Free Indeed: Our Liberty in Christ
“True liberty consists only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.” — Jonathan Edwards
As I read this statement above earlier this week, it began to dawn on me how often we as humans can seriously misunderstand what true liberty actually entails. We have a great inclination to believe that to be free means to do whatever we will—everything is a matter of choice, right? Especially in considering the United States of America, freedom equates to free will. In other words we can do what we want, so long as we understand, what I like to call, the “Spider-Man principle”:
With great freedom comes great responsibility.
(Okay—so it’s not exactly what he said, but you get the idea…)
But can this answer really suffice? Is this really just a matter of opinion? Are we scientifically engineered to be autonomously free? These are the tough questions that have been struggled with for centuries. The popular worldview of the day definitely would lend itself towards affirming the notion of free will, but this may be a bit premature. Consider the following statement:
“In a way, in our contemporary world view, it’s easy to think that science has come to take the place of God. But some philosophical problems remain as troubling as ever. Take the problem of free will. This problem has been around for a long time, since before Aristotle in 350 B.C. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, these guys all worried about how we can be free if God already knows in advance everything you’re gonna do. Nowadays we know that the world operates according to some fundamental physical laws, and these laws govern the behavior of every object in the world. Now, these laws, because they’re so trustworthy, they enable incredible technological achievements. But look at yourself. We’re just physical systems too, right? We’re just complex arrangements of carbon molecules. We’re mostly water, and our behavior isn’t gonna be an exception to these basic physical laws. So it starts to look like whether its God setting things up in advance and knowing everything you’re gonna do or whether it’s these basic physical laws governing everything, there’s not a lot of room left for freedom.
So now you might be tempted to just ignore the question, ignore the mystery of free will. Say, “Oh, well, it’s just an historical anecdote. It’s sophomoric. It’s a question with no answer. Just forget about it”. But the question keeps staring you right in the face. You think about individuality for example, who you are. Who you are is mostly a matter of the free choices that you make. Or take responsibility. You can only be held responsible, you can only be found guilty, or you can only be admired or respected for things you did of your own free will. So the question keeps coming back, and we don’t really have a solution to it. It starts to look like all our decisions are really just a charade.
Think about how it happens. There’s some electrical activity in your brain; your neurons fire. They send a signal down into your nervous system. It passes along down into your muscle fibers. They twitch. You might, say, reach out your arm. It looks like it’s a free action on your part, but every one of those — every part of that process is actually governed by physical law, chemical laws, electrical laws, and so on.
So now it just looks like the big bang set up the initial conditions, and the whole rest of human history, and even before, is really just the playing out of subatomic particles according to these basic fundamental physical laws. We think we’re special. We think we have some kind of special dignity, but that now comes under threat. I mean, that’s really challenged by this picture.
So you might be saying, “Well, wait a minute. What about quantum mechanics? I know enough contemporary physical theory to know it’s not really like that. It’s really a probabilistic theory. There’s room. It’s loose. It’s not deterministic.” And that’s going to enable us to understand free will. But if you look at the details, it’s not really going to help because what happens is you have some very small quantum particles, and their behavior is apparently a bit random. They swerve. Their behavior is absurd in the sense that its unpredictable and we can’t understand it based on anything that came before. It just does something out of the blue, according to a probabilistic framework. But is that going to help with freedom? I mean, should our freedom be just a matter of probabilities, just some random swerving in a chaotic system? That starts to seem like it’s worse. I’d rather be a gear in a big deterministic physical machine than just some random swerving.
So we can’t just ignore the problem. We have to find room in our contemporary world view for persons with all that that entails; not just bodies, but persons. And that means trying to solve the problem of freedom, finding room for choice and responsibility, and trying to understand individuality.” — An excerpt from the film, Waking Life
So even in the scientific realm, there is no clear cut answer to the problem of the liberation of the will. However, there was something said that was very important. The speaker found the idea of arbitrary, random acts of the will to be disconcerting. Is there some sort of “glitch in our system”? If we read the statement at the beginning by Edwards correctly, then the answer would have to be a resounding “yes”.
A Crack in the Liberty Bell
According to Scripture, man is “free” to act as he naturally wills. The only downside is that man is naturally inclined to do what he ought not do. Ours is a tainted freedom. This is something that we all know from our own personal experience. We can all identify with the apostle Paul when he says,
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. — Romans 7:15–20 ESV
It is because of our inherent sinful nature (Original Sin) that we cannot do the things that we know that we should do—acknowledgement and glorification of God. In turn, this doesn’t leave us free at all. In fact, it leaves us desperately enslaved to sin (Genesis 3; John 8:34; Romans 1:18–23, 3:11–18 & 23).
“A self-destructive man feels completely alienated, utterly alone. He’s an outsider to the human community. He thinks to himself, “I must be insane.” What he fails to realize is that society has, just as he does, a vested interest in considerable losses and catastrophes. These wars, famines, floods and quakes meet well-defined needs. Man wants chaos. In fact, he’s gotta have it. Depression, strife, riots, murder, all this dread; we’re irresistibly drawn to that almost orgiastic state created out of death and destruction. It’s in all of us. We revel in it. Sure, the media tries to put a sad face on these things, painting them up as great human tragedies. But we all know the function of the media has never been to eliminate the evils of the world, no. Their job is to persuade us to accept those evils and get used to living with them. The powers that be want us to be passive observers…And they haven’t given us any other options outside the occasional, purely symbolic, participatory act of voting. You want the puppet on the right or the puppet on the left? I feel that the time has come to project my own inadequacies and dissatisfactions into the sociopolitical and scientific schemes, let my own lack of a voice be heard.” — An excerpt from the film, Waking Life
[Character then proceeds to set himself on fire.]
Order from Chaos (Who’s Choosin’ Who?!)
So far as we have seen, our choosing will get us nowhere. Our wills are, in fact, in bondage to sin and evil. This has been attested to from both the secular and Christian worldview. However, in the majority of Churches and Christian institutions, the problem of the will becomes even more confounded by doctrinal inconsistency with the Word of God. Listen to the words of a song performed at Pensacola Christian College:
“I own the cattle on a thousand hills
I write the music for the whipper wheels
Control the planets with their rocks and rills
But give you freedom to use your own will…”
So, in other words (according to the lyrics of this song), I’m the captain of my fate and the master of my own destiny—even though in my natural state (from the verses referenced above) I am completely incapable of seeking after God. How can these things be? I do believe that their “wonderful gift of choice” is an exercise in futility, not to mention unbiblical:
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. — John 1:9–13 ESV
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” — John 6:44, 63–65 ESV
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. — John 15:16 ESV
Nowhere else is this case more firmly driven home than in this particular passage of scripture:
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. — Romans 9:16 ESV
Freed to Serve
Our freedom is paid at a very high cost; by the death of Christ. Contrary to popular beliefs that circulate in our day, we are not brought out of the bondage of sin simply to do whatever we wish (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). As Martin Luther stated,
“Saint Augustine writes, that free-will, without God’s grace and the Holy Ghost, can do nothing but sin…Hence, we conclude in general, that man, without the Holy Ghost and God’s grace, can do nothing but sin; he proceeds therein without intermission, and from one sin falls into another. Now, if man will not suffer wholesome doctrine, but contemns the all-saving Word, and resists the Holy Ghost, then through the effects and strength of his free-will he becomes God’s enemy; he blasphemes the Holy Ghost, and follows the lusts and desires of his own heart, as examples in all times clearly show.”
So, it is God who grants us grace through the gift of faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). We are set free from the bonds of sin to be slaves of righteousness. The freedom that is to be found in Christ is not one of independence, but rather total dependence and reliance on him and his work — to be tethered to him throughout eternity. It is then (and only then) that we are not only free to do what we want, but also to do what we ought to its chief end (Mark 12:28–31). A country’s freedom is dependent on its military to maintain that freedom; and how much more does the liberation of our souls depend upon the grace of God to break us free from the chains of sin and bind us in the chains of Christ!
“The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” — John 8:35–36 ESV
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” — John 15:1–5 ESV
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 6:20–23 ESV
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. — Romans 7:21–25 ESV
Soli Deo Gloria,