The biblical idea of freedom or liberty has as its background the thought of imprisonment or slavery. Rulers would imprison those whom they regarded as wrongdoers (Gen.39:20), a conquered nation might be enslaved by its conqueror or a prisoner of war by his captor, or an individual might - like Joseph - be sold into slavery. When the Bible speaks of liberty, a prior bondage or incarceration is always implied.
Liberty means the happy state of having been released from servitude for a life of enjoyment and satisfaction that was not possible before. The idea of liberty appears in Scripture in its ordinary secular application (e.g. Prov.105:20; Ac.26:32) but it also receives a significant theological development. This sprang from Israel's realisation that such freedom from subjugation by foreigners as she enjoyed was Yahweh's gift to her. In the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) liberty becomes an important theological concept for describing salvation, a word which encompasses all the Tanakh (Old Testament) nuances of 'deliverance', 'rescue' and 'ransom'.
I. Israel's Liberty
At the Exdous Yahweh set Israel free from bondage in Egypt in order that henceforth the nation might serve Him as His covenant people (Ex.19:3ff.; 20:1ff.; Lev.25:55; cp. Is.18:21). He brought them into the 'land flowing with milk and honey' (Ex.3:8; cp. Num.14:7ff.; Dt.8:7ff.), settled them there and undertook to maintain them in political independence and economic prosperity so long as they eschewed (avoided and renounced) idolatry and obeyed the mitzvot (commandments) of His Torah (Law). This meant that Israel's freedom would not depend on her own efforts in either the military or political realm but rather on the quality of her obedience to Elohim (God). Her freedom was a supernatural blessing, an act of divine mercy (Neh.2:28; cp. Jer.42:11-12), Yahweh's gracious gift to His own covenant people because of His steadfast ahavah (love) (Ps.33:18-19; 86:13), because of His Name (Ps.78:8-9), because of His b'rit (covenant) (Ps.106:43-45) or promise (Ps.119:170) - unmerited and, apart from Him, unattainable in the first instance, and now maintained only through His continued favour. Disobedience, whether in the form of religious impiety or social injustice, would result in the loss of freedom. Yahweh would judge His people by national disaster and enslavement (Dt.28:25,47ff.; cp. Judg.2:14ff.; 3:7ff.,12ff.; 4:1ff.; 6:1ff.). He would raise up hostile powers against them, and would ultimately cause them to be deported into a land where no tokens of His favour could be expected (Dt.28:64ff.; Amos 5; 2 Ki.17:6-23; cp. Ps.137:1-4).
The structure of the theological idea of liberty is here fully evident. Liberty, as the Tanakh (Old Testament) conceives it, means, on the one hand, deliverance from created forces that would keep men from serving and enjoying the Creator, Yahweh, and, on the other hand, the positive happiness of living in fellowship with Elohim (God) under His covenant in the place where He is pleased to manifest Himself and to bless. Liberty is from slavery to powers that oppose Yahweh for the fulfilment of His claims upon one's life.
Though the foundation of Yahweh's liberating action is divine power and mercy, there is a corresponding demand for emunah (faith) and righteousness on the part of those who seek deliverance. Liberty is not man's own achievement, but a free gift of grace (undeserved loving kindness), something which apart from Yahweh's action man does not possess at all. In its continuance, liberty is a covenant blessing, something which Yahweh has promised to maintain as long as His people are faithful. Liberty does not mean independence from Elohim (God) - it is precisely Elohim's (God's) service that man finds his perfect freedom, man can enjoy release from bondage (slavery) to the created only through bondage' to his Creator.
Ezekiel, in stressing the importance of personal responsibility, taught at times that Yahweh delivers only the righteous (Ezek.14:14,16,18,20). Proverbs 11:6 states that "the righteousness of the upright saves them" (NRSV). Yahweh rescues the righteous (Ps.34:19), those who trust in Him (22:4), fear Him (Ps.33:18-19), love Him (Ps.91:14), as well as the poor and oppressed (Ps.82:3-4; 119:134) who are being treated unjustly (Ps.39:8; 79:9). The way that Yahweh sets men free from their captors and enemies is to make them His own 'slaves' - servants. He liberates them by bringing them to Himself (Ex.19:4). There is therefore no such thing as an independent secular, worldly, self-justifying entity called 'freedom' or 'liberty' that may be enjoyed without Elohim (God) - it is only found with, in, and for Elohim (God) (see diagram below).
Since all members of the liberated nation were, as such, Yahweh's servants (Lev.25:42,55), Israelites who through pressure of poverty sold themselves into household (indentured) service were not to be treated like foreign slaves - as mere property in their master's hereditary possession (Lev.25:55ff.). Every seventh or sabbatical year (Sh'mittah) they were to be released (unless they had voluntarily chosen to make their sevice permanent) in memory of Yahweh's release of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Dt.15:12ff.). Every 50th year or Yovel, in addition to a release of Israelite servants, alienated land was also to revert to its hereditary owner (Lev.25:10). Jeremiah denounced the people because, having thus 'proclaimed liberty' for Hebrew servants, they went back on it and re-enslaved them (Jer.34:8-17).
II. The Christian's Liberty
The full idea of the idea of liberty appears in the Gospels and Pauline Epistles where the enemies from whom Yahweh through Messiah liberates His people are revealed to be sin, Satan, the penalties for Torah disobedience and death. The focus here is entirely religious and eschatological, developping (but not replacing) the original Tanakh (Old Testament) theme, which does occasionally reappear as in in Luke 1:74 - "rescued (by Yah'shua/Jesus) from the hands of our enemies" (NRSV) whow as sent to "proclaim release to the captives" (Lk.4:18, NRSV; cp. Is.61:1) through His gift of salvation from sin. It is the final, definitive rescue from the power of Satan and sin by Elohim (God) through His Son, Yah'shua (Jesus).
In the Master's (Lord's) Prayer we petition, "deliver us from evil" (Mt.6:13, NRSV; Lk.11:4), i.e. from the terrors associated with the last days of the world under the power of "the evil one". Paul states that the risen Yah'shua (Jesus) "rescues us from the wrath that is coming" (1 Thes.1:10) on Judgment Day, a thought echoed in 2 Peter 2:9.
Yah'shua the Messiah's (Jesus Christ's) public ministry was one of liberation. He opened it by announcing Himself as the fulfilment of Isaiah 61:1:
Ignoring Zealot hankerings after a national liberation from Rome, Messiah declared that He had come to set Israelites free from the state of slavery to sin and Satan in which He found them (Jn.8:34-36,41-44). He had come, He said, to overthrow "the prince (ruler) of this world" (Jn.16:11, KJV), the "strong man" (Mk.3:27, NKJV) and to release his prisoners (Lk.10:17ff.). Exorcisms (Mtk.3:22ff.) and healings (Lk.13:16) were part of this work of dispossession. Yah'shua (Jesus) appealed to these (Lk.11:20; cp. Mt.12:28) as proof positive of the coming among men of the Kingdom of Elohim (God) (i.e. the promised eschatological state in which men effectively receive Yahweh's forgiveness and salvation and are effectively made subject to His will).
"The Ruach (Spirit) of Yahweh-Elohim is upon Me,
Because Yahweh has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Isa.61:1, NKJV).
Paul makes much of the thought that Messiah liberates believers, here and now, from destructuve influences to which they were previously in bondage: from sin, the tyrannical overlord whose wages for serves rendered is death (Rom.6:18-23), from legalistic observance of the Torah as a system of salvation (Gal.4:21ff.; Rom.4:14; 7:5-13; 8:2; 1 Cor4.15:56), from the demonic "power of darkness" (Col.1:13, NKJV), from polytheistic superstition (1 Cor.10:29; Gal.4:8) and from the burden of Pharisaic/Talmudic Jewish ceremonialism and legalism (Gal.2:4). To all this, Paul affirms, freedom from the remaining partial bondage to indwelling sin (Rom.7:14,23) and from physical corruption and death, will in due course be added (Rom.8:18-21).
This freedom, in all its aspects, is the gift of Messiah, who by death brought His people out of bondage (1 Cor.6:20; 7:22ff.). (There may be an allusion here to the legal fiction by which Greek deities 'bought' slaves for their manumission/liberty). Present freedom from the penalties of the Torah, sin and death is conveyed to believers by the Ruach (Spirit), who united them to Messiah through emunah (faith) (Rom.8:2; 2 Cor.3:17). Liberation brings with it adoption (Gal.4:5), those set free from guilt become sons of Elohim (God) and receive the Ruach haMashiach (Spirit of Messiah) as a Ruach (Spirit) of Adoption, assuring them that they are in truth Elohim's (God's) sons and heirs (Gal.4:6ff.; Rom.8:15ff.). And for Gentiles (non-Israelites), there is grafting into the new successor nation of Messianic Israel (Rom.11:1-27) whose Constitution and Law is New Covenant Torah.
Man's response to the divine gift of liberty (Gk. eleutheria), and indeed the very means of his receiving it, is a free acceptance of bondservice (Gk. douleia) to Yahweh (Tom.6:17-21), to Messiah (1 Cor.7:22), to righteousness (Rom.6:18) and to all men for the sake of the Besorah (Gospel) (1 Cor.9:19-23) and of the Saviour (2 Cor.4:5). Christian liberty/freedom is neither an abolishing of responsibility nor a sanctioning of licence. The believer is "not under legalism but under grace" (Rom.6:14, CJB) - the Torah or Law cannot save him - but this does not mean that he is suddenly without Torah but rather "under Torah (Law) toward Messiah" (1 Cor.9:21, NKJV). The Divine Torah, as interpreted and exemplified by Yah'shua (Jesus) Himself, remains Yahweh's standard expressing Messiah's will for His own bondservants freed from the penalties for sin imposed by the Torah who repent of sin and trust in Him:
Christians/Messianics are therefore "not free from Elohim's (God's) Torah (Law) but [are] under Messiah's (Christ's) Torah (Law)" (1 Cor.9:21, NRSV). Our liberty, then, is not freedom from Torah (Law) but being under Torah (Law) IN Messiah as it is Messiah's Ruach (Spirit) in us that makes us free. This Torah-in-Messiah or "Torah (Law) of Messiah" (Gal.6:2, NKJV) - the same as James' "perfect Torah (Law) of Liberty" (James 1:25, NKJV; also 2:12) - is summarised as 'the Torah Law of Ahavah (selfless Love, Agapé) which defines everything that Yahweh has ever demanded, and ever will demand, of His servants' (Gal.5:13ff.; cp. Mk.12:28ff.; Jn.13:34), the principle of voluntary and unstinting self-sacrifice for the good of men (1 Cor.9:1-23; 10:22-23) and the glory of Elohim (God) (1 Cor.10:31). This life of ahavah (love) is the response of gratitude which is the liberating Besorah (Gospel, Good News) both requires and evokes. Christian/Messianic liberty is precisely freedom for ahavah (love) and service to Elohim (God) and man, and it is therefore abused when it is made an excuse for unloving licence (Gal.5:13; cp. 1 Pet.2:16; 2 Pet.2:19), or irresponsible inconsiderateness (1 Cor.8:9-12) - i.e. Torah disobedience or Torahlessness (lawlessness). Indeed, to remain in that ahavah (love) is predicated upon obeying the mitzvot (commandments) (Jn.14:15,23-24; 15:10; 1 Jn.5:3). Ahavah (love) and Torah (love) cannot, in the end, be separated. The latter flows out of the fromer in the New Covenant.
"For he who is called in the Master while a slave is the Master's freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Messiah's slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men" (1 Cor.7:22-23, NKJV).
Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians to counter this threat to the believer's liberty which the theology of Talmudic/Rabbinic Judaism presented. The basic issue, as he saw it, was the sufficiency of Messiah for salvation as opposed to the legalistic observance of the Torah (Law) that the Pharisees and Torah-teachers of the day demanded. At the forefront of the demands by the 'Judaisers' was that Gentiles, who put their emunah (faith) in Messiah, needed circumcision for salvation too. Paul argued that if this were so, then we need to keep the whole of the Mosaic Law (including the new defunct animal sacrifices) in order to be saved - but this would be seeking justification (being made right with Yahweh) through the legalistic observance of law and such a quest would mean falling away from the grace that is in Messiah (Gal.5:2-4). The Christian/Messianic - Judahite ('Jew') or Gentile - Paul maintained, is free from the need to perform 'works (deeds) of the law' in order to be accepted for salvation by Elohim (God), for as a believer in Messiah he is fully accepted already (Gal.3:28ff.), as the gift of the Ruach (Spirit) to him proves (Gal.3:2ff.,14; 4:6; 5:18).
Many of the Mosaic ceremonies were fulfilled in Messiah (such as the animal sacrifices and circumcision) and are no longer need to be observed by the saved. The moral and ethical mitzvot (commandments) are timeless, as is also the lifestyle of the saved, including the eternal rhythms of the divine moedim (appointments) with Yahweh (as opposed to the pagan ones followed by most of Christendom) and the Kashrut (dietary) mitzvot (commandments). Liberty/freedom does not equate to lawlessness (Torahlessness, without Torah), a title reserved for Satan and his servants (2 Thes.2:3,7-9; 2 Pet.3:17; 1 Jn.3:4).
The first task of the believer, after being saved, is to guard his Yahweh-given liberty in Messiah against any who would tell him that emunah (faith) in Messiah alone is not enough to save him (Gal.5:1) and, second, to put his liberty to the best use by letting the Ruach (Spirit) lead him into responsible fulfilment of the Torah (Law) of Ahavah (Love) (Gal.5:11ff.). And the fruit of this ahavah (love) toward Elohim (God) and man will always include Torah-obedience.
Paul makea a similar point elsewhere. The believer is free from the need to work for his salvation and acceptance by Elohim (God), and is bound neither by the ceremonial legalism of Talmudic Judaism nor by pagan superstition and taboos. There is a large realm of things that are not covered by the basic, written Torah (like smoking, for example), which are brought within the envellope of treating the physical body as a temple of the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit). What Paul does not say is that "all things are lawful for me" (a half-true, semi-pagan Corinthian maxim) leaving it to his conscience (which may, or may not be defiled) as to what he should or should not do - the freedom to pick and choose which mitvot (commandments) to live or not given to the believer. Rather:
The translators of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), using the latest available scholarship, rightly understood these to have been maxims too (and place them in 'inverted commas' like the CJB) in use by the Corinthian believers - rough and not wholly accurate "epitomes of conviction" which Paul needed to qualify and refine a second time, the topic again being food, this time about food offered to idols:
"You (Corinthians) say, 'For me, everything is permitted' (Maxim I - a statement of lawlessness)? Maybe, but not everything is helpful. 'For me everything is permitted'? Maybe, but as far as I am concerned, I am not going to let anything gain control over me. 'Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food' (Maxim II - a statement of gluttony/indiscriminate diet)? Maybe, but Elohim (God) will put an end to both of them. Anyhow (because of what Torah already says), the body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Master, and the Master is for the body" (1 Cor.6:12-13ff, CJB).
The conscience works from within the heart sanctified by the Ruach (Spirit) which will never contradict the written Torah (Law), filling in the 'missing gaps', as it were. Paul teaches that the body is not meant for unkosher meat. In respect of the way we treat our bodies (or, contextually, approach meat offered to idols), there is a certain amount of liberty outside of Torah (which does not proscribe carbonated drinks like Cola, for example). However, that liberty must be used responsibly so as to not harm ourselves or others. Knowledge from scientific research (knowing, for example, how poisonous most carbonated drinks are, the harmful effects of chemical additives, GMO's, etc.), common sense (though little is said of plants in Torah, eating poisonous deadly nightshade or rhubarb leaves would be stupid) and (most importantly) the promptings of the Ruach (Spirit) are the means by which we are to judge matters which lie beyond what Yahweh revealed in the written Torah. Again, such liberty must be used responsibly. What this is not is any imagined lawless 'liberty' to ignore the mitzvot (commandments), a dangerous and destructive notion that has badly contaminated Protestant and other forms of Christianity.
"'All things are lawful' (Maxim I), but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but [rathert] that of the other [person]" (1 Cor.10:23-24, NRSV).
III. Free Will
The historic debate as to whether fallen men have free will has only an indirect connection with the biblcial concept of freedom (see the Agency website). Distinctions must be made to indicate the issues involved.
A. If the phrase 'free will' be taken morally and psychologically, as meaning the power of unconstrained, spontaneous, voluntary - and therefore responsible - choice, the Bible everywhere assumes that all men, as such, possess it - regenerate and unregenerate alike.
B. If the phrase be taken metaphysically, as implying that men's future actions are indeterminate, and therefore in principle unpredictable, the Bible seems neither to assert not to deny an indeterminancy of future action relative to the agent's own moral or phyical constitution, but it does seem to imply that no future event is indeterminate to Yahweh, for He foreknows and in some sense (as micro- and macro-historical conclusions are concerned) foreordains (rather than 'pre-determines' without any kind of human agency) all things.
C. If the phrase be taken theologically, as denoting a natural abilitity on the part of unregenerate man to perform acts that are good without qualification in Yahweh's sight, or to respond to the Besorah (Gospel) invitation, such passages as Romans 8:5-8, Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 6:44 seem to indicate that no man is free for obedience and emunah (faith) until he is freed from sin's dominion by some form of prevenient grace. For Messianic Evangelicals, this is of the Arminian rather than of the Calvinistic kind. All his voluntary choices are in one way or another acts of serving sin until grace breaks sin's power and prompts him to accept and obey (or reject, as he chooses) the Besorah (Gospel).
Though most New Testament liberation texts focus on the victory of Yah'shua (Jesus) with consequences for eternity, several passages speak of divine rescues in this life too (Ac.7:10; 12:11; Rom.15:31; 1 Tim.3:11; 4:17). Both aspects - the material and the spiritual - safety in this world and the next, constitute Yahweh's work of liberation.