Theology: The Glorious Freedom

By John McKenna

From left: Pastor Kang of the Oriental Mission Church, John McKenna, vice president; and Jae Soon Lim, president of World Mission University.
John McKenna (right) talks with a Biola University student.

The following is an address given at the 2005 Commencement of World Mission University:

Beginnings, old and new, are essential for understanding the world, and I love new beginnings.

Across the pages of the Holy Scriptures we read of the way that God with his divine freedom is free with himself to renew his covenanted relationship with his people. Ultimately, the Bible teaches us that God shall fulfill his covenanted purposes for his people with the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the biblical covenant relationship we are taught by the Bible, new beginnings are absolutely necessary for his people. I speak to you today of the new beginning you are making as the 2005 graduating class of World Mission University. It is a commencement that belongs to the way of Jesus Christ.

Let me quote from the apostle Paul: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not of its own choice, but by the will of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21).

It is with this glorious freedomyou make your commencement today. The immediate context for Paul’s claim about the glorious freedom of the children of God is provided by Romans 8:1 (“There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”) and Romans 8:38-39 (“For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”).

Behind us lies “no condemnation.” Before us is the “love of God.” We as his children are a people free from condemnation and for the love that God is. The creation, we are informed, itself bears witness to this glorious freedomof the children of God and waits for the full realization of its purpose.

Thus, the glorious freedom of the children of God is crystallized in a context where no condemnation can be found for the people of God, and where God’s love shall never fail with his creation. A solid understanding of this freedom cannot be apprehended without the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Within the boundaries of his divine forgiveness and love we may grasp the meaning of the glorious freedomwe have been given by our Savior. It is a freedom that transcends every created thing and rests upon Christ’s love of his Father and his Father’s love for him.

For this reason, we may say that without condemnation and for the love of God we live beyond the vanity of the creation. Even the vanity of the creation waits to be free as we have been freed for the glorious freedom.The whole of created reality waits for the time when the glorious freedom of the children of God shall be realized utterly. The doctrine of the vanity or frustration of the creation is known to Paul through the proclamation of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. All is vanity, says the Preacher. All is vanity, says Paul, about the Old Testament world.

But about the New Testament world, Paul can say that in and with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all that was vanity has been vanquished. The Preacher’s call to the people of God to trust their God is not vanity. It is a call to trust even in the vanity of the creation that God will give meaning and significance to life in the creation.

With the same freedom that the Lord God delivered Israel from Egypt, he will give ultimate meaning and significance to the vanity of the creation. The whole of God’s creation beholds the way the Lord has kept faith with this trust in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

As his children, the people of God are called to trust him as their Creator and their Redeemer, and their destiny belongs to the beginning he has made with himself in the world. The creation itself now waits for the full realization of this beginning and its promise to his sons and daughters. Because of this beginning, they live in the glorious freedom without condemnation and for the love of God for all creation.

This Creator-Redeemer is known to Paul as the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the revealer of the Father by his Spirit. This person has revealed his Father to the apostle Paul and by the Holy Spirit given Paul to know the One who is who he truly is. It is in the light of this only One that the apostle can teach the believers to trust their Redeemer and their Creator for their destiny.

The believers in Christ can know that they participate in a beginning that is without condemnation and led by the love that God is for them to their destiny. The believers are to give up all condemnation, including all self-condemnation, and they are to live following him whose divine freedom and will shall never fail them in this world. Thus, they are in Christ the sons of God, the children of God. They live in the glorious freedom that is without condemnation and with the love of God.

In our time, the concept of freedom calls anew for our attention. As Americans, we believe in the freedom of the human race. At the founding of our nation, the concept of freedom played and continues to play a central role.

Freedom from the rule of an English king was foremost on the minds of many Americans. “Give me liberty or give me death,” was a cry heard round the world. Better to be dead than a live slave to the tyrant. That is the beating of the American heart from the beginning. But the freedom to worship God according to our conscience was just as much on the minds of the Founding Fathers.

President George W. Bush even now makes our concept of freedom central to his policies at home and around the world. Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, we have witnessed a new beginning of a new resolve in our nation’s freedom against the tyrants of this world. It is a resolve that must be compared with the resolve our country possessed in its beginning.

Now we are saying that our freedom has value not only from an English monarch, but for the whole world of nations. It possesses a universal value that peoples everywhere ignore with jeopardy. It is a liberty for which we are prepared to fight around the world.

All the laws and all the might of all the nations in this world are only made to serve this freedom. This freedom and the responsibility for human rights go hand in glove together against every tyrant on our globe. Yet it is a policy whose cry is not easily heard by everyone. Freedom can and does mean different things to different people. Evidently, the concept of freedom needs explanation that does not meet the naked eye.

Great minds have contemplated it. In his book, The Logic of Liberty, Michael Polanyi argues that freedom sought by communities and individuals cannot find coherence except upon a transcendent ground neither individuals nor communities can afford to ignore. Freedom evidently makes demands upon us that take us quite beyond ourselves as individuals and as communities.

Polanyi argues that freedom’s real meaning cannot be grasped without consideration of the role of the transcendent in communal and individual freedoms. One cannot understand, he says, the value of the role of freedom in the various fields of human knowledge and endeavor without taking into consideration the value of the transcendence in human life.

If freedom does have meaning, it possesses significance from beyond our communities and our individualities. The responsibility of freedom comes from beyond us, from beyond the dimensions of our sciences and our religions. The loss of this transcendent, Polanyi shows, plagues our modern world with a disease that involves the real loss of the meaning of freedom in our time.

Korean-Americans are no strangers to this struggle for freedom’s meaning in their history. The folk song Arirang is to Koreans what “God Bless America” is to Americans. From “the tears of sorrow and separation” to freedom in the United States, Koreans have suffered, fought and died beside Americans for freedom’s sake.

When Sammy Lee became the first Asian-American to win an Olympic gold medal in 1948, he brought a newfound freedom for the Korean people in America. And even in our own times, beyond the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, Korean-American people have learned again to suffer and to die for this freedom’s sake. No doubt World Mission University will stand for this freedom in the future. The concept of freedom for which we suffer and die and again live is vital for all of us. It deserves real attention.

We may consider the explanation of freedom by contemplating the faces of what I have called freedom’s counterfeit coin. On the heads side of the coin, we have engraved the face of freedom as an abstract idealism, a timeless principle that we may apply all the time everywhere, as if it were the same as eternal truth. With it, we may seek to provide an explanation of all the order and reason we may experience in the world.

Greek philosophers could swoon passionately over this kind of principle. Their logos was the source of all that was beautiful and orderly and eternally true in the world. For these philosophers, the heavens themselves appeared eternal, their motions divine, while the temporal things on the earth appeared but temporarily in a decaying world. The contrast between the heavens and the earth was absolute. Everlasting life had to do with being free from earth’s temporal things and free for the eternal things of the heavens. Salvation rested among the eternal verities in the heavenlies.

On the tails side of the coin, we have engraved a romantic idealism. Freedom is understood on this side of the coin as individualistic freedom. It is bound up with the autonomy of the freedom of the individual and existential decision-making that in the vast impersonal nature of things is rendered ultimately meaningless.

Modern existential philosophers understand human freedom in this way. Humanity is imprisoned in the nothingness of the world that shapes a theatre of the absurd for the existence of human life in a universe vastly indifferent to our humanity. We are free to make our decisions in the world, but the nature of this world is absolutely indifferent to the autonomy of our freedom. Our freedom has no ultimate consequence in the large picture of things. Human existence as vanity is surrounded by the nothingness of a world where we romantically work out our destinies in it, but without any ultimate significance.

When freedom is understood either as abstract idealism or as romantic idealism, we must realize that both sides of the coin are inadequate to explain real freedom. Neither the timeless principles of communal beliefs nor the autonomous assertions of free individuals can justify our concept of freedom.

I believe that we must face the fact that the whole of this freedom coin is a counterfeit. When it comes up heads and we live responsibly in our public commitments, we tend to suppress the real significance of individual freedom. When it comes up tails and we exercise our freedom as individuals without coordination with public freedom, we tend to suppress the external controls necessary for true spontaneity and creativity. If it is heads, we may find ourselves boasting. If it is tails, we may find ourselves despairing. But neither the pride of our boasting nor the sloth of our despair can stand for the real face of freedom.

In its pride and in its sloth, writes the great theologian Karl Barth, the human race seeks its consolation with the Liar, and its condemnation. “The man of sin,” he wrote, “in his fully developed form as a liar is the man who goes forward to his condemnation” (Church Dogmatics IV.3.1, p. 462). We must learn to strike a whole new coin.

But to strike a new coin of freedom without the glorious freedom of the children of God is, I believe, impossible. The transcendence for which Polanyi has argued can have nothing to do with abstract principles or existential passions, but must be defined by the transcendence of the ascended Lord of all space and time, the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Jesus Christ, we know no boasting or despair. With the glorious freedom he has given us we belong to that for which the whole creation longs to see. We belong to his new creation. In this way, we belong to the Spirit of Almighty God. We belong to the One who alone can give human life in this world. In this freedom, the human race lives as children of God. In this freedom, we shall be established as the children he has raised up for himself, as the Creator and Redeemer. It is with this freedom that we may proclaim as his church the kingdom of Heaven, Christ and God.

It is with this freedom that we may live beyond the vanity that the world is without him. It is with this freedom that we may discard the lie of the Liar. It is with the freedom of this truth that the apostle John writes: “So if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Like Paul, the apostle John crystallized his thoughts about the freedom of the believer in Jesus Christ within a certain context. In John 8:12, we read Christ’s claim as the Son of God to be light of the world. And then before the religious leaders of his time, he claims an identity with the Great I-AM of the burning bush to be who he truly is even before Moses, even before Abraham, who he once called out of Babylon (John 8:58).

Between these two claims lies this truth. Man in Christ is given his freedom for God. They are given to participate with him in the new beginning he has made with himself. It is this divine and human freedom that is the transcendent ground upon which we stand and grasp the meaning of the glorious freedom of the children of God in Christ’s new creation.

In Galatians 5:1, the apostle Paul writes once more about this glorious freedom: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Even in the midst of an unbelieving world, we may stand as his children with this glorious freedom. We are neither Jew nor gentile. We are sons and daughters of the free God.

We know that death shall have no dominion over us. We know that we live in him without condemnation. We know that we may live in him for the love of God. We who once lived in Adam as slaves in this fallen world, now may live in Christ for his new creation. We live as his people with this glorious freedom. We live because he lives in this glorious freedom.

You are the graduating class of 2005 of World Mission University. You are ready to begin your new lives and ministries in the world. We are deeply grateful for you. We thank our Lord and God for you. We pray that his rich and great blessings will be upon you in the glorious freedom of your love of God. We pray that you will go forth in this glorious freedom, free from condemnation, free for the love that God is, and free to proclaim his light and life to the world.

Only as you go in this glorious freedom shall we be able to explain the existence of World Mission University and its freedom in this world. We believe it is, indeed, a glorious freedom!

There is no connection between GCI and World Mission University except for the fact that John McKenna worked for both organizations.

Author: John McKenna


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