Make Freedom Great Again

“If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.” –John 8:36

The American narrative never strays too far from the word “freedom,” does it? I would wager that most people, when asked what makes America special or extraordinary, would venture a response replete with references to freedom, liberty, individual rights, and good old fashioned baseball. But are these deeply held principles of modern democracy in concert with the type of life-changing freedom Jesus offers in the Gospels?

Freedom is a remarkably powerful concept. We generally use the word as a claim: I have the unrestricted ability to do this or that, which essentially means, I have the right to do what I want to do without your interference. If I want to order extra guacamole at Chipotle, I can do that. If you want to wear skinny pants and a scarf to my nephew’s birthday party, you can do that (though I don’t recommend it). This type of freedom eschews any form of commitment or service, except the commitment to the ideal of freedom itself, and so the central point of action is located in the individual. I determine what I am to do, since I have the freedom to do as I wish. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the same freedom that Jesus lays out in John’s gospel.

Theological freedom differs greatly from the saccharine Americanized versions we find on Fourth of July episodes of Designated Survivor. Jesus’ offer cuts against our tendency to completely divorce responsible obedience from our “right” to free action. In fact, he seems to bind true freedom (or at least the ability to recognize it) to discipleship. He says in 8:31-32, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What are we to make of this condition as Christians? Is there a way to maintain the tension between the Scriptural mandate of obedience and the absolute freedom we have in Christ, the perfect fulfiller of the Law?

First, let’s briefly consider a visual image about the nature of sin. Many years ago, I lived on the beautiful island of Oahu serving a local congregation as their Director of Christian Education. Quite regularly I would see older men walking around town with severely hunched backs. The condition was so pronounced that these men could barely look straight ahead; their gaze was forced downward by the fused muscles in their spine. These men were once workers in the pineapple fields of central Oahu, spending year after year picking fruit by hand. Their daily task required a particular posture that ultimately led to their permanent condition; they were slaves to their own embodiment.

Martin Luther employed a particular term about sin that might be particularly helpful with this image in mind: homo incurvatus in se. It’s a simple Latin phrase that essentially means, “man turned inward on himself.”

Sin cripples us so greatly that we have grown inward on ourselves with no internal capacity to break free and love others. The only field of vision for the sinful man is his own navel!

Sin is most certainly a rejection of God, as many of us learned in Sunday School, but I’m going to invite us to consider another, slightly different, definition: Sin is self-imposed isolation from God. The sinner drives God out of his reality, out of his relationships, even out of his very conception of self, leaving him utterly alone. He is sicut deus–as a god–the source of his own happiness and existence; in this sense, he can only see himself and his own desires.

If this is sin, what is the nature of freedom? With this understanding in place, freedom can no longer be conceived in ways that underwrite my obsession with getting things my way. In fact, this is the very thing that turns us inward, the very thing that enslaves us.

The freedom that Jesus offers is not being free for myself, but, instead, at its very core is being free for others.

Grace has this powerful liberating effect precisely because it liberates us from ourselves. No longer a slave to sin, the Christian can finally look beyond her own desires for self-gratification, directing her gaze to God and neighbor for the very first time. She no longer bears the impossible burden of being sicut deus, relinquishing to God that what was God’s all along: his role as Creator, Sustainer, and Rescuer.

Luther (and, later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer) understood freedom to be profoundly relational. Christian freedom is not sourced in the individual’s capacity to make autonomous decisions, for such a view would only return the person to their own fallible internal resources. True liberty must be given from God alone—because he alone operates in perfect freedom—to be put to use in the concrete communities Christians live in.

Here rests a proper tension between the free grace of God and his call for obedience. The grace of God is doubly relational. His love not only heals the broken bond between God and man ruined by Adam’s sin, but also his grace becomes the operating principle by which we interact with our fellow man. Both the divine-human and human-human relations are recovered by Jesus’ justifying work on the cross. God does not need our obedience as if he was dependent upon our actions for his own well-being … but our neighbor? Christian obedience and service is freely given to our neighbor in need precisely because the animating force in such good works is sourced in the freedom offered in Christ and set to action by the Holy Spirit. Free indeed!

Joel Oesch is Associate Professor of Theology at Concordia University Irvine