The Bonds of Freedom
Jumping from the 16th to the 20th century, and from a magisterial Reformer to a radical Anabaptist theologian, John Howard Yoder wrote in The Politics of Jesus about "revolutionary subordination." 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.
Freedom through Obedience
All that's pretty hard for 21st-century Westerners—heirs of the Enlightenment, brainwashed 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 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 contrast between the gospel truth of real freedom and 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 of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat" (Gen. 2:16-17, RSV). Conditioned as we are by modernity and its obsession with autonomy, our first reaction is: "How is that freedom?" To us, freedom with limitations is not freedom at all.
We know, however, how grasping for that sort of freedom turned out for Adam and Eve, and indeed for the whole human race. It's a story of shame, hiding, alienation, enmity, toil, and death—in short, the absolute antithesis of freedom. In Paradise Lost, John Milton parodied humanity's Promethean rage against limitations when he had Lucifer declare, "Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven!" The question presses in upon us: When were Adam and Eve most free? In the Garden of Eden, 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?
The implication of the Genesis story is unavoidable: True freedom is found only in obedience to God and the fellowship that comes with it. Loss of true freedom comes with self-assertion, the idolatrous desire to rule my own square inch of hell rather than enjoy the blessings of God's favor.
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.