How to Define Christian Liberty

The Christian Conception of Liberty

In 1520, Martin Luther penned the monumental Protestant work “On Christian Liberty.” For Luther, the greatest of Christian freedoms is freedom from the wrath of God. For Luther, all men are sinners. They have violated the law of God and are thus “under wrath.” Though they know God, and they know that they have failed to keep God’s law, they persist in outright rebellion; for Luther, the only satisfaction for having sinned against God consists in the payment which the Son of God merited in His perfect life and sin atoning death. Through faith, the Christian man is freed from the condemnation of the law. His inheritance in heaven, the promised Holy Spirit, and union and communion with the Lord are irrevocably his. In Christ, the church is “not under law, but under grace.”

According to the Reformed conception, to be “under grace” refers to more than justification. It also refers to what Theologians call “definitive sanctification,” the freedom afforded to the Christian, according to His union with Christ, wherein He is given the power to live a holy life. This two-fold blessing rooted in union with Christ, results in the Christians freedom from both the guilt and power of the law (the double cure). In addition to this, the apostle Paul states that Christians are freed from the law as a “tutor.” Paul’s referent here is the Old Covenant, in its totality, as a rule of life and covenant for the people of God. At the advent of Christ and the inauguration of the New Covenant in His blood, the Old Covenant, as a law of life, having been fulfilled, was made obsolete (obsolete refers to its character as a covenant for life, its use for continual instruction). [1]

Finally, Christ affords his people, as individuals, freedom of conscience and thought. Christ proclaims that among them they should call no one “teachers” for they have one teacher who is in heaven. In this regard, Jesus condemns the authoritarian Pharisees, who regarded their traditions as equal in terms of authority to the God-breathed Scriptures. In stating that there are no more teachers, Jesus is condemning authoritarian teachers who add to the Law of God, not ministerial teachers who clarify what the Scriptures themselves teach. Pastors, elders, and gurus who attempt to go beyond Scripture and bind your conscience to their own personal dictates are doing the work of the devil. Where Christ has set us free, they enslave; called to be shepherds, they are wolves. Christian liberty is, therefore, four-fold: Freedom from the Guilt of Sin (Justification), Freedom from the Power of Sin (Sanctification), Freedom from the Burden of the Law (Redemptive-Historical), and freedom from extra-biblical traditions and commandments of men (Authoritarianism).

The Marxist Conception of Liberty

The Philosopher-Economist Karl Marx had a four-fold conception of liberty. The first is liberty from the oppressor. Marx conceived of economic history in terms of an oppressor-oppressed paradigm. Those who owned the means of production (the oppressor) controlled the lives of those who worked for them (the oppressed). The oppressors would pay the oppressed just enough for them to live on (living labor); the oppressor would then extract the money which the oppressed made for him in the process (surplus value). Therefore, Marx posited that freedom consisted, in part, in the freedom of the oppressed from the oppressor. The oppressor, in a Capitalist system, alienated the oppressed from his true desires (Volitional liberty). Further, he oppressed him from the labors of his hands; in Marx’s conception, the individual is reduced to a machine who repeatedly does one job and therefore never sees the fruit of his labors. Marx advocated a freedom to express full creativity in the actualization of a product (Vocational Liberty). Further, within the Oppressor-Oppressed paradigm, Marx argued that the worker was alienated from participation in guiding the history of mankind, therefore Marx advocated a freedom from that form of powerlessness (Monumental Liberty). To solve this problem, Marx advocated the violent revolution of the oppressed against the oppressor. The oppressed would seize the “capital” the means of production which the oppressor held. The revolutionaries would then inaugurate a centralized system of wealth distribution in order to achieve a form of equality and liberty (Socialism). When this equality and freedom finally reach the designated point, the state would give up its right to redistribution having inaugurated a new era of human flourishing wherein each gives according to his ability and each man receives according to his need (Communism).[2]

The Libertarian Conception of Liberty

Libertarians conceive of liberty, negatively, as freedom from infringement. Positively, they conceive of it as a right to private property. As to the latter, the property which Libertarians advocate is liberty of the individual person to do what they want with their body (social liberty) and liberty of that person to do that which they want with their property (economic liberty). To state it another way, Libertarians posit that one’s natural rights consist of the right to be free from violence and theft from the other. This is freedom of action. Libertarians believe in what is referred to as “negative rights” which entails freedom from interference as opposed to positive rights which are rights wherein the one exercising that right forces the service of the other. One who believes in a positive right to healthcare would believe that it is their right to force a physician to perform medical practices if they are sick. The physician who believes in the negative right against infringement, would believe that he is not required to perform medical practices if he is unwilling, no matter the circumstance. Libertarian freedom is, therefore, the freedom to do what you want, when you want, with what you want, provided that in the actualization of such actions you refrain from infringing upon anyone else’s right to do the same. They are strong advocates of the freedoms of speech, property, arms, and press as a result.

The Conservative Conception of Liberty

The conservative conception of liberty, politically, is freedom from tyranny. Conservatives stand in between Marxists and Libertarians pertaining to governmental interventions. For Conservatives, freedom is a cherished right but not an absolute right. “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” For Conservatives, especially those of us sympathetic to the Kuyperian tradition, God has annexed certain rights and duties to the various spheres; these include the spheres of the individual and the state. He has not, though, given him an absolute right to his person or property (he must tithe, for example). In God’s economy, the state is given the duty primarily to effect justice for the preservation and good of its citizens. This is why the state is just in exacting taxes from us. According to the Conservative contention, taxation is not theft.[3] Taxation is the legitimate action of government which is necessary to enable it to carry out its duty of administering justice. In this, Conservatism contradicts Libertarianism. For Conservatives, though, the state is not absolute, as in Marxist Socialism. The state is to be limited because men are evil.[4] The state is to be limited, because God has written His law on everyman’s heart. That law can be explicated in terms of rights (the right to property and life). Those rights, though not absolute, are not to be infringed upon in any absolute way (as in Socialism). Both the individual and the state, in God’s economy, have unique rights and duties in Conservatism. In a righteous system, they restrain each other. In a righteous system, they work in tandem. The Christian conservative, against the Marxist and the Libertarian, posits that liberty is a right given to men by God and secured by the state, as both work together in God’s economy for human flourishing.[5]

Political Freedom Taxonomy:

IndividualStateNegative RightsPositive Duties
Citations & References [1] Hebrews 8:6-13, For more on the Reformed doctrine of the Law and its uses in the Christian life see, “The Westminster Confession of Faith” Chapter 19, Reformed.org.

[2] For more on Marx see, Patrick L. Gardiner, Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, Readings in the History of Philosophy (New York: Free Press, ©1969), 1. Pgs 261-288.

[3] Matthew 22:21

[4] Leviticus 24:17-22; Jesus words on the Sermon on the mount are used to argue against Conservative doctrines like Capital Punishment. In doing this, these Theologians fail to understand the different contexts of Matthew 5-7 and Leviticus 24:17-22. In the former, Jesus is addressing the heart of His disciples as individuals and the church; His church is to bear the marks of forgiveness and grace on a personal level (because they themselves have been forgiven by God in Christ). Leviticus 24:17-22, on the other hand, is given to the political state of Israel on a national level. The state is God’s minister for justice; in order to limit the power of the state, God gave them the law contained in Leviticus 24:17-22 that the power exercised by the state would be equal to the crime.

[5] For more on Conservatism and Libertarianism, see Plato.Stanford.edu for more information on these belief systems.

Patrick Steckbeck

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Patrick Steckbeck is a graduate of Reformation Bible College, earning a B.A. in Theological Studies. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Philosophy, specializing in Aristotle and Aquinas. He is the founder of The Reformed Philosopher.

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