I think it is proper and right on this Fourth of July week to reflect on freedom. The apostle Paul, writing during the period of the Roman Empire, states, “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17, NKJV).” It is good to ask what type of liberty Paul is referring to here: internal or external freedom? During the period of the Roman Empire, it is a historical certainty that, while Paul as a Roman citizen enjoyed greater external liberties than others within the Roman Empire, they were considerably less than the liberties that we enjoy in America today.
Given the difference between the times, political structures, and guaranteed rights which exist between us and Paul, and considering the context of 2 Corinthians itself, it is reasonable to assume that Paul is discussing internal freedom. This internal freedom would include freedom of conscience and spiritual freedom from the dictates of the sin nature. In other words, it is a freedom of heart that Paul is discussing in his statement in 2 Corinthians 3:17. In the vein of this distinction we should ponder the following two-part question.
First, can a man who is externally free be internally enslaved? Let me give you an example. Recently my sleep cycles were extremely disturbed and disordered, and I was not getting restful sleep. My mind churned and would not turn off at night. Experiencing some relief from this condition has been a tremendous joy, and also has provided an interesting illustration. By the law of the land I was perfectly free to sleep. However, by my internal state I was not free to sleep. In this way I was free, yet not free. My external freedom gave me limited benefit because my internal freedom was not present, at least in sleeping. (As an important side note, this is wonderful proof that our brain is not the same as our mind. My brain was completely willing to sleep, but my mind would not let it.)
Second, is it possible for man to be externally limited in his freedom and internally free? I know that this is difficult for us to imagine, especially on a day like the Fourth of July, as the fireworks are bursting and we soak in the ethos of freedom. Yet, Paul was imprisoned during his time as an apostle, and yet felt incredibly free in Christ. What freedom, then, did Paul enjoy? He enjoyed internal freedom - being free in conscience and free from the dictates of what his sin nature might do, especially in the situation of imprisonment. Paul was not free, yet he was free.
Like Paul, many dear followers of Christ around the world do not enjoy external freedom, but enjoy internal freedom. I am greatly blessed for the external freedom I enjoy in this country, and am not anxious to trade places with those beloved brothers and sisters of like faith. I also realize that as a free citizen in the United States, I can be enslaved by any number of things and end up being not free, though I am free.
In short, the great freedoms that we enjoy in the United States are not the only kind of freedom, nor are they the ultimate kind of freedom. These external freedoms are a tremendous gift from God, who gives all freedom and, in whose name, only do we have any claim to the inalienable rights we enjoy. Yes, our internal freedom can be enjoyed and expressed through our external freedom, and this is indeed the way the founding fathers intended it. Let me close with this very idea which they wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”