It really is an amazing thing, the freedom that we are privileged to enjoy in these United States of America. That’s what we’ve celebrated with the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air on Independence Day. As I was sitting there watching a rather remarkable fireworks display the other night, I was vividly reminded of several movies, such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Blackhawk Down," "We Were Soldiers," and the more recent "Flags of Our Fathers," which give a sense of what a soldier witnesses in the heat of battle. I’ve not been there myself, and I certainly won’t presume to know what war is really like, but even such movies as I have seen about the experience have been humbling, and I am deeply grateful to those fellow citizens of our great country who have given their lives for the sake of freedom. My wife’s dear departed grandfather earned a purple heart in World War II, though none of us knew that until shortly before his death. The things that he witnessed and experienced in the war left their mark on him and haunted him to the end of his life. But he wasn’t of a mind to talk about it much. He came home from serving his country, got on with his life, worked hard and supported his family.
I found the fireworks this year to be far more reminiscent of the real warfare such displays recall than I have thought about in the past. It was a sobering thing to consider in the midst of a grand family gathering, and it made me all the more grateful for the great freedoms we have. The very fact that we were able to gather together as a family for such an occasion, or for any occasion, really, is a testimony to that freedom.
I was already thinking about such freedom earlier in the week, before it even dawned on me that it was the very thing we were getting ready to celebrate. Ironic, isn’t it? How easily do I take for granted things that much of the world could hardly begin to imagine.
All sorts of examples could be mentioned of the numerous opportunities that freedom gives us in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The one thing in particular that made me think of it the other day, is the freedom we have to get up and go, pretty much anywhere in the country we might choose. There are some limitations and restrictions on this and other freedoms, to be sure, but we are nevertheless free to travel far and wide. From South Bend, I can point my car east or west, north or south, and drive to my heart’s content. The government isn’t going to stop me, nor even question me about it. There’s no law against it. True, the price of gas these days is a pain, but it’s still far cheaper and more plentiful here than it is throughout most of the world. I can even pick and choose from an endless number of gas stations, and at any one of them I can purchase as much gas as my vehicle will hold. So far as I am aware, that is true from coast to coast.
There are regulations that place some control upon my traveling. There are speed limits and stop signs, and it is best to follow the roads (neither of my vehicles would do well off the road). I’m also required by law to fasten my own seat belt, to make sure the rest of my family does likewise, and to put my younger children in car seats. One can argue about where the line ought to be drawn upon such regulations, but, all things considered, they are there for the protection of my neighbor’s freedom. They also work to protect my freedom from my neighbor. The fact of the matter is that we sinners need such regulations to limit the hurt and harm we would otherwise do to one another.
The other limitations and restrictions upon my freedom are my finitude, for one thing, and the duties and obligations of my stations in life. I don’t just get up and go wherever at the drop of a hat, because I have responsibilities as a pastor, as a husband and father. I also have a finite amount of time, energy, money and other resources, which means I have to use discernment and make choices and decisions. All of that could be looked at negatively, and, truth be told, my old Adam bristles and chafes at whatever prevents me from living like a god unto myself. In reality, though, my finitude means living by grace through faith in the one true God, which is a good thing, and my stations in life are where and how my faith in God is translated into fervent love for my neighbor, according to His good and gracious will.
I have no doubt that freedom is the primary factor in the plentiful bounty and earthly greatness of our country. Freedom is the opportunity to strive and succeed. Capitalism thrives upon such freedom, and it works, because people are motivated to achieve something and make a better life for themselves. Sure, that is prompted and driven, to a large extent, by selfishness and greed (which is, again, why there needs to be some regulation of our freedom, for the sake of protecting the neighbor). Yet, irrespective of the motivation, freedom allows and enables results, which generally benefit everyone. There are abuses, yes, but these opportunities and accomplishments are among the good gifts of God, and whatever may be subject to abuse may also be received in faith and with thanksgiving, sanctified by the Word of God and prayer, and put to use in loving service. This, too, is part of our freedom; not only our temporal freedom as citizens of the United States, but our far greater theological freedom in the Gospel.
Lutherans have a profound understanding of freedom, at least in our teaching and confession, but I am often amazed at how befuddled we become by it. We rightly believe, teach and confess that, by sinful nature, we have no free will in matters pertaining to God. Hence, we are not able to make choices or decisions for Jesus, because we are conceived and born in sin, dead in our trespasses, fast bound in Satan’s chains, utterly unable to resurrect or free ourselves. But the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith. The Lord thereby converts our heart of stone into a heart of flesh. He woos our stubborn will away from sin and death, unto Himself in faith and love. He draws us to Himself, above all, by the Gospel, the forgiveness of all our sins, which is freely and fully ours by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Christ Jesus alone. Christ is our justification and sanctification, our righteousness and holiness, apart from any works of the Law. In Him we are set free from the righteous wrath of God, from sin, death and hell.
For freedom, Christ has set you free, and, because the Son has set you free, you are free indeed. This freedom is inherent in the Gospel itself; it dare not be tempered by any contingency, exception or qualification. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Period. A Christian is no longer under the Law, but under grace, and is therefore free to do whatever he wants. Seriously.
So, how is it that a Christian wants to live, and what does faith choose to do? Freedom is left fully intact, without compromise, but it is freedom in Christ, which does not gratify the lusts of the flesh but serves the neighbor in love. This true freedom is not simply a means to some other end; in such a case it would be no freedom at all, but a kind of coercion or enticement. But the freedom of the Christian in the Gospel of Christ is the opportunity to live in fervent love toward others. Not out of necessity, nor for the sake of gain, but freely for love’s sake; or, to say it another way, for Jesus’ sake. Virtue is it’s own reward, but there is no virtue apart from the freedom of faith in the Gospel; because there is no other virtue than that of Christ, which is imputed to the Christian by and with the forgiveness of sins.
Because the Christian is not only a son of God in Christ, but also remains for now a poor, miserable sinner, his freedom is regulated by the Law, which confronts him with its demands and prohibitions (in order to protect and provide for the neighbor). These regulations of the Law do not destroy the freedom of the Gospel, because forgiveness covers whatever is amiss and makes up whatever is lacking by giving us Jesus. Rather, the Lord uses His Law to destroy the old Adam, who remains in the bondage of sin and death, in order to set free the New Man in Christ through the daily dying and rising of repentance. And the Christian, as such, by the Spirit of God, uses the Law to exercise his freedom in the Gospel, that is to say, by freely choosing to do what is the good and acceptable will of God.
The Christian also remains a finite creature, unable to do everything for everyone. His freedom in the Gospel does not make of him a god unto himself, but rather a man of faith who lives from God in Christ. His stations in life provide the context and the framework in which to live out that freedom in love. At that point, the temporal freedom of an American citizen dovetails nicely with the theological freedom of a Christian, because his freedom in the world allows him greater opportunity to exercise his faith in loving service to his neighbors.
There are differences, of course, between temporal and theological freedom. Capitalism works when freedom facilitates the production of goods and the provision of services for the sake of selfish gain. There is no righteousness before God in this enterprise, but the neighbor is served and his needs are met. Christians, who are righteous by grace through faith in Christ, and who are thus released from the burdens of the Law, serve the neighbor freely on account of God’s Word and the neighbor’s need. In each and every case, it is freedom that enables the service that is rendered. Lutherans sometimes think of freedom too much in terms of not having to do this or that, and may fail to understand the freedom to do what God has given to be done. The same thing happens in the case of liturgical "adiaphora." The argument is typically made concerning a freedom from some practice or another, instead of lauding the freedom for an evangelical use of such and such ceremony.