“Now the Lord is the spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor. 3:17)
When you hear the word “liberty”, what does it mean to you?
A few days ago Americans celebrated Independence Day, and the fact that 240 years ago a group of irritated land owners and businessmen announced the birth of a new nation. Most of us could quote that declaration on command:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Particularly with a circus of an election coming up this year, we’ll hear a lot of talk about freedom and independence and democracy in the upcoming months. But I think if you asked ten different people on the street what freedom means, you’d get ten different answers. Today, our society tells us that freedom means that each of us has the right to do whatever we want, regardless of the cost to ourselves or others, and that we have the right to be offended if someone disagrees with or opposes those actions. Society tells us that the bible is an oppressive list of rules written by a harsh, egotistical God—good enough for Christians to cherry-pick homilies from but not a wholly God-breathed, life-governing document.
That’s because our country was really founded on independence, not freedom or liberty. People use them interchangeably, but there’s a huge difference, and it’s a very important one for Christ’s followers to understand.
The Law of Liberty
Independence is physical. Freedom is mental, emotional, and spiritual. One is a state of being, the other is a state of mind. Even the words themselves are telling—the Latin liber means free, while the roots of “independent” translate roughly to “not hanging” with or from. Independence is focused on self-reliance, self-determination, and self-thinking, on being able to do something without anyone’s help or input. That’s why independence runs contrary to our relationship with God. Conversely, God’s way and His laws are grounded in liberty and freedom from oppression.
Significant portions of the Pentateuch deal with outlining rules to prevent poverty and oppression. In the founding of ancient Israel, God laid out detailed laws so that if a person got too far into debt, they could become a bondservant of someone else, serving for a certain amount of time to work off their debt, and then when the time was up they were not only free and clear but the person they had been serving provided them with the means to make a new life. God commanded:
“And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the Lord your God has blessed you with, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you” (Deut. 15:13-15).
He went even further in commanding a Year of Jubilee every fiftieth year, where all property returned to its rightful owners, debts were forgiven, and slaves or bondservants were released (Lev. 25:10). God’s societal laws are based in preventing chronic physical poverty, but also emotional and spiritual oppression. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus chose to read this passage from Isaiah as an announcement of His ministry:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Is. 61:1-3, Luke 4:18)
In fact, the book of Isaiah has a lot to say about the subject of freedom and oppression. In chapter 58, God describes how Israel is upset because their careful attention to religious fasting hasn’t earned them any special favors with God. He reprimands them, telling them that their fasting is outward only, not an expression of a humble heart. Then He explains what fasting is supposed to yield in them:
“Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness…to make your voice heard on high…Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him…then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Is. 58:4-9)
The word translated as “liberty” in Isaiah is d’ror, which means a flowing, free run, but implies freedom, spontaneity, and moving rapidly—I picture water breaking a dam open because it simply cannot be contained any longer. When Jesus quotes Isaiah in Luke, He uses aphesis, which signifies pardon, forgiveness, deliverance, and remission, as well as freedom. It is intentionally, I believe, not the same word that’s translated liberty throughout the rest of the New Testament, which does not have the remission and forgiveness undertones.
If you read a standard definition of “liberty”, one of the primary interpretations involves freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control. This particularly resonates with me because God and Jesus Christ are anything but arbitrary. They are the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
The Life of a Bondservant
Independence is an illusion. We can tell ourselves we’re independent all day long, but the list of things we truly have control over is very short. Every second of our lives we depend on powers and institutions that are completely out of our control for survival—gravity, the atmosphere, the exact arrangement of the sun and earth, global and national economies, government bodies, the company we’re working for not going bankrupt, someone not running a red light and hitting us. We exert our control where we can, in what house to buy, what career to pursue, what city to live in, and we call it independence. Satan wants us to buy into that tissue-thin façade and believe ourselves independent beings. But that’s not what we’ve been called to.
Instead, our calling bears a strong resemblance to that Old Testament law about bondservants mentioned earlier, or what we today probably know as an indentured servant. This should be a familiar concept for Americans, because one-half to two-thirds of the settlers that came to the American colonies came as indentured servants. In Europe they faced a depressed economy due to war, joblessness despite being skilled laborers, poverty, sometimes religious persecution. They yearned for the promise of carving out a new life for themselves in America. But they didn’t have the means to get there on their own, so they would sign a contract to serve a master (generally for seven years) in exchange for having their way to America paid. Being an indentured servant demanded hard work, but they also had rights, protection, housing, and food. And once their contract was up, they were free and given the means to start their own life in the new world—land, crop seed, livestock, clothes, and weapons.
The parallel for us is unmistakably clear. We yearn for the promise of another life beyond this physical one, of eternal life in God’s kingdom. But we lack the means to get their on our own power. Only the sacrifice of our perfect Savior and the grace of God’s forgiveness can pay the price of passage, but it demands that we enter into covenant with Him. He will make the way possible, but we must faithfully serve and obey Him, and in return He protects and cares for us. It is a lifetime contract, but once that time is up (for us, at physical death), we are no longer bondservants but receive our inheritance as true spiritual sons and daughters in a new world.
God promises us freedom, now in this life as well as in the one to come. What does this promise encompass?
- Freedom from sin, from the futility of trying to earn our salvation (Rom. 6:18, Eph. 2:8)
- Freedom from eternal death (Rom. 6:22, 8:2; Heb. 2:14-15)
- Freedom from fear (Ps. 56:4, II Tim. 1:7)
Today’s society preaches liberty at the expense of others, but the bible is clear that we are not given the freedom to do whatever we want, or to hurt people in exercising our freedoms. Paul cautioned the Corinthians to beware, “lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak” (I Cor. 8:9; also Gal. 5:13-15, I Pet. 2:15-16).
Embracing Our Calling
Self-reliance is the quintessential American virtue, but it runs completely contrary to God’s way. His word makes it clear that if we buy into the lie of independence and self-determination, we will quickly lose touch with Him (Jer. 11:7-8, I Cor. 4:7, Heb. 11:6). Everything we have and everything we will ever have is a gift from God—even the very breath we draw.
You can be dependent on someone or something and still be free. If a bondservant were to become independent of his master without having fulfilled his obligations, he would have no support, no food or shelter, no one to rely on, and he’d still be in debt. In other words, it doesn’t provide solutions to his problems, and thus he is not truly free. We are designed to be dependent—on each other and on God. Even Jesus Himself said He could “do nothing of Myself” (John 5:30).
Our spiritual calling is emphatically not to independence. Instead, Paul told the Galatians they had “been called to liberty…for all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14). We have to be very careful that the world’s obsession with independence and individual rights doesn’t rub off on us, and focus on our calling as a bondservant of the Lord—which is ultimately to love God and love our neighbor. If we persevere in obeying Him and serving others, He guarantees our liberty.
“Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love your brethren, fear God, honor the king” (I Pet. 2:16-17, NASB)