Freedom is the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint. More specifically, it can mean:

  • Ability to act freely: a state in which somebody is able to act and live as he or she chooses, without being subject to any undue restraints or restrictions.
  • Release from captivity or slavery: release or rescue from being physically bound, or from being confined, enslaved, captured, or imprisoned.
  • The condition of being free; the power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints.
  • Exemption: immunity from an obligation or duty.
  • Civil liberty, as opposed to subjection to an arbitrary or despotic government.
  • The right to enjoy all the privileges or special rights of citizenship, membership, etc., in a community or the like.

The desire for freedom was one of the founding principles of the United States of America. Today, freedom still stands proudly at the top of a list of aspirations for Americans. All Americans, no matter their creed or the color of their skin agrees that: "we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".

"Freedom incurs responsibility. That is why many men fear it." -- George Bernard Shaw

Freedom & St Paul's Letter to the Galatians

John Hanneman wrote, "Inner freedom has to do with the very essence of our being." This "inner freedom" is the theme of St Paul's letter to the Galatians.

The Greek words for freedom appear 36 times in the New Testament. Paul uses them 28 times in his letters, and 10 times in Galatians alone. The purpose of this letter is clear: to explain how Christians have been released from the law and been given freedom in Christ, how the Spirit has replaced the Torah in our lives.

Galatians reveals why people struggle so much with law. It identifies the key ingredient to becoming free, and how people can enjoy freedom in Christ. Paul writes:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Galatians 5:1 (NIV)
In his word of greeting in the introduction, he says:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of God the Father. Galatians 1:3-4 (NASB)
Here the apostle defines what he means by freedom. Following his wish for "grace and peace," he uses two phrases that capture for Christians the two ways they are free as a result of their relationship with God.

The first phrase is that the Lord Jesus Christ "gave Himself for our sins." Here the Apostle is describing our freedom from slavery to the power of sin. This is the great doctrine of justification. We are born into sin, separated from God, but this separation can be overcome because God sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Through this atonement, all of our sins, past, present, and future, have been paid for - all we need do is put our faith in Christ. John Stott comments: "The death of Jesus Christ was primarily neither a display of love, nor an example of heroism, but a sacrifice for sin."[1][2]

Two Ideas of Freedom

Isaiah Berlin, OM (6 June 1909 – 5 November 1997), is regarded as a leading liberal philosopher of the 20th Century. However, he introduced two concepts of freedom which can be universally regarded. Berlin's work on theories of freedom has had a lasting influence. His 1958 lecture, "Two Concepts of Liberty" is famous for its distinction between positive and negative liberty, and has informed much of the debate since then on the relationship between liberty and other values.

Negative Freedom

The first concept of freedom, and the one with which we are usually most familiar, is what Berlin cites as 'negative' freedom. Berlin sums this up in the simple question "Over what area am I master?"[3]. It refers to the idea of liberty or freedom as an idea of the opportunities available to you, the number of doors open to you or the different roads you may walk down [1]. A recent example is that, in imposing a smoking ban on its citizens, a government is restricting their negative liberty, specifically their freedom to smoke in certain public areas. The degree of freedom is also affected by the nature of the restrictions on somebody. For example, prohibiting a given person from the vote is removing a far greater proportion of a person's negative freedom than asking them to take off their shoes indoors[2].

Positive Freedom

The notion of positive freedom can be more difficult to explain and understand, and is closely related to the ideas of paternalism. It can be stated basically as "Who is master?[4]" and refers to the idea of being free in the sense that you are free to make the right choices. For example, if negative freedom is a question of how many doors are open to you, positive freedom is a question of which door you decide to take [3]. To understand the concept of positive freedom more easily, the ‘self’ may be split into two distinct characters; one which is described as a ‘higher’ or ‘rational’ self; and another which is the ‘lower’ or ‘irrational’ self. The measure of positive freedom is whether the higher self has direction over the lower self; whether a person has the control to make the right choices, e.g. I may know that it is a good idea to exercise once a day, however, I would much rather sit on the sofa and be lazy. The rational side of me knows that for long term benefit, I should exercise, whilst the irrational side desires short-term gratification; lazing around all day. The achievement of positive freedom is listening to the rational self and doing what is best, in this case going for a swim, over doing that which brings instant and short-term fulfilment; sitting on the sofa. To some this is the very essence of true freedom, and in order for people to be truly free, there must be an element of state guided interference in their lives; they should be given rules and laws to abide by and achievements to aspire to, all of which help them to achieve positive freedom.

Paradox of Positive Freedom

This concept implies that a person could be convinced or coerced into doing things they wouldn’t usually do, on the basis that it is what they would do, were they thinking rationally [4]. This paradox is looked at by Berlin, and he speaks about governments or regimes which have used this concept to disastrous consequence, stating that it has been one of the cornerstones of both Stalin-Communist and Hitler-Fascist societies. That the coercion of it's own citizens into doing something, he says is bad enough. But the greatest atrocity is that these regimes use the idea of positive freedom to convince their populous that they are acting in the way they would act anyway, if their 'rational self' had president over their 'irrational' self [5]. Many people believe that this is evidence that Berlin is a Liberal, and that he denounces the concept of positive freedom as invalid. Berlin vehemently denies this, and claims only that he seeks to identify that it is a concept which has, can be and will be misused. He also claims that many of mankind's greatest atrocities have occurred as a result of attempts to reconcile all of mankind's goals into one [6].


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