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Christian Apologetics (11): Christian Liberty (1)

D Vallance, Detroit

We have discussed legalism and lawlessness in previous articles, and now turn to liberty. Throughout this article, we will regard the words liberty and freedom as precisely synonymous, since these two English words usually translate a single word group in both Hebrew and Greek.

In short, Christian liberty is the desire and ability to do the will of God for the glory of God: "For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2.13).1 A free person, then, wants to do what he ought to do and does it. When God sets us free He removes every obstacle that stands in the way of our sanctification, and provides every resource that we need to achieve that goal.

Christ Has Made Us Free

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to…proclaim liberty" (Lk 4.18).

At His first coming, Christ preached forgiveness and freedom (Lk 4.16-19). Quoting Isaiah 61.1-2a, He defined the good news He proclaimed as release for captives, sight for the blind, and deliverance for the oppressed. The Greek word aphesis, translated "liberty" twice in Luke 4.18 (ESV), means "letting go — either an external "letting go" from slavery, or an internal "letting go" from sin. In each of its fifteen other occurrences in the New Testament, aphesis refers to sins, and is translated "remission" or "forgiveness." Thus when the Lord Jesus proclaims aphesis to the captives and the oppressed, He promises to release them from the captivity and oppression of their sins, and to regard those sins as if they had never been committed. Christ did not come to proclaim external freedom from Rome, but internal freedom from sin. Freedom is the very definition of the gospel.

In John 8.31-36, Christ identified the kind of slaves He had come to deliver. He first promised, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (8.31-32). The Jews (who were subjugated to Rome at the time) responded with the bizarre claim that they had never been enslaved to anyone. Thus, they said, Christ’s offer of freedom was irrelevant and uninteresting to them. But the Lord Jesus then corrected their understanding of slavery: "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (8.32-34). He had come to deliver people from the most crucial slavery — bondage to sin — and thus the liberty He granted was freedom indeed. He promised that those who abide in His words and become His disciples would also become free sons in God’s house. Those who choose to remain slaves to sin, however, don’t belong to the house, and may be ejected at any time.

The Lord’s definition of slavery in John 8.34 is crucial, but counterintuitive. Most people regard slavery as unwilling servitude to hateful labour. As a result, they do not see their voluntary involvement with enjoyable sins as slavery. However, a person who pursues pleasures is ruled by those pleasures. Once his vices master him to the point that he can’t do without them, he is no longer in control. He may claim to be doing what he likes, but he is really doing what sin likes. The fact that he enjoys his slavery does not alter the fact that it really is slavery, and that this slavery will eventually destroy him.

We have further proof that sinners are slaves when we consider the love-hate relationship they develop with their evil habits. Although they initially enjoy "the pleasures of sin" — the baited hook that caught them in the first place (James 1.14) — an inner conflict quickly arises. Guilt from conscience and dissonance from reason begin to swirl in the mental mix. The situation has become complicated: the sinner now hates the very activities he loves, and realizes that he has lost the power to do what he knows he ought to do. Fear and anxiety join with lust and addiction to create distress and depression. Alfred Lord Tennyson described the resultant cry: "O that a man may arise in me; That the man I am may cease to be". Speaking of his own divided self, Paul wrote, "Wretched man that I am!" (Rom 7.24).

Only the gospel has the power to set people free. All believers enjoy "freedom in Christ Jesus" (Gal 2.4). The Lord Jesus is the great Emancipator: those who continue in His word — disciples of the Son and sons of the Father — are free (Jn 8.31-36; Mt 17.26; Rom 8.21). Notice that the phrase in Christ Jesus refers both to position and practice: their status as believers is free because their salvation is in Christ; similarly, their behaviour as believers can only be called free if it too is in Christ. Nothing outside of Christ is free.

Negative and Positive Liberty: Freedom From versus Freedom For

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 (Gal 5.13).

Liberty is both a negative and positive concept: we can speak of freedom from something or for something. Negatively, liberty is the absence of something — deliverance from barriers and restrictions. In this negative sense, we are free if no one is stopping us from doing what we want to do. Positively, liberty on the other hand requires the presence of something — the motivation and resources to order our lives and achieve our purposes. In this positive sense, we are free if we are able to control ourselves — even stop ourselves, when necessary — in order to aim for what we ought to attain in life.

The negative concept of liberty, by itself, equates freedom with autonomy. Not surprisingly, people today want to define political and social freedom exclusively in such negative terms — they want to be free from laws that restrict their behaviour. They demand to be left alone to view pornography, have abortions, get divorced, and squander their talents. Although people call proponents of this brand of "freedom" liberals, this is clearly a misnomer. Although they champion negative freedom, they reject the true heart of liberty, the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful — and the holy. Such activists ironically want to shield us from junk food (say transgenic corn or trans-fats) out of concern for our physical health, but they promote junk policies that corrode our spirits, like unrestricted access to pornography and drugs.

To illustrate further, imagine a person driving his car through town. He comes to a crossroad and turns right. Nothing prevented him from turning left or proceeding straight on. He seems, as a driver, to be completely free. But now consider that he turned right because he is an alcoholic, and he is rushing to get to the liquor store before it closes. Beyond that, by turning right to get to the store, he lost the opportunity to turn left and reach the pharmacy before it closes. His wife has run out of an essential medication. If you asked him, he would say that rather than driving to the liquor store, he felt that he was being driven, as the addiction led him to do the wrong thing and turn right rather than do the right thing and turn left. He longs to be free of this irrational, irresponsible, and immoral desire, but feels powerless.

We thus see that negative freedom — the absence of roadblocks — is wholly inadequate for spiritual flourishing. True freedom must include the ability to control our own destiny for our good, and for God’s glory. Our imaginary driver is not free. Negative liberty may open doors, but only positive liberty steers us through the right doors for the right reasons.

So Paul wrote to the Philippians, "It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (2.13). To the Romans, he wrote, "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). Freedom is the removal of sin’s restraints, and the positive supply of both desire and means to please the Lord.

To be continued.

1 In this series of articles, unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations from Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version.

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