Man is a moral being because he was created in the image of God. Man's basic problem, however, is that he is a fallen moral being, a sinner, and thus separated from his Creator. The core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that, despite our fallen nature, the forgiveness of God gives us the most essential liberation possible, freedom from both sin and guilt.
The unregenerate reject this freedom from sin and guilt when they reject forgiveness through the atonement of Jesus Christ. The forgiveness they seek is only from the consequences of sin, and the freedom they seek is that which allows them to continue in sin without condemnation.
Forgiveness by God is a legal, judicial act. The indictment against the sinner is dropped and he is pardoned: he is no longer liable to prosecution or the penalty for sin that was paid for by Christ. He remains a sinner, but his legal relationship to God's justice has changed. The redeemed man is no longer wanted and on the run; he is not only free but restored to full citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
The State and Forgiveness
Sin and guilt are commonly used as manipulative tools of social and political power. Both religion and morality are particularly useful to the state. Religion makes some things reprehensible and other things morally sanctified. Politics has always invoked what is "just," "good," and "right," while it has condemned what its practicing faith calls "sinister," "unjust," "hurtful," etc. The term "justice," which in Scripture is synonymous with "righteousness," is particularly abused by modern courts to convey a moral sanctity to frequently very immoral legislative law.
At the same time, the state has often self-consciously promoted sin in the name of freedom in order to distract people from their political enslavement. Liberty is then defined as freedom from morality and slavery as a moral standard. Today, freedom of sexual activity is considered the measure of liberty. Any talk of Christian law is quietly met with modern man's first objection: the specter of laws against some sexual perversion and "righteous" indignation at the thought. Such a people are slaves to sin but fail to see the servitude in higher taxes, lawless government that rules at will, fiat money, or the police state.
All this favors the state. Guilty men are less likely to judge when they are themselves liable to judgment. An immoral people have no moral courage to stand up for anything. What could they possibly stand for? Righteousness is a Christian concept. Justice? By what standard can a depraved society define justice? Liberty? They think they have it.
Sin creates a moral bondage. Ask any wife whose husband is addicted to pornography. Why desire freedom when you can only use your freedom for immorality? How can a sinner war against sin? He might complain about tyranny, but is himself a slave to evil.
Christianity and Forgiveness
Guilty men, as with Adam and Eve, flee from God and His righteousness, but forgiveness gives us boldness in approaching Him (Heb. 10:16-25). A man who knows he has the privilege of standing before God will be able to stand before men. The freedom we have in our redemption is not one of license, but of restoration to communion with God, to our calling, and to dominion. Man is liberated from judgment and restored to be a child of God, even a joint heir with Jesus Christ.
Creaturehood and Liberty
The liberty of man is limited in three fundamental ways. First, man is a creature and cannot be more than God made him to be. Only the Creator has total freedom. Our freedoms of action and will are dependent on those of God. We are limited because only God is sovereign.
We are not free to act like a god any more than we are free to be a god. Our real freedom is in being what God made us to be, and this comes through forgiveness, restoration, and accountability to God.
A second reason man's liberty is limited is sin. Even in Eden, Adam's liberty was limited to his created nature. He was, moreover, accountable to the law-word of God. In disobedience, he rebelled against that role and followed Satan's temptation that he could "be as gods" (Gen. 3:5). Adam not only rebelled against God, but he also rebelled against himself, what God created him to be. Man has never been freer than Adam was in Eden. He rebelled at once against the moral nature of God and his own created purpose.
A third reason man's liberty is limited is related to creaturehood and the fall. The redemption of Jesus Christ limits man's liberty because it acknowledges the lordship of Jesus Christ. Because only Jesus is Lord, our liberty as sinners must necessarily be secondary and derivative.
Church Councils and the Creeds
The early church councils and creeds were an attempt to subsume man to the claims of God. They were not academic exercises by theologians, but responses to pagan Hellenic philosophy, which was attempting to infiltrate the church while claiming to be orthodox. The "orthodoxy" of these Hellenic churchmen against which the councils contended was that of the prevailing philosophy of the ancient world. Chief among these was the idea of the oneness of all being, the idea that all being, mortal and divine, is one and that divinity is accessible to man. The orthodox rightly read the Scriptures as describing a discontinuity, a distinction between the human and the divine and Jesus Christ as the unique link between God and man.
The issue was thus the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This was the core of theological struggle through the sixth century. Hellenic thinkers tried to define the incarnation in such a way that Jesus was a man whose will, nature, or both were absorbed into the divine Christ. Some specifically held that other men might follow the same path of becoming divine. Against this, the Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, held that Christ was
in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence ...
This was a complete break from Hellenism's attempt to allow for man's absorption into the divine. It meant Jesus was the unique link between God and man, not an example of man's access to divinity.
The creeds put man in his place theologically. They clearly defined the faith in non-Hellenic terms, specifically professing the scriptural doctrines of the Trinity, soteriology, the work of the Holy Spirit, the church, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. They were thus a life view.
The creeds also put man in place historically, clearly holding to the events of creation, the fall, redemption in the atonement of Jesus Christ under Pontius Pilate (a specific event in time and history, not a process), the accomplished resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day as a promise of our own, the final judgment, and eternal life. The creeds were thus a view of world history, its beginning, end, and direction. This "world and life view" of the creeds assures redeemed man's purpose is a recall to dominion and triumph over sin and death. Christ changed man's state legally before God and made him more of the creature he was meant to be. He did not merge humanity into the divine nature. The ecumenical creeds represent a great triumph of the church over Hellenic thought.
The sinner's liberty is a freedom from God, which Satan's temptation (Gen. 3:5) makes clear in a de facto attempt to be a god. Man's every desire to be free of God and His Word represents a repetition of that first sin. In sinning we show, as Paul said, that we are "in Adam," that is, in his fallen state.
The sinner, like Adam, defies God's Word and demands that his own will, logic, reason, experience, or common sense should determine his norms. Humanism is the elevation of man to the position in which theism holds God. When God is eliminated from man's life and thought, some other entity must take that vacated position. Other religions may have deities, but they leave man in charge and are humanistic. An obvious example is Islam, which ostensibly has a powerful supreme being, but which has always operated on an entirely humanistic basis through the power of the state. Islam's Allah does not act, his followers do. Being an external religion of works, it can be instituted by force, and this has historically always been its method of expansion.
Man makes a lousy god, though it's not for lack of trying. All humanism tends toward one of two extremes: lawlessness or authoritarianism. Lawlessness is the rejection of all moral standards and the elevation of individual man to supremacy. Authoritarianism seeks to impose some standard of men on others. Thus humanism elevates the needs of the group to supremacy and justifies coercive behavior. In the political sphere these two extremes are exhibited as anarchism and statism. In anarchism, each individual is the source of sovereign right and establishes his own norms. This never lasts long. In statism, sovereignty resides in the group, in collective man, in the form of the state, which identifies and enforces norms for all. Historically, humanistic statism has always prevailed over humanistic anarchism.
The alternative to humanism and its placing of man as the focal point of power and right is Biblical faith, which sees sovereignty as belonging solely to God, and man at every point subject to Him and His law. It is important to note, however, that even though this submission to God's law is absolute, submission to enforcement by men is not. God's absolute sovereignty is never transferred to man. Many laws of Scripture carried no civil penalty (and others would have been difficult to prove given the requirement for two or three witnesses). Laws were given by God, but without a civil penalty were a test of obedience to God, but not a test of obedience to man. Though morally constrained by God, these were not enforceable by human authorities. Responsible to God, man had freedom either to obey or disobey and face the consequences. Biblical law does not allow for a "nanny state."
The Nature of Liberty
Liberty involves the interaction between the prerogatives and responsibilities of men in the areas of law and ethics. Both law and ethics are religious in origin and practice. Law is an enforced morality, a standard of right and wrong. No culture has ever claimed its ethics were purely arbitrary. Ethics are by definition authoritative, because they are a "higher" standard. Likewise no regime has ever claimed its laws were random, they are always to promote "fairness," "justice," "what's right," etc. The source of its ethics and law is the god of a society, the higher, authoritative way that cannot be challenged. For humanistic orders, that god may be man individually (anarchism), collectively (democracy), or institutionally (state, church, oligarchy, academia). For the Christian, that source of law must be God and His Word. Liberty is always at risk in any humanistic order; man has too many false claimants to supremacy, and all are subject to the elevation of self-interest over justice.
Who's in Charge?
Every law order is an enforced moral order, religious in nature. Political religions see politics as the source of morals and law. In political religions, ultimate accountability is to the state; no area of human activity is thus outside the state's jurisdiction, and man may, at the state's demand, be constrained in any area. No room is left for liberty but the state's willingness to test its practical limits.
In Biblical faith all human authority is limited, including that of the civil magistrate. All men and institutions are accountable to God, and the civil authority is limited to an administration of a higher law. Only Biblical faith limits all human authority and thus allows a realm of human liberty. The sovereignty of God precludes the sovereignty of any man or group of men.
Sovereignty is a necessary concept. Though some have derided it as though it were an invention of Calvin, it is an unavoidable concept. Sovereignty must reside somewhere. The common thread among all ancient political regimes was their claim to either divinity or exclusive access to the gods. Christianity produced the first attempts to deny absolute authority to the state. Theologically, this attempt to deny men access to divine claims was fought in the ecumenical councils. Later, it was a battle against the "divine right" of kings, a revival after feudalism of the ancient claim. The English Civil War under Cromwell partially accomplished what the U.S. Constitution did more openly-limit the power of the state. It is the return of the U.S. to a humanistic, anti-Christian faith that has caused it to revert to the ancient pattern of absolutism by the state.
Transcendent sovereignty means that sovereignty is in God and is not the prerogative of men. This is the only limitation that works, but it is itself an article of religious faith and cannot be enforced by humanistic, legislative law. Today, the faith of the U.S. is a thoroughly humanistic one, so that sovereignty is seen as immanent, within man and his affairs. A sovereign is a god, and one does not limit, but submits to that god. The rule of men is often a very harsh one, but throughout all history, that has been the end of humanistic faith-some men control other men. Without any real divine ability, all that is left to man is force or threat of force. The predictable result is absolutism-do as we say or you are a criminal, an enemy of the state.
Recognizing the Issue
America has changed because its faith has changed. It has denied the sovereignty of God for a humanistic law and morality. When the faith was attacked, the church retreated to the "fundamentals" and the "simple gospel." Humanism met little resistance in the sciences, law, economics, art, education, and more until humanism had won the day. Even then, the defense was a "conservative" approach -let's save what was because it was good. Individual issues are addressed when the real problem is the ideological/religious supplanting of Christianity with humanism. Conservatism often ends up defending forms and traditions and criticizing the opposition for their blindness to the harm they are doing. The opposition is not blind. They believe the ultimate good is the casting down of Christianity and its moral influence. Because they see theirs as a higher way, a more enlightened path for the future, all else should be laid waste so that their glorious future might emerge.
The issue is one of sovereignty, of ultimate authority. To whatever extent this is claimed as the prerogative of any man, group of men, or institution, the liberties of all others must be correspondingly limited or eliminated. Western liberty was a creation of Christianity, and its loss directly parallels the decline of Christian faith and the resurgence of humanistic statism. The only hope for freedom is the revival of Biblical faith and the repudiation of absolutism in man, whether individually or collectively.