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What is Freedom?

Reflecting on the journey to which the first generation Hmong took to embrace freedom can give their descendants a lens to understand the drive and motivation in achieving success.  The tireless pursuit for education, financial stability, and prolific notoriety can all be summed up in the freedom and ability to attain these highly warranted goals within the democracy of America.  In the confines of Southeast Asia opportunities for success was limited to the first generation Hmong due to their lack of resource and economical situation.  Their ticket, though treacherous and enduring, was a calculated risk they were willing to take to position themselves with the ability to obtain “freedom.”
Yet in understanding freedom our American society has clouded the second and third generation Hmong (as well as themselves) to believe that freedom is defined as a structureless pursuit toward any/all pleasures for the joy of selfish gain.  This understanding of freedom lacks a discipline, work ethic, and formation to obtain their desired goals.  Freedom has become a free for all and in so doing has demanded that accountability be thrown out the widow.
The verbiage of “freedom” and what it implies has found its way into the church and has disrupted the theological framework on how the work and person of Christ has set sinners “free.”  Both non-believers and believers, alike, boil the Christian faith down to following a set of rules and in so doing build a set of restrictions around their existence.  Their perspective and experience of following Christ does not equate with the term “freedom” thus ultimate delight, rather embodies restriction which consummates torment.  Their inability to understand the biblical nuances of freedom has robbed them of the life giving truth of the Word of God and the life source to that truth, the Gospel.
To pursue a healthier understanding of “freedom,” as it pertains to the work and person of Christ, one must be willing to wrestle with the theological and philosophical principles to which the bible renders.  In so doing I hope that this journey will not set our feet under the weight of the law, rather within the warm blanket of spiritual freedom and intrinsic design all to which is for the purpose of glorifying Christ and pursuing our upmost joy in Him.
The Text:
We find ourselves at John 8:31 – 38 (ESV) at the beginning of the end toward Jesus’ ministry.  Two chapters earlier His ministry embodied large crowds which found Jesus feeding the multitudes with great amazement.  Yet the droves of people disperses when Jesus communicates a harsh reality in that those who would follow Him must eat His flesh and drink His blood, “[f]or my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink (John 6:55 ESV).”
In this particular situation Jesus is surrounded by the Pharisees who had earlier brought to Him a woman caught in adultery.  Jesus begins to communicate the truth of His nature and calling as well as clarifying the Jews and, specifically, the Pharisees’ depravity.  In context Jesus finds Himself “in the treasury, as He taught in the temple (John 8:20 ESV),” while engaging in an ongoing dialogue with the Jewish crowd.  As Jesus continued to teach “many believed in Him (John 8:30 ESV).” Prompted by those who believed in His message Jesus engaged in the work of the truth which brings forth freedom.
Saves Us From:
The freedom to which Christ is referencing, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36 ESV),” is an exemption from the power of sin and the dominance of the work of Satan in the life of a believer.  The believer, or disciple of Christ, is defined in verses 31 to be one who “[abides] in My word (John 8:31 ESV).” The “abiding” is a thematic principle in which the apostle John continuously uses throughout his Gospel to solidify true authentic discipleship.  The word “abide,” which means to remain, is represented in the present tense which suggests that Jesus was not telling them the requirements to discipleship, rather that the true nature of “discipleship consists of continued obedience to His Word (MacArthur 356).” This comprehension of discipleship is in line against works salvation.
That being said, the understanding of freedom, communicated in verse 36, is congruent with the idea that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34 ESV).” Outside the work and person of Jesus Christ all people are enslaved to sin and do not have an ability to pursue God.  To this very reason the Hebrew writer along with the Apostle Paul in Romans communicates that “without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6 ESV)” and “[t]hose who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:8 ESV).” It is faith in Christ which “enables our spiritual sense to function (Tozer 50).” Beyond the saving work of Christ sin binds mankind from engaging with God and enslaves them to sin which separates the world from God.  The freedom which Christ brings is the freedom from the bondages of sin.  Paul explains by saying, “[f]or when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness (Romans 6:20 ESV).” So within this particular sense unregenerate individuals “do not have freedom in the most important sense of freedom – that is, the freedom to do right, and to do what is pleasing to God (Grudem 498).”
In context, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and confirms their slavery to sin and their father, Satan.  The wickedness of their hearts and their motivation to kill Jesus was evidence that the words of Jesus “finds no place in you (John 8:37 ESV).” This truth is in contrast to the definition of discipleship rooted earlier as those who abide in His word.  The distinction between freedom and slavery was beyond the comprehension of the Pharisees as well as many church goers today.  The state of the Pharisees’ heart and their desires to carry out death upon Jesus confirmed the reality to which Christ had stated earlier that they were slaves to sin.
A lingering question that may surface in understanding the biblical concept of “freedom” is do not unregenerate people do good?  The answer would be “YES!”  As image bearers of God unregenerate people have the ability to produce “good” in the sense of service, sacrifice, and merit.  Jesus confirms this idea in saying, “[i]f you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children. . . (Matthew 7:11 ESV)” Christ does not negate the unregenerate person’s ability to do good, but constitutes that the nature of the unregenerate person still remains “evil.”  The individual lacks faith in Christ Jesus which would set them free to pursue godly goodness.  General goodness, through what theologians call common grace, is the by product of bearing the image of God, yet eternal goodness, or special grace, is unattainable outside faith in Christ due to the chains of sin.  To this very reason “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isaiah 64:6 ESV)” before a holy God.  It is not only at our worst but rather at our best that mankind is in need of a Savior.  Outside of Christ no one is truly free to pursue goodness.
Saves us To:
The freedom which leads to “truth” is guiding mankind toward sonship.  Jesus describes that the “slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever (John 8:35 ESV).” The position of son is in direct contrast with the position of slave.  Not only does Jesus communicate what the world is saved from; which is the schemes of Satan and the power of sin, but what mankind is saved to; a relationship with the Father.  This position of sonship is a position of freedom which allows mankind to embrace and embody a functional relationship with God.  For in Christ we “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ (Romans 8:15 ESV)” Believers have the privilege of experiencing a “confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews10:19 ESV),” while seizing an authentic relationship with God.
With that being said, two key questions linger in the pursuit of understanding “freedom.”  (1) How is this freedom when it seems so restrictive?  (2) What is the nature of freedom?  We will attempt to tackle both these questions.
Is Freedom Restrictive?
The essence of freedom is not to be misunderstood as a liberty to embrace everything, rather the ability to cling to the “right” thing.  In God’s infinite wisdom He designed and created mankind “in the image of God (Genesis 1:27 ESV)” and, in that, instituted within mankind a bent toward worship.  Theologically speaking, believers understand that the trinity is continuously pouring love, affection, friendship, and delight into each person of the Godhead.  Consequently, as image bearers, mankind is to find greatest joy and fulfillment in engaging into an ongoing embrace in worshipping God (Driscoll 5).  Within the Creator’s design “[w]orship is not merely an aspect of our being but the essence of our being (Driscoll 6).” Yet it is due to the brokenness caused by sin that mankind’s bent toward worship is flawed.  The issue with mankind’s worship “is not that we rejoice but rather that we rejoice wrongly (Chandler 23).” The work of Christ redeems mankind’s flawed worship and sets us free to worship Him gladly.
How is this restriction, the focused worship on God, meant to bring forth freedom?
First of all, as stated prior, worshipping God is the purpose to which mankind was created.  To engage into one’s purpose is to achieve the very reason why one exists.  For example, when I was a young boy my brother and I would pretend to be soldiers in the army.  We would take our older brothers’ baseball equipment and use them as machine guns, grenades, and missiles.  At that time I had a great fascination with Rambo, Commando, and other military movies.  To this day my baseball gun was the most accurate and powerful gun I have ever seen!  Yet imagine if a robber and thief entered into our home with a knife.  Could I protect my family?  Not by shooting my baseball gun, but by swinging my baseball “bat.” When I properly use the baseball bat in accordance to its purpose I become extremely effective in what I intend to do.  Now I can continue to shoot my baseball gun and be happy with it’s accuracy but the reality is the robber would have got to me regardless.  The baseball bat, though capable of being used in other ways, finds greatest satisfaction when it is used in accordance to its purpose; being swung.  Yet, in order for us to fully understand this concept we must define “freedom,” which leads me to my second point; what is freedom?
When analyzing “freedom” American society tends to lean toward the idea of embodying a liberty to pursue anything and everything, yet at the center of authentic freedom is a healthy dosage of restriction and constraint.  Two illustrations will assist in helping us understand “freedom” in the realm of restraint; nature and athletics.
In observing dolphins maneuver throughout the waters one can contend that how they swim within the flow of their environment embodies a sense of freedom, liberty, and abandonment.  Their ability to move at such a high rate, even swimming alongside boats and ships are an amazing feet.  Their movement within the waters is mind blowing as they defy numeric flow.  As for dolphins and other fishes of the sea freedom to shift and move within the confines of the sea is a liberating experience and existence.  Yet that freedom is restricted to the environment of the open waters.  Outside of their habitat the dolphin ceases to have any ability to maneuver with much latitude.  Dolphins are only free within the restriction of water.
Athletes embody the same form of freedom and restriction.  A basketball player whose desire is to achieve success on the basketball court can not merely engage in the activity during game time.  That method of approach will not allow him/her to achieve their desired goal.  Though the player would be free to play the game their ability to dribble the ball, make sufficient passes, and accurate shooting would be limited.  In order for their ability to obtain a sense of freedom within the arena of basketball the player would have to engage in rigorous training sessions which would allow his/her body to form “muscle memory.”  Yet to obtain this ability the player would need to restrict him/herself from other activities that their friends would be engaging in.  Swimming parties, monkey bars, tag, and etc.  The basketball player’s ability to obtain “freedom” would come at the price of restriction.  Basketball players are only free within the restriction of the game.
Is freedom restrictive?  Yes, but in the best possible way!  Freedom is to embrace one’s intrinsic design and to sit under the restriction of those limitations in order to experience the liberty of truly living.  Worshipping God is why mankind has been created.  To truly participate in the life giving flow of worship is to surrender to the ideas of the Creator.  “Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us (Keller 49).”
The freedom to which the world can and has received from the work and person of Christ is meant to give mankind the privilege and ability to engage in God the Father.  Jesus’ purposeful pursuit toward the cross was taken so that mankind would “no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Corinthians 5:15 ESV).” To this reason mankind was created to engage in an authentic and genuine relationship with the trinitarian God of the universe.  Henceforth the ministry of reconciliation implies that mankind, through Adam, was once in right relationship with God.  The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ solidifies reconciliation in that “God [is] reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19 ESV).”
Now as reconciled creatures through the blood of Christ His commandments are not meant to hinder us or steal from us joy, rather to empower mankind toward ultimate joy in Him.  Where the law once brought forth death now, through the lens of the cross, the law brings forth life and joy.  It was for this very reason that Christ came to speak truth so that His “joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:11 ESV).” As reconciled agents mankind is free to embrace the purposes of creation, worshipping the trinitarian God.
Chandler,Matt, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger, Creature of the Word:The Jesus Centered Church. Nashville: B & H, 2012.
Driscoll, Mark. Who Do You Think You Are?: Finding Your True Identity in Christ. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Keller, Tim. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Riverhead, 2008.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 1 – 11. Chicago: Moody Publisher, 2006.
Tozer, AW. The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine. Camp Hill: Wing Spread, 1993.

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