We live in a country where we talk a lot about freedom, often equating the concept with our rights. Having been fairly engaged in political discourse for more than a decade now and growing up in the Navy where I understood that most of the adults I knew were serving the nation to protect our freedoms, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that I wound up for a long stretch in a denomination of God’s church that focus on the idea of free will. Given that God is who He is and Scripture says what it says, I suppose it also shouldn’t surprise me that sooner or later, I came to understand that what we view as freedom and what God views as freedom are two very different things.
That realization first started sinking in a few years ago, when I noticed myself getting really angsty over the line in the song White Flag that runs “Giving up all my rights.” Being an American, and a political animal by nature, the very thought of giving up my rights kinda ticked me off. It felt a little too touchy feely, liberal politics for my comfort. I eventually learned not to dwell on the squirmy feeling and sing the song with heartfelt fervor, but the thought still rested in the back of my mind. I know that squirmy feeling. It only comes when my understanding of something is wrong and God is trying to get my attention. It came at a time when I had already begun to really question the prevailing interpretation of “free will” and of “predestination” in the esoteric circles of theological conflict that most of the folks I actually spent time with never even knew were a conflict. It came at a time when I was starting to explore the concept of God’s sovereignty, instead of just His grace.
Before I move forward, let me state something clearly here. What follows isn’t something I came to because I dove into a deep study of theological perspectives, and it’s not going to get all high and mighty with the language and 20 dollar words. I also want to state clearly, and this may make a few folks really unhappy with me, it’s not an affirmation of Calvinism, Arminianism, or Wesleyanism. I’ll go a step further, I think all of those schools of thought are wrong. Not in the sense that they are wrong about everything, but in the sense that as we seek to understand them we compare them to each other, use them to refute what we consider to be in “opposition” to them, and eventually find ourselves defending the doctrine at the expense of the Scripture. I’ve watched folks for all camps do exactly that, rationalizing away the parts of the Bible that do not fit their understanding. What follows is simply the story of how God has moved my heart on this particular concept over the last few months where He has called me to dwell on it. I pray, whatever your doctrinal proclivities, it will lead you to your own Biblical insights on the topic in a world and culture where the idea of being free can be pretty confusing.
So, Scripture tells us that whom the Son sets free is free indeed, in John 8:36. In Acts 13:39 Scripture tells us that through Him (Jesus Christ) everyone who believes is set free from every sin. There are more verses that we tell each other about the freedom we have in Christ. And if I am honest, the wordiness of Paul in my early years made me content not to dive too deeply into the idea of free will. I get the message. Jesus sets me free, which translates I won’t go to hell because of my sins, but there’s still consequences of my sins so I should try not to sin. Which, I suppose, sort of works, but it makes it hard to explain things to folks like the seeming conflict between Paul’s “Salvation is by faith not works,” and James’ “Faith without works is dead.” Those are both true things. I know that because they are both in Scriptures. But, taken out of context of the whole, as we are so often wont to do, they seem to argue one against the other. And a theology of be good because Jesus wants you to, but you don’t actually have to doesn’t really equip me to be a witness to what it is to be a disciple of Christ, no even to actually be a disciple of Christ.
So, there had to be something more to this idea of freedom in Christ. If the truth would set me free, what was it it was setting me free from? And how did it actually do that? Why did Christ, and Paul, and John, and Peter all claim that before Christ I was a slave? And if it did not mean I was free to choose to sin, which I grew increasingly certain was not what they meant, what did it actually mean on a practical level for my life as I sought to follow Christ? I began to wrestle, and that wrestling has gone on for quite some time. Because here’s the truth, I want to be free. I want the promise of Christ, and what He was trying to get through my very thick skull as I read Scripture, prayed and looked at how He works in my life, I was coming to understand that free doesn’t mean what I think it means. It’s not nearly that small. The slavery I had before isn’t what I thought it was, it’s so much more pervasive. And the gift of the freedom of Christ is so much more amazing than we usually comprehend.
The pieces finally started to fall into place as I started hearing sermons for work that related to Genesis, rather than anywhere in the Old Testament. As I started actively looking at how God’s sovereignty and our free will interact. As I started actively looking at what we are, as human beings, according to God, without the power of Christ. As I started reading in John and Paul’s writings, and Christ’s teachings about what we are slaves to. I still don’t know if I’ve got the whole thing wrestles out. This is sort of one of those big conflicts in the faith that has been dividing people for hundreds of years, and I am certainly no brighter than those giants of the faith I mentioned earlier that have whole schools of theology named after them. But here goes anyway.
In the beginning, we were slaves to God, made in His image and created with the inclination to be obedient because we really didn’t have any idea of what else to be, and we were, after all, made in His image. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they suddenly understood what was good and what was evil in a knowledge sense, but (and here is conjecture based on the Scripture’s separation of the concepts of knowledge and wisdom) likely not the wisdom to do anything useful with that knowledge. In their disobedience, they rejected the authority of God in their lives, and assumed authority over their own lives. Having knowledge but no wisdom, they became slaves to their flesh, and their own, very limited understanding of the world and themselves and became vulnerable to the temptations of Satan. Thus, all mankind became slaves to sin.
We hear that a lot, but I’d never really contemplated what that means. The word slave has become kind of charged in our nation, particularly among religious circles. So we don’t really analyze what it is to be a slave to sin. But, in essence, we come into the world unable to choose good, even though we know good from evil. Paul describes it in Romans 7:18-19 when he talks about wanting to do good but being unable. We are made in the image of God, so we want to do good. We have the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, so we may even try to do good. But, in the disobedience of Adam and Eve, we rejected God’s authority (not His sovereignty) and His wisdom. In that rejection, God allowed them that first choice, and that choice made them and us slaves to sin. A slave is one who is subject to the mastery of someone or something. A slave is not able to disobey its master. In essence, though we can recognize good, though we can long for good, though we can intend to do good, on our own we are unable to disobey the mastery of sin in our flesh. We cannot stop ourselves from sinning.
That’s kind of windy. So, think about this for a moment from the perspective of what you know about slavery. In this country a little over 150 years ago, men and women owned other men and women. Masters would whip their slaves if their slaves tried to be disobedient or tried to run away. The population of slaves would encourage each other to be obedient because infractions could cause your friends and fellow slaves to also be beaten. Sometimes, if the rebellions against the slave masters were particularly egregious, the slaves and their families would be killed. The masters determines if a slave had enough to eat, the quality of their quarters, if they could marry, if they could keep their children. The slave had no choice but to obey. In modern society, we see the same thing with slaves.
Think of the men and women sold into slavery either being sex trafficked or sold into labor producing drugs for the cartels, or the myriad other underground criminal businesses where many illegal immigrants or kidnap victims around the world are trapped. Let’s just focus on those sold into the sex trade. They may know in their hearts it is wrong to have sex outside of God’s design. Their conscience may tell them that sex for money is wrong. They may long to be free from the degrading life they have been thrust into through no choice of their own. Yet, if they are to survive, they must submit to the will of their masters. They are slaves, literally, to sin and the buyers and sellers of sin. Now, think about this, so were you and I, with no more control of our actions or our fate, until …
Christ set us free.
What did that mean? That the truth would set us free? We have been slaves to sin from birth. Subject to the evil whims of the flesh, of the world, of ourselves. Longing for something more. Longing to be good. Longing to be free. When we accept Christ as Lord and Savior, He, because He is God made flesh, God with us, He has the strength to set us free from sin. Because we agree to be obedient to His authority again, by His grace and because He loves us enough to grant us that ability that we do not have on our own, He uses His power to break the chains that sin has wrapped around us. For the first time in our lives, we actually have the means at our disposal, through the gift of Holy Spirit dwelling within us, to choose to do good and succeed at it, instead of just longing to do good but only being able to do evil.
That is the power of Christ, the power of the truth to set us free. That is what freedom actually is, to understand that by ourselves, under our own authority, and even under the authorities of this world to determine “rights” we can never be free. It is only by accepting our inadequacy to overcome sin, and accepting Christ’s promise that He can and is willing to overcome it for us, that we exercise our God given “rights” as we here in this country define them. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We only get those rights if we first allow ourselves to be slaves to the giver of life, the freer of slaves and the fount of joy.
Be blessed and be a blessing.