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A Better Freedom

By Michael Roop

This week, many of us enjoyed a day off work to celebrate freedom. Whatever form your celebration took, when we zoom out from July 4th, we see a broader conversation around freedom that is increasingly charged, if not completely wayward. The use of the word “freedom” now contains certain political stances, promises of being free from woke indoctrination, mask mandates, or transphobia.

The Christian Foundation
But before we consider the current understanding of the concept of freedom, it’s important to remember that freedom, when it is applied to the individual, is a distinctly Christian idea. In fact, as Charles Taylor points out in A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007), the idea of individual dignity and freedom was virtually non-existent before the emergence and spread of Christianity. The idea that an individual has an importance beyond the needs of the clan or tribe is literally an alien concept to humanity prior to Christ. 

Indeed, the topic of liberty and freedom runs straight through every genre and epoch of Scripture. 
  • The Law contained provisions for the freedom of slaves (Exodus 21:2; Leviticus 25:10). 
  • The psalmist praises God for setting him free amidst his cry of distress (118:5). 
  • God promises through Isaiah to free the people from their exile (45:13). 
  • Jesus, in quoting Isaiah 61, revealed that His ministry would both proclaim and accomplish liberty for the captive and oppressed (Luke 4:18). 
  • Paul commands us to stand firm in our freedom (Galatians 5:1). 

The Western Secular Distortion
However, the late modern secularism of the west has committed two aggressions against the idea of individual freedom. First, we have taken individualism to an absurd and untenable degree. If the significance of the individual was once too diminished when compared to the clan or tribe, the opposite error is now in effect. The tribe or clan exists only to serve the needs of the individual, and the individual has no responsibility to subjugate their own desires to the needs of the tribe or clan they inhabit. 

And second, western secularism has reduced the definition of freedom to its negative sense only. We are set free from external restraint or authority, but we have no consensus concerning what we are set free to, or what we might owe to our liberator(s). In other words, freedom carries no responsibility whatsoever.

The result of these two errors is the widely assumed belief that society exists in order to clear the way for the individual to define and express him- or herself in whatever way they please. And this with no consequence, restrain, or external expectation of any kind. Such a society, we have been told, offers us our greatest chance at a happy and fulfilling life.  Any society that does not fill this role is regarded as oppressive and unjust for restricting the freedoms of its people. 

Of course, none of the data suggests such a society is actually producing the happiness it has promised. Is it any coincidence that, underneath the weight of having to be the unguided author of our own happiness, we are experiencing a mental health epidemic of unprecedented proportions? How can we really know that our choices have led us to our happiest lives? How can I know the things that make me happy at age 20 won’t restrict or prevent my happiness at age 40 or 50? The angst such a life produces is both expected and intense. 

The Gospel Response
So what does the gospel have to offer this cultural moment? Well it turns out the New Testament speaks directly to the freedom Jesus has accomplished for us. Perhaps the most straightforward discussion of freedom comes from the pen of Paul in Galatians 5: “For you were called to freedom, brothers (and sisters). Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…”

How would someone use their freedom “as an opportunity for the flesh?” If they conceive of their freedom as negative only. If we only think that we are free from guilt and condemnation, then we can go on living as we please, only ever indulging the desires of our flesh, since doing so will not leave us feeling guilty or fearing a future punishment for our sins.

Peter saw this danger too: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil…” (1 Peter 2:16). Apparently, the Apostles saw both the amazing gift and potential danger of our freedom. The gift was, being set free from our sins, we could find lasting joy in delight-based, trust-based obedience to the Father. Jesus’ blood had decisively, once-for-all, set us free from the guilt, condemnation, and control of our sins.

Even in the beginning stages of the church, people were using their “freedom” as grounds to indulge every desire for sex, take in food and alcohol without moderation, and manage their material possessions with no regard for Jesus’ teaching on minimalism and generosity. In short, they thought Jesus’ blood purchased their ability to do whatever they wanted without consequence. 

But Paul and Peter anticipate this error. Peter concludes his thoughts on freedom with a positive directive: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (2:16). And Paul similarly in Galatians 5: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13).

The purpose of your freedom from guilt and condemnation is so that you can be free to love and serve one another. Or, as the author of Hebrews puts it, “to serve the living God” (9:14). Paul, in Romans 6, restates the negative and positive aspects of our freedom when he says, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (6:17-18). 

Because we are free from guilt and condemnation, we are also free from a duty-based obedience to the Father that is trapped trying to pay off a debt that grows faster than we can pay it. Instead, Jesus has purchased our freedom to find joy in the delight-based, trust-based obedience in the Father, because all other  considerations of debt and consequence have been satisfied once for all. 

Summary - A Better Freedom
So what does Christianity have to offer the late modern west? Among other things, we have a better freedom. A freedom that can actually satisfy our souls to a degree the western secular distortion of freedom never can. We are free from all guilt and consequence for our sins. Praise God! And also, we are free to serve the living God, to find joy in doing His will, in taking refuge in His presence through our obedience.

For indeed, as David exclaims to the LORD, “in your presence is the fullness of joy, at your right hand is delight forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).