As free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God (1 Peter 2:16).
If you know nothing else about Americans you know just how much they love freedom. As Lee Greenwood so famously put it, “I’m proud to be an American / where at least I know I’m free.” Liberty and freedom still prove extremely popular; they remain an important part of the American creed, a point of agreement across the various divides in the country, even if disagreement remains about how said freedom ought to be exercised.
American freedom is of a particular type: freedom from tyranny, and thus freedom to live as one wants. The caricature of the American declaring, “I’m an American, I’m free, so I am gonna do what I want” is not terribly far off the mark. Freedom in America is thus perceived as license, the ability to go and do whatever is desired; any attempt to curb or restrain such desires is seen as tyrannical, despotic, and contrary to the American ethos. Little wonder, then, how freedom has become libertinism among far too many.
Americans also maintain a fondness for Christianity, or at least a version of Christianity which is quite amenable to American philosophies and the American dream. Freedom is offered in Christianity (John 8:32, 1 Peter 2:16); Americans like freedom; therefore, they imagine that the freedom in Christianity must be the same type of freedom they believe they have as Americans. And so freedom in Christ is perceived to be license as well.
The Apostle Peter, however, has a very different conception of what freedom means, and above all things, what the Christian is to do with his or her freedom. He wrote to Christians of modern-day Turkey who lived under the power of the Roman Empire in the days of Nero (1 Peter 1:1). The Christians there were enduring suffering, most likely from some sort of persecution (1 Peter 1:6-9, 2:11-12, 4:19). He encouraged Christians to respect human authorities for the Lord’s sake and to abstain from the lusts of the world (1 Peter 2:11-15). He then expected the Christians to live as free people, not to cover up wickedness, but to live as douloi (often translated as “bondservants” or “servants,” but really “slaves”) of God (1 Peter 2:16).
What Peter meant by “live as free” involves something which we tend to take for granted today: to live as one not enslaved. Many in Peter’s audience were slaves (cf. 1 Peter 2:18), yet even they, in Christ, were to live as if free. Freedom meant freedom from oppression and bondage: freedom from sin and the Evil One (Romans 8:1-8). Even if physically enslaved they remained spiritually free.
But what did such freedom involve? Peter exhorted Christians to not use their freedom as a “cloak of wickedness” (1 Peter 2:16). Such is the dark underbelly of the clarion call to “freedom”: freedom to what end? Many who imagine their freedom to be license use that freedom to participate in hedonism and self-aggrandizement, and often to the detriment of their fellow man. The very reason many covet freedom is so they can do things they know they ought not! Almost invariably freedom is abused not long after it is obtained; most of us can give stories of what happened when we were entrusted with greater freedom, and those stories are rarely pretty.
Instead, Peter encouraged Christians to use their freedoms to serve God (1 Peter 2:16). The Apostle Paul had invited Christians to understand reality in terms of serving God in righteousness or serving the forces of sin and evil in wickedness (Romans 6:16-23). Thus we do have choice, but a very limited one: are we going to serve the right or the wrong? The Christian’s freedom is not to be used as license to do whatever he or she wishes but an opportunity purchased by the blood of the Lord and under His sovereignty in the Kingdom to serve God and His purposes. In this way Christians put to silence the ignorance of the foolish (1 Peter 2:15): doing well in serving the Lord.
We therefore do well to transform the way we view freedom. Yes, we have freedom; it is a precious and valuable freedom, purchased by our Lord at great cost to Himself. In that freedom is a bit of power over ourselves inasmuch as we have the choice to serve good or evil. Such freedom maintains personal volition since it must be a constant choice regarding whom we will serve. Nevertheless, this freedom is not as far-ranging as many would want to imagine; if we exercise our freedom to live as we choose or please, we are not living according to wisdom but folly, and will invariably serve sin and not the Lord (Proverbs 3:5-7, Romans 6:14-23). God has given us freedom in Christ out of the bondage of sin and death so that we might choose to serve the Lord Jesus and submit to His will and purposes in all things (Romans 8:1-8).
We must dismiss any notion of freedom as “license to do whatever I want.” We lived our lives in the flesh according to our desires, and what did we gain at that time but shame and condemnation (Romans 6:20-22)? In Christ we are set free from bondage to sin and death so we can be empowered to live as God would have us to live, but only if we live as free people, using our freedom to submit to the will of God in Christ. May we take Peter’s lesson to heart and serve God in Christ, becoming ever more conformed to His image!
Ethan R. Longhenry