Freedom may not be what you think it is:
Freedom, in the biblical understanding, is much different than what most folks think when discussing freedom. They believe that freedom means being able to do whatever you want to do. The biblical view says that freedom involves doing what is right. And it involves the idea of being free to serve.
Most folks do not think of servants or slaves as being free. But paradoxically, the biblical notion of freedom has to do with being a slave – a slave to Christ and a servant to others. That is why 1 Peter 2:16 says the following: “Live as people who are free, . . . living as servants of God.”
Paul also speaks in such terms. In 1 Corinthians 7:22 he says: “the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.” And in Romans 6:18 and 22 he says similar things: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. . . . But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
Three general things can be said about the biblical view of freedom and serfdom. First, there is a marked contrast between the Christian and the non-Christian. The non-believer might think that he is free, but in reality he is a slave. He is a slave to sin and self. The above passages from Romans makes this clear, as do others.
Acts 26:18 for example speaks about how the unsaved are bound by “the power of Satan”. Galatians 4:8 speaks of how non-Christians are “slaves to those who by nature are not gods”. And Hebrews 2:15 talks about the unconverted as those who are “held in slavery”.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way: “We are never free. Everybody in the world today is either the slave of sin and Satan or else the slave of Jesus Christ.” Or as R. C. Sproul has said, “The only freedom that man ever has is when he becomes a slave to Jesus Christ.”
And again: “If ever there is a genuine paradox to be found in Holy Writ, it is at the point of freedom and bondage. The paradox is this: When one seeks to rebel from God, he gains only bondage. When he becomes a slave to God, he becomes free. Liberty is found in obedience.”
James Montgomery Boice put it as follows: “The only real freedom you are ever going to know, either in this life or in the life to come, is the freedom of serving Jesus Christ. And this means a life of righteousness. Anything else is really slavery, regardless of what the world may promise you through its lies and false teaching.”
So the non-believer can carry on all he likes about being free – especially being free of God and his requirements. But he is a slave nonetheless. He is a slave to his own sin, to his own selfishness, to his own lusts, and to his own desires. As John Piper says:
There is an irony that God aims to expose, namely, that self-exaltation is, in fact, dehumanization. God is adding to the all-important truth that self-exaltation dethrones God. He is revealing the additional truth that self-exaltation dehumanizes man. The irony is that human autonomy feels like we have gained significance, when in fact we have lost sanity. Freedom from God feels exhilarating. But it’s the exhilaration of skydiving without a parachute.
Secondly, we have the paradox noted above that while a Christian is set free indeed – set free from the power of sin and death and the devil – he does not become an autonomous creature who now happens to be a Christian. He is still subject to another. He is now a servant of Christ.
But this of course is a good and healthy servanthood. It is good to allow God to be our rightful Lord. He should be our boss, calling the shots, as he knows what is best for us. So we are freed by Christ, but not freed to just do our own thing. We have had a change of ownership – a change of allegiance.
I quite like how John Goldingay has put it in his new book, The Theology of Jeremiah (IVP, 2021). He discusses the covenant or pledge Yahweh had made with Israel, and says this:
In light of the way the pledge worked, it might be misleading to say that Yahweh was liberating Israel from Egypt. He wasn’t granting them their freedom, and Jeremiah doesn’t talk in those terms. As would be the case when Jesus died in order to get people out of servitude, Yahweh was actually removing them from service to one master so that they entered the service of another master. If this relationship was to work, they had to listen to his voice; “listen” (shama) denotes listening that issues in obedience. When one enters into this pledged relationship, one makes up one’s mind to give up making up one’s own mind about some basic things.
Yes, even the glorious exodus event which freed Israel from Egyptian servitude did not mean the Israelites were fully free to just do their own thing. They were set free in order that they might now serve the Lord, and that included keeping the covenant requirements. Obedience to their new Lord was paramount if they were to enjoy the blessings found in the covenant.
The Israelites were freed to serve. They were freed from servitude to Pharaoh and the Egyptians in order that they might serve the one true God. Christians are in the same position. We were freed from sin and self in order that we might now serve the one true God.
And that is true freedom indeed. Real freedom is not doing what we want to do. It is doing what we should be doing. Real liberty is not doing whatever we please, but doing what we should. As A. W. Pink said, “True liberty is not the power to live as we please, but to live as we ought.”
Thirdly, this paradox of freedom can even be extended to the nations – to politics and public policy. It is the same here as in our personal lives: genuine freedom should mean doing that which is right. Freedom, as Lord Acton stated, is “not the power of doing what we like but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
Os Guinness put it this way: “First, freedom is not the permission to do what you want, but the power to do what you ought. And second, such freedom is not individual only. Each person’s freedom is free only to the extent that each one respects the equal freedom of all others too.”
Many of the American Founding Fathers spoke of gaining political independence in these terms. They knew that freedom could not last – liberty was not sustainable – unless under-girded by a commitment to faith and virtue. They never sought an anything-goes sort of liberty, but ordered liberty, based on religion and doing what was right.
Just a few quotes of many can be offered here:
“If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.” William Penn
“Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint.” Daniel Webster
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” George Washington
“Without virtue, there can be no political liberty.” President John Adams
Yes political liberty is a tremendous social good. But it can only work when there is restraint on our appetites, and when we put limits to our cravings. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offers a concluding comment, which nicely ties together these thoughts, and helps convey this biblical paradox of freedom:
“After the Western ideal of unlimited freedom, after the Marxist concept of freedom as acceptance of the yoke of necessity—here is the true Christian definition of freedom. Freedom is self-restriction! Restriction of the self for the sake of others!”