Our Heritage of Liberty

“The creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” —Romans 8:21

A GREAT DEAL is said in the Scriptures about liberty, and also of its contrasting principle of bondage. Those who enjoy liberty are free, while those who are held in bondage are slaves. The Scriptures do not, however, teach that liberty, as such, is always desirable, nor that the exercise of liberty is always pleasing to the Lord. The Scriptures do not support that well-known expression of human wisdom, stated in the words of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death.” In its final analysis this would mean that personal liberty should come before every other consideration, which is not according to the Scriptures. Adam and Eve exercised their liberty but died as a result, for they broke away from the legitimate bondage of Divine law.

The typical people of God were held as slaves in Egypt. They longed for liberty, and finally God set them free; but their freedom did not imply the right to do as they pleased, for almost immediately they were brought under the restraints of the Mosaic Law. However, it was only because of their fallen condition, their inherited sin which the Law condemned, that the Law Covenant was a burden to them. The Law was “holy, and just, and good.” (Rom. 7:12) It was even spiritual because it came from God, and had the Israelites been able to measure up to its standards they would have enjoyed a wonderful liberty in their obedience to it. (Rom. 7:14) Instead, it proved to be a yoke upon their necks.

One of the most degrading periods in the life of the Israelites was during a short time when they were without a leader, king, or judge. Of that time it is written that everyone did according to that which was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6; 21:25) The Apostle Peter speaks of some who mingle among spiritual Israelites proclaiming the doctrine of ‘liberty’. “With their high-sounding nonsense,” writes the apostle, “they use the sensual pull of the lower passions to attract those who were just on the point of cutting loose from their companions in misconduct. They promise them liberty. Liberty!—when they themselves are bound hand and foot to utter depravity. For a man is the slave of whatever masters him.”—II Pet. 2:18,19, J.B. Phillips Translation

Thus the apostle points out clearly that there is a liberty which is displeasing to God. It is a liberty which appeals to the lusts, or desires of the flesh; and those who preach this doctrine make their appeals along this line, pointing out in subtle ways that it is not necessary to be bound by any restraining influence of the will of God. Any expression of God’s will which restrains one from doing what he likes best to do, is displeasing to the flesh; and if someone teaches that such restraint is destroying the liberty that should be enjoyed in Christ, the fallen fleshly mind is quick to agree.

Fundamentally, that which made the death of Jesus necessary in order that man might be redeemed from death was the insistence of the human race to enjoy full personal liberty. In a prophecy concerning Jesus’ death, the people are represented as saying, “We have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa. 53:6) Here the principle of full liberty to do as one pleases is characterized as ‘iniquity’. It is fitting in this connection to note that Jesus proved worthy to be man’s Redeemer because of his obedience to his Heavenly Father’s will. “Not my will, but thine, be done,” was the way Jesus viewed the matter. (Luke 22:42) He did not go his own way, for as he said, “I came … not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.”—John 6:38


The ‘liberty’ which the Scriptures speak of as desirable for the Christian is a freedom from enslaving cords of sin and death. The Jews had tried to conquer sin and be free by keeping the Law, but had failed, with the result that the Law itself, condemning sin as it did, and prescribing death as the penalty for sin, had brought the Israelites under an additional bondage. There were teachers in the Early Church who, not understanding the truth clearly, were insisting that believers must still remain under the Law. The truth was that through faith in Christ they had been made free from the condemnation of the Law, so Paul wrote: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”—Gal. 5:1

By taking this text completely out of its setting, it is often improperly used to substantiate the arguments of those who offer the brethren freedom and encourage each one to go his own way, insisting that the ideal state of the Christian community is one in which all are free to think and to act as they please. There is only one condition under which a Christian is warranted in doing just as he pleases, and that is when his heart is so in tune with the Divine will, and so glad to give up all his own preferences and notions, that all he really desires to do, all that he pleases to do, is the will of God. Those who are thus fully devoted to God can enjoy a glorious liberty. They can be free indeed.

But such freedom is not wholly obtainable at present, for the mind of the flesh strives against the mind of the Spirit, causing the latter to be more or less hampered in carrying out the entire will of God. This restraint is referred to in our text as the ‘bondage of corruption’, and from this bondage every true Christian longs to be delivered in order to be entirely free to serve the Lord in every detail of his holy will. This is the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’. It will be enjoyed beyond the veil only by those who have humbled themselves under the mighty hand of God, and who have learned to love the will of God so completely that even a thought that is contrary thereto would be painful to them. While these will, indeed, enjoy a liberty which to them will be ‘glorious’, their rejoicing will not be on account of finally having the privilege of doing as they please, but because in their resurrection body they will have the ability to do God’s will perfectly, with no cords of imperfection to restrain them from doing the will of God which they have learned to love.


Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) Personal liberty must of necessity be relative. In the home, members of the family must to some extent be subject one to another. Each one in the family can do as he pleases only if that which pleases him most is that which will contribute to the best interests of all. The automobile driver is not free to drive where and how he will on the road. The exercise of such liberty would quickly result in death to himself and to others. The employee is subject to his employer. The president of a business corporation is subject to a board of directors. Absolute freedom is unworkable in any field of human experience or endeavor.

What, then, did Jesus mean when he said that the truth makes free? Comprehensively speaking, the ‘truth’ to Jesus was the will of his Heavenly Father. On behalf of his disciples he prayed: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy Word is truth.” (John 17:17) The Word of God to Jesus was the Old Testament Scriptures—the “volume of the book” (Heb. 10:7)—which he agreed to obey at the time of his consecration at Jordan. Supplemental to the Old Testament, his followers have been blessed with the New Testament Scriptures. These enlarge upon and elucidate that which had previously been written, and thus is the will of God made plain to those who are sanctified by it.

The ‘truth’, then, not only makes us free, but it sanctifies us. But these two results of the Word of God in our lives are in reality merely parts of one accomplishment. First, the truth separates us from the binding influence of error, and then sets us apart to do the will of God. It liberates us from being slaves of sin, and makes us the bond “servants of Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 6:6; Phil. 1:1) In other words, the freedom which Jesus offered his followers through the truth was not personal liberty to chart their own course in life, because no one knew better than Jesus did that such liberty leads to death. He wanted them to be free from traditions of men, and from the burdens imposed upon them by the religious leaders of that day; and in the place of that bondage he invited them to take his “yoke” upon them. His yoke, he explained, they would find “easy,” and his burden “light.” (Matt. 11:30) It would be easy and light because they would learn to love it.

The whole universe is controlled by law. Even the planets are not free to traverse the heavens where they will. Similarly, the intelligent creatures of God, when in harmony with the Divine will, are restrained and controlled by law, and that law is the will of God. Their obedience is voluntary up to a point. Any of us can say that we will not do this, or we will do that, regardless of God’s will in the matter; but we cannot continue in such a course of liberty without suffering for it. God is dealing with us, and with the entire human race—and even the angels—with the view of all learning to love his will—learning to love it so wholeheartedly that it will be our delight to do it.

This was true of Jesus. He did not exercise personal liberty in his service of God and of the truth, but came to do the Father’s will. (John 6:38) However, the will of God was not burdensome to the Master, but a delight: “I delight to do thy will, O my God: Yea, thy Law is within my heart.” (Ps. 40:8) God was his Head, his governor, and the Head of the church is Christ. (Eph. 1:22; 5:23) This means that as Christians we have freedom only within the circumscribed limits of the will of God and of Christ, our Head.


We should guard against the mistaken notion that the will of God is always to be found in doing the things which we like to do. Many times, and in many ways, the preferences of our fallen flesh will run counter to the will of God. On any such occasion it would be easy to conclude that a brother in Christ who might admonish us to faithfulness in doing God’s will was trying to bring us into bondage. The criterion by which the will of God can be properly determined is not our preferences, but the plain statements of the Word of God. In our Christian experience, if we find ourselves circumventing the Divine requirements, it will be because we have not yet learned fully to appreciate our privilege of being bond slaves of the Lord, that we are being guided by the reasonings of the flesh while trying to make ourselves believe that we are merely exercising our liberty in Christ.

Depending upon our background of experience and education, and also upon our natural temperaments, there are various requirements of the will of God which we may find grievous until we learn to love them. For example, the apostle admonishes, “Obey them that have the rule over you.” (Heb. 13:17) This, of course, does not mean that a Christian is to render servile obedience to any human being, but it does indicate that in the properly constituted organization of the New Creation some are elected to be servants, and that these should be respected in proportion to their faithfulness to the Lord, to the truth, and to the brethren. Obedience to this admonition involves recognition of the Lord’s arrangements for his people in connection with each local ecclesia or congregation. But this is not always pleasing to the flesh. We might be inclined to say, “I am free in Christ. I do not need to recognize the authority of any congregation of the Lord’s people. I prefer to exercise my liberty in Christ and not to be tied down to any ecclesia.” Such expressions are merely the reasonings of the fallen flesh, and to use the expression, “Liberty in Christ” as a justification for our own preferences is unwarranted, and a misnomer.

The apostle exhorts us to “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.” (Heb. 10:24) If in obeying this admonition a brother exhorts us to be faithful along these lines, encouraging us to be zealous in laying down our lives in the service of God as an expression of our love for him, let us not resent it. Let us not try to justify our lack of zeal with the excuse that someone is trying to bring us into bondage by encouraging us to faithfulness in the Divine service. We would much rather conclude that there is nothing to be done, that all God expects of us is to study his Word and attend meetings with a fair degree of regularity, exercising the spirit “of a sound mind” (II Tim. 1:7) by not going to meetings when we are too tired, or the weather is unfavorable. This, some may argue, is their liberty in Christ, hence they resent being reminded of their responsibilities toward God, and charge that someone is trying to bring them into bondage.

The proper exercise of love for the brethren in our association with them presents problems at times. Our love for the brethren is not, of course, based upon a personal liking for them. Nevertheless, through our association with the Lord’s people precious friendships develop. These in themselves are not wrong unless we permit them to influence our judgment or our course of action with respect to the expressed will of God. Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus that some would arise in their own midst who would speak “perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30) This has been true in every part of the age. It is true today, and when it occurs a test is presented to those involved.

In the church at Ephesus, for example, doubtless those who began to speak perverse things had become the special friends of many in the ecclesia, and therein was a test. If those who held steadfastly to the truth, and decided to exercise what they called their liberty in Christ, they might decide that it did not make much difference about the perverse things their friends were teaching. And even when these withdrew from the ecclesia and endeavored to draw others with them, these ‘liberty loving’ brethren might have decided that they would keep in touch with them—‘just to show a good spirit’. After all, they might reason, Why should I be in bondage to the congregation? I am free in Christ to come and go as I please.

Such decision and such conduct on the part of any of the brethren in the ecclesia at Ephesus, regardless of how plausible it might have seemed, would have been acting in defiance of the clearly expressed will of God through his apostle. It is but natural to want to keep in touch with our friends. We love them, and dislike to give them up; but in reality, we injure them by a course of action that is contrary to the expressed will of God. It is very easy to injure our friends by encouraging them in the wrong course they have taken. The most effective way of reclaiming our brethren who have erred is to stay where we belong ourselves, and by our example of faithfulness beckon to them to return to the right way. It is a mistake to suppose that by going along with them to show a good spirit they will be helped. This merely encourages them in their wrongdoing.

The will of God in a matter of this kind is not pleasing to the flesh, and we may reason that our liberty is being circumscribed; but again let us remind ourselves that our liberty in Christ is liberty merely to do God’s will—it is not liberty to follow our own inclinations when they run counter to the clearly discerned will and approval of God and his Christ. On this point we have an express command by the inspired apostle, a command that should be recognized as binding by every consecrated follower of the Master—“Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.”—Rom. 16:17

What does it mean to ‘mark’ them which cause divisions contrary to the doctrine? It certainly does not mean to brand them with a hot iron, or to persecute them, or to speak all manner of evil against them, falsely. But the least it can mean, nevertheless, is that we should not ignore their course of action, but rather take note of them, and of what they are doing, and where others are in danger of being misled by them, to sound a warning. Our love for the whole church demands that we ‘mark’ to this extent those who cause divisions.

And Paul adds that we should ‘avoid’ them. Surely this does not mean that if a brother has separated himself from our ecclesia, and is endeavoring to draw others after him, we should refuse to speak to him on the street, or cross over to the other side when we see him coming. But it would mean that we should avoid such a one to the extent that we would carefully refrain from giving any encouragement to the wrong course he is taking; or by our conduct lead others to believe that we think he is justified in what he is doing, and that probably the Lord is pleased with the course he is taking. To do or say anything which would even in the slightest degree bid Godspeed to a wrongdoer makes us equally guilty before God.—II John 10,11


A very illuminating illustration of the importance of restraining our personal preferences is the problem which existed in the Early Church with respect to eating meat which had been offered to idols. Those well developed in the truth knew that the meat had not been defiled by its being presented in sacrifice to an inanimate god, and they felt at liberty to eat such meat. Probably it could be bought at bargain prices in the market, hence its use would be an economic advantage to those whose consciences would permit.

In this situation, nevertheless, was an excellent opportunity to restrain one’s use of liberty. Here the rule of love superseded the exercise of liberty, as it so often does. Paul caught the spirit of the matter. He realized that if he ate meat which was offered to idols, brethren who thought it wrong to do so might be led to follow his example against their conscience, and thus their fortitude for doing right would be weakened. The apostle reasoned, therefore, that the exercise of his liberty might cause injury to his brethren, so he wrote, “If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth.”—I Cor. 8:13

The law of God involved here is the one which calls for self-sacrificing interest on behalf of our brethren. This law, this restraining cord limiting the exercise of our personal liberty, will be found to apply in many situations with which we may be confronted from time to time. Even where there is no specific command of Scripture to explain the will of God in a given circumstance, this principle may well show us the course to take. How will my words, actions and attitude in this matter affect my brethren, particularly those who may be only recently in the way and who are not yet well grounded in the truth? The general welfare of the entire congregation including new members should constitute a rigid control on what we do, where we go, and what we say.

It is a mistaken notion of Christian liberty to suppose that we are free to do anything that we feel reasonably certain will not endanger our own standing in the truth. As members of the body of Christ we are not free to say or do anything which even in the remotest degree may injure another member in the body. Our liberty must be restrained, or limited, to meet the viewpoint of the babes in Christ. Our flesh may rebel against such restraint, but as we learn to love God’s will, we will rejoice in the privilege of curtailing our own liberties in order that others might be blessed.


Constant vigilance is necessary in order not to misuse our liberty to do God’s will, which is our true liberty in Christ. Paul speaks of “casting down imaginations [Margin ‘reasonings’], and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (II Cor. 10:5) Surely an injunction of this kind should impress upon our hearts and minds the folly of supposing that as Christians we are not hedged about by restrictions. The only sense in which we can be truly free to do the things of our choice is by becoming so oriented to the will of God, that its every detail is a delight to our hearts.

So far as the mind of the flesh is concerned, we have no liberty, for our every thought is to be brought into captivity. As bond slaves of Jesus Christ we are to have no plans of our own that will in any measure run counter to the will of God. There is a broad latitude in this, however, provided we have learned to love his will. We are free to “add” to our “faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity [love].” (II Pet. 1:5-7) We are free to lay down our lives for the brethren. (I John 3:16) We are free to hold forth the Word of life. (Phil. 2:16) We are free to let our light shine that others may have an opportunity to be blessed by the truth. (Matt. 5:16) We are free to use all our time and strength and means in the service of the Lord, the truth, and the brethren, up to the point where such service does not infringe on the rights of others toward whom we may have obligations.

We are free to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. (Jude 3) We are free to admonish the brethren to faithfulness in love and in good works. We are free to study the Bible in order that we may better understand the will of God. We are free to love the brethren and to manifest that love toward them within the limitations laid down for us in the Word of God. We are free to do good unto all men as we have opportunity, and especially unto the household of faith.—Gal. 6:10

We are not free to walk after the flesh. We are not free to speak or act in any way which may even remotely be injurious to our brethren. We are not free to render evil for evil, reviling for reviling. We are not free to separate ourselves from the brethren and endeavor thus to serve the Lord independently of our local ecclesia. We are not free to conclude that our judgment is superior to that of the ecclesia with which we are associated. We are not free to do as we please according to the preferences of our fallen flesh.

If and when we learn to love the will of God as we should, the only restraint we will find burdensome will be the hampering imperfections of the flesh which prevent us from rendering that absolute obedience to the Lord in every detail for which our hearts long. In the resurrection we shall be delivered into that glorious liberty of the sons of God—glorious because we will then be able fully to render that absolute obedience which we are trying to do now. May the anticipation of that sublime future liberty spur us on now to greater faithfulness as slaves to our Master, even Christ.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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