Sermon: Christian Freedom

17 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following sermon by the Rev. H. P. Liddon, Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, is extracted from Great Sermons by Great Preachers (published 1889).  It was preached at St. Paul’s on Sunday, April 21, 1872, before Her Majesty’s Judges and the Corporation of the City of London.

“As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” — 1 Peter ii, 16.

St. Peter touches a note which appeals to human interests in all ages and everywhere. Freedom is one of those words which need no recommendation. It belongs to the same category as light, order, progress, truth, law. It is one of the ideas which, in some sense or other, mankind accepts as an axiom — as a landmark or principle of healthful life beyond discussion. What do we mean by freedom? We mean the power of a living being to act without hindrance according to the true law of its life. A mineral, therefore, is in no sense capable of freedom. It neither grows nor moves — it does not live. A tree, in a metaphorical or attenuated sense, is capable of freedom. It contains within itself the mystery of a vital principle which requires certain conditions for its necessary development; and in this sense we may speak of a tree having freedom to grow. The lower animals in various degrees are capable of some thing which may, with better reason, be called freedom. They are capable of it in degrees which vary proportionately to their approach to the frontier of self-conscious, self-determining life as manifested in human beings. The brute does not merely grow, he moves from place to place. He does not move by any fatal necessity but can take this direction or that as instinct prompts him, without interfering with his movement, so as to trammel his freedom. Still, it is instinct he obeys. He does not reflect about his movement. He does not choose, while comprehending his power of choice. He is really from movement to movement governed by that which is for the time being the strongest instinct or passion that is upon him. If he is free, to run about, free to eat what he likes, to sleep and rest when he likes, he has all that he wants, and his instinct will probably guide him to sleep, eat and take exercise in such proportions and at such times as the law of his life requires.
With man, it is otherwise; for he is a moral being. He reflects, and knows what he is doing when he reflects. He chooses, and knows what he is doing in this exercise of choice. Much of man’s life is vegetative, no doubt, like that of the tree. Much of it is sentient, and under the government of instinct, as that of the animal. We go through thousands of movements and acts every day of our lives, as we say “without thinking about them.” We obey instinct, or habit, or some governing inclination, without throwing any conscious deliberate energy into the act of obedience. But our true-life as human beings is something higher than this. Man lives and acts as man. He asserts that which is properly his human liberty when he obeys a law which he is free to disobey. For he is a moral being, and in this his greatness consists. It is not uncommon now-a-days to hear the insignificance of man insisted on as, compared with the planets, with the suns and stars that roll over our heads. Certainly, my brethren, if the greatness of created beings is to be determined by their material bulk, man is insignificant enough. He is, in this particular very much below many other animals around him on this his own planet. But man can do that which no planet can do — he can obey or refuse to obey the highest law of his life. The planet cannot leave its appointed orbit. It circles on, age after age, in obedience to the mathematical law which governs it. God has given it a law which shall not be broken. Man can disobey the highest law of his life; and this liberty is at once his prerogative and his danger. The highest law of man’s life, is to know, love and serve the Being who gave it to him — the Being whose very existence has not dawned upon the most intelligent of any of the creatures below man. God wills that man should obey Him freely — that is, that he should be able to refuse obedience, and yet should obey. And this, which is man’s consummate prerogative, is necessarily linked to a fearful responsibility for declining to exercise it. If man obeyed God only as a planet revolves in its orbit — only as a brute eats his food — he would not be man.
Man’s freedom is exercised in three main departments of his life — in his life as a social being, which we term his political life; in his life as a thinking being, or his intellectual life; and in his life as a moral being, — his personal spiritual life. In each of these departments of human activity, Christ our great deliverer has made man free.
Christ our Lord has given to man, first of all, political or social freedom. He has not, indeed, drawn out a scheme of government, and stamped it with His Divine authority as guaranteeing freedom. We Englishmen rightly prize a constitutional Monarchy as the best form of government; especially when it is recommended by the character of such a Sovereign as our present Queen. But while we cannot even entertain the thought of abandoning our own Constitution for any other, we must frankly admit that a citizen of the United States, for instance, may feel himself as much at home amid the political doctrines of the New Testament as any subject of her Majesty. For the New Testament asserts nothing but two necessary elements of man’s life as a political or social being. The first is the existence of some government which it is his conscientious duty to obey; whether it be an Assembly, a President, a King, or an Emperor— some “higher power” to which every soul is to be subject, because there is no power but of God, and the “powers that be” are ordained of God. Secondly, it asserts the fact of the freedom — the inalienable, indestructible freedom of the individual Christian under any form of Government.
There had been something like freedom in the ancient heathen world for particular classes, particular races, for the masters of conquered provinces, and the owners of thousands of slaves. The ruling races or classes acted much as they liked. They jealously noted any attempt on the part of any aspiring tyrant to destroy liberty. This was an external, rather than an internal, a political rather than a moral liberty. The liberty of the few it was, and yet the enslavement of the many. As it had no moral and internal basis, it was the accident, rather than the spirit, of the ancient world; and as political constitutions wore out, it died away, by an invariable law, into a tyranny. When our Lord came on earth all that could be called civilization was under the sway of the Roman Caesar. Yet with Him also there came the germs of political liberty; for when the individual man had learned to feel the greatness and the interest of life — the real horizon which stretches before the eye of the soul, as it looks into eternity beyond the grave — the depths of being within each soul, its inexhaustible capacity for pleasure and for suffering, the reality and nearness of the great God — and of His Divine Son — of our unseen fellow-citizens, the blessed angels — the awful distinction of being ransomed by the blood of the Most Holy and sanctified by the Eternal Spirit, it was impossible not to feel also that in the highest sense each man had rights to assert, and a bearing to maintain. And thus from the first the Christian was a free man simply because he was a Christian. The political or social accidents of his position could not touch that unimpeded movement of his highest life in which true freedom consists.
It has indeed been alleged — it will have occurred to you — that as a matter of fact our Lord left the great despotism of the ancient world untouched. Christ taught; He was crucified; He was buried; He rose; He ascended; but the Caesar Tiberius still sat on the throne of the world. There never was a more odious system of personal government than that of the Roman Emperors. The surviving forms of the extinct Republic only serving to make the actual tyranny harder to bear. Yet, even under such an Emperor as Nero St. Paul wrote — “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers;” and St. Peter — “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the Emperor as supreme, or unto Governor;” meaning the consuls and proconsuls established under the Roman rule in Judea; “as unto them that are sent for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well.” In the same way, the Apostles advised Christian slaves to give obedience to their masters, as if to the Lord Christ Himself — to obey, not with eye-service, as if they had only to do just so much as might be insisted upon by a jealous taskmaster, but with singleness of heart, as throwing every energy into a conscientious work.
It may be asked, How are such precepts compatible with the assertion that Christ gave man political freedom? The answer is that He gave us a moral force which did two things: First, as I have noted, it made every Christian, in virtue of the law of his life, independent of outward political circumstances; and next, it made the creation of new civil institutions only a question of time. The slave, who could not whisper to his fellow-slave except when he was at rest — the slave who could not control a single movement of his person throughout the long, weary day — the slave whose every gesture was regulated by an implacable etiquette — the slave whose life was, at least during particular periods of Roman history, literally at the disposal of his owner — he, too, if a Christian, was inwardly free. He had a sense of freedom, a power of living according to the highest law of his being, which the Caesar on his throne dreamt not of. That was enough for him, at least for the present, if he knew the conditions of his own happiness, and if he had divined the will of his Lord. By-and-by the moral seed which had been sown would bear fruit, in the emancipation of such as himself; it would bear fruit in new public institutions; and it would change the face of the world. It was not, indeed, our Lord’s part, like that of some agitators of the time, to promote a rising among the slaves, to arouse provinces into rebellion against their rulers, to issue programmes for a political or social revolution. That would have been at issue with the lessons of love, tenderness, charity, long-suffering, which He came to teach. But His one doctrine of the worth and dignity of redeemed man was like leaven deposited in the corrupt mass of human society, and in time the world could not but be leavened politically, as in other ways. The process has been advancing for centuries; and it is still going on. We Englishmen owe much to it, more, perhaps, than any nation in the world.
It has been said, I know, that if despotism ceased in this country with the Stuarts, liberty is still confronted by the Statute Book. Of course, it is. How in the world could it be otherwise? The objection assumes that between Law and Liberty there is some sort of necessary antagonism. We know, unhappily, that in some foreign countries this opposition is taken for granted; that there are countries near our own in which Law and Liberty are treated as implacable enemies, in which order is secured only by the confiscation of all personal liberty, in which Liberty raises its head only amidst the ruins of Order and of Law. We may well thank God, that He has spared us such trials. When your lordships come down to this Temple of Jesus Christ, you represent two principles, and not merely one; you represent the sacred interests of Liberty, not less than the sacred interests of Law. For, Law is the guarantee of Liberty — not its enemy; and Liberty, if it knows its own interests, is ever the enthusiastic friend of Law. Each of them rests upon an ultimate fact which is Divine; Liberty, upon the fact of the greatness, the majesty of individual human life; Law, upon the fact of our divinely implanted social instincts, and, as a consequence, on the Divine origin of society, and the inevitable necessity of upholding and protecting society against individual selfish passion. To crush this Liberty in the name of Law, is to sow the seed sooner or later of social insurrection. To depreciate or insult Law in the name of Liberty, is to make of Liberty, a cloak of maliciousness, and to ensure its ruin. Nothing can be more deplorable than a conflict between these sacred principles. An old Psalmist, reviewing the tyrannical administration of law by the Judges of Israel, says, “all the foundations of the earth were out of course.” The whole social fabric literally totters to its base when there is a struggle between human law, and the Divine law of conscience; between law and the highest liberty. To avoid this, must be the end of every wise legislator, to deprecate it, the heartfelt prayer of every good citizen.
Christ, our Lord, has given man also intellectual freedom. He has enfranchised man by the gift of truth — truth in its fullness — truth not merely relative and provisional, but absolute and final. As He said Himself, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Until He came, the human intellect was, in different degrees enslaved. It was enslaved either to some degrading superstition, or to some false and one-sided philosophy. Man must think about himself — about his place in the universe, about his destiny, about his relation to a Higher Being, and if he has no reliable truth at hand, he makes the best he can of attainable error. He may “change the glory of the Incorruptible God into an image, made like unto corruptible man;” still that he feels is better than nothing. He may listen to a teacher who, while promising him liberty, is himself the servant of corruption; still that is more endurable than utter silence. Man’s interest in the great problems which haunt him, betrays him to his intellectual foes; unless he have embraced the truth — unless the truth in all its greatness and tenderness has made him free.
It is undeniable, as a matter of fact, that the religion of Christ gave a great impulse to human thought. It made men think as they had never thought before. It made men feel what it is to have within this puny body, a spirit which can take the measure of the spheres. When Christ, in all the glory of His Godhead and His Manhood had enthroned Himself in the soul, He taught man by His very presence to think worthily of the greatness of God, and — despite his weakness and corruption — of the greatness of man. He freed man from the narrowing cramping influence of local philosophers and teachers of petty schemes and theories, in the interest of classes and races. He led men out into the great highways of thought, where, if they would, they might know the universal Father, manifested in His Blessed Son, — as the Author of all Existence, as its one legitimate End.
You ask me whether, as a matter of fact, Christianity does not cramp intellectual liberty, by insisting upon the necessity of believing Christian doctrine — whether the creeds for instance, are not hostile to, as being limitations of, mental liberty. Certainly, my brethren, our Lord has given us a body of truth which we can, if we like, reject — which it is our happiness to believe. What He has done for man in this way, is embodied in His own recorded teaching, in the writings of the Apostles, and finally, in the creeds of the universal Church. These documents are to true intellectual liberty, just what law is to social liberty. They protect; they do not cramp it. They afford a fixed point from which thought may take wing. They do not enchain thought. If man would think steadily and fruitfully, he must begin with fixed ascertained truth. You cannot survey the surface of the ocean while you, yourself, are tossing upon its waves. You must plant your foot upon a rock in order to do so, from a basis which is fixed, while all around you is perpetually shifting; and to plunge voluntarily off the rock into the waves, is deliberately to surrender this vantage ground. It is with creeds as with law. If you repudiate law, you may become the slaves of every individual will. If you repudiate the creeds of Christianity, you may become the slaves of any petty intellectual dogmatizer. In repudiating the creeds, you leave the broad public highways of the Christian faith; you leave the many-sided and comprehensive thought of the universal Church for the cramped and morbid speculations of individual thinkers; you abandon yourself to all the petty tyrannies, to all the insolent usurpations, of private thought, to all the formulas of individual human masters, from which Christ, our Lord, has set you free. If it would be a mistake to tear up Magna Charta in the supposed interests of Freedom, because Magna Charta certainly recognizes the obligations of Law, it is also a mistake to mutilate or disuse a great creed of the Universal Church — such for instance, as the Athanasian Creed — under the idea of securing mental liberty. The creed does but state that which every well-informed and faithful Christian wishes — must wish — to believe. Christian doctrine, is to man’s very highest life of thought, just what law is to his social life. To reject the one in the interests of the other, is to turn mental liberty into a cloak of maliciousness.
Lastly, Christ, our Lord, has made us morally free. He has broken the chains which fettered the human will. He has restored to the will its buoyancy and its power. Man was morally free in Paradise; but he became enslaved in consequence of an act of disobedience which we name the Fall. Man then forfeited the grace which had secured the balance and proportions of his nature in its earlier and purer stage; and he could not transmit to his descendants the gift which he had lost himself. Man’s will lost its spring — lost its superiority to circumstances; lost its independence of passion; lost its lofty unlikeness to mere brute instinct. Man fell, more and more fatally under the dominion of surrounding nature — of his own lower nature — under the dominion of his senses enslaved by nature. He became by degrees what St. Paul describes him as being at the beginning of the Epistle to the Romans. He was, in the sternest sense of the term, a slave, because the sovereign power within him — his will — had lost the secret of its freedom, and was enslaved. How was he to be enfranchised? There came One to him and said — “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” What was lost to man, was to be more than regained by Christ. Not merely was the penalty of the old transgressions to be paid, so that man was to be relieved from captivity, but his will was to be re-invigorated by a heaven sent force, or Grace, placing it once more in harmony with the law of his highest life. St. Paul speaks of this, when he says that those whom Christ makes free, become the servants, or slaves, of righteousness. There is no Oregon territory in the moral world— no tract of unoccupied neutral ground which runs between the frontier of the empire of Christ, and the frontier of the empire of evil. They are conterminous to each other; and to be rescued from the one, is to be at once, a subject of the other.
It is objected here that moral freedom is not worth having, if it be but a service after all. “You talk to us of freedom,” men say, “but what you really mean is restrictions — restrictions upon action, upon inclination, upon speech. You mean obligations — obligations to work, to self-discipline, to sacrifice one’s self and others, to all the details of the code of Christian duty.” My brethren, you are right. Certainly we do mean that. The Christian does live under a system of restrictions and obligations. These prescribe for him just what his own heaven-sent nature would wish him to be — would wish him to do. No doubt they would be very irritating to the old nature which he has sloughed off — “the old Adam, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” But they are entirely acceptable to, and eagerly demanded by, the new man in him, “which, after God, is created in righteousness, and true holiness.” Therefore, whatever the Christian may be outwardly, he is inwardly an emancipated man. In obeying Christ’s law he acts just as he likes to act; he acts according to that which he recognizes as the highest law of his life. He obeys Law, true — the law of his God; but then he has no inclination to disobey it. Obedience is not to him a yoke; disobedience would be to him a torture. His inclinations are in accordance with his highest duty, and that which frees him, is itself a law. “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” says St. Paul, “hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” The Christian is, as St. Peter tells us today, the servant — in the original, it is the slave — of God. But then, as he would not, for all that the world can give, be anything else, this service is perfect freedom.
The Antinomian plea that the rules and laws of the Christian life are infringments upon liberty, is another way of making liberty a cloak of maliciousness. Conscientiousness, regular habits of devotion, accuracy and painstaking in doing good to others, and for others, and in the disposal of time, and in what we say in conversation, the avoidance not merely of sin, but of temptation to sin, and bad company, are represented as inconsistent with freedom. Inconsistent they are with mere human impetuosity, with mere animal impatience of restraint — with that low notion of liberty, which places it in the indulgence of our lower instincts at the cost of our higher ones. True freedom, is the power of acting without hindrance according to the higher law of our being. To do wrong, therefore, does not really assert our liberty; it degrades, it enslaves us. It may have been necessary — it was necessary — that we should have this power of doing wrong, in order to do right freely; but we forfeit our own freedom none the less, if we do aught but right. A man is not really free — he is not really more free — because he steals, because he swears, because he commits murder. This false notion of liberty, is the worst enemy of true liberty. Our highest liberty, depend upon it, is secured by our free and complete obedience to every detail of the Eternal Law.
Let us look up to our great Emancipator, Who was crucified, and is throned in the heavens. After all, our freedom is His gift. But He has left us the power, the perilous power of forfeiting it, in order that we may, if we will, retain it for His glory. Let us see that we do not forfeit it, by cloaking under it the maliciousness which repudiates Law. The laws of the land protect our social liberty. The laws of the faith — the laws of natural and revealed truth — protect our mental liberty. The moral laws of God protect our personal spiritual liberty. All true law meets in, and radiates from, the Divine Person of the Everlasting Christ, the Heir of the Father, the Eternal Legislator, our Deliverer from all political, intellectual and moral slavery. If we repudiate Law, we turn His gift of freedom against Himself. If through our willing obedience, we find in Law the countersign of our Freedom, we are — and in this way only can we be — “free indeed.”

Henry Liddon, D.D., D.C.L.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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