Sunday, 2 March 2008

JI Packer on freedom

I picked up JI Packer's little book Freedom, Authority and Scripture in a second hand bookshop for 50p (the whole text of the book is online here). Although now somewhat dated in language (originally written in 1981), I've found what Dr Packer has to say very helpful.

Ahead of UCCF's FREE project, I thought that this gem on freedom might be worth reproducing in full. Enjoy!

Freedom has become a word to conjure with. It is modern man's way to treat freedom as the supreme value in life. Everyone wants more freedom than he has, and the quick way to get a following is to lay claim to a formula whereby freedom may be increased. It makes Westerners feel good to see themselves as the ‘free world’, just as it must have made the late Bertrand Russell feel good to announce his anti-Christianity in an essay entitled ‘A Free Man’s Worship.’ Politicians, lawyers, educationalists and social planners, if asked in public what they are after, will certainly reply in terms of maximising personal freedom. Many hail today’s permissiveness as a social virtue because it gives freedom for deviant behaviour which ‘less tolerant’ ages would not have countenanced. ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ was the war-cry of the French Revolution, and the testimony of liberation-movements, literature, pop songs and political rhetoric all over the world is that liberty is no less vehemently sought today than it was in eighteenth century France.

But what is liberty? Under what circumstances are we genuinely free? Ask this question, and the solid-looking front of freedom seekers breaks up at once. There is no agreement on the answer.

Basically there are two ways of conceiving freedom. The first is to view freedom as secular, external and worldly. It is essentially a matter of breaking bonds and abolishing restrictions and hardships. It seeks freedom from or freedom not to. Those who think thus of freedom have different ways of pursuing it. Some hit out. These are the revolutionaries, social, political and aesthetic, who constantly strive to overthrow ‘the system’. Others drop out. These are the hippies, the counter-culturalists, those who hole up in rural communities and farms, who do their own thing and never mind what the rest of the world is doing. Still other throw out. In the name of humanism these jettison Christianity with its supposedly dehumanising restraints on conduct. Such also are those who seek women’s liberation by decrying the leadership roles of men. The idea common to all these endeavours is that you gain freedom by negating something else.

The results are unimpressive. Revolutions turn out to be an exchange of one tyranny for another. Hippy-ness is found to be no passport to happiness. The self-styled ‘freethinker’ spends his strength denying what his parents or some other authority-figure once tried to teach him, and he never gets beyond it. Women denouncing male leadership end up mannish and loud. Is any of this recognizable as the freedom for which we all inwardly long? The idea that freedom is what you have when you have thrown off all that represses or constrains you is a false trail which leads nowhere save to puzzlement and disillusioned bitterness.

The second approach to freedom is distinctively Christian. It is evangelical, personal and positive. It defines freedom persuasively, that is, in terms which (so it urges) all should recognize as expressing what they are really after. These terms relate not to externals, which vary from age to age and person to person, but to the unchanging realities of the inner life. This definition starts with freedom from and freedom not to — in this case, freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and freedom not to be dominated by tyrannical self-will — but it centres on freedom for: freedom for God and godliness, freedom to love and serve one’s Maker and fellow-creatures, freedom for the joy, hope and contentment which God gives to sinners who believe in Christ. The essence of freedom (so the claim runs) lies in these inward qualities of heart, of which modern secular man knows nothing.

This approach sees freedom as the inner state of all who are fulfilling the potential of their own created nature by worshipping and serving their Saviour-God from the heart. Their freedom is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavour and relationship; not to abuse and exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them (cf. John 15:12 f.; 1 John 3:16). Freedom for such free service and self-giving is beyond the capacity, even the comprehension, of fallen human nature. At first sight few can recognize it as freedom at all. Though it is really the way of life for which we were made, it so negates the self-absorbed lifestyle which we all instinctively choose that it seems to us anti-human and frightens us off. In fact, the only way anyone comes to know it at all is as the gift of the risen Christ, who affirms his penitent disciples in their self-denial and imparts his life to us as we give away our own.

One aspect of this freedom is integrity, that simplicity and purity of heart which, as Kierkegaard analysed it, consists in willing one thing, namely the will and glory of God, so that one’s motives are freed from the taint of self-regard. A second aspect is spontaneity. Unlike the rule-ridden Pharisees, whom Jesus pictured living (as it were) by numbers, the free person in Christ invests creative enterprise and resourcefulness in the task of pleasing and praising God and doing good to one’s fellows. Where the Pharisee’s concern is to avoid doing wrong, the free person seeks to make the most and best of every situation, so that he is lively and sometimes breath-taking company. A final aspect is contentment, the fruit of God’s gift of a joy within that increases all life’s pleasures, stays with him whatever is present or lacking in his outward circumstances, and enables him to accept without bitterness the most acute forms of suffering and pain. In short, this person is free for holiness, humanness and happiness — a freedom which surely merits its name.

Where does this freedom come from? Jesus Christ, the one perfectly free man that history has seen, is its source as well as its model. He himself said, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36; for biblical development of the thought see Romans 6:1-7:6 and Galatians 4:21-6: 10). The exchange from which this promise comes is worth noting. Jesus has said: "If you hold to my teaching ... the truth will set you free." His Jewish hearers, bridling, had protested (with pathetic unrealism, in view of the Roman occupation), "We … have never been slaves of any one." Their protest showed them to be thinking of freedom in the purely external terms whose inadequacy we noted. But Jesus replied that he was talking of real freedom, freedom by comparison with which mere external non-servitude is not freedom at all. The real freedom is freedom from sin, which brings with it sonship to God and eternal security. Jesus tells them that only those whom he himself has freed, as they have entrusted themselves to him, are free in this full sense.

Jesus did not say, nor do I, that freedom from external pressures is not worth seeking or should not actually be sought by those for whom true freedom has become a reality. That is a different issue. My point, rather, is that while enjoyment of external freedom does not guarantee a free heart, the freedom that Christ gives can be enjoyed — praise God! — whatever external pressures there may be.

It must be plain that the second view of freedom is the profounder of the two, and since this freedom is bound up with personal salvation, social usefulness and the praise of God together, we should want to see everyone’s feet set on the road to it. But that road takes the form of accepting authority — the authority of God the Creator, who designed and sustains our human nature and alone can tell us what best to do with it; the authority of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the risen, reigning Son of God to whom all authority is given, who frees and keeps free those who continue in his word; the authority of Holy Scripture, which, as we shall see, is not just a witness to Christ’s universal reign but is actually the instrument of it so far as men are concerned; and the authority of the Holy Spirit, who so opens and applies Scripture to our hearts that we discern Christ’s will and are enabled to do it.

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