The Key to Discovering Freedom

There is a paradox at the heart of the Christian life: We must become Christ’s slave before we can be truly free. This is only an apparent paradox, however.

In the ultimate sense there are no paradoxes in Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity might be thought to be a paradox, but it is not really. When we say that God is both a Trinity and a unity, we mean only that he is three in one sense and one in another.

Similarly, when we speak of Christians being slaves to Christ and yet free, we mean that they become servants in one sense so they can become all that God intends them to be.

Christian freedom is like that of a man or woman in marriage. In one sense they are bound to each other; they are not free to love and relate to others in the way that they are obliged to love and relate to their spouse.

But in another sense they really are free. They are free to be themselves within the marriage, acting as what they really are—a married man and woman. They are free from the fear of rejection because of their mutual commitment. They are even free to love others with a love that complements their love in marriage. 


The key to discovering freedom is to be what one has been created to be—an obedient and grateful servant of the Most High. The difficulty for many people is that they wish to be what they are not or can never be; thus, they are doomed to a life of frustration.

Freedom has been defined as “the ability to fulfill one’s destiny, to function in terms of one’s ultimate goal.” In modern culture, freedom has more often been conceived as autonomy. But because this is a universe created and maintained by a sovereign God, no creature is or can be autonomous.

Pursuing Wealth

The pursuit of wealth is one attempt to achieve freedom apart from God or even from God himself. It is probably the dominant goal of most in the West and increasingly of the rest of the world as well.

If asked, most who pursue this goal would deny that their interest is in money itself. “We are not materialists,” they would say. “Money is freedom. Our pursuit of affluence is merely that we might have liberty to go where we wish and do what we want. We do not want to be tied to a particular job or place because of inadequate finances.”

Christians have no quarrel with anyone striving to attain a good standard of living. Poverty has truly binding effects in life. But it is not true that money is freedom. Freedom is a matter of the soul or mind. At best, affluence deals only with the lifestyle or mobility of people.

Besides, at times the wealthy are even imprisoned by their wealth, as some testify. Others are afraid of theft and barricade themselves as a protection against it.

Refusing to Commit

Refusal to make commitments is a second way some try to find freedom apart from God. Some couples live together without being married because they “want to be free,” meaning they want the option of ending the relationship if they grow tired of it. A bumper sticker proclaims, “Happiness is being single.” In job interviews many will not promise a prospective employer to remain with the company for more than a test period, because they “want to be free to move on.”

But the flaw is that freedom is only freedom if you use it. To make no commitments is really to do (or be) nothing at all. A commitment to things or persons actually brings freedom.

In Christianity a commitment to Christ brings freedom from sin, alienation, guilt, aimlessness, and eventually death through the resurrection. True, Christians are not free to sin, but they are free to serve. They are not free to hate, but they are set free to love. They are free to follow the path God sets before them.

Rejecting the Past

A rejection of the past is another false attempt to find freedom. Not only are yesterday’s standards of morality rejected, but even yesterday’s standards for doing anything. Anything new is better than anything old simply because it is new. This view is based on an unwillingness to be bound by anything others may have done or required, particularly in the realm of ethics.

Yet the law does not go away simply because we reject it, nor is conscience so easily shouted down. This might be possible were we our own makers and therefore truly autonomous, being responsible to no one but ourselves.

But we are not our own creators. We are not autonomous. And we are responsible to many: parents, employers, spiritual leaders, the state, God. What is needed is not a rejection of the past and its standards, but rather a freedom of mind and purpose that enables us to choose from the past, retaining what is best and adding to it on the basis of right conduct both before God and others.

Rejecting Authority

Rejection of all authority is the last of the major contemporary attempts to achieve freedom apart from God. Ultimately, this is the rejection of God, for the various human authorities that we know come from him (Rom 13:1‑2).

What takes their place? The individual. We each become our own authority. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the philosopher, held out for the absolute autonomy of the individual, but his own later insanity is a testimony to the futility of this determination.

Any attempt to establish freedom apart from the presuppositions of Christianity is doomed because it makes freedom hang on the individual’s own ability, which is not enough to sustain it. Reinhold Niebuhr analyzes this failure in an essay on “Individuality in Modern Culture.”

He traces the destruction of individual freedom (which, he maintains, has been given to the world by Christianity) through three philosophies: naturalism, idealism, and romanticism.

Naturalism failed to maintain individual freedom because it reduced humans to machines. Idealism failed because, although it stressed the higher, spiritual, or rational capacities of the individual, it found these only in a universal Self or Spirit in which the individual is lost. In romanticism the self became everything, but in the end all except a few like Nietzsche were forced to recoil from the pretensions of this individual self-glorification.

Niebuhr sums up these abortive attempts to establish freedom without the presuppositions of Christianity:

The simple fact is that both the obviously partial and unique and the supposedly universal values of history can be both appreciated and judged only in terms of a religious faith which has discovered the centre and source of life to be beyond and yet within historical existence. This is the God who is both Creator and Judge revealed in Biblical faith. . . . Without the presuppositions of the Christian faith the individual is either nothing or becomes everything. In the Christian faith man’s insignificance as a creature, involved in the process of nature and time, is lifted into significance by the mercy and power of God in which his life is sustained. But his significance as a free spirit is understood as subordinate to the freedom of God. His inclination to abuse his freedom, to overestimate his power and significance and to become everything is understood as the primal sin. It is because man is inevitably involved in this primal sin that he is bound to meet God first of all as a judge, who humbles his pride and brings his vain imagination to naught.

Taken from Foundations of the Christian Faith by James Montgomery Boice. Copyright (c) 2019 by James Montgomery Boice. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

James Montgomery Boice was, until his death in 2000, the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the teacher on "The Bible Study Hour" radio program and chairman of the board of City Center Academy. He held a BD from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Theology from the University of Basel in Switzerland. In addition to authoring numerous journal articles, he was a consulting editor for the Expositor's Bible Commentary. His books and commentaries include Foundations of God's City and the five-volume work The Gospel of John.