A little over a week ago, many Americans celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks, grilled food, and cold beer. At the same time, others either ignored the celebration or spoke out publicly against it.
As I reflected on this division among Americans, I noticed that both of them were advocating for the same thing: freedom. On the one hand, those who celebrated Independence Day were celebrating a certain kind of freedom that they now enjoy as a result of those who came before us. On the other hand, those who dismissed or condemned Independence Day were doing so because they perceive a lack of freedom today that many suffer as a result of those who came before us. In both cases freedom (either for ourselves or others) is the focus.
Yet, to adopt a technique from Pontius Pilate’s playbook (see John 18:38), I have to ask the question: What is freedom? Is it the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want? Is it merely the ability to grill meat, drink beer, and light fireworks on a hot summer day? Is it the ability to enjoy life without being harassed by anyone, whether they are protesters or police?
If we were to continue following the logic of Pontius Pilate, the implication would be that there is no such thing as freedom (just like he suggested that there is no such thing as truth). For Pilate, truth was staring him in the face and yet he denied that it existed. Ironically, this resulted in him committing a great injustice by condemning the only truly innocent man who ever lived. The lesson for us is simple: if we say that there is no truth then justice goes out the window.
The same thing can be said about freedom. Freedom is not whatever we want it to be. It is not defined by personal experience or emotions. It is not even defined by majority vote.
In fact, the very word “freedom” can only have a meaning within a particular context. If someone proclaims freedom, the question we have to ask is: freedom from what? From an oppressive government? From certain ethical restrictions? From God himself?
Again, freedom can only be defined and determined from a reference point of some sort of bondage or restriction. If a prisoner yearns for freedom, it is freedom from physical bondage. If a drug addict desires it freedom, it is freedom from addiction. Depending on the context given, there are an infinite number of things that freedom could refer to.
Even though there are many types of freedoms in this world, they are not all equal. Freedom to eat junk food is not as important, or vital, as freedom from imprisonment or slavery. In a way, there is a hierarchy of freedom that climbs up as the bondage becomes more severe. At the top of the pyramid exists the ultimate freedom from the ultimate form of bondage. From this all other freedoms flow.
This freedom that I speak of is freedom from sin. Sin is the ultimate bondage that results in spiritual and physical death. Since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden, humanity has been born into slavery to sin:
Romans 5:12 (ESV)
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned —
Thankfully, God did not leave us in our miserable state but sent His son to set us free from sin and to bring us true and genuine freedom:
John 8:31–36 (ESV)
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,
32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.
35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.
36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
In the above conversation, Jesus tells his Jewish listeners that they need to be set free and that this freedom can only come from being his disciples. Of course, in their pride they declare that they have never been enslaved to anyone. Whether they responded out of haste or ignorance we can only guess, for they were quite wrong about this, given the fact that the people of Israel had been enslaved many times throughout their history.
Regardless, Jesus points out that he is not talking about physical slavery but spiritual slavery. Those who commit sin are slaves to sin and need to be set free from it. Yet this freedom can only come from the Son. It is the Son who must set us free. And when he does we will be free indeed.
But how does freedom from sin translate into our physical, material world? How does freedom from sin lead us to experience other forms of freedom?
Well, when Adam and Eve sinned against God, their spiritual slavery resulted in some serious earthly consequences (Genesis 3:16–19):
- Pain and suffering for Eve in childbearing
- Conflict and strife between Adam and Eve
- Toil and difficulty for Adam in working
Pain, conflict (including earthly slavery), and death all resulted from sin. In the same way, the solution to these problems must start with freedom from sin.
When we are set free from sin, we are able to truly be reconciled to those who hurt us and to those who we hurt. When we are set free from sin, we begin to order our lives in the way that God designed. Simply put, when we are set free from sin the cocaine bill is one of the first things to decrease.
In this way, true freedom is not freedom to do whatever we want. Autonomy (which simply means self-law) is nothing more than slavery to sin. When we set ourselves up as little gods, doing whatever our emotions or passions lead us to do, we end up becoming enslaved to those passions and desires. This actually leads to earthly forms of slavery. The drug addict can be manipulated by those who provide him with the drug. And even though the addict experiences something akin to freedom when he is under the influence, that feeling quickly disappears when the effect wears off. He is anything but free.
To be truly free is to function in the way that God designed us to function. Driving your car off the road is not an expression of freedom. It is an act that leads only to damage and destruction to the vehicle (and perhaps yourself). The vehicle experiences true freedom when it is on the road, as it was designed to function. In fact, if it stays on the road it can go much farther and faster than if it departs from the road.
When we, as humans, order our lives in accordance with God’s word, we experience flourishing. To rebel against God leads only to chaos and death. That is why true freedom is freedom FROM sin, not freedom TO sin. Freedom means being free to obey God and to live as God intended us to live. It is this freedom that results in many other types of freedom.
In the world of civics, when people are slaves to sin, they can be easily manipulated. Caesar, or the State, can sink its hooks into them, forcing them to do what it wants by either promising to fulfill their sinful desires or by threatening to take away the source of their joy. A people who are enslaved to their passions, appetites, and desires is a people who are asking to be controlled by others.
But, when a people find their ultimate joy and satisfaction in Jesus Christ, they become untouchable and immovable. Caesar cannot offer Christ to them and he cannot threaten to take Christ away from them. For Christ is enthroned in heaven, safe from Caesar’s sword. In fact, Caesar did slay Christ with the sword, yet Christ conquered death when he rose from the dead. The Word made flesh showed itself to be mightier than the sword that pierces flesh.
So, when you look at the world and desire to see freedom in it, remember that this freedom can only exist when people are set free from their sin. A free people is a people that cannot be led or enslaved by their passions and desires. They live as God intended them to live and, as a result, flourish on this earth.
Do you desire freedom? Do you fight for the freedom of others? Do you think that you are truly free?
The answer to those questions depends on whether or not you are a disciple of Jesus Christ and are abiding in his word. Only in Christ can you ever experience true and genuine freedom, for “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”