19. November 2017

How free are we?

‘…We have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God…’ (Rom. 6, 22)

For many people, to be ‘free’ is what they wish for above everything else. ‘One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’ is an oft repeated mantra in the context of civil wars and ‘Liberation Theology’ has a powerful pedigree in recent years, originating in Latin America amongst so-called base communities – village based communities of the poor inspired by local parish priests to seek the overthrow of what they saw as the enslaving effect of dictatorial power, be it political or even ecclesiastical. But for Luther it was altogether more fundamental.

Luther took the Adam & Eve story, contrasting how it was before the Fall, when they lived in an idyllic relationship with God, with how it was after they had chosen to rebel against God, the consequence being that now they were on their own, no longer in relationship with God they now had no choice but to choose for themselves how to make the best of life. But just because they could now choose, that of itself did not make them free precisely because they had by their actions prescribed the choices available to them. Whatever choices they made, ultimately, they would prove futile because they were made outside of a relationship with God. But God, out of love for those whom God had created was determined to redeem the consequences of human sinfulness. This God did by choosing a people to bear witness to the Divine intention, the Jews, from whom would come One who would be the agent of Redemption, Jesus. In the name of whom would be the instrumental means of such redemption, the Church, according to the effectual power of the Holy Spirit. For Luther this process of Redemption would mean that whilst on the one hand we have been set free from the effect of sin – that which gives us no choice but to choose; there is now, for the believer no choice, because there need be no choice, such is the nature of the love God has for us: what Paul describes elsewhere as that which ‘constrains us’, which ‘gives us no choice’, the ’compulsion’ of Divine love.

There is no such thing as ‘freedom’ for any of us. Paul is acknowledging a self-evident truth. Having forsaken God in the reckless pursuit of the illusion of being ‘free’ humankind finds itself in hock to itself, beholden to itself, subject to its own rules and regulations, bound by its own conventions, wrapped up in its own beaurocracy, hostage to its own fortune, focussed on its own self, determined by its own ambition, subject to its discipline, corrupted by its own sense of virtue, shrouded by its own mortality – and if you wanted evidence of all of this, Luther contended, just look at the Church, the institution that has chosen to sell the very the soul of humanity for its own devilish ends. In short, we are all slaves to sin, and sin’s most corrupting influence is to dare us to think that now we are free to be and do whatever we like.

By contrast God offers to us in Jesus a way of living that is far from free. God demands of us total and utter commitment; that we pledge ourselves to see everything from God’s point of view, a God who in and through the Holy Spirit is alive in the world, alive to the world, alive before the world, the power filled Spirit of God, the power according to which Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus said once that we could not serve ‘two’ masters, but the truth is we are called to be servants, created for works of service – at my ordination I committed myself, inter alia, to ‘prepare the people of God for works of service’. When we were given up to sin, finding ourselves with no choice but to choose, God, in love, gave us the choice, the only meaningful choice available to us, the choice to respond to God’s love by accepting the offer of entering into a relationship with the God revealed in Jesus, or rejecting that love…”

“If we are to believe he is really alive with all that that implies, then we have to believe without proof. And, of course that is the only way it could be. If it could be somehow proved, then we would have no choice but to believe. We would lose our freedom not to believe. And in the very moment that we lost that freedom, we would cease to be human beings. Our love of God would have been forced upon us, and love that is forced is of course not love at all. Love must be freely given. Love must live in the freedom not to love; it must take risks. Love must be prepared to suffer even as Jesus on the Cross suffered, and part of that suffering is doubt…” (Frederick Buechner: ‘The Magnificent Defeat’).

“And because God's love is uncoercive and treasures our freedom - if above all he wants us to love him, then we must be left free not to love him - we are free to resist it, deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again. This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, in this, the greatest of all powers, God's power, is itself powerless.” (op cit).

‘Free’ will operates within the constraints imposed upon us by our circumstances. The choices we might make are constrained for us by any number of factors, many of which are not of our own making. We find ourselves directly and/or indirectly affected by choices made by others regardless of our own particular choice. The Christian life will, indeed must constrain our freedom; it will, indeed must limit our choices; it will, indeed must determine our destiny; it will, indeed must impose its discipline; it will, indeed must demand its attention; it will, indeed must insist upon its claim upon our lives. Too easily we react to all of this in a way that denies what is the heart of the Gospel; That if we allow the Son to set us free, we shall be free indeed.’ The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.