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Seriously, Happy Creation Day everybody.  Hope you've been enjoying the festivities.

The other day I started talking about freedom: Beginning with ourselves will never get us to a sustainable or satisfying account of freedom.

When we say: "I am who I am / I will be who I will be", it is both blasphemous (Exodus 3:6) and the very expression of our bondage.  We become trapped by an identity that can allow no foreign claims.  We simply become identified as one with a capacity to choose.  And yet in maintaining that capacity as an absolute sovereignty we are defined in abstraction from the relationships that form and direct us as choosers.  I'm a slave to my desires.  Ephesians 2:1-3.  In the very act of gratifying the cravings of my flesh, right then I am enslaved.

We can't begin our thinking about freedom with ourselves.

So where should we begin it?

Well it's very popular to begin with man choosing in the garden.

Yet if we begin in Eden, what account of freedom results?  We effectively define freedom as the ability to choose or not to choose certain paths.  The ability to act otherwise is seen as the very 'freedom' which the LORD grants humanity.  And so of course the decision to eat the forbidden fruit becomes an expression of free will (defined as a power of self-direction).  On this account Adam exercised freedom in disobeying the LORD even though it was a freedom with a cosmically heavy price tag.  And so in this very popular telling of the freedom story, "Freedom" (which is now almost by definition the ability to disobey!) is some unquestioned Good that is traded off against the consequences of its exercise - "Heck, the fall was bad, but that's the price of freedom!"


What kind of "freedom" is this?

Well let's ask - how does it compare to divine freedom?  Is the freedom of the Father, Son or Holy Spirit a freedom that would be expressed in choosing evil?  Well the Scriptures continually tell us that the Almighty, who can do whatever He pleases (e.g. Psalm 115:3), cannot sin, lie, deny Himself.  He who is free does not define His freedom as the ability to do evil.  For the divine Persons to choose any course of action contrary to their Personhood would be an expression of slavery not freedom.  For the Trinity, freedom is not the ability to do wrong, nor is it enhanced by such opportunities.

This holds also for humanity in the new creation.

In the New Jerusalem the forbidden fruit is gone, the tree of life alone takes centre stage. (Rev 22:1-3).  Not only will humanity never fall, there won't even be the option for us to do so.  That's a wonderful thought (unless you're eye-ball deep in the humanist version of freedom!).  But more than this, the bible calls this new creation state of affairs freedom.  Galatians 4:26 says the Jerusalem above is free.  The saints in glory now and the redeemed earth then will be characterized by mind-blowing freedom (cf Romans 8:19-21).  So for glorified humanity, freedom is not the ability to do wrong, nor is freedom enhanced by such opportunities.  Freedom flourishes even (and especially!) when there is no option but to continually serve the Father in the Son and by the Spirit.

So then, we're going to have to get a different definition of freedom.  Where from?  Well perhaps our initial instinct wasn't so bad after all.  Maybe we do need to begin with man choosing in the garden.

Gethsemane is the garden.  And Jesus is the Man.  He will show us what true freedom looks like.

Think first of who He is - the Son.

This speaks of many things - let's highlight three:

  1. Christ's Sonship means He is loved.  He is the eternal Son of His Father's love (Colossians 1:13).  He is the Object of the overflowing love of the Father - the Original recipient and goal of all the Father's omnipotent grace.
  2. Christ's Sonship means He is obedient.  As Son, Jesus always does His Father's will (John 5:17ff).
  3. Christ's Sonship means He is free.  Sonship is consistently contrasted with slavery by Jesus and Paul (e.g. John 8:31-36; Galatians 4).  He is the Liberator who is Himself the True Free Man.

These three aspects of His Person are perfectly coordinated in Jesus.  We can never play off grace, obedience and freedom.  In our thinking we may consider them to be opposed but when we trace these things back to their centre in Jesus we see that they perfectly inform and explain one another.

And so how does this Man in this garden show us true freedom?

Let's consider Mark 14:36:

"Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."

First He acknowledges His filial relationship with God - 'Abba, Father'.  All the shades of sonship we've just discussed should be in the forefront of our minds.

Next He acknowledges 'everything is possible for You.'  The Son doesn't go to the cross because the Father is 'all out of options.'  No-one is holding a gun to the Father's head - not the Son, not some necessary logic of redemption, nothing.  What happens happens in the Father's will - a will unbound by any forces beyond Him.  The Father is indeed free from compulsion (though this is not our final definition of freedom).

But finally, when Jesus says 'Take this cup from me, yet not what I will but what you will' He confesses a different will to that of the Father.  In all of history, in all of theology this is unparalleled.  It is stunning, shocking, scandalizing... I could go on.  The Son, even if only for a moment, is considering an option other than obedience to His Father's will.  Even though He is the obedient Son, even though He is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8) and the Son of Man who must die (Mark 8:31), He contemplates another way.  It seems like no-one is holding a gun to the Son's head either.  He must die, because He will die.  And He will die voluntarily.  In a reversal of Eden, the last Adam submits His will to the Father's and in this submission expresses true freedom.

It is not rebellion that demonstrates freedom but obedience.  This is the great difference between popular notions of freedom and Christ's.  Choosing does not make us free - choosing submission (paradoxically!) does.  When we view things in the Son we see that obedience and freedom, rebellion and slavery are inextricably linked.  The only free choice is the one for obedience.

Ans so where Adam chose self-rule and brought slavery, Christ chose submission and brought redemption.  It's at Gethsemane that we see true freedom for there we see the true Son, truly loved by His Abba, Father and truly obedient to His will.  "Everything is possible" is not the definition of freedom.  It's the use of these possibilities that demonstrates true freedom.  And this use is only a liberated use when it is obedient.

From this we get a different defintion of freedom.  It's not about options, it's about responsible use of the will in expression of your grace-given, relational identity.  The capacity for disobedience is not a criterion for freedom and choosing to disobey can only be slavery.  Instead true freedom is found in Christ and by the power of the Spirit, living out your blood-bought sonship (daughtership) in obedience to the Father's will.  To choose anything else is the bondage of the will.

In future posts I'll look at the implications of this for the non-Christian and the Christian.



An evocative word.

What does it mean to us?

Usually it means a freedom from some kind of power so that we can realize our true potential.  'I'm free to do what I want any old time.'  That kind of thing.

The question of 'Who is this "I" who can do these things?' is usually considered to be a restatement of the freedom mantra: I am the one who can do what I want.  "I am who I am / I will be who I will be", as Someone famously once said.

The link between such an account of freedom and the divinisation of the self becomes obvious in a thinker like John Stuart Mill.  He said this in On Liberty:

In the part [of the conduct of an individual] which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of course, of right, absolute.  Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Now notice that Mill is concerned here with conduct that 'merely concerns ourselves'.  He's well aware that the independent exercise of our wills can harm others and diminish their freedom.  He's no dummy.  He has a whole apparatus of 'rights' with which to negotiate the competing claims of our own absolute freedoms. 

When Christians argue against Mill, the argument should not be: "Hey, if everyone thinks they're sovereign they'll ride rough-shod over everyone else."  That would be a very pragmatic objection and one to which Mill has a whole raft of pragmatic solutions.

No, the problem is not what humanity does with their self-rule (they could be thoroughly virtuous with it).  The problem is self-rule.  Mill effectively poses the question, Who has the absolute claim over my life?  He answers: I do.  Mill's philosophy here (which is the air we breathe in the West) is nothing less than the enthronement of man upon Christ's throne.  

But in critiquing such 'freedom' we can do more than simply denounce it as blasphemous.  We would do well also to expose it as the worst kind of bondage.  Why bondage? 

Well let's ask the question,  Who is this self who is exalted to the throne?  Who is the "I" that can do whatever "I" want?

Tellingly, this 'freedom' cannot positively give you an identity.  In fact, to be true to itself, this kind of 'freedom' must refuse to tell you who you are.  All that such 'freedom' can offer is the protection of a sphere in which you can pursue your desires.  It gives you a kingdom (of one!) and a throne and it operates a strict immigration policy.  Yet this border-patrol must not only exclude impediments to your desires, it must also exclude forces that would seek to direct those desires.  It must repel all foreign claims upon you and leave you with an absolute and unquestioned independence.  You have your kingdom and your throne, but who are you?  Well, You will be who you will be.  And so, left to rule your own kingdom, you are a prisoner of your independence.

Consider this piece of advice being given to millions of men and women around the world right now:

"Don't let anyone tell you what to do.  You're your own man / your own woman." 

Now aside from the inherent contradiction on show here, notice how you are to be directed in your sovereign rule.  You must direct yourself.  And the reason?  You belong to yourself.   This is the infuriating circularity

I direct myself.

Who is the I who directs?

The one with power to direct.


I belong to me.

Who is the one who belongs to me?

The one belonging to me.

What's missing in all this is an environment in which to exercise our freedom.  We have been treated as though the choices we make in expression of our self-hood are grounded only in ourselves as individuals.  Yet we are who we are in a network of dependent relationships.  The expression of our identity through responsible living and choosing necessarily occurs within an environment.  Divorced from this environment, any experience of 'freedom' will actually take us away from our true selves.

This is the experience of the ant-farm in this famous Simpson's clip...


The ants may have longed to be free from their glass case, but 'freedom' from the ant-farm proves to be "horrible" indeed.  It destroys their very selves to be 'free' from the environment supportive of their own life and being.

We are the same. We don't exist as free floating individuals to whom the greatest gift would be independence.  We are truly free when properly related to the environment in which our personhood flourishes. 

And this is why Mill's definition of freedom does not help the exercise of responsible choice, it radically undermines it.  Because I have been stripped of all claims upon me, all direction from outside, all sense of a context wider than me, I am left with a self that can only be defined in reference to itself and its own decision-making capacity.  I have a naked self exercising a naked power, cut free from all that's actually constitutive of my identity.

Therefore, necessarily, I'm going to have to go outside myself in order to live out my irreducibly relational existence.  I need to, so to speak, make an alliance with a foreign kingdom. 

Now our experience of this will feel like it falls into one of two categories:

Either A) I embark on an alliance as a dispensible means towards my self-determined end.  In this case I'll drop it as soon as it's inconvenient -- I'm in charge using you. 

Or B) I genuinely give myself over to the foreign power and am determined by it -- You're in charge using me. 

But the bible says, in practice A) is our sinful intention but it always collapses into B). 

Let's think about Ephesians 2:1-3:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.

In our natural state we 'carry out the desires of the body and mind'.  You might think that sitting on the throne of your little kingdom is the definition of freedom.  But no, precisely as we 'gratify the cravings' (NIV) of the body and mind we are following the devil.  Just as we think we are exercising our self-rule, in that act we are being ruled by Satan.  We imagine we're strong enough to pull off A), in reality we have no bargaining power with the world, the flesh and the devil - they're in charge using us.

The similarity between Mill's quotation on freedom and Ephesians 2:3 is chilling.  To exercise 'sovereignty' over our 'body and mind' is not freedom at all.  According to the bible that is slavery. 

If we're going to find a true freedom it will have to be on an entirely different footing.

More on that later...


 Rest of series:

Where to begin?

Freed will

Living free




Not sure it ever happened (happy to be contradicted), but what a good illustration as heard in this morning's sermon by Neil Green (my vicar).

Abraham Lincoln was once at a slave auction.  A young girl was being sold, naked but for her shackles.  Lincoln was so distressed by the thought of her being bought by any of the rabble present that he bid for her himself.  As the price went up and up, Lincoln continued to outbid the rest and eventually he paid top dollar for her.  The girl was brought to Abe, petrified of what a man who paid so much would want with her.  Lincoln took off his great black cloak and clothed her saying 'You're free.' 

The girl couldn't believe it.  She said 'You mean I can go?' 

He said 'Yes'. 

'I can marry anyone I want?' 


'I can work anywhere I like?' 


'I can go anywhere I please?' 


'Then,' she said, 'I will go with you.'


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