Christians also talk much about freedom and Christian liberty, but too often we fail to grasp and appreciate the full meaning of liberty in Christ. This is particularly important to our grasp of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1, the text we have been considering for a few months now.
Let me illustrate with something I recently read. In a work beloved by libertarian types and Austrian school economists, Frederic Bastiat asked,
...What is the political struggle that we witness? It is the instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty. And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat fast and shakes the world? Is it not the union of all liberties--liberty of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of travel, of labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so? Is not liberty the destruction of all despotism--including, of course, legal despotism? Finally, is not liberty the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of organizing the right of the individual to lawful self-defense; of punishing injustice?
There is much to appreciate in these questions, particularly in opposition to the socialists, but there are also fatal flaws. This is not the biblical understanding of freedom, and we do not do well if we read this into the apostle Paul's discussions of the topic. Bastiat thinks of freedom as arising from the individual, but because of this his whole theory of law and society breaks down. He can only see law as a negative constraint, not as a positive contribution to a greater good. He opposes the "many" of socialism by means of the "one" of individualism. He cannot overcome the perennial problem of how to harmonize individual man and corporate mankind.
Yet Bastiat even went so far as to promise a kind of heaven on earth if only individuals could be free from restraint.
Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all people. And if everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.
This is a decidedly humanistic view of mankind.
In contrast to this, when the apostle Paul speaks of being free, he does not have in mind the autonomous use of his faculties. Freedom primarily has to do with being released from the power of sin and the law by the power of the Spirit so that one can be all he was meant to be in Christ (note esp. Rom 6 and 8 and Gal 4 and 5). "Freedom" has theological meaning for the apostle Paul which is overtakes any passing sociological context (cf. 1 Cor 7:21-22). It is intimately connected with the new creation and the new covenant (2 Cor 3:17). This mirrors perfectly what Jesus said to the Jews (John 8:33, 36).
Paul's idea of freedom also comes through in the statements "All things are lawful for me" (6:12) and "All things are lawful" (10:23). Paul takes a common notion about freedom and redefines it in Christian terms. As David Garland expresses it perfectly: "Freedom is freedom from something; but for it to be meaningful, it must be freedom for something….[Paul] conceives of freedom in terms of belonging to another (6:19-20; 7:22-23; 9:19; Rom 14:8), not in terms of self-determination or self-interest. The more one seeks life’s meaning in God, the freer one becomes" (1 Corinthians, 229). So when Paul says "All things are lawful," he means that everything in its proper relation to Christ is permissible for him to do. [And he can quite literally say “all things” because everything belongs to Christ and believers possess them by virtue of their union with Christ (1 Cor 3:21-23).]
This, of course, rules out anything which is contrary to the law of Christ. That which is inherently sinful is not included in Paul’s statement, for it is not part of “all things” from a new creation perspective. For example, adultery is not permissible. But adultery is a perversion of marital love, and marital love is permissible. All things, as they were meant to be in Christ, are permissible for me.
For Paul, to be free meant to be able to live for God, to be all he was meant to be in Christ. Freedom is tied to holiness, without which it would not be freedom. Freedom includes righteousness and justice, without which it would not be freedom. Freedom includes mercy and grace, without which it would not be freedom. Freedom includes truth and faithfulness, without which it would not be freedom. Freedom includes love, without which it would not be freedom. In other words, freedom means being taken up into the life of God via union with Christ by the Spirit.
All of this is possible because Jesus has come, perfectly kept the old covenant as the last Adam, died in our place, and has risen from the dead and ascended to the Father, inaugurating the new covenant era of the new creation. That redefines everything! Paul saw this, and that’s why he lived according to the law of Christ, which is the perfect law of liberty and is fulfilled by love. He understood himself and his ministry and everyone else in that light. May we do the same, and thereby show the world that "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).