Americans like to think of themselves as free. The first verse of the USA’s national anthem describes the “ star-spangled banner” waving “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The US Declaration of Independence states that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Likewise, the Declaration’s conclusion calls for the united Colonies to be “Free and Independent States.” For Americans, the words “independence” and “freedom” seem to go hand in hand. How could one exist without the other?

Whereas Americans pride themselves and their nation on freedoms, most people are aware that freedom is a relative matter. It is often stated that freedom comes with responsibility. Every group, community, and country has limitations on unbridled individual freedoms (complete anarchy) for the sake and safety of both individuals and the group. For example, one is generally not free to inflict harm on oneself or others, to steal, and so forth. With the gradual dissolution of Judeo-Christian norms in western society, however, balancing individual freedoms while dissolving established norms has increased conflict and courtroom battles.

As may are aware, the understanding of freedom in the USA and in western society generally has shifted. Secular society’s understanding of freedom seems to concentrate on giving human beings the “right” to be free from religion; in other words, to be as sinful as they desire by dissolving norms, laws, and even opinions which “get in the way” of such “freedom.” Viewed biblically, the marginalization of Judeo-Christian societal principles through the so-called separation of church and state has effected an unbridled collapsing of the spiritual into the realm of human flesh. It seems as if human sin now holds dominion even over the realm of God.

This so-called separation of church and state can be espoused because most people mistakenly believe that we human beings live on middle or neutral ground from which we are able to choose between good and evil. This mistaken notion is as old as the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve (Genesis chapters 2 and 3). Borrowing from pagan philosophy, the early church theologian, Origen, held that the human being is composed of three parts, namely the “flesh, soul, and spirit, with soul standing in the middle and being capable of turning either way, toward the flesh or toward the spirit” (LW 33:275). In secularized society today, the spiritual has been asphyxiated, and the soul has been trampled under foot. So, all that remains is the flesh and its claims to be right. If anyone should intervene or interfere, the flesh self-righteously seeks revenge and retribution, as a matter of “human rights,” of which the secular media and the courts of law are full.

In light of the Declaration of Independence, why does it seem that it is becoming increasingly difficult, especially for US Christians, to practice their constitutionally given religious liberty? Are not all human beings, whether religious or not, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” like liberty? What happens, however, when secular government has effectively replaced the Creator in granting such rights? That said, what kind of freedom and rights free from sin can sinful, human beings offer or guarantee to human society? Are such freedoms not just another reincarnation of the story of Adam and Eve whenever human beings apart from God claim to know good from evil?

Luther knew well the dynamics between the spirit, the flesh, the law, and God. In his treatise on The Bondage of the Will, Luther writes,

“Scripture, however, represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to retain a single one of them in his kingdom, because God could not but at once pity and succour them in their acknowledged and crying wretchedness, seeing he is so highly extolled throughout Scripture as being near to the contrite in heart [Ps. 34:18], as Christ too declares himself according to Isaiah 61, to have been sent to preach the gospel to the poor and to bind up the brokenhearted [Luke 4:18]. Accordingly, it is Satan’s work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told. But the work of Moses or a lawgiver is the opposite of this, namely, to make man’s plight plain to him by means of the law and thus to break and confound him by self-knowledge, so as to prepare him for grace and send him to Christ that he may be saved. They are therefore not absurd but emphatically serious and necessary things that are done by the law” (LW 33:130-131).

As is increasingly apparent in society around us, those who propound and promote the freedom of the flesh are not only blinded by sin but also seek to avoid knowledge of sin by dissolving any and every rule or law or person or belief which may expose their sin. According to Luther, however, human freedom to wallow in our flesh of sin and in our sins of the flesh is nothing other than a self-delusional existence in bondage to the demonic. Such “freedom” is literally a devilish, dead end. “Original sin itself, therefore, leaves free choice with no capacity to do anything but sin and be damned” (LW 33:272). The freedom which secular society espouses is, paradoxically, an unbridled freedom to be enslaved in sin. That human freedom is necessarily bound in sin makes one wonder what the phrase “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” means at all.

The freedoms which many Americans still hold dear were once asserted in the belief that a “Creator” endowed his creatures with “unalienable rights.” Today, like the King of England, the “Creator” has also been deposed, and “unalienable rights” are increasingly granted only to the flesh by the flesh for the flesh in the service of “freedom” for human sin. Having succeeded in dispensing with the divine, the power of the flesh now dominating society, and many governmental agencies and bodies, increasingly seeks to silence (to crucify) anyone who is, instead, held captive by the word and spirit of the living Christ.

Over against this prevailing predicament of human servitude to sin stands the author of all liberation movements. The God who brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the promised land is the God who brought home the exiles held in captivity in Babylonian. Moving beyond the temporal and political, this is the same God who sent his son in human flesh into a world bound by human sin to proclaim in word and sacrament a gospel of liberation from the powers of sin, death, and the devil. As Luther writes, “Thus we see what a great and excellent thing Baptism is, which snatches us from the jaws of the devil and makes God our own, overcomes and takes away sin and daily strengthens the new man, and always remains until we pass from this present misery to eternal glory” (Large Catechism, 4.83, Tappert, 446).

Although the flesh always seeks to silence this gospel, God raised the crucified Christ from the dead. The proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the life-giving power of God for the salvation of all sinners who believe (Romans 1:16-17). Contrary to human understanding, this freedom comes not by independence but instead in total dependence on the living word of the God revealed to us sinners in Jesus Christ. For Christians, Independence Day is actually Easter Sunday, celebrated every week, every Sunday, in churches throughout the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not parish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).