Liberty. Through God’s power, our forefathers won their liberties of old. So says our collect today. Our collect also affirms that we are to maintain those liberties in righteousness and peace. But what is liberty? And why is it worth maintaining? And how exactly do we maintain it? And what does all this have to do with being a faithful Christian?
It is difficult for anyone to adequately and satisfactorily address these questions. They have long been with us, and they will continue to abide even after we are dead and gone. And so a Joe-Schmo M.Div. like myself needs to be humble about what I can present in the pulpit on this subject. There are many, dead and alive, who address these fundamental inquiries in ways far superior than anything I could produce. Please, consult and study them. If you can read, read these good things rather than so much of the dross that is out there today, clogging our airwaves and printing presses and computer screens.
But this morning, I want to very humbly suggest that we can get some idea about liberty from our Scriptures. They do not exhaust the subject, nor do they focus primarily upon it, but there are relevant passages for us to consider. For example, the book of Judges warns us what liberty is not. It is not “every man doing right in his own eyes,” a phrase we find in Judges that has a negative connotation. Such a state of affairs is roundly condemned in God’s Word. In the old days, this was known as license, as in “licentiousness.” This sort of disordered, selfish conception of liberty is very common today, both right and left, because people are immature and, like a child, don’t like being told what to do, even if it’s a good and wise thing ordered by a legitimate authority under appropriate circumstances. Of course, the strong (or those that perceive themselves as strong) like it, because it allows them to prey upon the weak and innocent to get their way; look at the end of Judges (the whole Benjamite affair) to get a picture of what this looks like—it’s a revisitation of Sodom and Gomorrah. God clearly condemned this predatory mentality in our lesson from Deuteronomy this morning. This sort of anarchic, individualistic selfishness dissolves the bonds and obligations of neighborliness we have toward one another, and it is a sinful refusal to live consistently with our world of order—an order that ultimately finds its origin and end in God Almighty, our omnipotent, omniscient Ruler and Law-giver. The Bible in the Old and New Testaments reveals that God appoints magistrates and like authorities to punish evil and reward the good. Unruly, unwarranted disobedience to the same, when they do not demand that which is un-Christian or sinful, is, at heart, a rebellion against God’s authority.
Now, this obligation for submission is often neglected, until it’s useful to someone with an agenda. But we must always be consistent and wise in applying it. We also need to balance this with the realization that magisterial authorities—empires and kingdoms and the like—can revolt against the authority of God and go to war against His Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. Great beasts rise up from the land and the sea to oppose the Son of Man Who is enthroned over the whole earth. God ultimately laughs them to scorn and throws them down in His righteous judgment, particularly when such kingdoms persecute His Church (though, sometimes, God uses unrighteous empires to chastise His covenant people Israel). In short, as every Virginian knows, “Thus always to tyrants,” even if such judgment is not delivered by the hands of mortal men. A believing magistrate is thus wise if he rules more circumspectly, in reverence to the ways and laws of Almighty God, who is King over all.
A positive vision for this can be found in the reign of King Solomon, before he slipped into idolatry. In Kings 4:25, we find that under his wise and divinely-blessed rule, “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan as far as Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.” That “each man under HIS vine and HIS fig tree,” in “safety,” is a snapshot of what I’d call “ordered liberty.” There is safety, found under just laws (including those given directly by God) and customs, maintained by wise rule: that is the order. The enjoyment of the fruits and goods of one’s own, which entails realities regarding property and diligence and self-responsibility and avoidance of meddling and various forms of covetous theft, points to liberty. The character of the people and the character of their leaders are important, and all of it is made possible only by God’s blessing.
To violate this, to intrude upon it, is to try to play God. One can believe he can make better decisions for his neighbor, including on matters that aren’t really his business or within his rightful place and authority to address. But those that respect true liberty know that it allows for men and women to better fulfill their duties, obligations, and purposes to the Lord and to their neighbors that Almighty God has given them. Some of these duties and obligations we do not ask for, such as which parents we are given to honor and care for in their old age; others, like those of matrimony for instance, we take upon ourselves voluntarily. But all of us have many vocations and must make myriad decisions to fulfill the same, reliant upon God’s wisdom and grace. It is arrogance to delude ourselves into thinking we can direct and command all those decisions for others as well, especially in a way that doesn’t bend toward our own selfish, sinful purposes and away from their own good. But that is exactly what despots believe, think, and attempt to do.
Note that liberty is space given for pursuit of the good, which is ultimately found in God. That is expansive to all of life. That means religious liberty, for instance, extends beyond the four walls of a church on Sunday morning. Would that thinkers, rulers, and judges in this land understood this!
Liberty also shows up powerfully in salvation wrought by Christ. The Lord Jesus, in His victorious resurrection and ascension, served as a great Liberator, freeing His people from the chains of sin and dungeon of the tomb, breaking them out of captivity into a new life in a new Promised Land, His Kingdom. Likewise, St. Paul likened our salvation to being set free from the enslavement or bondage to sin, redeemed to be adopted heirs, with freedom and authority secured for us in Christ.
I think this gets to an important truth: true, everlasting liberty is only possible and fully secured in Jesus Christ, the Second Solomon, the Son of David, King of all. This has been a comfort and rock of support, particularly for Christians who find themselves under tyranny. But let us not forget that we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, we beseech and work for God’s Kingdom to be more firmly rooted and established in this world—a world that is fallen but that the Lord is intent on restoring, not annihilating.
Christians throughout the ages have tried to do this in many forms and manners, no doubt imperfectly and sometimes inconsistently. Ours is not the only noble political heritage or laudable constitution or beneficial way of life. Virtue is all too rare, but nevertheless available to all men and practiced by many peoples and political bodies. But we do indeed have a patrimony that is quite resonant with these biblical revelations and themes. And, for many generations, it has been good and oriented to the good. This inheritance has been improved and maintained particularly as Christians in America have consistently committed themselves to love of God and neighbor—even a love of enemies. This has allowed for some level of peace and concord and very often prosperity (the latter of which can come and go without regard to a people’s virtue, but we nevertheless beseech God for it, since all good things come from His hand).
As many of our Founding Fathers warned, the ordered liberty won and bequeathed to us can only be preserved if the people of this federation, this nation, are virtuous. Otherwise, it all breaks down. The wicked, given an inch, take miles. Chaos seeps in, and such a vacuum must be filled, and it often is through brutal violence. Revolutionary anarchy is the despot’s playground. Just ask Napoleon or Lenin. Order, people soon realize, becomes a more pressing need than freedom, and so the tree of liberty withers, for the people can no longer self-govern and must have someone else govern more and more of their lives.
And so only a virtuous people can be a free people, for very long. The pursuit of constraint, particularly self-restraint, goes hand-in-hand with the pursuit of freedom. Unbelievers are often virtuous, but we know that all goodness ultimately comes from God, and we ourselves experience God grace empowering us to be more holy, which includes greater love towards our neighbors, a virtuousness that has immense public impact, in both the laws and policies it advocates, favors, and demands, as well as the personal interactions we carry on every day. After all, while abusive tyranny has existed in times and places where rulers and subjects have claimed the name of Christ, I think we can discern such evils are counter to the grain of the Christian faith. What is more, have there ever been bloodier regimes than those that are explicitly, distinctively atheistic? I think not.
We must conclude that, if we want to keep our liberty, we must maintain it with righteousness. And we are not alone in that mostly costly endeavor. How many have labored, suffered, and even died for the securing of goodness and freedom? How shallow our conception of freedom has become, that we have forgotten virtue! My grandfather did not endure sleepless nights on the outskirts of the U-Boat pens of Brest, France, dodging potshots from Nazi soldiers, for me to waste my hours consuming pornography. My great-uncle did not endure the horrors of Okinawa, suffering mental wounding that nearly drove him to suicide, that I might devote myself to filthy lucre. My other great-uncle did not trudge through the Battle of the Bulge to see me mock and defraud my forbears, or to turn a deaf ear to the cries for justice from my Christian brethren, who are alive and around me today. While every one of these members of my family had many motivations behind their sacrifices, I do know that they loved freedom and goodness, and that they wanted to ensure those perishable joys—so vulnerable and yet so powerful—would be passed on to their progeny.
And now I, too, must maintain this inheritance and bequeath it upon my own children, both natural and spiritual. One calls me, “Papa,” and many more call me “Father.” And in those roles and with that authority and in my life, I must set forth the way and Source (capital S) for virtue and freedom to flourish, even if it costs me my fortune and even my life. I know many of you sense similar weighty obligations in your various callings and positions. Let me remind you, and declare to those who deface, defile, and deconstruct: this liberty is worth having, this goodness is worth furthering. It’s worth it.
And, what is more, it is found in God. God, ultimately, will secure it forever and ever—true freedom, true justice. I suppose the question left for us is if we’ll get in His way, or follow His lead. For, as the prophets have made clear, and as all true Virginians know, “Thus always to tyrants.” Gog and Magog will fall. That virtue and freedom snuffed out by the proud will be restored. Because, as one man praising God once said, “True love endures everything / To be free.” The empty tomb is our banner of freedom, our declaration of independence from sin and death. Nothing can take that from us. And so let us take the risks to further establish such freedom in our world, even if it costs us everything.