Freedom does not come from human institutions

July 4, 2020.

Historically I have written posts inspired by the fourth of July on the topic of freedom. But this year feels different. There is so much tension in our society right now and the two main causes of this tension are each have deep roots in the lack of freedom. The country that prides itself on freedom has been, more or less, on lockdown since mid-March, and it’s starting to take a toll. Even bigger than that, however, is that many among us do not experience the same freedoms that America boasts of in general. Our founding fathers penned the famous words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But they didn’t mean them. That is, they didn’t mean it in the way we would hear those words today. These words did not offer the same freedoms to Native Americans, women, or slaves. Perhaps some of the fathers did believe that all these groups were equal; but if so, it seems as though it was a minority position. And so slavery continued in America, the land of the free, for a hundred more years. The rights of women to vote would have to wait longer than that. And the mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government and many citizens continued into the 20th century. Even today, there are many voices that say each of these groups still haven’t obtained the ‘unalienable Rights’ as declared above.

This is not a new problem, of course. Throughout history, it has been the drive of humankind to exploit one another. Different groups have been exploited and participated in the exploitation for millennia. Perhaps what makes America different than many other societies is our mass calls for equality. However, even this solution is not new, nor does it originate in the American ideal (as seen from our blindness above). This solution, to call for the equality of all people regardless of race, class, gender, begins with an ancient Jewish principle and finds its fulfillment in Christ. In the opening words of Scripture we read:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
(Genesis 1:27)

That’s not to say that the children of Israel got it right. Even though the image of God is the foundation of the creation of humankind, the children of Israel followed in a familiar path of pride and exclusion. Being God’s chosen people, they began to think of themselves as better than those outside of Israel instead of seeing themselves as a light to the nations drawing them to God (Isa. 42:6). In the latter part of the second temple period, it seems that Jewish thought had followed Greek thought in the “three blessings” prayer, in which a Jewish male would recite something along the lines of:

“Blessed art thou, O God, for not making me a Gentile, slave, or woman.”

The Jews had followed the philosophy of the world in many respects, and perhaps it is not so surprising that they also did so in social stratification and value. That the Jewish people—the religious leaders in particular—had strayed from the original intent of the law was one of Jesus’ core messages. This can be seen in the sermon on the mount (Matt. 5–7) where Jesus makes multiple “You have heard it said… but I say to you” statements. Jesus is re-teaching the law with its original intent.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus turns the conventional wisdom about who is important in society on its head. He eats with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1–2), He finds no issue conversing with a Samaritan woman with a questionable marriage history (John 4), and He even allows a known prostitute to anoint His feet (Luke 7:36–40). Jesus crosses boundaries that his contemporaries were unwilling to cross — because He loves all people, and truly believes that all people were created in the image of God.

He knows, because He is the image of God.

It is through Jesus that Genesis 1:26–27 is fully realized. Paul understood this, and thus he uses the “three blessings” prayer to teach the truth about equality,

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
(Galatians 3:27–29)

We who have been baptized into Christ are all one in Christ. This is the foundation for equality. And to bring people into unity with Christ, we must see people as made in the image of God, valuable in His (and our) sight. This is a foundational principle of Christianity, and we cannot rely on the world to bring this idea to fruition. It must start with us because this is what we believe, and should have believed for some 2000 years now.

Unfortunately, we too have failed and conformed to societal and cultural pressures and values throughout history. Even today, many of those who bear the name of Christ still fail to live up to this ideal. The cultural movement that is happening now, the push for equality for all people, finds its ultimate source and shaping in Christian values and teaching. It is time for us to fully embrace the Christian message that all people are created in the image of God and that all are called to be one in Christ (not just those who look like me or share my culture).

What does any of this have to do with freedom?

Our cultural moment right now is calling for freedom. Freedom from the virus, freedom from governmental restrictions, freedom from oppression. But we are trying to pursue that freedom through human institutions. Our fear drives us to put our trust in organizations or governing officials. We want freedom, but we are looking for freedom from the wrong sources. We think that human institutions can bring us (or already has brought us) freedom. Jesus had a similar conversation with the Jews who trusted in their law to bring them freedom.

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 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 8:31–36)

The Jews through that since they were sons of Abraham, they were free. Yet they were living under Roman rule, and many of them were still scattered throughout the world. What’s more, even the ruling class was still in bondage to sin. The Jews thought they were free, but Jesus tells them they are slaves. Freedom only comes through the Son.

When we rely on ourselves, we will never be free. This is because the corruption of sin runs inside all of us. No matter how good the organization, or the intentions of the rising politician, power corrupts and enslaves

Even the old covenant only worked to enslave, because it only had the power to show and convict us of our sin (see Romans 7). We need the power of forgiveness, mercy, and love. We need the power of the Spirit:

“But when one turns to the Lord, the veil [the old covenant] is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
(II Corinthians 3:16–18)

The government cannot set us free. Organizations cannot set us free. Human institutions cannot set us free. True freedom comes through Christ.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

Notice how Paul grounds the freedom of the Spirit: “and we all… are being transformed into the same image…” We are set free because we are being made into the image of God. Wait, weren’t we already made in the image of God? Yes. But human sin and corruption have enslaved us and distorted that image. Jesus, as the true image of God, has come to restore us to that image through the working of the Spirit (cf. Romans 8:29).

Does that mean we shouldn’t cry out for the oppressed? That we should just sit back and let the world take care of seeking justice and freedom, reforming human institutions? Not at all. The prophetic tradition in scripture has a deep stream of God’s people calling for justice for the oppressed (see especially the minor prophets). Christians should be speaking truth to those in power, and seeking liberty for the captive and justice for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). However, we should not put our trust in human institutions to fix the problem, for we will always be let down. Power and corruption cut deep into our hearts. We need the power of the Spirit to set us free.

True freedom comes when we are baptized into Christ to become one with Him and the body of believers, allowing the Spirit of the Lord to come in and cleanse our hearts and set us free from the power of sin. And it is this freedom, freedom in Christ, that we shine to the world, imploring all to come it and find rest and peace. All other promises of freedom will ultimately fail. So, the question comes to you.

Would you be free?

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
(John 8:31–32)

The Love of God, and the God of love, calls out to you.

-Walt

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