Thursday, September 23, 2021

Freedom: The False and the True

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”

What is freedom? Does it mean what people today think it does? Does it mean doing whatever, whenever? Does it mean liberty to surrender to our own impulses? Does it mean opportunity to do whatever-the-heck we feel like at a given moment? Does it mean being exempt from moral censure or practical criticism regardless of what action we may choose to do?

Does it mean total independence? Does it mean not needing anyone, or not feeling the lack of anything?

Does is mean being so perfectly wonderful in our individual wonderfulness that the world owes us any ‘right’ we may wish to claim, while we owe absolutely no duties at all to anyone? Does it mean being able to imagine ourselves as self-created, self-owning, and proceeding to a self-chosen destiny?

Does it mean seeing ourselves as the owners of our own souls?

The Old Concept of Freedom

This is a fairly modern and recent definition of freedom. The ancient philosophers and theologians didn’t think anything of the kind. They thought freedom meant the ability to become what you actually are … what you were made to be and intended to become … not to do any old thing at all.

God is perfectly free. Having all power, he could (theoretically) do as he pleases, and yet there are things he insists that he cannot do, and he himself tells us precisely what they are: he cannot lie, he cannot be tempted by evil, nor can he tempt anyone, he cannot speak idle words, he cannot be pleased apart from faith, he cannot look favorably at sin, and so on. There’s actually quite a list.

Most importantly, God cannot deny himself.

This last one actually accounts for all the others: it means that God cannot do anything that is a denial of his own nature.

Freedom in Errant Theology

Some people who talk today about the ‘omnipotence’ or ‘absolute freedom’ of God fail to grasp this basic truth. They love to say that God is ‘sovereign’, and by this they understand that he is ‘free’ in the sense of being absolutely arbitrary. He saves whomever he will, and damns whomever he will. There is no rhyme or reason to his choices because … well, he’s sovereign. We cannot question him, expect anything of him or limit him in any way. So whatever he does, he does — end of story … now shuttup, please.

However, God isn’t a Calvinist. The concept of his own freedom (as expressed in such passages as I have listed above) is the ancient concept of freedom: namely, the liberty to completely actualize his own nature.

The Freedom of God

God is perfectly and at all times what we can only be intermittently, at present — that is, the absolute expression of his own essential character and nature. God is never less than fully himself. (Even in his incarnation, the Lord was always the “beloved Son” in whom the Father could joyfully say, “I am well pleased.”)

God is perfectly holy, perfectly just, perfectly loving, perfectly faithful, perfectly righteous, perfectly truthful, and so on. And though he has perfect power, it is sheer stupidity to speak of God “freely choosing” to do anything that is not in accord with the nature of who he is. And it is the nature of God to desire all to come to repentance, and to take no pleasure at all in the death of the wicked. It is in him to love the world — the whole world, not just the “Elect” — and the nature of his generosity extends even to those who are still sinners, for whom he died and whom he would gladly save, if only they would come.

Nothing can prevent God from being just as fair, righteous, loving, forgiving and utterly holy as he is by nature: that is the right description of God’s “freedom”.

Freedom and Human Will

Freedom, then, according to God’s own definition and as it applies to God himself, is the ability to do what is in accordance with one’s own essential nature; it is not the latitude to corrupt, abuse or deny that nature in any way, nor is it unrestricted liberty of action without regard for the true, essential nature of the actor.

It’s the freedom to be what you are.

So what about human freedom? For any creature, to be what God made you to be is the apex of true freedom. To feel yourself doing what he has called you to do is perfect delight. And any activity that is less, that takes you away from that true nature, even if you have chosen it yourself, only would be a step down. For we can only feel full delight when we feel that we are becoming what the Lord has designed us to be, when we are exulting in the whole strength of what he has made us to be. To actualize our full potential — that is what freedom means.

In a right understanding, then, our human freedom echoes that of the Creator. It means being liberated to experience the fullness of what God made us to be.

An Illustration

Let me pause here to illustrate:

One day I went to a sportsmen’s show. They were holding retriever trials. They’d put a big artificial pond in the center of the coliseum, and the game was to throw duck decoys down the length of the pond and see which dog could play fetch the fastest.

Now, if you’ve ever owned a Labrador Retriever — or if you’ve even met one — you know that this dog takes delight in one thing above all: fetching ducks. It is bred into the bone of the breed to go, get things, and bring them back to the master.

I watched one man ‘warm up’ his Chocolate Lab. The minute the decoy came out, the dog was on its toes in delight; and when the decoy sailed across the pond, I remember how that dog spun in a perfect pivot and absolutely threw itself after the decoy. As it did, a single, clear bark of limitless joy burst forth.

I will never forget that sound. It was a ringing note of the most perfect ecstasy. I could hear that that dog was absolutely as happy as a Labrador Retriever could possibly be — happier, even, then most creatures will ever be — for in that moment it was fully actualizing all that it was made to be. It was absolutely, perfectly free.

Humans are not dogs. But for all that, they are no less creatures; and the chief joy of all creatures is to actualize the purposes of God in themselves. Remember the famous words of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner memorialized in the film Chariots of Fire. When asked why he bothered with sports when God had called him to mission work in China, he replied “I believe God that made me for a purpose [for China] but He also made me fast; and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Mankind was created to walk in fellowship and in living connection with the One who is the source of all light, life and goodness. We were not made for personal autonomy, self-will and self-determination. We were made that we might share his joy forever, not that we might live our own way, die independent and alone, and go to a place of final separation. To miss your true calling in life is not “freedom”, even if you chose it: it’s slavery.

You can freely choose slavery, you know … it’s quite possible to do. In fact, it’s very popular these days.

True Freedom

There is no such thing as “freedom” to ignore our Creator, live as we want, sin as we please, and perish at the end — nothing about that sequence is “free”. It looks free to the modern person, because in our perverse desire to be allowed to define ourselves completely independently from any other person or will, we have banished all thought from our minds that we are actually created for a specific purpose and role in the universe. We do not like to admit that we are contingent, created beings who are dependent on the Creator and whose value is entirely defined by our relationship to him. 1 Peter 2:16 says:

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.”

Here we have the two conceptions of freedom in a single verse: we are told not to embrace the perverse and arbitrary “freedom” to seek evil, but rather actualize our true freedom by voluntarily binding ourselves to God.

Or look back again at the Romans passage with which this article begins: what kind of “freedom” leads only to death? The modern kind. What kind leads to eternal life? The freedom to love and serve God.

For that is what human beings were created to do. Anytime they forget that or fall short of it, they also fall short of the delight of being what they truly are. In other words, they are just that much less human. And though they are “liberated” in one sense — in that they no longer admit any duty to God — they immediately become victims of a great paradox: that they are not really free at all. The exercise of their “freedom” simply precipitates a downward spiral of selfishness, lovelessness, bitterness, debauchery, shame, isolation, confusion, meaninglessness, and death.

No wonder, then, that so many modern philosophers have proclaimed the state of modern man as one of absurdity.

The irony is that when we give up fleshly freedom and accept the description God has given us of ultimate human nature, the absurdity disappears. We lose the “freedom” to debase and ruin ourselves, but gain the total freedom to flourish in the fulfillment of what God designed us to be. We are free of failure, free of sin, free of emptiness, free of guilt, free of misery — and free to become children of light. We are freed to triumph.

In Short

True freedom is not unrestricted liberty to do simply anything, no matter how silly, contradictory or destructive; it is power to actualize one’s own best nature. God has that freedom absolutely. He never acts in any way contrary to his own moral greatness.

True human freedom is a reflection of that. It consists in becoming what God intended us to be and consequently in entering into the range of possibilities he designed us to have.

It never comes from us insisting on having our own way.


  1. Great post, IC, absolutely loved it. Concept was new to me since I had never considered personal freedom from that perspective. Made immediate use of article and sent it to persons who I (as a parent ��) thought could greatly benefit from it.

    In my opinion, the entire planet can benefit from it, which brings out the disconcerting difficulty with any of these helpful topics. They simply do not get enough circulation. I have resigned myself to the fact that it is probably sufficient for God and the individual even if you had the chance to touch only one life with your message or example. Also, circulation is only one factor and predisposition (readiness) of an individual to learn from and accept a good message is the more important one and that is up to the individual and the holy spirit.

    1. Thanks, Qman. Good to hear from you.

      I'm amazed at how commonly people today speak of "freedom" while describing their desire to slide into some state of slavery. They want the "freedom" to destroy themselves -- morally now, and then all their progeny, and then their physical bodies at the end of life. What about the freedom to become what we were designed to be by our loving God?

      What a twisted concept the modern one is.

      How different from the freedom of Christ's marvellous light (1 Pet. 2:9).