The ability of a person or group to be and do what they want instead of being controlled by another. It is popular today to believe that the individual is or should be in full control of him or her self. Such an understanding is alien to the Bible, which never depicts the individual as having total command or freedom over self. In one sense the Scripture does affirm that we are in control of ourselves. We are able to choose our actions and attitudes, our responses to others and to God. In another sense, we cannot be and do what we want because we are not independent of others or God. We do not have the power to do what we want to, whether that be to fulfill the law, love others, or save ourselves. The Bible constantly affirms that the kind of freedom all persons have is the kind of freedom that slaves have.
Old Testament Teaching In the Old Testament, “freedom” is used to describe what God desires and grants to Hebrew slaves. According to the law, no person is to have complete mastery of another. Consequently, the Law stipulates that a person can only be used as a slave for six years. Even so, if they are mistreated during that time, they are to be released. Also, every fifty years, all slaves are to be freed, regardless of how many years of their slavery they have served (Exodus 21:2-11,Exodus 21:26-27;
Deuteronomy 15:12-18). In the example of the Exodus and the preaching of the prophets, whoever is oppressed is viewed as a slave, and God desires that the oppression stop. He not only makes it the task of His people to stop oppression, but even says that if they don't, He will do it Himself (Isaiah 58:6;
Throughout the Old Testament, freedom is predominantly used to express control over the physical circumstances of life. By the time of the New Testament, it was widely recognized that no persons are free to such an extent that they have control of their physical circumstances. Even the rich are subject to war, drought, and other calamities. Nevertheless, an influential group called Stoics believed that anyone could still attain true freedom, because no person or force of nature can control the inner life. Thus, the individual is ultimately in control of self, though not of the environment.
New Testament Teaching In contrast to the Stoics, the New Testament recognizes that no one has such absolute control. Everyone is considered to be a slave in some sense. But being a slave in the first century world did not mean being without freedom.
Slaves during the New Testament era had much freedom of choice in daily affairs, and their decisions were not just trivial. They served in every position in society, including being the emperor's advisors and filling other government positions. They were allowed to conduct their own personal affairs, earn and save money for themselves, own property, and even own their own slaves. Just as Roman slaves usually had much control over their daily affairs, every time the New Testament commands us to do something, it implicitly affirms that we have control over our daily decisions.
Most slaves of the first century were slaves from birth. They were children of slaves, and they served their parents' owners. But few remained slaves for life. They were usually freed when their owners died, or after ten to twenty years of adult service to their owner. They also had the opportunity to buy their freedom if they could save or borrow the money their owner charged for freeing them. In fact, before the New Testament era was over, a large percentage of the free population of the Roman Empire had either been slaves at one time or had parents who were slaves. The New Testament depicts all persons as being in slavery—the slavery of sin (John 8:34;
2 Peter 2:19). Just as Roman slaves usually had the opportunity to gain their freedom, so all people have the opportunity to obtain release from bondage to sin by choosing to follow Christ (Romans 6:12-14;
Romans 10:9-12). Though slaves, our free will is intact, and our decisions are real and meaningful.
The New Testament also affirms that we are not our own rulers. We do not have ultimate control of our lives. Just as we are not in control of our physical circumstances because nature or some other person is more powerful than ourselves, so we are not in full control of even our inner selves because the powers of sin and grace are stronger than ourselves (Romans 7:15-25). Just as the slave's master determines the service that the slave is to perform, since the master is more powerful than the slave, so it is our master, not ourselves, who determines the general direction of our life (Romans 6:16).
When we yield to sin as our master, sin uses the law to deceive us into thinking that we are so in control of ourselves that by our own works we can save ourselves by obeying the law. In reality, on our own we do not have the power, the freedom, to live righteously. Indeed, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:18 NRSV). So our attempts to fulfill the law by ourselves simply increase our pride, thus strengthening the control of sin over us. As we continue to live under the rule of sin, the daily choices we make become more and more consistently obedient to sinful purposes and lead to death.
If, however, we yield to grace, given through Jesus Christ, the Spirit has the power to lead us into life and truth (Romans 6:19;
Ephesians 1:11-14). As we continue to live in Christ, He uses His power to mold us more and more into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18;
Since Jesus established His church, some people have always thought that we are no longer bound by the law but are “free” in Christ to act however we like. The Scriptures constantly remind us that following our every desire is not what freedom is. We are free from our former master, sin; but we are still servants. As servants of Christ, though we have the freedom to disobey our master, it is our responsibility to direct our actions to fulfill the purposes of Christ (Romans 6:1-2,Romans 6:15,Romans 6:18,Romans 6:22;
1 Peter 2:16).
Do we have freedom? Yes. Are we free? No. The Bible affirms that our choices are not determined; we make them ourselves. But it also demonstrates that we are not in total control of ourselves. We live under the ultimate control and direction of a power greater than ourselves. The comforting thing about this is that “in everything, he (God) cooperates for good with those who love God” (Romans 8:28 REB). See Election, Slavery.