We are most free when we recognize our utter dependence upon God, our eternal Sovereign.



D uring World War II, my Grandpa Ramsey was a lieutenant commander on a U.S. battleship fighting in the Pacific. He was a member of the supply corps, and because he was given responsibility for the world’s supply of helium, he earned the nickname “Helium King.” My Grandpa Colgate was a U.S. Army captain in command of a hand-drawn artillery unit that fought in Germany. Toward the end of the war, when the Army discontinued the use of hand-drawn artillery units in favor of Jeep-drawn units, he was promoted to major and placed in charge of a prisoner of war camp in Germany.

Neither of my grandpas ever shared with me their wartime memories. Grandpa Ramsey, with his gruff and intimidating persona, harshly rebuffed all of my attempts to talk about it. Grandpa Colgate, a gentle-hearted and taciturn man, would tell me stories about the German prisoners he cared for after the war, smiling as he remembered the hand-crafted gifts they made him or their joy at being reunited with their families. One day, I tried to connect with my grandpa by telling him I planned on watching the newly released movie Saving Private Ryan. He paused for a torturously long moment, then said, “I fought in that war so that people like you”—his eyes bored into mine—“would never have to experience the horrors that I did.”

I have always been enormously proud of my grandfathers. They both fought courageously for our country, enduring the trauma of war and its lifelong effects on their hearts and minds so that others could be free. They, like countless other brave men and women, put their lives on the line to secure the many freedoms we have in this country, freedoms we often take for granted.

In the United States, we are free to worship as we choose. We can gather together as believers without fear of imprisonment. We are free to criticize our governmental leaders if we deem it necessary. Our press is not a puppet mouthpiece of the state. American journalists can investigate and publish news without fear of the government’s censorship. We have a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power that dates back more than 200 years, something that is quite rare in the scope of human history. Our country is founded on many biblical principles, including that all men are created equal and that we derive our rights from our divine creator.

My personal appreciation for those freedoms grew and deepened the summer I turned 13. I went with a group of teenagers on a mission trip to what was then the Soviet Union. After one of our performances singing on a street corner, an elderly babushka approached me. She grabbed my hands and babbled away. I decided to give her one of the miniature New Testaments I had with me (each team member had smuggled dozens of these three-inch by two-inch Bibles by hiding them in our luggage). I placed the tiny book in her hands and tried to tell her using hand motions that it was God’s Word. She opened it and began reading, and within seconds tears were streaming down her face. I motioned for our team’s translator, and through him she told me that it was the first Bible she had ever seen. She had prayed that she would be able to read God’s Word before she died. I was later able to give that precious saint one of the few full-sized Bibles we had managed to smuggle into the country. The image of her gnarled hands clutching the Bible to her chest, her smile beaming through her tears, is still vivid in my memory more than 25 years later.

Christians in America have many reasons to thank God that we are citizens of this country. We can own Bibles without recrimination. Unlike our brothers and sisters in east Asia and in other parts of the world, we are not in danger of being arrested when we show up to a church service on Sunday.

But the freedoms we have in this nation can erode. If my four years studying history in college taught me anything (a fact that is highly debatable), it is that the freedoms we currently have are an aberration rather than a given. And if we are honest in our scrutiny of our history, we must admit that our treasured rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” have never been freely available to all the inhabitants of our land.

Our founding fathers wrote the Three-Fifths Compromise into our Constitution, counting three out of every five slaves in the population for the purpose of taxation and representation, effectively valuing each slave as less than fully human. Our government and citizens have treated Native Americans as savages, using treachery, dishonesty and brute force to drive them from their lands. Beginning in the mid-1800s, millions of impoverished Irish and Italian immigrants faced outright discrimination because they were deemed (among other things) to be lazy drunks, disease-ridden beggars, non-Christian heathens and heartless criminals. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that Japanese Americans be forcibly relocated and held in internment camps for the duration of the war. In the decades following World War II, the Civil Rights Movement exposed institutional racism and discrimination against people of color, most specifically black Americans. Since 1973, between 50 and 60 million unborn babies have been legally slaughtered in our country, a holocaust that dwarfs Hitler and Stalin’s atrocities by comparison. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has drawn attention to the reality that black Americans still face injustice and discrimination here. The #MeToo movement has highlighted the sweeping prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse throughout all areas of our society.

In truth, America really isn’t “the land of the free.” Our country, just like every other nation in this world, is and always has been populated by slaves. It is our slavery to sin that results, as Paul states in Romans 6, in impurity and lawlessness. The sin of pride led men to regard workers from Africa as subhuman. The sin of greed led men to exploit others for personal gain. Fear drove people to segregate our society based on race. Idolatry continues to lead us to sacrifice our unborn on the altar of self-exaltation. For all our rights and privileges, we are not truly free. We are bound as slaves to sin.

The good news of the gospel, though, is that Jesus has emancipated us: “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).

The only true and lasting freedom we have has been purchased for us by the blood of Jesus. We are free from our slavery to sin. It is a freedom that we can never lose, and it is granted to all who put their faith in him.

It secures us eternal life and eternal liberty. We don’t have to pursue happiness because we’ve already been granted eternal joy.

Instead of considering others as lesser, we can clothe ourselves with humility (1 Peter 5:5) and consider them better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).

We can repent of our racism and love our neighbors because Jesus first loved us and laid down his life for us (1 John 4:19-21).

We don’t have to be ruled by greed because our powerful, generous God has given us everything we need, and he will never leave us (2 Peter 1:3, Hebrews 13:5).

We are free from selfishness, self-reliance, and self-preservation. We are free to care sacrificially for the poor, the needy, the sinful, the outcast, the sick and the oppressed.

In what seems like a great paradox, we are most free when we recognize our utter dependence upon God, our eternal Sovereign.

The rights and privileges we are granted in our nation are but shadows of the real substance of liberty we inherit in Christ. On this Fourth of July, let us choose to celebrate our many freedoms with gratitude. Gratitude for the service and examples of people like my grandfathers. Gratitude that God has placed us in a country with a foundation of freedom. And most importantly, gratitude that Jesus willingly laid down his life for us, paying the price for our sin, so that we would never have to experience the horror of the full weight of God’s wrath.

 

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:20-23)