Everyone is making fun of Donald Trump for saying “Two” instead of “Second Corinthians” in his recent convocation address at Liberty University. I honestly don’t think it’s that big a deal. What Trump said about 2 Corinthians 3:17 being “the whole ball game” is much more deeply true than he realizes. The apostle Paul writes, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” But the spiritual freedom Paul is talking about is very different than the religious liberty that Trump wanted the verse to be about.
It shouldn’t be controversial for any Christian to recognize that the Bible’s definition of freedom is very different from America’s definition of liberty. Religious liberty has to do with my right to choose how and whom to worship which is guaranteed to me by the first amendment. Liberty is all about the affirmation of my agency as an individual. The ethos of liberty is best captured by the phrase that defines teenage rebellion: You can’t tell me what to do! For Donald Trump and the many Christians who follow him, that’s the whole ball game, or if you prefer, the gospel. Religious liberty’s greatest enemy is political correctness or any government bureaucracy that tries to tell people what to do.
But Paul is coming from a very different place when he talks about the freedom of the Spirit. For Paul, the whole ball game is about God’s grace. When we live under God’s grace, we are set free from an oppressor far greater than any government bureaucracy: ourselves. God’s grace liberates us from the miserable stronghold of sin, specifically by taking away our need to justify ourselves and hide our mistakes. There is freedom where the Spirit of the Lord is because there is vulnerability and truth. When people are liberated by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit, they are set free from the insecure defensiveness that causes us to posture and bloviate. They become humble and genuine.
The problem is that in many toxic churches today, the Spirit of the Lord is not allowed to reign. Paul talks about this in the verses leading up to 2 Corinthians 3:17. His words seem as applicable to many Christians today as they were to the fellow first century Jews Paul was originally critiquing:
Since then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. [2 Corinthians 3:12-16]
The veil of which Paul speaks is an amazing metaphor for the way that people back then and today can read the Bible and completely not hear the gospel. It’s a shallow supersessionist interpretation of Paul’s contrast here to say that the veiled people are Jews and the unveiled people are Christians. There are secular Jews who have a better grasp of the spiritual freedom Paul is talking about than the most severely doctrinally flawless Christians.
As long as we miss the grace, we’re wearing the veil. It doesn’t matter if we can write a dissertation on the concept of grace. What matters is whether we move through life with the stilted need to be right in every situation. You can spout doctrine all day long about God’s grace, but your need to be right belies the degree to which you haven’t yet accepted it. When we need to be right, we read the Bible with a veil over our minds, because all that we’re seeking in scripture are litmus tests and circumcision marks that validate us over and against other people. Only under God’s grace when we’ve been liberated from the pernicious agenda of self-justification can we receive the Bible’s wisdom as an invitation into spiritual freedom.
When we live together in the spiritual freedom of the Holy Spirit, then we enter into the communion of true orthodoxy, which is “right glory” rather than “right opinion.” Paul describes this state of communion in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Any church where people are putting on performances of piety for each other is a church of veiled faces that will never discover the taste of true orthodoxy no matter how savagely its heresy-hunters attack every doctrinal misstep.
We can only lose our veils and see the glory of the Lord in each others’ eyes when we’ve been liberated from the need to prove ourselves right, when we share our discoveries and wonders on a floor no longer cluttered by the egg shells of doctrinal works-righteousness. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 is what surrendering to the kingdom of God looks like. It is a freedom of unspeakable ecstasy. And Trump is entirely right: it’s the whole ball game. It would change everything if American Christians actually discovered this freedom.