Berkouwer’s perspective on human freedom is closely connected with his understanding of divine authority. Emphasizing that ‘Authority … cannot be a darksome power that compels us to subject ourselves without reason’ (A Half Century of Theology, p.158), he maintains that the authority of God, unlike what is usually meant by ‘external authority’, brings ‘perspective, joy and hope’ (A Half Century of Theology, p.159).
By emphasizing that the authority of God needs to be seen in the context of Christ’s redemption and the wooing and conquering way of the Spirit, Berkouwer points us in the direction of a proper understanding of human freedom (Man: The Image of God, Chapter 9, pp.310-348). Insisting that a theological understanding of human freedom is concerned with ‘the freedom of the man of God’ (p.313), he points out that human freedom is ‘freedom in and through Christ’ (pp.313, 321). Contrasting this ‘relational’ concept of freedom with ‘an abstract concept of freedom’, he emphasizes that freedom is ‘not a formal possibility … but rather an actuality, the actuality of being free’ (pp. 321-322).
With this understanding of human freedom, Berkouwer is able to distance himself from ‘a secularized and autonomous concept of freedom’ (p.323). He points out that such a concept of freedom, which places ‘divine power and human freedom in a relation of opposition’, setting human freedom over against divine authority, ‘is not honored with that name (freedom) in the New Testament’ (pp.323, 325). According to the New Testament such ‘freedom’ can only be described in terms of the ‘enslaved will’ (p.325). The New Testament ‘definition’ of freedom is quite different – ‘”where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Cor. 3:17)’ (p.327). Emphasizing that to turn away from freedom in and through Christ is not an act of freedom and pointing out that such an act ‘endangers freedom’, Berkouwer insists that ‘freedom in Christ is the true freedom of man’s humanness’ (pp.328-329).
With this understanding of divine authority and human freedom, Berkouwer is able to understand divine sovereignty and human freedom as complementary rather than competitive (Divine Election, pp.46, 49-50). The sovereign God never enforces His authority in any way other than through our willing and glad submission. Our true freedom lies precisely in such willing and glad submission to the sovereign God of salvation.
The relationship between grace and faith is neither (a) co-operative nor (b) coercive.
(a) We do not contribute to our own salvation. It is always, “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy Cross I cling.” We do not come to the Lord with our religion in one hand and our morality in the other hand. we come to Him empty-handed and receive from Him His free gift of salvation.
Receiving God’s free gift of salvation through faith in our Saviour, Jesus Christ, we speak, from the heart, the words of Psalm 118:23.
23 the LORD has done this,
and it is marvellous in our eyes.
We echo the words of Psalm 115:1.
1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us
but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness.
(b) We are not forced to receive Christ. We do not come to Him with reluctance. We come to Him with rejoicing. Rejoicing in the grace which has reached out to us in our sinfulness, we affirm the truth of Jesus’ words, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 16:15). Receiving this grace with gladness, we say, “The Lord is my chosen portion” (Psalm 16:5). We sing, “O happy day that fixed my choice on Thee, my Saviour and my God.” We trace the way in which the Lord has led us to faith and we sing, “He drew me and I followed on, charmed to confess that grace divine.” We have been “loved with everlasting love.” We have been “led by grace that love to know.” While we should not make overmuch of the comparison with the inspiration of Scripture – the Word of God in the words of men – and the incarnation of our Saviour – fully God and fully man, we can make a similar point with respect to the relationship between grace and faith – the whole of the work is God’s (the absolute necessity of grace) and the whole of the work is man’s (the absolute necessity of faith). There is, of course, mystery here. it is, however, a mystery in which we rejoice – “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
Here are some thoughts on our true freedom in Christ.
When Jesus began His teaching ministry, He quoted from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has sent Me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives … to set at liberty those who are oppressed … ” (Luke 4:18). The Gospel, which Jesus proclaimed, is a Gospel which brings freedom. The Gospel brings freedom when it comes to its hearers in the power of the Spirit of the Lord.
What is freedom? What is this freedom which the Gospel brings? To understand what it means to be set free by the power of God’s Spirit, set free by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must first understand what freedom in Christ is not.
Sometimes, people think of freedom in terms of being as free as a bird – free to do as we like, free to do whatever we please, whenever we please. This idea of freedom – freedom without responsibility – is far removed from the true meaning of freedom in Christ. We have not been set free to do whatever we like. We have been set free for God, to do God’s will. Christ has set us free so that we might live for Him and not for ourselves. we have been set free so that we might live as disciples, men and women who are living in the power of the Spirit of the Lord. Sometimes, people think of freedom like this – we are free to choose good and we are free to choose evil. This is not the way in which the Scriptures speak of our true freedom in Christ. Jesus tells us that choosing evil is not an act of freedom. It is an act of bondage. Whenever we choose the wrong way rather than the right way, we do not act in freedom. we are not free. We are in bondage. We need to be set free. We need Christ, the only One who can set us free to be what God wants us to be.
Freedom has nothing at all to do with choosing to live in ways which are not pleasing to the Lord. True freedom in Christ has everything to do with being filled with the Spirit of the Lord. The way of freedom is the way of the Spirit. The nearest the New Testament comes to defining freedom is in 2 Corinthians 3:17 – “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom has nothing at all to do with being free to do as we please. Freedom has everything to do with living for the Lord.
It may be helpful to compare our true freedom in Christ to the freedom gained by a prisoner of war who escapes from his captors. While he is in the concentration camp, the prisoner of war cannot fight for his country. He cannot fight for the cause. When he gains his freedom, he is not free to do whatever he pleases. He is free to take part in the war. he is free to fight for the cause. Christian freedom is a bit like that. Before we come, in faith, to Jesus Christ, we are held captive by the enemy. We are unable to fight against the enemy. He has us in His evil control. When Christ sets us free, He empowers us to wage war against the enemy, to stand up for Jesus, to fight for Christ as soldiers of the Cross. We are set free so that we might live as true disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In John 8, there are three very important verses, which teach us a great deal about the life of discipleship. These verses are John 8:36 – “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed”; John 8:32 – “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”; John 8:31 – “If you continue in My Word, you are truly My disciples.” There are three lessons here – (i) The life of discipleship is a life of freedom; (ii) The life of discipleship begins when you are set free by the Lord Jesus Christ; (iii) We grow in the life of discipleship as we learn to live in the light of God’s Word.
(i) What does it mean to say, “The life of discipleship is a life of freedom”? The hymnwriter. George Matheson, shows a deep understanding of true freedom in Christ, when he writes, “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.” He describes true freedom in terms of being the Lord’s captive. In Christ, we are no longer “slaves of sin”: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). George Matheson’s hymn contains these fine words: “Imprison me within Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand.” We do not find true strength by asserting our own will over against God’s will. we are truly strong when we are committed to the Lord, obedient to His will. By ourselves, we are weak. In Christ, we are strong.
(ii) We can only live as disciples when we when the Lord Himself is our strength. Without His power, we are nothing. We cannot even begin to live as His disciples. George Matheson expresses this so well: “My heart is weak and poor until it master find. My power is faint and low till I have learned to serve; My will is not my own till Thou hast made it Thine.” We draw our strength from Christ. Jesus said, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
(iii) We grow as disciples as we build our lives on the truth of God. Jesus emphasizes this point very strongly in John 15:7 – “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” If we are to grow in prayer, we must build our faith and our lives upon God’s Word – “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:10).
If we are to grow in love, we must build a living faith on the teaching of God’s Word -“These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). If we are to grow in joy, we muse feed upon the Word of the Lord, letting His teaching form the rock-solid foundation for our lives.
When we build on the truth of God, going on with the Lord day-by-day, we will be true disciples. In the presence of the Lord, each of us must answer honestly the searching question: What kind of disciple am I? – A disciple in name only? Or a real disciple, a true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, living in the power of the Spirit of the Lord? God waits for your answer.