“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that people started out inherently good, but through conventions of society they became ensnared (and thus, were in chains). In his view, people are free at first, but enslaved in the end, if they fail to take the right precautions.
The Bible describes exactly the opposite. Of Rousseau’s two affirmations, only one of them is correct. Rousseau doesn’t consider that all creation is enslaved to destruction (Rom 8:21), consequently he misdiagnoses how true freedom is achieved. Though he meant it in a different way, Rousseau’s second statement is consistent with Scripture. Man is everywhere in chains. Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the plight of humanity – that we are, in our natural state, dead in sin (Eph 2:1) and children of wrath (Eph 2:3).
Immediately following that description, we read, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph 2:4-5). This is a remarkable turn of events. Whereas we were once enslaved to corrupt natures and the law of sin, those who have believed in Him are set free and exhorted to not be “subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). In that context Paul exhorts believers to realize that they are not under the Law, and that subjugating themselves to the Law of Moses will hinder their walk (Gal 5:1-7). The Law never promised freedom or righteousness, but only wrath (Rom 4:15), but through the grace of God, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2).
The best that human society can do with respect to freedom is to acknowledge and protect it through abysmally weak social contracts. God accomplishes so much more through Jesus Christ – providing true freedom by grace, not by societal efforts. Now, that is not to say that social contract is an unworthy enterprise. Consensual democracy is, I am convinced, the best model available until the day He inaugurates His kingdom on earth. Still, government doesn’t grant freedom – God does. In the case of the American Declaration and Constitution, the design is that government shall protect freedoms, but the writers of those documents understood that the documents themselves created no freedoms.
But even those documents, commendable though they may be, cannot interact at the level of spiritual freedom – the kind of freedom that cannot be taken away by any despot. That kind of freedom has been given through Christ and guaranteed by His Spirit (Eph 1). That is a kind of freedom worth celebrating – but more importantly, that is a kind of freedom worth using properly. We have been called to freedom, brethren (Gal 5:13). For what does He intend we use it?
“…Only the freedom is not an opportunity for the flesh, but through the love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). This kind of freedom is different. The battle cry in today’s American democracy is “Freedom from God and His morality.” In that declaration of independence, what is lost is the grounding and the capacity to understand even basic principles of goodness (because the One who defines good is cast aside). What is also lost is the realization that freedom is not an end, but a means.
We were not called simply for freedom’s sake. On the contrary, Paul reminds believers to “through the love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). Notice the definite article (it is there in the Greek NT). This is not some abstract kind of love, about which we know nothing. It is the agape love that fulfills the whole law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). Further, Paul reminds us that this task is not achieved apart from walking by the Spirit (Gal 5:16). If we submit to Him, allowing Him to lead us through His word, He bears amazing fruit in the lives of believers. First in the list of fruit He bears is love (Gal 5:22).
Paul also reminds the Corinthians that their own freedoms should be utilized not to cause offense for others (1 Cor 10:29,32) but for the profit of others – specifically so they can come to the saving knowledge of Christ (1 Cor 10:33).
“Whatever, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). The believer has tremendous freedom, and should exercise that freedom in all cases for His glory. In other words, this is not freedom without qualification, responsibility, or purpose. As Peter exhorts, we should act as free, but not use our freedom as a pretext for doing evil, but instead we should employ that freedom as bondslaves of God (1 Pet 2:16). Bondslaves. I wonder if we really get that: believers are given a new freedom they previously didn’t have. Whereas before we were enslaved to destruction and to the flesh, now we are free to live in service to God.
To some, that may not look like freedom: “Freedom to serve isn’t freedom at all.” I encourage any who feel like that to take a second look. There is no freedom without responsibility and service. What could be more glorious than being free to walk with and serve the Creator – to express love to Him and to demonstrate that love to all that He has made. After all, though we are to employ our freedom as servants of God, He views us not as slaves, but as His children. “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15-16).
While we celebrate the freedom God has granted us, let us never forget the price He paid, because grace is never free. Somebody has to pay for it, and He paid it all, for all. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-3).
What awesome freedom! What awesome responsibility!