Freedom of the Christian: 1 Peter 2:16
In the midst of his instructions on how the Christian is to live with the State (1 Peter 2:13-17), Peter writes, “Live as people who are free” (1 Peter 2:16a).
There are two aspects in which this is true. First, the Christian is free from the power of the State. Second, the Christian owes allegiance to a power greater than the State.
The power of the State is violence (Romans 13:4). When the State sets boundaries, gives directives or whatnot, the rules and power and are not self-enforcing. Thus, to enforce it power, the State must rely upon violence.
Sometimes the use of force can be a good thing. The ability to stop a murderer rampaging through a playground is good. Paul writes that the State has the power of the sword to stop the “wrongdoer.” Peter writes that such authority has been given, “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). (While there may be differences as to what constitutes the “good” or the “evil”, it is a generally assumed position that some-things must be stopped and others rewarded.)
However, the use of force often and easily turns to oppression (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3); therefore, wouldn’t shouldn’t be “amazed” at the matter (Ecclesiastes 5:8), even though we know oppression to be an evil.
Christians, of all people, should be the understanding and sensitive to the matter of oppressive use of political violence. Jesus was executed in a context of political oppression. Pilate’s concerns were profoundly political as well as personal (he was trying to figure a way to avoid a riot, among other concerns). Herod killed James, because it pleased a constituency (Acts 12:1-3). The book of Acts reads in part like a series of political arrests.
Both Peter and Paul would find themselves at the wrong end of Roman political violence. Why then would both counsel a general position of obedience to the government’s laws?
Because ultimately the Christian is “free.”
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12:4–7 (ESV)
The power of the State can run no further than the edge of the grave. During the 19th Century wars between the United States and the Plains Indians, the Native Americans learned the US troops wouldn’t cross the Canadian border. To the Native Americans, something magic seemed at work and thus they called it the “medicine line.”
The grave acts as a sort of medicine line which the State cannot cross. When the Christian dies (and dies not at the same time), the Christian is forever free of the State’s conduct.
What the Christian must learn then is the freedom is existent now. The State seeks to gain power by means of fear. The Christian who follows the instruction of Jesus has nothing to fear. Jesus commands us not to fear the one who can only kill us.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, Timorous and Mistrust come running down the hill due to the lions. Yet, as Christian soon learns, the lions are chained.
Even at its most violent, the State can go no further than permitted by God:
9 He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” John 19:9–11 (ESV)
Thus, not only is the State’s power limited to violence; even the violence can go no further than God will permit.
In fact, the violence and threat of the State can only work to the Christian’s good. The trial of this world is real and wickedness is common. Yet, even in the infliction of trial, God transforms such trial into blessing:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18 (ESV)
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 (ESV)
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:6–7 (ESV)
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3–4 (ESV)
Thus, the Christian is free of any constraint imposed by the State.
Second, the Christian is the citizen of another kingdom – and thus not at home in this world. Peter calls Christians “exiles of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1); those in a “time of .. exile” (1:17); “sojourners and exiles” (2:11).
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. Hebrews 11:13 (ESV)
Yet, the Christian is not without a home, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). Yet, the Christian does not seek to disrupt the nature of this world with bare political rebellion:
36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” John 18:36 (ESV)
The response of the Christian is not for political rebellion. In the end, all political revolution will fail. While history bears this out, the Christian knows that the ultimate reason for oppression is not merely political structures, but sin welling out of the human heart:
20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:20–23 (ESV)
Therefore, while the Christian must abhor oppression and wickedness; and while the Christian must call upon those with power to use their power in a righteous manner; we must also realize that such work will always fall far short of what is required. Until God transforms the heart, there can be no real transformation of any individual human being – much less a society. The Christian must labor as Wilberforce to stand up against wickedness in all its forms. But the Christian must never settle for the lesser goal of a change in law and seek the greater change of a change of heart.
Application: How then must the Christian live in this world? Does the Christian simply deny all law, being free?
Of course not. Jesus, Peter, and Paul all instruct Christians, as a general rule, to lead lives of lawful compliance: paying taxes, being civil, et cetera; even though the country and the government have serious bents toward wickedness. However, such obedience is not aim primarily at the civil authority but rather at God. As Peter writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake ….” (1 Peter 2:13). The obedience is owed to the Lord alone. Our Lord instructs us to live quiet and peaceable lives in the midst of the countries where we may find ourselves.
In the second century, Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Emperor and explained the lives of Christians. He noted that the Christian is no threat to good civil order, because the Christian owes his allegiance ultimately toward God:
And more than all other men are we your helpers and allies in promoting peace, seeing that we hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. For if all men knew this, no one would choose wickedness even for a little, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire; but would by all means restrain himself, and adorn himself with virtue, that he might obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments. For those who, on account of the laws and punishments you impose, endeavour to escape detection when they offend (and they offend, too, under the impression that it is quite possible to escape your detection, since you are but men), those persons, if they learned and were convinced that nothing, whether actually done or only intended, can escape the knowledge of God, would by all means live decently on account of the penalties threatened, as even you yourselves will admit. But you seem to fear lest all men become righteous, and you no longer have any to punish.