“The Bonds of Freedom”
The Global Gospel Project, Christianity Today (October, 2012)
Roger E. Olson
No single word resonates with Americans and millions of others as much as “freedom.” Politicians, businesspeople, advertisers, salesmen, military leaders and recruiters—all know how to use “freedom” to attract attention and draw interest. Few words are as common and yet carry so much weight.
The word is also found throughout Scripture and Christian tradition. Everyone raised in Sunday School knows “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32 NSRV) and “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 NSRV). Freedom is not just an American or humanitarian theme; it’s also a gospel theme.
Unfortunately, two very different ideas of freedom get confused in many people’s minds. A television commercial announces that buying a certain automobile or flying with a certain airline will make you “free.” And people celebrate their country’s independence day with songs of “freedom” on their lips and ringing in their ears.
The biblical idea of freedom is different, but easily confused with the cultural value of the same name. “Freedom” is not the same as “freedom.” And neither one is the same as “free will.” It can be very confusing to the average Christian who wants to know what “real freedom” is. Is it having choices? Is it lack of coercion and constraint? Is it being able to do whatever you want to do? In what sense does Christ set us free and how is that different from what Madison Avenue and Hollywood say?
At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the strange truth that real freedom is found only in giving up everything secular culture touts as freedom. Alongside that is the surprising distinction the gospel requires between freedom and “free will.” Not that free will or independence from tyranny are bad things in and of themselves; they’re just not true freedom. True freedom, the gospel tells us, is trusting obedience, the obedience of faith. That’s not exactly the image of true freedom one finds in culture’s messages.
When I was a kid I heard many sermon illustrations. My dad was a pastor and he overflowed with them—in the pulpit and at home! So did the evangelists and missionaries who crowded our kitchen and sanctuary. A memorable one was homely but pithily expressed the truth about freedom—“gospel freedom.” A train is free only so long as it stays on its tracks; a train that jumps the tracks is “free” of the rails but no longer free in the most important sense of the word. It’s a freed wreck that can go nowhere. “Free” but no longer truly free.
The great church father Augustine taught that true freedom is not choice or lack of constraint but being what you are meant to be. Human persons were created in the image of God; true freedom then is not found in moving away from that but only in living it out. We become more free the closer we come to conformity to the true image of God, Jesus Christ. We become less free the farther away we drift from it.
Freedom, then, is a kind of bondage. There’s the great paradox about freedom from a Christian perspective. Martin Luther expressed it better than anyone since the Apostle Paul. In his 1520 treatise On Christian Liberty (also known as On the Freedom of a Christian) the Reformer put it in a nutshell: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”
In other words, according to Luther, because of what Christ has done for her and because of her faith in Christ, the Christian is absolutely free from the bondage of the law. She doesn’t have to do anything. On the other hand, because of what Christ has done for him and in him and as a result of the gratitude of faith, the Christian is bound in servitude to God and other people. He gets to serve them freely and joyfully. A person who doesn’t “get” the “get to” part simply doesn’t know the joy of salvation. That’s what Luther meant.
Jumping from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and from a magisterial reformer to a radical Reformation theologian, Anabaptist thinker John Howard Yoder wrote in The Politics of Jesus about “revolutionary subordination.” True freedom is found in not insisting on one’s own rights but in freely giving them up by being a servant to Jesus Christ first and the people of God second.
All that’s pretty hard for twenty-first century Western people, heirs of the Enlightenment, brain washed as we are by modernity’s extreme emphasis on individualism and liberty, to swallow. We are bombarded from childhood with the message that freedom means self-assertion, insisting on your rights, throwing off constraints and creating yourself. The highest virtue in contemporary society is “Be true to yourself.” In old school lingo, “Don’t fence me in!”
No truth is more pervasive in Scripture and Christian tradition than this one—that real freedom is found in obedience and servanthood, and yet no truth is more incongruent with culture than that. Here we stand before a stark either-or. The gospel message of true freedom versus culture’s ideal of self-creation, autonomy and living “my way.”
The gospel truth of real freedom and its contrast with its Satanic substitute begins to unfold in the Genesis story of humanity’s origins and fall. According to Genesis 2, God gave the first humans freedom. “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” (verses 16-17, NRSV) Conditioned as we are by modernity and its obsession with autonomy, our first reaction is “How is that ‘freedom’?” To us, following our culture, what follows “but” cancels out what precedes it.
We know the story, however, and it’s one of loss of freedom in shame, hiding, alienation, enmity, toil and death. Poet John Milton parodied the Promethean rage that marks so much modern culture in Paradise Lost when he had Lucifer declare “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven!” But the question presses in upon us: When were Adam and Eve most free? In the garden when they could eat of all the trees except one or after they lost paradise and were “free” to roam around and eat whatever they wanted to?
The implication of the Genesis story is unavoidable: true freedom is found only in obedience and the fellowship with God that comes with it. Loss of true freedom comes with self-assertion, the idolatrous autonomy that prefers to rule my own square inch of hell than enjoy the blessings of God’s favor.
The entire biblical narrative can be read this way—as a theodrama of freedom and its loss through the desire and attempt to be “free” as in “free from constraint.” Israel’s frequent rebellions and loss of divine protection, David’s rediscovery of joy in obedience to God’s law, the prophets’ clarion calls to Israel and Judah to keep God’s law and their loss of freedom as a result of insisting on having their own way.
Nowhere does this counterintuitive theme become clearer than in the New Testament. Jesus to his disciples: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25 NRSV) Again to his disciples: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” (Matthew 20:26-27) The Apostle Paul spoke often and warmly of his freedom, our liberty, in Christ, from the law as an external constraint—a “have to” rule of external compulsion. Faith as trust in Christ is, according to him, the only basis for our right relationship with God. On the other hand, throughout his epistles he talks about giving up rights and freedoms for the sake of the gospel and for others’ consciences. (Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8). Paul found real freedom in giving up his rights (1 Corinthians 9). “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” (verse 19 NRSV)
This gospel theme of true freedom through obedience and servanthood is so pervasive in the Bible that it cannot be missed. And yet, it is missed by so many because of our culture’s over riding emphasis on autonomy.
So what is the obedience that brings real freedom? First, again contrary to popular opinion, it’s not imposed obedience. It’s not obedience as “have to” out of fear of consequences. Gospel obedience is always only voluntary. The moment obedience to Christ becomes drudgery, reluctant or cringing conformity, it is no longer obedience. Obedience that results in freedom, the freedom of being who and what we are meant to be, trains on the tracks, is joyful and stems from gratitude. (2 Corinthians 9:15)
Second, obedience that brings real freedom is servanthood out of love. Again, Yoder prophetically proclaims it as “revolutionary subordination” in which every believer seeks the good of the others with no hint of self-assertion of rights. In the community where everyone lives that way out of gratitude to Jesus Christ, empowered by his Spirit, true freedom abounds.
How does all this relate to free will? Is “freedom” “free will?”
Obviously not. If true freedom, gospel freedom, is servanthood, becoming and being what God intends us to be, obedience to Christ and growing into his image, then it is certainly not “free will.”
This is something Arminians, believers in free will as power of contrary choice, and Calvinists, believers in bondage of the will and God’s absolute, all-determining sovereignty, can agree about. As an Arminian I have often been accosted by fellow Christians with the accusation that I hold a shallow view of freedom. Not true. Even evangelical Arminians, “Arminians of the heart” (as opposed to “Arminians of the head”) believe true freedom transcends free will. Free will is simply a God-given instrument for achieving true freedom by God’s grace. Or a means of falling short of it by our own self-centered obstinance.
Not all Christians believe in free will. Luther certainly didn’t! But that’s not the point here. My point is simply that whether one believes in free will or not true freedom is something else. It doesn’t contradict free will; it transcends it.
One thing all Christian agree about is that true freedom, the freedom of obedience and conformity to the image of Christ, is a gift of God’s grace that will only be complete in our heavenly glorification. Only in the resurrection will even the saintliest person achieve complete freedom. That is the point of Paul’s confession in Romans 7—here below we struggle in a war between “flesh” (fallen nature) and the Spirit—God’s gracious gift of dwelling within us.
True, whole, complete freedom will be when that war ceases in victory of the Spirit over the flesh. In the meantime, our freedom is complete only in being free from the law that says “You have to!” and being given the new heart that says “You get to!” By God’s grace and with the aid of his Spirit we can realize ever increasing freedom from sin and death, but its fullness is eschatological.
Theologians call the gradual process of experiencing true freedom before death “sanctification.” We debate about how intense and whole that freedom can be before our resurrection. But we agree that real freedom is a growing gift that we receive.
Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13 “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (NRSV) Salvation, in other words, is both gift and task. In German it’s a play on words: Gabe und Aufgabe. Paul’s “for” indicates that the gift surrounds and underlies the task. Our “work” of obedience and submissive servanthood is truly ours; we are called freely (free will) to do it. We don’t sit back and wait for it just to “happen.”
On the other hand, whenever we experience that greater freedom of real obedience, being conformed to the character of Christ, true servanthood, we acknowledge that it is all due to God’s work in us. That is the “paradox of grace and free will.”
Another homely analogy might help make the point.
Every summer I struggle to water the numerous bushes and flowers that thirstily surround our house in the dry heat of central Texas. I turn on the outdoor faucet with the hose attached and the spray nozzle on its end. Then I drag the hundred foot hose way out to the far corner of the yard, point the spray nozzle at a thirsty bush and press the trigger. Usually, nothing comes out. So, I trudge back around the house to the faucet to see if it’s really turned on. It usually is. Why, then, is no water spraying?
Experience has told me that somewhere along the length of that garden hose there’s a kink. I may have to hunt for it. When I find it and finally straighten it (or them) out, the water that was there all along can finally quench the thirst of the bush.
God’s grace for our freedom is always there—completely—from the moment of conversion. There is no lack of grace or need for grace boosters. But there can be grace blockers—wrong attitudes and habits, hidden resentments and selfish motives. My “job,” as it were, is to find them, with the Spirit’s help, of course, and work them out through a process of repentance and submission. Free will is one tool in that process. Freedom from bondage to sin and death is the growing result of the process. I’m already free from the law and from condemnation; freedom to become what God designed me to be is God’s work and mine together. His work surrounds and enables mine. He gets all the glory. But unlike conversion, it’s a process.
The gospel is unconditional good news. Having to is always bad news. Getting to is always good news. The possibility of holistic, Spirit-enabled victory over sin and death is what I get to have as I joyfully let God do his work in me.