Written by Dave Dunbar
Monday, 14 January 2013 00:00
My last post was a brief discussion of A Free People’s Suicide by Os Guinness. It is an appreciative analysis of the beginnings of the American experiment with freedom, but it is also a warning that liberty is not sustainable under current circumstances.
As I read the book, I could not help reflecting on the degree to which the present state of the church in America mirrors that of the broader culture. For freedom is not only a political issue—it is a gospel issue as well. Redemption is in part about freedom, whether we look at Israel’s exodus from Egypt, or the promise of return from exile, or the meaning of the atonement, or the ministry of the Spirit. And just as the founding fathers realized that freedom needed to be protected, so the early church (particularly the Apostle Paul) recognized that Christian freedom is always at risk of being distorted or morphing into something less than what God intends.
In the meeting of church and culture, influence goes both ways. Sometimes this is good, and other times it is not. But if Guinness is correct that modern America has lost the founders’ robust understanding of liberty, might this also be true of the church? And might the future of the church as the “free people” of God be just as much at risk as the American republic? Is the crisis of the church in America today at least partly a crisis of freedom that stems from a distorted vision of Christian liberty?
I believe the answer to each of these questions is yes and that the current cultural understanding of freedom has adversely affected our understanding of the gospel. In particular the problem lies with too narrow an understanding of freedom. Guinness argues that many Americans today view freedom only in negative terms, as an absence of restraint, as freedom from. But the founding fathers understood that freedom from must be complemented by positive freedom, freedom for, freedom to live with excellence, integrity, and virtue.
It is in this narrowing of the idea of freedom that we see the unfortunate impact of the broader culture on the church’s understanding of the gospel. We have now raised up several generations of Christians who have been taught that gospel liberty is freedom from. Jesus died to liberate us from the guilt and shame of our sins, from the righteous judgment of God, from the burden of the Law, and from “the power of cancelled sin” (to use Charles Wesley’s fine phrase).
All this is wonderful, glorious, and true. But if we stop here, our vision of the gospel is truncated, and we miss the point and purpose of Christian freedom. In Christ we are not merely free from, we are free for. Liberty is not only negative but positive. In the gospel we are free to be like Christ, to love God and to love our neighbor.
Martin Luther framed this beautifully in his classic treatise The Freedom of a Christian. He wrote: “The Christian is the perfectly free lord of all subject to none. The Christian is the perfectly dutiful servant of all subject to all.” This is the paradox of true freedom: it is not absolute but constrained by our duty to others. Negative freedom is joined with positive freedom (love for the neighbor).
Many Christians are pretty well convinced on the issue of negative freedom. We have left most of our legalisms behind. We feel less guilty about our weaknesses and transgressions. We are less concerned about judgment. But it seems to me that we are also more self-focused and more narcissistic than we used to be. The divorce rate in evangelical churches is as high as or higher than the surrounding culture. Consumerism and consumer debt is just a much a problem. Addictions of various sorts are also no stranger to our churches.
It seems then that the common view of Christian freedom is not sustainable. Freedom understood only as freedom from ultimately turns inward (freedom for me) and collapses upon itself. Sustainable Christian freedom must be focused outward. It is the freedom to be what God intends us to be. It is the liberty to follow Jesus, to love our neighbors, and to be people known for justice and compassion.
Os Guinness believes the American people need to return to the foundational ideas of the republic. So must the church hear again the full message of gospel freedom.
Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary. He has been married to Sharon for 42 years. They have four grown children and six grand children.