The Bonds of Freedom
No single word resonates with Americans and millions of others quite like freedom. A television commercial announces that buying a certain automobile or flying with a certain airline will make you "free." People celebrate their country's independence with songs of "freedom" on their lips and ringing in their ears. Politicians, businesspeople, advertisers, salesmen, military leaders and recruiters—all know how to use "freedom" to attract attention and draw interest. Few words are so common while carrying so much weight.
The word is also found throughout Scripture and Christian tradition. Everyone raised in Sunday school knows "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32) and "[i]t is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5:1). 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. The biblical idea of freedom is different from, but easily confused with, the cultural value of the same name. And neither one is the same as "free will." It can be 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? In what sense does Christ set us free, and how is that different from what Madison Avenue and Hollywood promise?
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.
A Kind of Bondage
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 the homey but pithily expressed 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't go anywhere. "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. 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.
From a Christian perspective, then, freedom—paradoxically—is a kind of bondage. Martin Luther expressed this truth 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, out of gratitude for what Christ has done for her and in her, the Christian is bound in servitude to God and other people. She 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.