From the earliest pages of the Bible, we see a major theme developing: freedom. The God of the Exodus is a God who frees the slaves. Paul reminds us that liberation is the goal of our salvation, saying, “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). And John tells us that our emancipation is real, for “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). We might go further and say that God’s message to us, in the gospels, is one of radical freedom. We could understand it as a sort of prison break—because Jesus is out to rescue us from bondage to oppression, sin, and death.
In the United States, where I live, freedom is one of our nation’s core values. But when we say the word, often we mean by it something like: Getting to do what I want to do, which can include things that are selfish, or not good—not righteous. It’s worth asking: How does our American definition of freedom match up with God’s definition? Let’s take a look.
Freedom From and For
True freedom is not only from the bad things, but also for the good things. Yes, God liberated the Israelites from the oppressive power of Egypt, but He also delivered them to Himself. His people were bound in a covenant relationship of life-giving love. Indeed, it was this very union with God—under His protection, provision, and embrace—that guarded Israel from being enslaved again under the surrounding hostile powers.
In other words, being bound to God brings liberty. We tend to think of freedom as pure independence, a license to do whatever we want. But the gospel envisions true freedom as interdependence, joined in communion with the presence of God. He is the One we are made for. As Paul puts it, “Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17 NIV). True emancipation is found in God.
And when God’s ways become our ways, the paths we walk become more spacious. As the psalmist rejoices, “I will walk at liberty, for I seek your precepts” (Psalm 119:45). God’s guidance leads us away from the destructive trails we walk down and the cages awaiting us at their end—and instead invites us to dwell with Him in the fresh air of open places.
Bound to God
This is why the gospel can speak of us as simultaneously free and slaves. “Act as free men,” Peter encourages us, “and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16). That’s a striking phrase: God’s bondslaves. What’s going on here? Does he envision the Lord cracking the whip and coldly commanding us?
Paul uses the same phrase, putting it bluntly for Jesus’ followers: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God.” Paul, however, goes on to explain this doesn’t result in drudgery but its opposite: “The benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Rom. 6:22 NIV).
We are free from sin and slaves to God. Or better yet, we are free from sin because we have become slaves of God. What does this mean?
As the great theologian Bob Dylan wisely observed, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Many in our society are enslaved to sex, money, or power, driven by lustful passions for notoriety, security, or fame. But Jesus frees us from these destructive desires, to return us to the One we were made for. He reminds us that “no one can serve two masters” for “he will hate the one and love the other” (Matt. 6:24).
The choice, then, is not between “one” master or “no” master. It is a question of which master: We were made to worship, and our hearts will be captive to someone or something—even (and perhaps most perilously) if that thing is our self. It is God’s life-giving presence, indwelling and directing us, that truly makes us free.
When the Corinthian church misunderstood this principle, Paul confronted them: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12 NIV).
You want to be truly free? Paul is saying. Then make Jesus your Master. Because it’s not about how much you can get away with—it’s about living for the One who gave Himself away to be with you.
Freeing Actual Slaves
With all this emphasis on internal freedom from destructive desires, it’s also important to highlight: We should free actual slaves, too. None of what’s said above should be taken as minimizing the importance of tangible, concrete freedom for the authentically oppressed. The personal dimension of being liberated from our bondage to sin should free us up from self-centered concerns so we can work for actual justice in the world. Why? Because those who serve the God of the Exodus are about freedom for the oppressed. Jesus liberates us to be liberators, joining Him in embodying His justice in the world.
The personal dimension of being liberated from our bondage to sin should free us up from self-centered concerns so we can work for actual justice in the world.
When launching His ministry, Jesus defined what He was all about by quoting Isaiah the prophet:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18).
Jesus is all about freedom—not only personal freedom from sin but also social freedom from captivity. When we are united with Him, He makes us care about both of these as well.
We work from the freedom of the gospel and for the freedom of the world. We do so in the confidence that God’s freedom project will not be stopped—and because we’ve tasted it in our own lives. Our ultimate hope is that “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
Jesus’ prison break is coming, not just for people but for all of creation. He will liberate our earthly home from its bondage to sin, death, and decay so that we can bask in the glorious power of God’s life-giving presence. Then we shall taste the fullness of freedom we were truly made for.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft