An important challenge for Christians is to be able to distinguish between the freedom celebrated on the 4th of July and that described in the scriptures. They aren’t identical (which I’ll explore below), and I think the efforts of many well-meaning pastors and churches in their worship services around the times of our national holidays actually serves to confuse many happy church goers about what freedom for a Christian really entails.
In Galatians 5 Paul says that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. This particular verse follows a section in chapter 4 where Paul uses the allegory of Hagar and Sarah to illustrate the difference between being born the child of a slave (the law) and being born the child of a free woman (grace). Through Christ, Paul says, we are “children, not of the slave, but of the free woman.” And it is for this reason we have a share in the inheritance. Not because we do this or that, not because we follow the law, not because we always do what is right, not because we are circumcised, but because in Christ we have become children of freedom. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. And so, the only thing that counts, according to Paul, “is faith working through love.”
I like that phrase—it is for freedom Christ has set us free. Of course, Paul has a specific kind of freedom in mind here, one that is deeply theological and has little to do with our modern notion of freedom and being free. And I think it is precisely here where much of the theological confusion about Christian freedom comes in. It seems to me that the 4th of July wants to remind us that freedom is our right. It is what we fought for. It is what we fight for. It is what we defend. It is what we bring to (some would say, impose on) other countries. After all, freedom is what our nation is founded upon: “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Yet, if this is the kind of freedom for which Christ has set us free, it seems to me that it is somehow a very hollow and ephemeral sort of freedom.
When you think about it, Paul was writing in a time when large parts of the population were slaves. Some estimates report that the slave population in Italy during the first century was about 40% of the total population. And while across the entirety of the Roman Empire that percentage was significantly smaller, it was still a number that was in the millions. The interesting thing is that it was predominantly to these people—the slaves and the marginalized and the poor—that the gospel first took its initial hold. The good news of freedom in Christ gripped these people not because it promised them the same sort of freedom that the rich, privileged and elite had, but because it was a kind of freedom that transcended one’s circumstances, a freedom that reached inward, unchaining a person from the interiority of one’s being, freeing the heart and soul. Yes, it was a freedom from sin, a freedom from the power of sin and the guilt of sin. But it was also much more than simply a freedom from; it was a freedom for. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Freedom—real freedom—is not the power and the ability to choose to do this or that. It is not the freedom to do whatever I want (as long as it does no harm to others, of course). That seems to be the sort of freedom that the 4th of July wants to celebrate (the freedom from the rule of England telling the colonies what to do). And that is not the sort of freedom for which Christ has set us free. Our freedom in Christ is rooted in the eternal, finding its fulfilment and ultimate consummation in eternity. Ultimately, our freedom determines who we become, not what we do. That’s one reason why, according to Karl Rahner, the idea of freedom is more than the ability to act in certain ways. Certainly, that’s part of it. But there is something bigger at work. Freedom is the ability to dispose of oneself. Our freedom is not the freedom to do certain things; it is the freedom to become a certain kind of person. Those things we do help to shape the kind of person we become. When we do good things we become good. When we do bad things we become bad. Ultimately, the choice we make, our freedom, is not the act itself, but the person those acts shape us into.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. The question this sort of freedom asks us is not what are we going to do, but what sort of person are we going to become? What sort of person are my choices shaping me into? How are those things I do forming (or not forming) me into the image of Christ? Are my actions a genuine reflection of faith being worked out through love? That, I believe, is the sort of freedom for which Christ has set us free. And that is the freedom I choose to celebrate, not with fireworks and BBQ, but with my life, my faith, my hope, and my love.