“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”Galatians 5:1
There are two kinds of freedom: positive freedom and negative freedom. Both are good and both were purchased by Christ at the cross.
Negative freedom is freedom from constraint, which is what we most often think of when we think of freedom. It’s the flag-waving, fireworks setting, parade watching, “let freedom ring” singing sort of freedom that we celebrate on Independence Day. The “Independence” part says we are not ruled by or dependent on another nation, but are in-dependent.
In the Christian understanding of freedom, that’s only halfway there. Paul says, “Christ has set us free” from the “yoke of slavery” of sin, but that’s only the negative part of freedom. Yes, we are free from sin. But Christian freedom always has two parts. There’s a freedom from and a freedom to.
Positive freedom is the freedom to act. Paul says “for freedom Christ has set us free,” meaning that our freedom has an action or a goal that it was meant for. Negative freedom alone is not true freedom because freedom is never a goal in and of itself. Freedom is always oriented towards something else. Freedom is the reality through which we pursue other goals.
For example, Independence Day is an annual opportunity to give thanks to God for the freedom we enjoy every other day of the year. But a true celebration of freedom includes not only freedom from the constraints that could bind us, but freedom towards the good things we want to do.
Galatians 5:1 refers to both kinds of freedom when it says, “for freedom Christ has set us free.” The “for freedom” part is left open ended, because positive freedom is where we truly express the gift we’ve been given. But the verse also warns us against falling into a new form of slavery while calling it freedom. We can trade one kind of slavery for another. When freedom becomes an end in itself, it becomes a new form of tyranny. Negative freedom without positive freedom is no freedom at all.
Modern freedom is often conceived of as freedom from the past, from tradition, from morality, from someone else telling us how to live our lives. They walk right out of that prison into a new one. The new prison is still slavery with new traditions and moralities guarding the cells. We can even be enslaved by our own passions and desires (Gal 5:24).
There’s a good reason why many African Americans are not as excited to celebrate Independence Day. This holiday marks freedom from English slavery but not American slavery. Paul goes on to say, “you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
Christ has purchased both negative and positive freedom. We are set free from the penalty and power of sin, and set free to obey God from the heart in the power of the Spirit. True freedom in Christ is freedom and power to obey – to will and to act towards that which is good. In Christ, we have new ability to desire and to act upon what is truly good.
The exercise of this freedom takes time and intentional effort, however. It is refined and strengthened through Spirit-led discipline, much like a musician mastering an instrument. A child who is first learning the piano is free in one sense, but is not yet free in another sense. He did not give himself the ability to play; that ability is given by God. But he must develop the gift. He is free to take lessons and free to practice, but may choose to not do so. So he is free from the constraints preventing him from learning Mozart, but he is not free to actually play Mozart until he dedicates himself to learning and practice.
Christian freedom is like that. Christ has set us free from sin so that we will no longer be ruled by it. But that’s only half-way freedom. We are also free in the Spirit to devote ourselves to will and to act towards what is truly good. We are free to live in a God honoring way that is good and right in the world. Our freedom is not merely freedom from the penalty of sin in our past, but freedom to do what is good in the present and future.
Many Christians squander this opportunity. We limit freedom to the forgiveness for the past and miss the opportunities of the present. Like the child who is free to take lessons and learn Mozart, we often choose not to. But let’s at least be honest about it. We are missing out on the true benefits of freedom. Let’s not content ourselves with playing chopsticks and calling it Mozart.