We’re heading into Fourth of July weekend in my city of Philadelphia. As the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, we go all out to celebrate freedom. This year we are apparently pulling out all the stops to wow the world with a virtual freedom festival. I’m not sure the fireworks will feel the same, but it’s 2020, so let’s just roll with it.
In 2020, the concept of freedom is especially complicated as we are constrained by the pandemic and are actively wrestling with the centuries of injustice experienced by African Americans.
Freedom is a complex and often contentious idea. We struggle over what it means, how it can be exercised, how it can be protected, and how it can be lost or taken away. The delegates who gathered here in Philadelphia as a Continental Congress in 1776 wrestled with these same issues in their time and place. The thrust of the Declaration of Independence was to announce the thirteen colonies free of British colonial status. But the formal introduction alone reveals they understood they could not survive in a state of complete independence:
“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America”
The entities (states) declaring freedom from British rule were banding together in unanimous dependence on each other. As “free and independent states” (as the declaration describes them), they were actually speaking as a group desperately dependent upon each other. Though the soaring rhetoric of independence and liberty galvanized a collective will to separate from Britain, everyone knew that survival independent from English rule and protection required dependence on each other. How that was worked out over time has been the often-palpitating heartbeat of the American experience even to this day. But the Declaration and its historical legacy make one thing abundantly clear: freedom is not independence.
Wrestling with Independence
This is important to understand, because while we say we want freedom, in our heart of hearts what we really want is independence—autonomy and self-reliance. Independence to do and say what we want, to choose whom we want to associate with and who we want to keep away. Independence to make choices that release us from obligations to the interests of others. The ability to escape into a virtual independence through a touch screen. These personal declarations of independence happen in our families, in our churches, in our communities and workplaces. We elevate our self-sovereignty to an absolute necessity and treat any infringement on it as a violation of our own sense of inalienable rights.
When we seek independence of this kind, we fall back into the sin of our forbearers who rejected dependence on God for the illusion of being their own small but independent gods (Genesis 3:5). In this tragically misguided declaration of independence, humankind actually fell into bondage of the worst kind—trapped in sin and bound for eternal judgement.
But there is a freedom that is real and true and glorious. It is a freedom that comes as a gift by the redeeming work of Christ. This great gospel reality is sown throughout the Scriptures but is wonderfully encapsulated in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.Romans 6:6–11 ESV
To be set free from sin is not to be declared independent. It is to come into a dependent freedom in Christ. We welcome his rule because we live by his life. We are free from bondage to sin by the death of Christ. Our life is bound up in, dependent on, being “alive to God in Christ Jesus.” This is true freedom! Peter ratifies this “declaration of freedom” for all who are in Christ:
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.1 Peter 2:16
This dependent freedom is true liberty. Those who know the freedom of Christ put much less stake in the independence praised by this world. They do live in thankfulness for the common-grace freedoms the enjoy in society. They also care passionately for those who are denied freedom through persecution, injustice, or oppression They freely serve others as a way of serving Jesus. But they don’t look to this culture’s concept of independence as their source of freedom.
True freedom is theirs forever in Christ. I read something from John Stott one time that stuck with me. He talked about how true freedom releases us from what he described as the “cramping tyranny” of our self-centeredness so that we can live for God. I’m sure we’ve all felt the cramping tyranny of quarantine. And we all want to be free to move about our lives in as unhindered and mask-free a way as is possible. But removing quarantine won’t remove our self-worshipping, soul-stifling independence. We all need the real freedom found only in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ our worthy Lord! As you anticipate this July 4th in whatever muted celebration this pandemic allows, rejoice in your heart that you are truly free in this world and in the world to come.
TRAPPED: GETTING FREE FROM PEOPLE, PATTERNS, AND PROBLEMS
Andy Farmer’s Trapped takes one of the great themes of the gospel—the truth that we’ve been ransomed to freedom in Christ—and applies it to some of the most troubling, life-controlling issues we face.