Hi there Mark,
It’s great that you are into asking questions. I can see lots of different (but related) aspects in this question. I suspect, fundamentally, these all piece together when we understand what God has saved us from, what he has saved us for, and how this works out in day to day life. It is helpful to grasp what ‘freedom’ looks like from God’s perspective.
Back in Genesis, even before the fall, God included in his creation the concept of law. Adam and Eve could eat from any tree but one (Gen 2:16, 3:3). This one tree demonstrates the relationship between obedience and life. Since people chose to rebel against God (Gen 3), the whole of creation has been subject to the consequences of this choice- the world is broken and so are we. This fallen world, along with its fallen people, is enslaved to sin and death (Rom 6:16). Our sinfulness (or worldliness) is basically a display of our desire to live our lives our way rather than God’s way in accordance with his perfect wisdom.
Since the fall, God has been at work in his creation to ultimately put things right. According to the perfection of his character, he does this with both justice and mercy. Back in the Old Testament God gave his chosen people ‘rules’ to live by- the law. This law was made up of moral laws (e.g. the ‘ten commandments’) and ritualistic laws. Nonetheless, this law was not so that God’s people could be saved. He had already saved them in the exodus from Egypt. It was the way for God’s people to live as his people under his blessing. It separated God’s people from the outlying nations, demonstrated the heights of God’s standard and also showed people how impossible it is to live up to God’s standard in our fallen state. Throughout the Old Testament we can constantly see God’s warnings against the ungodliness of his people, the consequences of their rebellion, but also the promises of mercy to those who are faithful to him - remembering that faithfulness (righteousness) is being reliant on God, not being sinless. We must still remember that God takes sin seriously. It is consistent with his holy character. His wrath is his righteous reaction to sin, which he cannot be indifferent to or complacent about.
The ultimate display of God’s love, justice and mercy is in Jesus, God’s dearly beloved son, on the cross. Jesus’ death is the sacrifice that pays for all the sins of the world (1John 2:2). He didn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but came to fulfill them (Matt 5:17). The concept of right and wrong still applies, God still has moral standards, but the ritualistic laws have been covered by Christ’s sacrifice. We now belong to a new ‘covenant’. Christ’s death and resurrection saves us from slavery to sin and death. We have been given freedom (Gal 5:1) which is the same as entering into ‘slavery’ to righteousness (Rom 6:18). When we trust in Christ’s death to pay for our sins, in doing so, we are showing our faith in God, relying on him to do what we are incapable of doing for ourselves. What we are saved for is to be in relationship with God. In accord with God’s perfection, we cannot do that in our fallen state, so again the solution is Jesus. We are counted as being at peace with God because of the blood of Jesus (Col 1:20).
Though our sins are paid for and we are in relationship with God because of what Jesus has done, we are still living in a fallen world. We are not released from the effects of the fall, either around us or from within us, until Christ returns. During this time of waiting we are called on to
‘work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life’
In Romans (chapters 6 and 7), Paul writes of the incompatibility of sin in our lives now that we are members of God’s family, dead to sin, and under grace. However, in Romans 7:21-24, he laments the reality of his mind (which is for God) at war with his body (which is still of the world). We are the same. We need to put off our old selves and put on our new selves (Eph 4:22-24). We are called on to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. To not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we may be able to discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:1-2). This is a day-by-day life-long process. In our love for God and thankfulness for his mercy shown us in Christ, we will be constantly at war with God’s enemies- sin, the ‘world’ and the devil. To be ready for this battle we are to
“be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
In Ephesians 6:14-20 Paul covers the armors of truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, salvation, God’s word, prayer, alertness and perseverance. Throughout the gospels and letters of the New Testament there are also the more concrete instructions on what godly living looks like.
We have to be careful not to underestimate our capacity for sin, for the spirit may indeed be willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41). We need to be making wise decisions in how we live our lives and constantly be asking ourselves are these thoughts/words/actions consistent with loving God and our neighbour (Mark 12:30-31). As Paul demonstrates in Rom 7:21-24 (above) and, even more dramatically, as King David, who was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14), demonstrates with his adultery and murder, we will be more inclined to choose sin over godliness if left to ourselves. We will have an ongoing need to turn back to Christ in repentance because we will always be sinning.
It is an encouragement to know that"If God is for us, who can be against us” (Rom 8:31), but we need to understand this in the context of our destiny being with God and our salvation being secure- it doesn’t imply that we will henceforth live a sinless life or that we can be indifferent or complacent with regard to our sin. As we read God’s word in the Bible and grow in our understanding of God and ourselves, and learn what is pleasing to God, it will be more likely that we become more aware of how sinful we are. The upside of this, though, is that we also become more aware of and more grateful for the love, grace and mercy God has shown us in Christ. As the Holy Spirit works in us and we mature, the things that are not in accord with God’s will for our life will less appeal to us, but we cannot ever assume that we will be immune to temptation and sin until Christ returns. Then there will be a new heaven and a new earth, God will dwell with man, and we will be his people, and God himself will be with us as our God. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for these former things will have passed away (Rev 21:1-4). We will see his face, and his name will be written on our foreheads. And night will be no more (Rev 22:4-5). This is when we will cease to struggle against sin. This is completed freedom according to God’s design.
Having said all this, I agree that we cannot become hermits and hide away in our ivory towers. We are in the world, but our contact with the world is not to expose ourselves to sin and temptation hoping we can withstand it, but in order to win others to Christ. If there is a particular area of weakness then we would do better to serve Christ elsewhere.
I hope in having written all this that serving God doesn’t look too daunting! We must remember that the Holy Spirit is working in us and that our salvation is secure. Christ tells us to"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:29-30). The reward for persevering in our obedience to God is eternal blessing.
Does this shed light on the different aspects of your question? I really hope and pray that this is useful to you and that you will continue to persevere in your desire to live for God and grow closer to him.