It was the last word of William Wallace, at least in the Hollywood
history that I know. Now, be honest. When you heard Mel Gibson’s voice
ring out that word in Brave Heart, did you not feel the thrill of victory even in the
sadness of temporal defeat? Did you not recognize that something much
bigger than our petty interests was being captured and demonstrated
there, before our eyes and ears? Despite all appearances, Wallace died
a free man.
This is not freedom for a class or group of people, as so many today
measure freedom. It’s the freedom of an individual soul. That’s the
basis of the United States of America, making the United States still
the last, best hope — as far as nations go, anyway — for Freedom in
the world. Again, not freedom for classes or groups of people, which
exist only in the theories and calculations of those who do the
grouping. This is freedom for real people, as they exist in real life;
freedom for individuals.
What the founding fathers of the United States understood from their own
upbringing and experience was that freedom is a gift from God. The
opposite, bondage, is the work of Satan. Confessional Lutherans are in
a particularly good position to understand this, because we still
acknowledge the biblical doctrine of Original Sin. Without that, our
understanding of freedom would be inaccurate.
The Fall of man brought the utter loss of freedom. Through the Fall,
Satan was placing humanity into bondage to sin and to death. Where
before the Fall, people could freely live in perfect harmony with one
another, gladly assuming their proper place in the order of Creation,
these things were lost when our first parents succumbed to the
temptation of Satan. The spiritual effect of this upon us all is
described in the Augsburg Confession, article II, as both an inherited
sinful condition and concupiscence, with a somewhat archaic meaning
of desire or lust for sin:
Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the
natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God,
without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease,
or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing
eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy
Spiritually speaking, this loss of freedom means that mankind requires a
savior, if freedom will be restored, and this savior must be greater
than a mere child of Adam and Eve. Without that savior, the new human
condition of sin and death would bind humanity under the yoke of Satan
forever. The point of the Bible is that God did provide such a
Savior. When Adam and Eve, and any of their children, believed the
promise first mentioned in Genesis 3:15, God counted them as righteous
(Romans 3:22-26), and deserving of eternal life.
There is also a temporal side to our loss of freedom, illustrated
graphically in Genesis chapter 4. When humanity became sinful, it
forfeited the right to live before God. But implicit in the promise of
a savior, God effectively stayed the execution of sinners for a time, so
that they would have opportunity to learn and believe the promise, and
thus be saved through faith. (This became explicit in Genesis 6:3.)
Yet sin still encroaches upon our God-given freedom, including the
freedom to live. That’s what happened when Cain killed his brother.
Other freedoms that God has granted us despite the Fall include the
freedom to work and enjoy the results of our work, and the freedom to
marry and raise children. Genesis chapters 4–6 show examples of this
freedom put to both good and evil uses, which God tolerated for a time.
Fast forward to Mount Sinai. In the intervening years, many people
believed God’s promise, and were counted as righteous in His sight. They
received this faith through the teaching of their fathers, and some
through direct communication with God. But on Mt. Sinai, we see
something new. There God was forging a special relationship with one
nation, one very large family of people — descendants of Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob. That relationship was based upon a written word, the
Torah or “Law” that Moses wrote down in obedience to God. On Mt. Sinai,
we learn that God gave ten special words, or commandments, recording
them on tablets of stone. These words summarized morality in God’s
The Ten Commandments accomplish many things, and one of them is the
preservation of freedom. Though they are counted in a variety of
ways, they are not hard to understand. They constitute the first chief
part of Luther’s Small Catechism.
The first three commandments, as ordered there, are called the first
table of the Law, summarized by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-38, quoting
Deuteronomy 6:5. Those commandments demand what humanity lacks by
nature since the Fall: a right relationship with God. In terms of
freedom, they also describe what God has provided as a gift through
faith in the promised savior, i.e., believers are free to love God
above all things, though our concupiscence remains as a constant temptation.
The remaining commandments are called the second table of the Law,
summarized by Jesus in Matthew 22:39 (a summary also found in Leviticus
19:18). These commandments demand the earthly result of a right
relationship with God: perfect love for our fellow human beings. In
terms of freedom, they describe how God protects for us the basic
freedoms He has extended to every descendant of Adam and Eve, i.e.,
the freedom to live, the freedom to marry and raise children, the
freedom to work with one’s resources and enjoy the benefit of that work,
the freedom from false accusations, and the freedom to keep a household
together in peace. These freedoms are protected through curbs set upon
human behavior, in the form of the commandments.
What the founding fathers of the United States understood was that these
freedoms are granted by God directly to every individual. God does not
guarantee that someone else will not transgress them, as Cain did, and
as the murderers of William Wallace did, and as every tyrant or
tyrannical government does. Yet despite those transgressions, the
founding fathers recognized that God’s gift of freedom remains. You
can’t take away what the Lord has given. That’s the point in the
Declaration of Independence. It’s also the basic assumption of the
Constitution later encoded in the Bill of Rights.
There have always been some who wish to take away the individual freedom
granted by God. The previously-mentioned tyrants are some of them.
They do this through legal means, though even legal tyranny is still an
injustice. In the United States, where the government answers to the
people, it is possible for the people to become tyrants by taking away
the God-given freedom of their own neighbors. Of course, tyrants wouldn’t call
themselves tyrants, which was Orwell’s point in using names like “The
Ministry of Love.” In real life, they would use more positive-sounding labels
for themselves, like “Progressives.” Or “Compassionate Conservatives.” But
forcibly taking one man’s income or property (“taxation” if you must), even to help someone else,
is still contrary to God’s gift of individual freedom. By contrast, using one’s own property
to help one’s neighbors is pleasing in God’s sight, and a blessing to all.
William Wallace and Rob Roy were big-screen defenders of freedom. So
was General Maximus Decimus Meridius. So was Robin of Loxley. It seems
that a lot of people find satisfaction and enjoyment in the successful
defense of freedom. It’s big money for Hollywood. Now, if only more
people would realize how important that defense of freedom is in
The Bible has a lot more to say about freedom and liberty, beginning
with spiritual freedom from sin and death through Christ. That is the
sense in which Paul wrote Galatians 5:1, yet Paul’s words there are
archetypal for temporal freedoms too. Citizens of the United States and
heirs of Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, and the rest can well
apply them in both ways.
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free,
and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
Cling to Christ alone for eternal life.
Defend temporal freedom for the good of your neighbor.
See, there’s a lot more to it than “clinging to guns or religion.”
It’s a matter of God-given freedom.