For Christians, Christ our saviour has come to set us free but what does that mean (cf. John 8:36; Gal 5:1)? Jesus read the following passage from the Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18). What does this passage have to say about Christ’s mission and Christian freedom?
The prophets had the Holy Spirit of God at times, teaching them what to say, and causing them to say it; but Christ had the Spirit always, without measure, to qualify him, as man, for the work to which he was appointed. The poor are commonly best disposed to receive the gospel (cf. James 2:5); and it is only likely to profit us when received with meekness. To the poor in spirit, Christ preached good tidings when he said, Blessed are the meek (cf. Matt 5:5).
By the dominion of sin in us, we are bound under the power of Satan; but the Son is ready, by his Spirit, to make us free; and then we shall be free indeed. Sin and Satan were to be destroyed; and Christ triumphed over them on the cross. By Christ, sinners may be loosed from the bonds of guilt, and by his Spirit and grace from the bondage of corruption. He came by the word of his gospel, to bring light to those that sat in the dark, and by the power of his grace, to give sight to those that were blind.
Christ was to be a Comforter, and so he is; he is sent to comfort all who mourn, and who seek him, and not the world, for comfort. He will do all this for his people, that they may abound in the fruits of righteousness, as the branches of God’s planting. Neither the mercy of God, the atonement of Christ, nor the gospel of grace, profit the self-sufficient and proud. They must be humbled, and led to know their own character and wants, by the Holy Spirit, that they may see and feel their need of the sinner’s Friend and Saviour. His doctrine contains glad tidings indeed to those who are humbled before God.
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. The gospel, it turns out, requires a distinction between the enjoyment of true freedom and the mere possession of “free will.” Not that free will or independence from tyranny is a bad thing; 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 one finds portrayed in popular culture. Here is a good analogy. 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’t go anywhere. “Free,” but no longer truly free. True freedom is found not in 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.
The great church father Augustine taught that true freedom is not choice or lack of constraint, but being what you are meant to be. Humans were created in the image of God. True freedom, then, is not found in moving away from that image but only in living it out. The closer we conform to the true image of God, Jesus Christ, the freer we become. The farther we drift from it, the more our freedom shrinks.
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 modern culture. Here we stand before a stark either-or: the gospel message of true freedom versus the culture’s ideal of self-creation, autonomy, and living “my way.”
The entire biblical narrative can be read this way—as a “theo-drama” of freedom and its loss through the desire and attempt to enjoy unfettered autonomy. Take, for instance, Israel’s frequent rebellions and loss of divine protection; or David’s rediscovery of joy in obedience to God’s law; or the prophets’ clarion calls to Israel and Judah to keep God’s law, and the people’s subsequent loss of freedom from insisting on having their own way.
Nowhere does this counterintuitive theme become clearer than in the New Testament. Jesus said 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” (Matt. 16:25). Again, to his disciples: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matt. 20:26-27). True, the apostle Paul spoke often and warmly of our liberty, in Christ, from the law as an external constraint or compulsion. Trusting in Christ is, according to him, the only basis for our right relationship with God. On the other hand, throughout his epistles he counsels giving up rights and freedoms for the sake of spreading the gospel and protecting others’ consciences (cf. Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8). Paul found real freedom in giving up his rights: “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” (1 Cor. 9:19).
This gospel theme of true freedom through obedience and servanthood is so pervasive in the Bible that it cannot be missed. And yet, because of our culture’s overriding emphasis on autonomy, we miss it all the time.
So what kind of obedience brings real freedom? First, and again contrary to popular opinion, it’s not imposed obedience. It’s not about obeying God’s will because we fear the consequences of disobedience. Gospel obedience is always voluntary. The moment obedience to Christ becomes drudgery or a reluctant, cringing conformity, it is no longer gospel obedience. Only when obedience is joyful, when it stems from gratitude, does it result in true freedom, in the freedom of being who and what we are meant to be. The freedom, in other words, of a train heading along the right track. Second, obedience that brings real freedom is motivated by self-sacrificial love. In a community where everyone lives that way out of gratitude to Jesus Christ, empowered by his Spirit, true freedom abounds.
Does “freedom” mean nothing more than “free will”? Obviously not. If, by “freedom,” we mean gospel freedom—as in servanthood, becoming and being what God intends us to be, obedience to Christ and growing into his image—then it’s clear we’re talking about something deeper than mere possession of “free will.” Free will is simply a God-given capacity for choosing the true freedom offered by God’s grace, or else rejecting it through our own self-centered obstinacy.
St. 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”. Salvation, in other words, is both gift and task. Paul’s “for” indicates that the gift surrounds and underlies the task. But our “work” of obedience and servanthood is truly ours; we are called, by an exercise of free will, to embrace it. We don’t sit back and wait for it to “just happen.”
On the other hand, whenever we experience that greater freedom of real obedience, being conformed to the character of Christ and true servanthood, we acknowledge that it is all due to God’s work in us. That is the “paradox of grace and free will.” Here is an analogy to help make the point. Every time I water the plants in my garden, I drag the 100-meter hose way out to the far corner of the yard, point the spray nozzle at a 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 plants.
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 a necessary precondition in that process, but not the end result. The process leads not to absolute autonomy, but rather, in increasing measure, to freedom from bondage to sin and death. 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.
The gospel is unconditional good news. It’s the good news about what I get to have as I joyfully let God, through the Spirit, do his work in me: the certainty of victory over sin and death. Only when we embrace that victory—and renounce all claims to rule our pathetic private kingdoms—will we truly be set free.
Let the words of the hymn “God’s Spirit Is In My Heart” remind us what true Christian freedom is and what we are suppose to do as Christians: