(Translation of an address by Dr. J. Douma, given at the General Meeting of the League of Reformed Young Women's Societies, Amersfoort, May 15, 1967. Published by "De Bond van Gereformeerde Meisjesverenigingen. in Nederland", Utrecht, The Netherlands.)
WHAT THE GREEKS MEANT BY "LIBERTY"
On my bookshelves is a theological dictionary, which, in explaining words of the New Testament, often states first of all what the Greeks meant by them. Many words used in the New Testament were not unknown to the heathens. They also spoke of god, of sin, sacrifice, mercy, and liberty. And I think it may be helpful if I begin by telling you what the Greeks thought about liberty. Then we will understand much better how the Bible speaks about it, and also how much differently the Bible speaks about it.
The Greeks used a short formula: Free is the life of that human being who can go where he desires. Free is the man who is independent from others and who has the right of self-determination. Those Greeks who wrote about liberty have all died. But the Greek spirit has remained. For it is a common human characteristic: the wish of the individual to be free and to go and act as he pleases. The longing for this freedom is also present in the hearts of young men and women at a convention in Amersfoort.
There is a second characteristic of the Greek liberty idea. This second characteristic is related to the first: true liberty is reserved for free men, in contrast to slaves. For a slave, clearly, is not his own. He belongs to his owner, that is, to someone else. He cannot go where he wants to go, or do what he wants to do.
As said before, not the Greeks alone, but all people have deep in their hearts this longing for freedom. And nobody wants to be a slave. After all, you want to do as you please, don't you?
THE BIBLE SPEAKS A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE
This morning I must not dwell too long on liberty as the Greeks saw it, and as most people experience it, or in any event, want to experience it. I must speak as the Bible deals with it. Briefly, I must speak about Christian liberty. There is besides the word "liberty" another word in the title of my speech, and this word "Christian" gives to the word "liberty" a very particular content. Indeed, about this liberty we must say exactly the opposite of what the Greeks said about it.
The Greeks said: "Who is free? The man who can say: I am my own." But the apostle Paul says: "Who is free? Free is the man who says: I am not my own" (I Cor. 6). And this same apostle, who so greatly praises the freedom of the Christian, says: "I am a slave of Jesus Christ". Is not that exactly the opposite of what the Greek wants? The Greek wants to go where he wishes and do as he pleases, but Paul (and all the Scripture with him) tells us: "You are not your own, you belong to God, to Christ. Your body and your mind and spirit are at the disposal of your Lord, Jesus Christ". Freedom? Certainly, but only as slaves of Jesus Christ in the fullest sense of the word.
That implies an enormous bondage. It is the bondage of Lord's Day 1, Heidelberg Catechism. I am with body and soul in life and in death not my own, but belong to Jesus Christ. But what is remarkable about it is that this bondage is also the greatest freedom. This may sound strange, but I hope to explain it, if it is not already clear to you.
Christian liberty is connected with Jesus Christ. It is: to be free from the most terrible powers which can enslave our lives. We will mention three of such powers: The power of sin, the power of death, and the power of the law.
FREE FROM SIN
We are free from sin. That is the most enormous possession for a man: to be free from sin, which, through our own doing, has come as a terror into our lives. But through Christ we may say, that sin no longer has power over us.
This is so important, that a paralysed man who was brought to the Lord Jesus and would very much like to be cured, was first told: "Son, your sins are forgiven." (Mark 2.) For it is that which cures life. You can go through life lame, or blind, or deaf. You can lie in bed with a disease and never be healed; but that one word of Jesus Christ: - "Child, your sins are forgiven" - leads you into an enormous freedom. For you are free from the power of the devil, under whose dominion you had placed yourself. You are free from the slavery of evil. I can now start every day well, and can also end every day well. I can pray: "Lord I thank Thee that we may breathe in a world in which Christ has broken the power of sin And in the evening, after a bad day, with many shortcomings, I may still say: "Lord, I thank Thee in Christ Jesus, that nevertheless we are free." I believe the forgiveness of sins.
Herewith we have already mentioned the most important aspect of our Christian liberty. Of this most important aspect Lord's Day XI of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks, when the question is asked: "Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is Saviour?" Then the answer is not that the name Jesus brings us nice things, so that the blind receive vision, the paralysed walk, the deaf hear, and each and every one of us will have a good future and may look forward to a great life. No, the answer contains something that goes far beyond these matters. The name Jesus means that He is our Saviour and that He delivers us from all our sins. That is the most important. That must also be experienced as the most important. I could talk like a salesman this morning, but if the forgiveness of sins is not realized in our lives as part of our freedom, yes, as the most tremendous thing in our freedom, then my words will further be of no avail. Then we will still go somewhere else in search of our "freedom".
In the second place, we are free from death. Death also is a terrible slavery. You must know its terror, in your family, among the members of your congregation, when a life fades away, and the funeral comes. And yet we, free people, can say after the funeral: this was a rich day. For the the last enemy, death, has been conquered. We can and dare tell our dying about the seriousness of their condition; we do not do away with our deadsecretly, and we do not comfort their families with lies. For we say: We are rich, death has been conquered. Death, where is thy sting; grave, where thy victory? We are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ who has loved us. With the faith in the resurrection of the dead we are free, and without this gospel Paul would consider himself of all men the most miserable (I Cor. 15). One could also say: With this faith you are free and without it you are a slave. What a tremendous thing it is when we experience our freedom from death. I am thinking now of our oppressed brethren, those who can not come together in conventions. Among them are also boys and girls who know what is meant by Christian liberty. Slaves of Jesus Christ, and therefore - sometimes facing death - free.
In the old books about martyrs we often find moving examples of this. I think of the story about the death of Polycarpus of Smyrna. The man was 86 years old when the time had come that Christ called this minister of Smyrna to die a martyr's death. But of course, the executioners tried to convince the old man that life is sweet, even at 86. "Swear by the emperor" they said, "and curse the Christ". But the old man said: For 86 years I have served Him and He never did any injustice to me. How then can I curse my King and Saviour? When the executioners then pointed at the fire, that burns and hurts - a christian feels that too! - he said: You threaten me with fire that burns for an hour and before long is gone, but you have no knowledge of the fire of the coming judgment, of the eternal punishment, which is prepared for the ungoldy. Briefly through the tunnel, and Polycarpus will experience the complete liberty. That man, bonds and all (he had been incarcerated for a long time) was freer than all the spectators who stood there, astonished by his words.
FREE FROM THE REGIME OF THE LAW
We are free from sin. We are free from death. We are also free from the law. This I must rephrase a little more precisely: we are free from the regime of the law. That nasty regime with its: Thou shalt this and thou shalt that, and if it is not completely fulfilled, eternal death awaits. Man will have to fulfil the righteousness of the law before he can say: I have earned my salvation. We think here of the pharisees who had so incorporated the law into their doctrine of salvation, that salvation had to be earned through a whole list of good works. To this the apostle Paul said NO. We are freed from death and sin, but we are also liberated from any yoke of the law. Paul said this, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Luther and many thousands of others have said it after him. First they tried with all their strength to walk the way to salvation by themselves. But they ran stuck on the powers of their own flesh. Finally they found Christ, Him, who had carried the curse of the law away. And we sing it with them:
I shall forever glory in the cross! And no law shall condemn me; Christ bore the curse for me. Christ has died and has obtained grace for me. I am free from all three: Sin, death, and law!
ARE YOU GRATEFUL AND GLAD?
What is most important has now been said on this topic. For all those who are here attending this convention. And for all of us who grew up in the reformed world, who attend the church services and who have not turned our backs on the societies, there is only one proper attitude: one of gratitude and joy. For we are free.
Free from sin - even though it is a power which is still very much active.
Free from death - even though we all have to pass through the tunnel.
Free from the law - even though we may sometimes think that we ourselves are paving quite a way of the road to heaven.
We are free, and therefore glad. In this liberty young women and men come together here. The president could rightly say that these boys may look for these girls, and vice versa. Together free, and so together through life. Also forming families together, in which children are brought up in this freedom. And being grateful together for what the Lord will give us in our society life. For especially when we are young, and when sometimes we want to go into all directions at once, we must clearly know what is our real liberty.
Those who are grateful for this liberty, do not come to nag about what is allowed and what is not allowed. For when the heart is full of joy over our freedom in Christ, then little need be added. You notice so easily the difference between the longing for the false liberty and the gratitude for the true liberty. Also among our youth. Where do the discontented questions come from, "why may I not do this and why may I not do that?" These questions often coincide with a dislike for church attendance and with poor attendance at young people's societies. Such youths have not yet given their hearts to the freedom, which they have in Christ. And if you have not done that yet, in other words, if you have not yet seen wherein you are really free, then talking against the movies, against dancing, and against TV. programs, often does not help very much. For whither one's heart is drawn, there his head will follow, and one will then always find arguments to justify one's choice.
I heard of a panel discussion, where young people could ask questions. One of the questions asked was: "May we dance?" There was a man on that panel who bounced the question back: Who among you does not dance? Nobody stood up. They all danced. Then said the man-of-the-panel: Mr. Chairman, in this case we had better not talk about it any further, for they all dance anyway. Their heart is in it, and now they want us to provide them with arguments why dancing could be allowed.
Whereof is the heart full? Is it full of joy because you have come to know Jesus Christ in this life, and because you may stand in the Christian liberty? Well, then those petty problems are not too difficult to solve. One of the best remedies is, to pay some attention to the true church behind the iron curtain. With boys and girls who know that they cannot get a good job and who do not even have to mention the movies or the TV., etc., when they have truly chosen for Christ. And fortunately, they are there, who wholeheartedly confess their faith and maintain that confession, even when it costs them their job and their future.
See, when you hear that, you will feel ashamed. It is the best way to overcome much nagging about what is, and what is not allowed. Let us work hard and stay at it in our societies, in order that we understand and hold on to the true liberty, which is given to us in Jesus Christ. Study of the Scriptures will rid us of much nonsense and nagging.
TRUE LIBERTY LISTENS TO THE LAWS
Our enormous freedom teaches us also to appreciate our subjection to laws. Everybody knows that true freedom listens to the laws. True liberty calls for laws, because freedom can be experienced in order only, not in chaos. We can read that throughout the Bible. It was not Jesus Christ who said so first, or the apostle Paul, but the Lord says this already in the Ten Commandments.
These commandments speak about all that a man must not do and about all that he must do. They describe our subjection to laws. Undoubtedly. But how does the law of God begin? It begins with our liberty: I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And now they may come, the Ten Commandments! Let them come, those rules which God made! For they are the rules of our freedom.
Thou shalt have no other gods before Me - for these gods lead you into slavery.
Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, for he who wishes to serve God in his own particular manner will, before long, switch over to Baal, and his liberty is gone.
Remember the sabbath day - for it is the day when you hear the Word of the Lord. Then we will not go to lie on the beach, but we listen to the proclamation of our liberty, and we experience that liberty within the congregation of Gods people.
Honour thy father and thy mother - for this again is a rule of our freedom. The chairman said already: the world has no longer a father. The vandals of Amsterdam, with all their noise about liberty, would cause the downfall of our people, if given a chance. But, fortunately, there is still authority in our country, in accordance with the fifth commandment. We have celebrated the birth of the new prince of Orange, but we realized very well that no prince of Orange can exist without an effective police force. No freedom without subjection to the law. For that reason there are law enforcement officers, and people are given tickets and others are apprehended. For that reason there are jails. And all this is to serve that liberty which Christ still gives this world in order to establish and to keep open the way for the proclamation of the gospel of the true liberty.
Thou shalt not commit adultery - for the bloom disappears from life when one starts to play around with the seventh commandment. It is refreshing to be in a family where the fifth commandment is taken seriously. There the relationships are good. The parents are in command, not the children. In such a climate one can grow. The same applies to the seventh commandment. What a feast for our boys and girls, when they have a healthy engagement, and when they begin right, with a boy or girl from the church. How beautiful can it be, when you do not play around with sex during the time of your engagement, but are pure when you enter your marriage, keeping in mind that that also is for the furthering of Christ's church. But look at what happens in the world, where the seventh commandment is ignored! They talk there about a "new morality" and about "freedom" and about outmoded commandments, leftovers from the, time of your parents and grandparents, who did not know yet what it was all about. But in the climate of such freedom life is ruined. God comes with His judgments.
Let us adhere to these old-fashioned Ten Commandments of the Lord, our God, and we will see that the blessing comes into our lives. The blessing of the true liberty. The rest is useless; worse than useless.
This the apostle James understood very well. For he wrote: "But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, . . . this man shall be blessed in his deed." (James 1:25). Law, and thus liberty. True freedom listens to God's Commandments.
We saw first that we are free from sin, from death, and also from the regime of the law. It is clear to us now, that we are not "free" from the law itself, for this law is given back to us as a rule of gratitude. We do not have to slave and drudge, so that we have something to offer to the Lord, so that we can say: "Lord, these are my achievements, herewith have I earned my liberty". No, we are already placed in the freedom which Christ has earned for us and given to us. And we shall give heed to God's Commandments, most carefully, because we are grateful, and because we do not want to lose this freedom.
YOU CAN SING OF THE LAW!
In the Old Testament we read that the children will ask: Father, what are those testimonies, statutes and judgments which the Lord, our God, has commanded you? Why do we have to go to the temple, and why must the little boys be circumcised? Why are we not allowed to do this, and why must we do that? Then the father does not say: It must be done, and you will have to do it, and no arguments! No, he is a father after God's heart. For he speaks of the greatness of his God: "Son, we were in Egypt and we lived in slavery. But by the mighty hand of God we were led out of the iron furnace. Plagues came over the people of Egypt, but we went through the Red Sea. We had food and drink. We were free! And, yes, in order that we remain in that freedom, and hold on to that what we have in this free country of Israel, therefore the Lord gave us all these testimonies, commandments, and statutes." (Deut. 6.)
So is the law, as rule of gratitude, alive among that Israel that fears the Lord. So also can we sing about it. The poets of the Old Testament did so indeed. I think of psalm 119. That is a very long psalm and it is therefore seldom, if ever, sung in its entirety. That would hardly be possible. But the poet needed all these many verses to sing out his love for God's law:
As on a lode of wealth I contemplate
Thy testimonies, filled with expectation,
Yes, on Thy precepts I would meditate
And give Thy ways my deep consideration.
I'll not forget Thy word, but ruminate
On these Thy statutes with anticipation.
Psalm 119:6 (Book of Praise)
These are the words of a man who delights in precept upon precept, rule upon rule. And then properly understood: as precepts and rules from God, who loves the freedom of His children. Who wants a man to be a real and true man again, so that he stands before His God and wishes to abide under the regime of His redeeming grace.
The chairman has prayed at the opening that we might be glad and obedient. That is the right combination.
To be glad - but you do not remain joyful, unless you obey the law of the Lord.
To be obedient - but it becomes miserable slavery, unless you realize that you may be joyful. Joyful because of your Christian liberty.
Dr. J. Douma
Let the Greeks consider this liberty foolishness. Slaves of Jesus Christ sing of it. Free in Him, and forever happy.