America has always been called “the land of the free.” We want the freedom to believe what we want, to say what we want, to live how we want, to love who we want, and to identify as we want. This desire for freedom began with a group of dissidents who wanted to worship God the way they sought fit, not the way their government commanded. The first Americans sought religious freedom, and founded a country based around the concept of liberty.
But nowadays, religion is viewed as the enemy of freedom. Religion is restrictive and repressive. Its rules are outdated, old-fashioned, and even bigoted. Religion is merely the opiate of the masses, used to control the simple-minded. Yet, Christianity teaches the opposite. 2 Corinthians 3:17 tells us, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Jesus said that his followers will know the truth, and the truth will set them free (John 8:32). How can Christians and our culture have such different views on Christianity? How can believers think that their faith is liberating while some unbelievers view religion as bondage? Perhaps Christ and the culture have different views on what freedom actually is.
The Limits of Freedom
Even the most liberty-minded American would agree that freedom has its limits. For example, most should agree that we are not free to murder, steal, and rape. So, then, the question is: What are the appropriate limits to freedom? Some argue that freedom of speech does not cover language that is hateful. Some say that freedom of religion means the freedom to worship however you want in private, but religious beliefs should not carry over to public life. Many would argue people should be free to do whatever they want, so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. This raises the age-old debate of freedom vs. safety. Is one more important than the other? Is there an appropriate balance? Think of the COVID pandemic. Should the government mandate that people wear masks and take the vaccine to reduce the spread of the virus, or is personal choice more important? Similar themes are at play in the abortion debate, between pro-choice and pro-life advocates, as the right to bodily autonomy is compared to protecting innocent lives. People along the entire political spectrum argue the appropriate limits of freedom, and the debate seems it will never cool off.
The limits of freedom may be clearer within religious systems, as many of them have holy books and moral codes that dictate proper behavior of their adherents. Christianity is no different. The Bible contains many commands from God on how to live righteously. But did you know that even God has limits to his freedom? Although he has unlimited power, knowledge, and wisdom, God is limited by his own nature. He is perfectly good and holy, so he cannot do evil. God’s limitation is not an imperfection, however; it is a perfection. God cannot do evil. God cannot lie, so he will fulfill all of his promises. God will only allow or do what is for our best, even if it is unpleasant or hard to understand. This is why God is so great—not that he can do anything, but that he only does what is best for us. Thus, if it is good that God’s freedom is limited, then it must also be good that our freedom is limited as well.
In fact, we are most free when we have appropriate limits. Imagine a family with young children whose neighbors have large, vicious dogs. Suppose the family’s yard has no fence. Are the children free to play in their yard? No, because they are in danger from the neighbors’ dogs. But if the parents build a fence around their yard, the children are now free to play safely outdoors. The fence forms a boundary that keeps the dogs out and the children in. While the children may view the boundary as restrictive, it is actually liberating since it keeps them safe. Without the fence, they could not play outside. With a fence, they have greater freedom. Genuine freedom is not the absence of limits, but rather exists with proper limits in place.
This is where Christianity and the culture differs: the limits of freedom. While the world may think that the limits of Christianity are harmful and restrictive, God’s rules keep us safe and lead to human flourishing. After all, as our Creator, he knows us best. He knows which laws and limits are good for us, even if we don’t understand them, just like how parents know what’s best for their children.
For example, one of the main ways Christianity is viewed as restrictive by our culture is with its view of sex and relationships. The Bible teaches that sex is only appropriate within the marital union of one man and one woman. While this is considered old-fashioned, even bigoted, by our culture, imagine what our world would look like if everyone followed Jesus’ sexual ethic. There would be fewer unwanted pregnancies, and children would be born into loving homes with a mother and father. There would be less abandonment and broken homes, less sexually transmitted diseases, less sexual guilt and shame. There would be no rape, no sex trafficking, and the list goes on. Doesn’t that sound great? We would be free to flourish within loving families. And if God’s rules about sex and relationships are best for society, maybe the rest of his rules are for the best as well.
The Bible doesn’t just teach about genuine freedom, it also talks about its opposite: slavery through sin. Sin is not just bad and harmful, it is slavery (John 8:34, Rom. 6:6). It consumes us and keeps us from enjoying the goodness of God and his world. There is another kind of slavery: slavery to the Law. In the Old Testament, God gave Israel his Law to set them apart as his holy people and to maximize their flourishing. However, his Law set an impossible standard for anyone to perfectly follow, which showed Israel how imperfect they were. This is why God sent his son to suffer and die for us: to establish a new covenant, one centered on love (Matt. 22:37-40). The Law could only condemn, but Jesus came to save.
So, while Christians are free from the slavery of sin, we are also free from the Law. Paul says in Galatians 5:1,“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” The verse ends: “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” What is this yoke? The yoke of the Law—the impossible burden of trying to earn one’s salvation by returning the Law from which Christ fulfilled. Both sin and the Law are called slavery. This seems like a contradiction of everything discussed above, how we need law and limits to enjoy freedom. But too many laws, or inappropriate laws, restrict freedom and draw people into slavery just as much as a society with no laws at all. We could never earn our salvation by following the Law; Christ has achieved that for us.
We should not think that this freedom found in Jesus means we are able to do anything we want. Paul reminds his readers we are “called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13). Freedom should be limited by love. No choice made should ever conflict with the calling of Christians to love God and love others (Matt. 22:37-39). The members of the Corinthian church recognized that “I have the right to do anything” according to their new freedom in Christ, but Paul reminded them that “not everything is beneficial” or “constructive” (1 Cor. 10:23). Therefore, we ought to limit our freedom for “the good of others” (v. 24). Mature Christians must protect immature Christians, so as not to offend them or to cause them to stumble. Just as the Old Testament Law has been fulfilled through Christ’s law of love, so should love limit our freedom if it causes division within a church or leads an immature Christian to stumble.
The Purpose of Freedom
When discussing freedom, there are two important questions that must be answered: “Free from what?” and “Free to do what?” We already discussed the first question: Christians are free from guilt and sin, and we are also free from the Law. And once we are free, what are we free to do? We are free to live as God intended us to live, to fulfill our purpose. And to discover our purpose, we must go back to the beginning.
Genesis 1:27 tells us we were created as God’s image bearers, to be His stewards on earth. In verse 28, God commands us to subdue the earth and to rule over it. God has given us this world as a giant playground. He wants us to explore, to discover, to create. We subdue the earth through science and technology. We imitate our Creator by creating art and music. God has given us the freedom to do many wondrous things.
Our ultimate purpose, however, is to know God and to enjoy him forever. Anything else we pursue in life is going to be inferior to knowing God, the source of all goodness and love. Why would we settle for anything less? Contrary to what the culture may think, Christianity is not bondage; it is the exact opposite. Following Christ leads us to the greatest good imaginable: God.
Freedom is more than just an American virtue; it is a gift and right from God. God desires for us to live in his freedom. He sent his Son to set us free from the bondage of sin and the human desire to earn our salvation on our own. Let us live in the freedom for which we created, and never turn back to the bondage from which we were freed. For, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).