Following Paul’s Spirit-led line of thinking as he was writing this letter to the Corinthians, the law is a ministry of condemnation and death (2 Corinthians 3:6, 9). However, Jesus died our death. All of our sins were counted against Jesus. According to Paul, who wrote under the Spirit’s direction, God is no longer counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19). God is now waiting for us to accept his grace and begin a relationship with him (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
Paul states that those who do not see the fullness of the new covenant of grace have veiled faces similarly to that of Moses when he came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. According to Paul, the faces of those who do not see the new covenant of grace are veiled. Their spiritual eyes are covered, causing them not to see the glory of the new covenant of grace (2 Corinthians 3:13-14).
The removal of the veil or the removal of the covering preventing a person from seeing the new covenant of grace is removed only in Christ. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:14 that only in Christ is the veil removed. When people see all that God has done for them in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), the veil is removed (2 Corinthians 3:14-16). One by one, as the veil is removed from the spiritual eyes of people, they see the beauty of grace. They begin to clearly see all that God has done for them in Christ. They see clearly that God is no longer counting their sins against them. They see clearly all their sins have been forgiven. They clearly see themselves as righteous before God. They clearly see themselves as now being in a love relationship with God. They clearly see God’s forgiveness, righteousness, and being in a relationship with him is not temporary, but eternal!
When we accept God’s grace, the Spirit of the living God, the Spirit of the Lord himself, takes residence in our hearts (Galatians 4:6). According to 2 Corinthians 3:17, where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. What is the freedom the presence of the Lord brings? Remember, most people when quoting this verse are referring to freedom as it relates to their style of worship at church on a Sunday morning. However, that is not the context of this verse. Paul has mentioned nothing about worship or music in the context. He has been teaching in the previous verses about the old and new covenants. The old covenant of law is a covenant of bondage because it brings condemnation and death. The new covenant of grace is a covenant of freedom because it brings forgiveness, righteousness, and life. Therefore, the freedom he is referring to in 2 Corinthians 3:17 is the freedom of the new covenant of grace in comparison to the bondage of the old covenant of law.
That is also what he is referring to in 2 Corinthians 5:17, another often misquoted verse. If anyone is in Christ, the old (covenant) has gone, and the new (covenant) has come. This means that gone from the life of the person who has come to faith in Jesus is the condemnation and death produced by the old covenant of law. What has now come into this person’s life is forgiveness, righteousness, and a relationship with God produced by the new covenant of grace.
Sadly, many people who enjoy different styles of worship are still in bondage to law even though they proclaim their worship style is evident of their freedom in Christ. True evidence of our freedom in Christ is no longer living under law but under grace. This is the message of Galatians.
When the Spirit of the Lord comes into the hearts of people, they are set free from the law (see Romans 8:1; Galatians 4:4-6, 5:1-18). There is now the freedom of forgiveness, righteousness, and a relationship with God. We no longer need a law on the outside of us telling us how to live, while condemning us when we fail to measure up. We now live by the Spirit of Christ in us and see, with unveiled faces, the glory of his grace. As we see and experience more and more the glory of the Lord’s grace, we will be transformed more and more into his likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18). What is his likeness that we are being transformed into? Grace! We will begin to reflect his likeness of grace in our lives just as he reflected grace in his (John 1:14-17). We will begin to reflect the glory or glow of grace in our faces. People will begin to see the glory of grace in our faces, just as people saw the glory of grace shine from the face of Jesus.
The law was reflected in the face of Moses. Grace was reflected in the face of Jesus. Now, with unveiled faces, we, too, will reflect the glory of the glow of grace! That is the freedom the Spirit brings into our lives…the freedom of grace!
So regardless of what worship style we prefer, let our worship be compelled by the freedom produced from God’s grace. And when we speak of other members of Christ’s family who worship differently than us, remember, true freedom is not found in our style of worship, but in the One whom we worship…Jesus who was full of grace!
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