THROUGH MOST OF HISTORY, human beings have treasured the idea of freedom. We love being unrestricted, at ease, and able to make our own choices. When our freedom is under attack, we may fight or even die to protect it. We detest being confined or controlled against our will. We always seek to be free.
Where does our passion for freedom come from? What is the origin of the widely-held view that people of all nations, languages, religions and political persuasions have an inalienable right to be free? The Bible’s opening chapter hints at the answer. It elegantly announces the profound truth that God created human beings in his own image. He made us to reflect his moral, rational, spiritual, interpersonal nature—and he made us to share in his freedom. Our vast capacity for freedom didn’t arise of its own accord, nor was it something that we discovered or merited. It was (and is) a gift from God, given to us freely in grace.
God is free
Human freedom, then, bears testimony to the fact that God is free. Could it be any other way? He is sovereign LORD, the Maker and Owner of the whole cosmos. Who can force the hand of the Almighty? All that he does, he does by choice. He is free.
But God is free not just because he is all-powerful; he is free because he is love. Love and freedom go together, for love is freely chosen (both in the giving and in the receiving), and it values the freedom of the other. The Bible reveals that God is a Community1 whose Members—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—are freely set apart to one another in love. Accordingly, God is the perfect example of freedom: he is free to love without limit; he is free to be holy without compromise; he is free to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and to have compassion on whom he will have compassion.
Created to be free
God likes the idea of human freedom at least as much as we do. He freely willed Adam and Eve into existence and gave them divine sanction to live in expansive freedom—to fill the earth, make use of it, rule over it, and feed on its seed-bearing produce. Their human free will was so sacrosanct that not even God would override it: he provided a way for them to freely choose him rather than be locked into a relationship with him. In the middle of the garden, he planted a tree of special significance: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were free to eat from any other tree in the garden, but when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would certainly die. The choice was theirs: obey God and live in his love, or disobey God and be eternally separated from him, their Life Source.
We know what happened next. A notorious serpent—the enemy of human freedom—sidled up to Eve in the garden and asked her a question: ‘Did God really say…?’ He was manipulating her so that she would forget about her immense freedom in God’s embrace and focus on the one thing she didn’t have. Eating the prohibited fruit, the serpent claimed, would not bring death as God had forewarned. Don’t be silly; it would confer divine authority. For God ‘knew’ that when Eve and her husband ate the fruit, their eyes would be ‘opened’ and they would be masters of good and evil ‘like God.’ Thus they would be free of him: no longer answerable to him or in need of anything that only he could provide.
If the serpent’s words were true, God’s goodness was a myth. He wasn’t a doting Parent who had his children’s best interests at heart; he was a liar who was trying to keep them pinned under his giant thumb against their free will. The forbidden fruit dangling in front of their noses appeared to hold the promise of divine knowledge—the very thing for which they now hungered—so they snaffled some and scoffed it down. God, it seemed, had tried to stop them from reaching their human potential. Hah! They had showed him: they had thrown off the shackles of obedience in the name of self-rule. They were free.
Or were they? Their eyes had certainly been opened, but what they saw wasn’t enlightening; it was mortifying. Their craving to be godlike hadn’t been gratified; they were mere earthen vessels made to be filled with the God whose presence they had disdained. They didn’t feel wise, authoritative or complete in themselves; they felt defective, afraid, ashamed. Unable to face the truth of their earthy, ungodlike humanity, they hastily improvised some coverings for themselves. In days to come, a hardened selfishness in the human soul would give rise to jealousy, jealousy to rage, and rage to murder. The seed of that delinquent act (and myriad others) had been sown: human beings were sinners. Our innocence was lost. Our freedom was destroyed. Our fall was complete.
We humans have done something horrible: we have taken the freedom that God freely gave us and exercised it against him. We have wilfully detached ourselves from our heavenly Father—the Wellspring of human freedom—and reached for a ‘freedom’ that supposedly lies beyond him. The shocking result: We have undone our freedom. We have freely marched ourselves into a darkened cell on death row, locked the door, and thrown away the key. As a consequence, we are innately captive to sin: murderous sentiments, covetous desires, self-righteous attitudes, unwholesome speech, unscrupulous deeds, indifference toward God and neighbour—and the list goes on. The effects are seen globally as war, poverty, tyranny and injustice, and felt personally as anxiety, pain, rejection, hopelessness, worthlessness, emptiness, anger, regret.2 Without help from someone who is free, we are enslaved to sin and under a curse of death.
But here’s the good news: God has come to free us. He sent his divine Son, Jesus Christ, into our midst to (in his own words) ‘proclaim freedom for the prisoners and … set the oppressed free.’ How Jesus achieved this is breathtaking: he willingly expended the precious currency of his own lifeblood to purchase us out of slavery for God. Though he was (and is) everlastingly free, he put himself in our place of captivity and absorbed into his own body the righteous sentence of death that had befallen us due to our rebellion. But death wouldn’t confine him for long. On the third day, God freed him (and all believers with him) from death by raising him to eternal life.
As a result, we who trust in Jesus as our Saviour from sin now belong exclusively to God; we have been freed from every obligation to serve sin as our master. More than that, we have been freed from the everlasting guilt and death that sin once produced in us. As we come to God in prayer, his Spirit reassures us of his forgiveness. He passionately wants us to know in our daily living the freedom from sin and its dreadful consequences that his Son has won for us in eternity. Sin has no rightful claim upon anyone who puts their hope in Jesus. We have been set free from sin, guilt and death forever. Our chains have been broken. We have been released. Thank you Lord Jesus.
Freedom can be slippery
As we sit and ponder our freedom, though, a question arises: Now that we have been freed from sin, how can we ensure that we stay that way? We surely haven’t been freed from the tyranny of sin—an ingrained preference for self over God—just so that we can embark on a selfish quest for happiness, comfort and pleasure without relying on God. We have been freed from that old way of thinking and living—from our former slavery to self-centred desires and ambitions. What, then, have we been freed to? What does freedom look like in practice? How can we be truly free?
It is an important question. Many prisoners who are released after a long stint behind bars find that freedom holds some unexpected challenges. Quite a number of them end up back behind bars. A similar thing can easily happen to us. After we have been freed from a sinful habit, tendency or addiction, it tries hard to reclaim us. If we are not careful, we are soon enslaved to sin again and making up for lost time.3
Even if we don’t fall back into our former sinful ways, true freedom can be elusive. We are told by public figures that we are free because we are a democracy. We are told by marketers that a life of freedom will be ours if we buy the right product or adorn ourselves with the right label. We are told by self-help gurus that the secret to freedom lies in finding ourselves, losing ourselves, expressing ourselves, and attracting good things to ourselves. We are told by lifestyle experts that freedom is to be found in our own backyard and on an overseas holiday. We are told by the egocentric culture around us that a free life is one lived in the pursuit of self-fulfilment, preferably without limit or obligation to others. Any truth that would stop us from obtaining freedom our own way is to be rejected. If we can be whoever we say we are and live with self at the centre, we are free.
Freedom without God?
These ideas are easy enough to accept as true. In all honesty, we Christians sometimes live as if we believe them. And yet, to all who imagine that the human race is free or can somehow liberate itself, the Bible has this to say: Life is about God and his glory, not about human beings and their self-seeking ideas of freedom. Self-appointed human ‘freedom’ is an illusion. If the God who is free within himself isn’t living in you, you are not free at all: you are guilty of sin and quite possibly enslaved to it. It was never God’s plan for you to seek freedom without him; he created you with the intention that you would choose to live in the freedom of his love, evidenced by faith that expresses itself as willing obedience to God.
Come to Jesus Christ today in repentance and trust, and begin living a life of freedom from sin, guilt and death. But don’t stop there; Jesus doesn’t just want to be your ticket out of prison. Surrender to him as your Lord and begin serving, obeying and following him in love. If you do this, you will enter the grand reality of God’s freedom-filled life—a life of love, holiness, mercy and compassion. True freedom is so much more than just ‘freedom from sin,’ as good as that is. It is freedom from a constricted life of self-absorption to live in liberating obedience to Jesus Christ. ‘If you hold to my teaching,’ said Jesus, ‘you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’
How free are you today?
- God’s words, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26; see also Genesis 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8), imply that he is multifarious and yet perfectly unified within himself.
- It should be understood here that the unpleasant emotions suffered by a particular person are often not the result of their own sins per se; they are among many universal symptoms of humanity’s sin as a whole.
- Jesus taught that if a person is delivered from an impure spirit but not filled with the Spirit of God, the impure spirit ultimately returns and brings with it a swarm of other spirits more wicked than itself, making the person worse than they were originally (Matthew 12:43-45).