Our hunger for freedom: Where to find true liberty

Peter Jensen is the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. This is the second of two articles on human nature. Read the first article in the Briefing archives.

The French Revolution is one of the great events of world history. Its well-known slogan was ‘Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!’ Each of these words is worth considerable thought; we want them for ourselves. Indeed they may be said to have Christian roots or connotations.

Yet as a social aim—and one to be achieved by the sword—they are not so attractive. As we look at them, in theory as well as in practice, are they achievable together? Is liberty (or freedom), for example, truly consistent with fraternity? If we give ourselves to each other in mateship, can we also be free to do our own thing? Does that not impose obligations upon us? Does not being a group take away our individual freedom?

The French Revolution was to some extent the fruit of the European Enlightenment, an intellectual revolt against authority in Church and State, in the name of human reason and self-sufficiency. Not least, it was a revolt against the authority of the Bible as God’s word. ‘Liberty’ is not an empty word: it means freedom from certain concrete authorities, including the Bible. That long revolt against the Bible reached its culmination in the 1960s, but by then it was not merely a revolt against God. It was a revolution against fraternity as well. By the 1960s, Western culture had chosen individualism over community.

Individualism set up a cry for freedom from the bonds that had organised our community for so long. Women’s Liberation, for example, was not accidentally named. The heart of that revolution was the insistence that a woman was a person, with the same entitlements as any other person, and so needed to be liberated from society’s particular bonds on women. It was a revolutionary change which moved from subservience to others, to the exaltation of the self. This mood of individualism and self-centredness has led—almost necessarily—to the loosening of community, the fracturing of the family, and the quest for individual rights.

Indeed, the quest to be free has become, by definition, the quest not to be bound to others in a way that inhibits individual movement or action. As a result, instead of spouses we have ‘partners’, who are merely two individuals in a sexual relationship. It does not even matter which sex the individuals are, or how permanent the relationship may be. The sadness attached to this ‘freedom’ becomes apparent in middle age, when the absence of the ‘bondage’ of marriage often results in the heartache of loneliness. We have reached a stage in society now where desire has replaced the Bible as our authority; values have replaced virtues; personality has replaced character; and celebrities have replaced heroes. We have failed to keep liberty, equality and fraternity in balance.

Christianity, too, has a version of liberty, equality and fraternity. But it is radically different, based on a different analysis of our problems and a different solution to them. The Christian version intersects with the secular version, but also confronts it. The contest between Christianity and secular thought about certain issues, such as sex and the liberation of women, arises from fundamentally different ways of understanding the world and the nature of human beings. We can grasp the issues best by examining what God has done for the salvation of the world, and what we know about ourselves and the nature of evil.

The calamity of sin

As I argued previously (August, Briefing 275), we are not just creatures of God; we are sinful creatures of God. We were not created evil or sinful—we cannot blame God for it. Nor can we say that sin is just natural; that wherever you have human beings you have sin, as though it is the essence of being human and so there is nothing to be done about it. No, our sinfulness is due to a great calamity. In its very opening chapters, the Bible makes it absolutely clear that sin invaded our race. Everything that was created was, before that, good. “Sin entered the world through one man”; and he sinned by “breaking a command” (Rom 5:12,14). It was not the act of eating the fruit as such that was the sin, but the rejection of God’s authority. This continues to be the essence of sin; it is the voice that cries to God, “I do not need you”.

The spread of sin

Adam sinned in our name and so involved us immediately in his condemnation. This is something we must accept. We accept the blessing of Adam’s representation—the goodness of the earth, our position as rulers—and so we must accept the curse as well. Moreover, the result of his sin was not merely that the race was ‘off-side’ with God; it was that the ‘infection’ of sin was transmitted to the race, as “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (Rom 5:19). The Bible treats us as a community of persons, and our representative head has committed us to this position of opposition to God.

Many have claimed this is unfair. However, if we are inclined to complain about it, we need only ask this question: “do I agree with Adam?” If not, stop sinning! If you are in control of your life, you ought to be able to stop it. Unfortunately, the universal human experience is that it can’t be done. We are addicted to sin. We follow willingly in Adam’s footsteps.

But what is this sin? Originally it was a breach of God’s command, hence called a ‘trespass’, a breach of God’s law. Jews were given it specifically, but Gentiles have no excuse for the law is written on their hearts (Rom 2). The law is like a torch, showing up the deep recesses of our soul.

The misery of sin

The Bible speaks of the pleasures of sin, because sin often yields gratification and pleasure. It is attractive—like sugar to the child. But the truth of the matter is that sin is miserable, and causes misery. The Genesis account captures this fall into misery. To this day, the ‘Garden of Eden’ is synonymous with human bliss and happiness. In the Garden, things were at their best: man and God and all creation were in harmony; work was blessed; families were at peace; and there grew the tree of life. It is a picture of contentment which has been sought by mankind ever since.

The rejection of God’s rule was followed by solemn words of curse: the cursing of the snake, and the cursing of the labour of childbirth and the labour of tilling the ground. It meant banishment and exile. From now on, human life occurs outside the garden. What we have now is not the land prepared for us, but a land of thorns and thistles and hard labour. In other words we are wanderers, exiles, away from our true home, displaced. We are born outside Eden, cut off from God; indeed, we are enemies of God.

The world still remains beautiful and glorious in so many ways. There is a constant reminder of what may have been. But we now clash with the world and it hurts us. There is no consistency: one person will live for an hour, another for a hundred years. There is no justice; there are few enough remedies for our ills. Even love is a pain—no one can hurt us as much as the people whom we love best.

The whole world, and we who are in it, is under the miserable curse of God’s judgement. The Bible teaches that “the sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor 15:56). It is not death we fear but what lies beyond. For if we are up against a judgement based on adherence to the law, we are in a desperate position. No wonder we simply do not want to hear the bad news; no wonder, too, it is in everyone’s interests to think that the human race is much better than the Bible declares it to be. We are caught in a slavery which we can’t escape; so we deny it and try to find freedom our own way.

Treating our addictions

We ourselves, then, are by nature hostile to God and opposed to his right to order our lives. There is no human spiritual freedom from authority. We were not created to be free, but to be servants. God never intended to create beings independent of authority, even if we fool ourselves into thinking that we are. Those in our society who proclaim their ‘freedom’ tend to be those who exhibit the most evidence of bondage. We are a society of addictions—to swearing, selfishness, sex, food, alcohol, drugs, the latest trend. Has there ever been a society more addicted? Yet, has there ever been a society so vocal in its cries of freedom?

This seems a paradox unless we understand the Bible. It always told us that such a vain attempt for freedom would only lead to slavery. For we cannot be free without God. We cannot even overcome our own hostility and turn to God. Our only hope, then, is that God himself will take the initiative to redeem us. Ephesians 1 reveals that God decided before the foundation of the world to take such an initiative and save a people for himself. Had he not chosen his people, no one would turn to him of his own volition. Our salvation, our choice, is entirely the mercy of God. Why did he do it? He was not motivated by anything attractive in us. Rather, by his grace he chose to act, through his son Jesus, “the friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 7:34).

The free servant

The Father and the Son are one in all things, but the Son is not the Father; he does the will of the Father in perfect obedience. Was he free? Indeed he was—for Jesus shows us what freedom truly is. The freedom of the Son is his perfect obedience to the Father. The service of God is the freedom of the human heart.

But is God free? Can God do whatever he likes? Yes, of course. Can he tell a lie? No, he cannot. Against our intuitions, restriction and freedom go together. Our deepest hunger is in fact for real freedom, the freedom to be what God meant us to be—his servants.

Jesus enjoyed the glory of God, and equality with God (Phil 2:6), but did not exploit that equality when commanded by the Father to “become flesh and dwell among us” (Jn 1:14). He lived a life of poverty, temptation, obedience and service:

Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him … (Heb 5:8-9)

Jesus’ life of service culminated in his death. He bore the pain of rejection by his people, betrayal by a disciple, abandonment by his friends and injustice by the State. He willingly accepted the curse of God upon those hung on a tree. In doing so, he bore the punishment of the sin of the world as a substitute (1 Pet 2:24). He averted the wrath of God and secured pardon for his people (Heb 2:17).

What does such freedom provide for God’s people? It frees them from God’s judgement, but what does it free them to do? The Bible’s answer seems almost too simple: we were rescued in order to serve Jesus as our Lord. Jesus reigns over the world, summoning men and women everywhere to submit to his rule by repentance and faith. That is what we are free to do and be: to repent and to be faithful.

The Spirit’s summons

The Spirit has been sent by the Father and the Son, and acts in perfect concord with them. Is the spirit free? Yes, for he can do exactly what he wants to do—the Father’s will. The Spirit inspires the authoritative and accurate testimony to Jesus of the Old and New Testaments. The Spirit overcomes the hostility of the human heart and enables us to see the Lord Jesus in his word, and so accept the gospel. Sinners that we are, we could only accept the gospel by the Spirit’s work. The Spirit and the word bring us to new birth, that is, they equip us to be partakers of the age to come.

By the Spirit we call Jesus ‘Lord’ and God ‘Father’. These are the sure and certain evidences that we have received the Holy Spirit. And it is not just an individual thing: we are bound together in communion with our fellow believers, and begin to experience that equality and fraternity which will be the marks of life in the age to come.

Because sin remains, these experiences are far from complete or ideal. The Christian faith is not utopian. It is not revolutionary communism. It will not be perfect in this sinful world. The miracle is, however, that together in community we begin the process of ‘glorification’ or becoming like Jesus, conscious of his promise that he will keep us to the end. We have a wonderful foretaste of everything that is to happen to us in the world to come.


Pagan ideas of freedom have made inroads into Christian hearts. We must repent of these ideas, and daily put ourselves under the lordship of the one Lord who saves us. We must not exhibit the hunger for individualism seen around us, but long for a deep unity that only the Spirit can bring. We must make church a necessity, not an option. We belong together, and are not free to reject each other.

Liberty, equality and fraternity are all good things. But sin means that there is no utopia of fraternity and equality here, even in the church. Moreover, we need to educate the world and ourselves to understand that before these issue in social programs, they are spiritual concepts. We will never have anything approaching it on this earth without a society founded on the word of God. We were created to be slaves; true liberty means finding the right Master. He will treat us as sons and daughters.

Comments are closed.