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This entry is part 4 of 63 in the series

"Ten Mangled Words"

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Freedom is another word that the disingenuous enjoy. Just as the Tolerazis cry ‘intolerance’ and pose as victims even while they terrorize and bully others, so similar people shout freedom while insisting that others submit to their choices, or at least abdicate legitimate authority over them.

Freedom has a nice ring to our ears. Restraint and submission do not – at least on this side of the Garden. Freedom comes to our minds with almost unquestioned innocence – as if freedom is always the better part that the wise and enlightened choose.

For those who prefer darkness over light, defining freedom is an annoyance. They would prefer a sentimental attachment to a vague notion. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we will quickly see that freedom is related to something outside itself. If you are free, you are free from something, and free to do or be something. So, when people tout their freedom, the first question to ask them is, “what have been freed from?”, followed by, “what have you been released to do?”

Most have not thought of free as a word requiring modification. For them, it means something like, “any sense of burdensome restraint has been lifted from me”, “permission to do all I want” similar to their definition of love, which would be “giving me permission to do what I want without judging me”.

The same inchoate, garbled articulations of freedom are found in the church. They emerge in defenses of pet sins: “I’m free in Christ; you can’t bring me back into bondage!” They appear as attempted excuses for rebellion: “I don’t have to live under the bondage of this authoritarian, mind-controlling legalism. Grace has set me free!” They even posture as theological: “We are not under the Law anymore! We must enjoy our liberty!” These represent nothing more than a Christian adoption of the secular idea of freedom, giving it a (tacky) theological gloss.

Freedom or liberty, might be properly defined as freely choosing to do what one ought. The various kinds of freedom – religious liberty, political liberty, individual liberty – are still applications of this idea. This definition is inescapably grounded in a transcendental view of reality. Liberty, in its complete sense, is composed of two parts: the free choice, and what the free choice is for. Oughtness can only be defined by an appeal to human nature, which is an appeal to natural law, and divine revelation. What we ought to do, is what is good for human flourishing, what is in accord with our created nature, what corresponds to the Divine intention of man – these can only be defined by appealing to the court of Design: what man is, and what he was made for.

Defining what we ought to do based on modern bureaucrat-speak in an exercise in circular definition or nonce-speak. Progress, communitybuilding, interests of society, healthy societies, harmony are all words that attempt to hide the essential need for values to rest on ultimate ideas. Progress towards what? What should a community, when properly built, look like? What exactly is in the interest of society? What constitutes health in a society, and what does the diagnosis of societal sickness contain? Around what kind of unity should society’s members harmonize? Of course, secular bureaucrats and educationists will never attempt to answer these questions, for it would impale them upon the sharp edges of some religious definition of reality, which they scrupulously avoid. But unless we define what man ought to do, we cannot define what he should freely choose. Liberty is inextricably linked to human nature.

According to this definition, freely choosing to do what one ought not to do is a move towards tyranny or anarchy. Freely choosing sin or evil is an exercise of liberty, but is an abuse of liberty, and therefore an incremental surrender of liberty. In the created order, abuse of liberty cannot go on indefinitely without enslaving the one abusing it. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6: whatever we freely yield to becomes our master. The tyrannical master of sin curtails our liberties until we find ourselves unable to freely choose anything but sin. The anarchical nature of depraved human nature means that the liberty of sin is a nightmarish nihilism, a torturous chaos, a quicksand of corrosive pleasures. “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage.” (2 Pet. 2:19)

Mastery by Christ brings the liberty of continued submission: “I love my master; I will not go out free”. (Ex 21:5)

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.