Our fathers’ God, to Thee, Author of liberty, to Thee we sing.
—Samuel Francis Smith, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (1831)
Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else. . . .
—The Declaration of the Rights of Man, Article IV (1789)
So What Exactly Is Liberty?
The French Revolution handed Western civil government a radically new conception of liberty. It had been percolating along for some time in the journals, books and coffee house discussions we call the Enlightenment. But the French Assembly then defined Liberty as an actual principle to be applied. In the The Declaration of the Rights of Man, the French Assembly declared: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else. . . .”
Not surprisingly, this definition has no grounding in any revealed or biblical religion. This was by design. In fact, the roots of this philosophy are grounded in the deeply religious assumption of human autonomy. Interestingly, the Assembly’s definition gives a slight nod to traditional morality but does it in a roundabout way. It “assumes” that doing harm to another is somehow bad. But it doesn’t explain why harming someone might be bad or what precisely constitutes one person harming another.
The Declaration continues: “Hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.” This begins the discussion of “rights.” But again, not here or anywhere else does it explain what exactly these rights are or how it is that these “natural rights” arise out of Nature. It doesn’t explain how or where Nature reveals these rights or by what authority Nature … whatever Nature might be … has itself any right to hand out rights of any kind.
But the Declaration does tell us how the line between one man’s liberty and another’s must be drawn: “These limits can only be determined by law.” OK, so we are going to uses laws. And, of course, “law” used here is a call for the power of the State as enforcement. So the State is going to be the determiner of when one man’s liberty must give way to another’s. And, the basis for this determination is far from obvious. Because again, what exactly constitutes injury or harm? Does it include only bodily harm? What about theft? What about seducing another’s spouse or minor child? What about slander and verbal abuse? What about psychological abuse? What about a failure to give adequate love and support? Where and how will the State draw the line?
And then we must also ask: Who or what is included in “the other members of society”? Do we include the elderly and infirmed? The physical or mentally handicapped? What about those deemed biologically or culturally inferior? What about the child in the womb? And do we include plants, animals and robots? If not, why not? By whose standard are we drawing the lines that define our “society”?
Finally, we should probably ask about the source and nature of the State that is going to enact and enforce these laws … the laws that are going to define and protect individual liberty. How did this State come into being? By what right? Why is anyone who did not have part in its creation bound to obey it? And what is this State? Is it simply a collection of individuals who somehow have gained enough power to define my reality … to define for me liberty, injury and a law code?
The Declaration of the Rights of Man was the fruit of the left wing of the Enlightenment, and it’s decidedly revolutionary and socialist. But here’s the thing … 60 years later John Stuart Mill would write something similar: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Mill is often considered the grandfather of libertarianism. Oddly, as we go full circle … the two sides meet up and seem to be at least at the core, in total agreement.
The Authority and Freedom of God
The Christian faith recognizes the Triune God as the Author of human liberty. It defines liberty in terms of the biblical doctrines of creation, sin and redemption. Here’s what I mean by this:
From the very first verse, the Bible insists that God is Maker of heaven and earth. As such, He is exalted above all created reality (Ps. 57:5). He exists beyond the constraints of time, space and matter … all of which are His creatures (Gen. 1:1). He is the “high and lofty One who inhabits eternity” (Isa. 57:15). And yet He fills heaven and earth and is “not far from every one of us … for in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).
This Triune God alone is God. There are no demi-gods at His side, no forces of chaos He must contend with, no fate or contingency lurking behind His back. He is not conditioned by outside forces or demands. He is sovereign. His will is free. He is wholly self-contained and self-defining. He upholds the universe and rules it according to His sovereign will. He does as He pleases in heaven and earth, and “none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35). He gives account to none and is beyond the judgment of any (Job 33:13). Yet one day He will judge the world (Ps. 96:13; 98:9).
It is this free and sovereign God who is the Author and Source of all human authority and all human liberty. The Pilgrims and the early Colonialists knew this well and created our nation with this idea in mind.
Stewardship and Sin
In the beginning, God created man and gave him authority over creation (Gen. 1:26-30; Ps. 115:16). The “dominion” mentioned in the Bible was real stewardship under God and so defined and delineated by His Word. But within the great circle of God’s law/Word, mankind’s liberty was great. Infinite possibilities for investigation, study, creativity and invention, relationship and beauty, all were available. The restraints on liberty in the garden were few and fully in harmony with man’s own nature and best interests.
But God set one simple boundary on man’s freedom to remind him that he must live by every Word of God (Gen. 2:16-17; Matt. 4:4). God declared one Tree in Eden off limits and threatened Adam and Eve with temporal and eternal death (hell) if he should violate that covenant boundary.
Adam, however, broke God’s covenant law, defied his sovereign Lord, and surrendered himself and the world to sin and death (Gen. 3). In doing so, he also surrendered his liberty under God. He became a slave to sin and to his own delusions of autonomy (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16ff). So early on, mankind exchanged the grace and goodness of God for licentiousness, self-righteousness and slavery.
Salvation and Liberty
However, in Jesus Christ, God has provided redemption from the slavery of sin. One of the old Christian confessions summarizes the good news of this redemption with these words:
We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent his Son to assume that nature, in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested his justice against his Son, when he laid our iniquities upon him; and poured forth his mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving his Son unto death for us, and raising him for our justification, that through him we might obtain immortality and life eternal.
As covenant Mediator, Jesus is both Savior and Lord. He rescues sinners from the bondage of sin. He forgives sins, renews hearts, and rules in believers through His Word and Spirit. This is true liberty … the freedom to serve Jesus Christ within the broad circle of His covenant law. Simply stated, we have the liberty to be what God says we are and the freedom to live as God says we should.
So true liberty is Christ-centered. Christ purchased it … He mediates it … He makes it possible. Another confession says this about Christian liberty:
The liberty which Christ has purchased for believers under the Gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, and condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind.
It goes on to speak of “fuller communications of the free Spirit of God,” for “where the Spirit of the Lord is … there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). This is important because it is the Spirit of God who enables and empowers forgiven sinners to serve God with a clear conscience. And, it is the Spirit that allows us to exercise godly stewardship in this world, and to hope for greater victories for liberty in the future.
The Defense of Liberty
“Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). So Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia. Heretics there were undermining the Gospel, and freedom at all levels was at stake. Defend the truth, Paul says, and you are defending your freedom. Good advice.
Truly free men and women are drawn to the kind of freedom Paul is describing. This means we should cherish and defend our liberty by all means lawful. This also means we reject political tyranny on the one hand and licentiousness on the other (Gal. 5:13). We will seek the glory of our King and the coming of His kingdom. We will press for a world that’s pleasing to God, knowing that only in such a world will a comprehensive liberty finally be realized in all its beauty and glory.
Bill Heid is the founder of Off The Grid News, president of Solutions From Science and the executive producer of new audio drama, In Freedom’s Cause. Bill made Captain of the Patrol Guard in 5th grade. Then later, in high school he shot a decoy, thinking it was a real duck.