2 Corinthians 3:17
Great Texts of the Bible
The Liberty of the Spirit

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.—2 Corinthians 3:17.

We almost seem to hear a change in the tone of St. Paul’s voice, and to see a new light glisten in his eyes, as in the course of his letter to the Church at Corinth he dictates these words to his amanuensis. For they are words of transition into a region and atmosphere of thought very different from that in which he has before been moving. He has been working out, with some complexity and elaboration of detail, the contrast in substance, in circumstance, and in method between the ministry of the Old Covenant and the ministry of the New; between the transient and fragmentary disclosure of an external Law, and the inner gift of a quickening Spirit, steadfast in the glory of holiness, and endless in its power to renew, to ennoble, to illuminate. With close and tenacious persistence the deep, pervading difference between the two systems has been traced; and then St. Paul seems to lift up his eyes, and to speak as one for whom the sheer wonder of the sight he sees finds at once the words he needs. He has finished his argumentative comparison; and now the vision of the Christian life, the triumph of God’s love and pity in the work of grace, the astonishing goodness that has made such things possible for sinful men, holds his gaze.

It is as when one climbs the northern slopes of the Alps with painful drudgery, through shaded paths in which every view is hidden, and stands at last upon the mountain summit, with all the wealth, brightness, and expansiveness of the Italian landscape at his feet. All that toilsome, weary, joyless work before, and now all this widespread beauty, unclouded vision, and heavenly freedom. St. Paul forgets the past in the glory before him, and sets down his rapture in this one word, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” That, to St. Paul, is the distinguishing feature of the Christian life. A life of service? Yes, undoubtedly, but still more a life of liberty. For he who follows Christ enjoys more of that coveted blessedness than any other man. That is the claim which St. Paul makes. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”


The Nature of Liberty

1. Liberty is not licence. There are two kinds of freedom: the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where a man is free to do what he ought. The lawless man is a bond-slave whether it is primarily against his own inner life and health and growth that he sins, or against the society in which he lives, or against Almighty God, who is waiting to have mercy on him—whether it is the love of God, or the love of man, or the true unselfish love of self, that he disregards and casts aside in sloth or wilfulness or passion; in every case the ultimate, the characteristic, note of his sin is still the same: it is lawlessness: it is the abuse of will, thrusting away the task, declining from the effort, refusing the sacrifice in which lay the next step towards the end of life, the man’s one raison d’être: it is the distortion of faculties, the wrenching aside of energy, the perversion of a trust from the purpose marked upon it, from the design which conscience seldom, if ever, wholly ceases to attest, to a morbid use, to a senseless squandering, a listless, wasteful, indolent neglect, a self-chosen and self-centred aim. Whether the sin be quiet or flagrant, brutal or refined, secret or flaunting, arrogant or faint-hearted, its deep distinctive quality, its badness and its power for havoc lie in this, that the man will not have law to reign over him; that he will do what he wills with that which is not in truth his own; that he is acting, or idling, in contempt of the law which conditions the great gift of life, and is involved in his tenure of it.

For instance, let us mark that dull rebellion of lawless thoughts; the perverseness, the ever-deepening disorder of a mind that swerves from its true calling wilfully to loiter or to brood about the thoughts of sin, about thoughts of sensuality, or of jealousy, or of self-conceit. The high faculties of memory, reflection, fancy, observation, are dragged down from their great task: day by day the field for their lawful exercise is spread out before them: all the wonder, the beauty, the mystery, the sadness, the dignity and wretchedness, the endless interests and endless opportunities of human life and of the scene which it is crossing—these are ever coming before the mind which God created to enter into them, to find its work and training and delight and growth amidst them. And yet, all the while, in the dismal lawlessness of sin, it stays to grovel among the hateful thoughts of mean, degrading vices; or turns day after day to keep awake the memory of some sullen grudge, some fancied slight; to tend the smoky flame of some dull, unreasonable hatred: or to dwell on its own poor achievements, its fancied excellences, the scraps of passing praise that have been given to it, the dignity that its self-consciousness is making laughable. Surely it is terrible to think that a man may so go on, and so grow old, continually stumbling farther and farther from the law of his own joy and health.

Liberty is the fullest opportunity for man to be and do the very best that is possible for him. I know of no definition of liberty, that oldest and dearest phrase of men, and sometimes the vaguest also, except that. It has been perverted, it has been distorted and mystified, but that is what it really means: the fullest opportunity for a man to do and be the very best that is in his personal nature to do and to be. It immediately follows that everything which is necessary for the full realization of a man’s life, even though it seems to have the character of restraint for a moment, is really a part of the process of his enfranchisement, is the bringing forth of him to a fuller liberty.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Addresses, 82.]

Liberty is but a means. Woe unto you and to your future, should you ever accustom yourselves to regard it as the end! Your own individuality has its rights and duties, which may not be yielded up to any; but woe unto you and to your future, should the respect you owe unto that which constitutes your individual life ever degenerate into the fatal crime of egotism. We need liberty, as much to fulfil a duty as to exercise a right; we must retain it. But if you give to your political education a higher religious principle, liberty will become what it ought really to be—the ability to choose between various means of doing good; if you enthrone it alone, as at once means and end, it will become what some jurisconsults, copying paganism, have defined it to be—the right to use and to abuse. It will lead society first to anarchy, afterwards to the despotism which you fear.1 [Note: Mazzini, Life and Writings, iv. 313.]

Nought nobler is, than to be free;

The stars of heaven are free because

In amplitude of liberty

Their joy is to obey the laws.

From servitude to freedom’s name

Free thou thy mind in bondage pent;

Depose the fetish, and proclaim

The things that are more excellent.2 [Note: William Watson.]

2. Genuine liberty, therefore, is found only in surrender to a higher will. All created things, even those we call the most free, are subject to law and rule and order. The sun who rejoices to run his course, yet knoweth his going down. The winds and storm fulfil God’s appointed word. The waves of the sea have their bounds set, whence they cannot pass. For God is a God of order. In the world of politics, the freedom of a nation, such as England, does not mean that its citizens do as they please in everything. In the true home, where family life is seen at the best, there is the perfect model of freedom. There the children do not think and act just as they please. Order, rule, method, direction, are all well known and valued, and acted upon. What, then, is the liberty of the family? What gives to family life its freedom, or makes it no place of bondage? The simple, natural unconscious blending of the father’s mind with that of his children, and the children’s will with that of their father; the instinctive correspondence of their hearts, the sympathy of their aims, the union of their interests. The children obey, but their obedience is not dreary and dull, for the father’s mind and the father’s wishes express what they increasingly know to be their own true mind and their own best good. The freedom of children just means this: the power to obey gladly.

Freedom consists not in refusing to recognize anything above us, but in respecting something which is above us; for, by respecting it, we raise ourselves to it, and by our very acknowledgment make manifest that we bear within ourselves what is higher, and are worthy to be on a level with it.3 [Note: Goethe.]

Love, we are in God’s hand.

How strange now, looks the life He makes us lead;

So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!

I feel He laid the fetter: let it lie!1 [Note: R. Browning, Andrea del Sarto.]

3. Christ exemplified in His own life and conduct the highest liberty. He came to do not His own will, but the will of His Father. He was under authority, under orders. That was one side of His life. But the other side was one of perfect freedom, for His own will and the Father’s will made one music. The Father’s good pleasure and His good pleasure were one, and never crossed or clashed. Every step that He took was the step of a free man; every act that He did was done willingly, of His own choice. There was no necessity laid upon Him. He was not compelled to be poor; He elected to be poor. He was not compelled to suffer hunger, hardship, loneliness, man’s spite, thankless toil, and tears; He could have escaped all that, but He took it, by deliberate choice, cheerfully. He was not compelled to lay down His life on the cross; He was master of death, and could have turned it aside. Of His own will He let men slay Him with cruel hands, not because He must, but because He freely gave Himself. The whole charm of that life was its willingness. The glory of it was its freedom. He walked and worked and taught and healed and suffered, just as His own glad, great, loving Spirit led Him.

Christ’s commandments are Himself; and the sum of them all is this—a character perfectly self-oblivious, and wholly penetrated and saturated with joyful, filial submission to the Father, and uttermost and entire giving Himself away to His brethren. That is Christ’s commandment which He bids us keep, and His law is to be found in His life. And then, if that be so, what a change passes on the aspect of law, when we take Christ as being our living embodiment of it. Everything that was hard, repellent, far-off, cold, vanishes. We have no longer tables of stone, but fleshy tables of a heart; and the Law stands before us, a Being to be loved, to be clung to, to be trusted, whom it is blessedness to know and perfection to be like. The rails upon which the train travels may be rigid, but they mean safety, and carry men smoothly into otherwise inaccessible lands. So the life of Jesus Christ brought to us is the firm and plain track along which we are to travel; and all that was difficult and hard in the cold thought of duty becomes changed into the attraction of a living pattern and example.

In every art the master is free. He can create and control. Rules do not determine him; precedents do not bind him. Where the spirit of the master is, there is liberty. He breaks old laws, and makes new ones. He even dispenses with laws, not because he despises them, but because he is a law unto himself. The law is in his heart, and he expresses it as he will. His fingers move across the organ keys, and he fills the listening air with forms, now soft as the moonlight, now wild as the storm. They are born, not of rule, but of the spirit. And as in art, so in life. Where the Spirit of the Master is, there is liberty.1 [Note: J. E. McFadyen, The Divine Pursuit, 75.]

When I am a pupil at school I begin by learning rules, but when I have mastered the science I forget the rules. I forget them in the very act of observing them—keep them most perfectly when I am unconscious of their presence. I no longer think of my scales and exercises, I no longer think of my stops and intervals; these belonged to the days of law, but I am now under grace. The master-spirit of the musician has set me free—not free from the law, but free in it. I travel over the old scales and exercises, over the old stops and intervals, unconscious that they are still on the wayside. I pass unnoticed the places of my former pain; I go through undisturbed the scenes of my youth’s perplexity, for the spirit of music has made me free, and its law is most destroyed when it is most fulfilled.2 [Note: G. Matheson, Voices of the Spirit, 178.]


The Sphere of Liberty

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is.” The Spirit of the Lord is everywhere, but He is specially in those who believe in Christ. His presence is accentuated in the Christian. The believer is the shrine of the Holy Spirit. And therefore in Christianity alone is true freedom to be found. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”—and nowhere else. The religion of the Saviour has a monopoly of genuine liberty.

The specific liberty which is here more particularly in question consisted in the “taking away of the veil,” which had hidden from the Jew the deeper, that is the Christian, sense of the Old Testament. It is not merely liberty from the yoke of the law. It is liberty from the tyranny of obstacles which cloud the spiritual sight of truth. It is liberty from spiritual rather than intellectual dulness; it is liberty from a state of soul which cannot apprehend truth. The Eternal Spirit still gives this liberty. He gave it, in the first age of the gospel, to those Jews whom, like St. Paul himself, He led to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.

But the text covers a much larger area than is required for the particular conclusion to which it is a premiss. It is the enunciation of a master-feature of the gospel. It proclaims a great first principle which towers high above the argument, into which it is introduced for the purpose of proving a single point. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Freedom is not an occasional largess of the Divine Spirit; it is not merely a reward for high services or conspicuous devotion. It is the invariable accompaniment of the Spirit’s true action. Or rather, it is the very atmosphere of His presence. Wherever He really is, there is also freedom. He does not merely strike off the fetters of some narrow national prejudice, or of some antiquated ceremonialism. He does not descend from Heaven to subvert an earthly despotism. He comes not that He may provide for “the freedom of man’s outward individual action, consistently with the safety of human society.” His mission is not to bestow an external, political, social freedom. For no political or social emancipation can give real liberty to an enslaved soul. And no tyranny of the State or of society can enslave a soul that has been really freed. Nor is the freedom which He sheds abroad in Christendom a poor reproduction of the restless, volatile, self-asserting, sceptical temper of pagan Greek life, adapted to the forms and thoughts of modern civilization, and awkwardly expressing itself in Christian phraseology. If He gives liberty, it is in the broad, deep sense of that word. At His bidding, the inmost soul of man has free play; it moves hither and thither; it rises heavenward, like the lark, as if with a buoyant sense of unfettered life and power. This liberty comes with the gift of truth; it comes along with that gift of which in its fulness the Eternal Spirit is the only Giver. He gives freedom from error for the reason; freedom from constraint for the affections; freedom for the will from the tyranny of sinful desires. Often has human nature imagined for itself such a freedom as this; it has sketched the outlines more or less accurately; it has sighed in vain for the reality. Such freedom is, in fact, a creation of grace: the sons of God alone enjoy it. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

If the Spirit of God is not within a man’s reach, so that he may make use of it in the apprehension of Divine truth, he is incapable of apprehending it, and therefore cannot easily be considered responsible for not doing it. I am thus led to conclude that the Spirit is in such a way and sense present in every man, that the man, if he will yield himself up to its instruction, giving up his own self-wisdom, may so use it as to apprehend the things of God by it. And I believe further that the Spirit is there for that very end, and it is pressing itself on the attention and acceptance of every man, and that the man’s continuance in darkness and sin is in fact nothing else than a continued resistance to the Holy Spirit.1 [Note: Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, ii. 196.]

1. The Spirit of Christ gives liberty in the sphere of thought. The mind is led into the truth. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Such is the freedom known and realized when we become spiritually enlightened. It is like the morning dawn—the light breaks into our inner being, and we become conscious that we have been brought into an illuminated atmosphere. We know and feel that our mental being has found its true element. What the air is to the bird, and what the water is to the fish, the truth of God is to our minds. As the bird spreads its wings, so our powers and faculties expand, and find in this new element a liberty, an enlargement, that fills our souls with a peculiar gladness.

And we may grow in freedom. We may be learning how to think; we may be casting out or bringing under sharp control the tendencies that trouble and confuse us, we may be redeeming our intellect from all that enslaves, dishonours and enfeebles it. And for all this we certainly need help and guidance; we need that some Presence, pure and wise and strong beyond all that is of this world, should bend over us, should come to us, should lead us into the light. The truth must make us free. For the powers that are to grow in freedom must be keen and vivid; their liberty must be realized and deepened and assured in ordered use; they must be ever winning for themselves fresh strength and light as they press along their line of healthful growth towards the highest aim they can surmise. And so there can be no liberty of thought without the love of truth—that quickening and ennobling love which longs for truth, not as the gratification of curiosity, not as the pledge of fame, not as the monument of victory, but rather as that without which the mind can never be at rest, or find the meaning and the fulness of its own life—a love more like the love of home; a love sustained by forecasts of that which may be fully known hereafter; by fragments which disclose already something of truth’s perfect beauty, as its light streams out across the waves and through the night, to guide the intellect in the strength of love and hope to the haven where it would be.

2. The Spirit of Christ gives liberty in the sphere of conduct. On the face of dark and troubled waters the Spirit moves; moves because it must. The Spirit—for wind and spirit are alike in the Greek—the Spirit bloweth. And to men stifled in the atmosphere of precedent and prejudice welcome are the breezes that blow from the Alpine heights of some strong nature in whom the Spirit dwells. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth, not in the wake of some other spirit, but where it will; for it is original and free. Jesus breathed His Spirit upon twelve unheard-of men: and ancient faiths crumbled at their touch. He breathed upon a German miner’s son; an old church tottered, and a new world burst into being. If He breathe upon us, may not we do things as great as these?

(1) This implies deliverance from the bondage of sin. Guilt on the conscience will rob the soul of all liberty. There can be no freedom of utterance, no holy boldness, no liberty in the presence of God, if sin, in its guilt and defilement, lies on the conscience. “Having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience” is essential in order to enter into the “holiest of all.” An emancipated conscience is a purged conscience. When this is realized, the soul is in an atmosphere of peace. It is in this peace that the conscience finds its freedom. But it is only through “the blood of his cross” that this can be known. When we see the meaning of Christ’s death, when we accept it as that which brings us into a relation of reconciliation with God, we know what peace means. We see then that we not only stand on the work of peace, but have been brought into Him who is our peace. The conscience finds its freedom in the atmosphere of Divine peace.

Dora Greenwell tells us that she once saw the hymn, “I lay my sins on Jesus,” printed out in large text hand and firmly pinned on the pillow of a dying factory woman, “so that she might be sure it was always there”—even as a hand holding out a leaf from the Tree of Life.1 [Note: Memories of Horatius Bonar, 108.]

We sometimes see old leaves on a tree all the winter through, clinging with a strange tenacity to the boughs. The fiercest storms do not loosen them, nor do the keenest frosts. But when spring comes round, and the sap begins to rise, the old, ansightly leaves do not need to be torn off; they drop off themselves, they are pushed off by the new power flowing through every branch; the new life displaces the old. How many old leaves of sinful habits and sinful lusts and sinful desires and sinful ambitions linger in the soul, and show a strange tenacity, and defy all outward influences to tear them off! How are they to be got rid of? Only by the rising of the new life within. Let the Spirit of Life take possession of us, and these things will drop away almost before we know.2 [Note: G. H. Knight, Divine Upliftings, 114.]

Ulysses, sailing by the Sirens’ isle,

Sealed first his comrades’ ears, then bade them fast

Bind him with many a fetter to the mast,

Lest those sweet voices should their souls beguile,

And to their ruin flatter them, the while

Their homeward bark was sailing swiftly past;

And thus the peril they behind them cast,

Though chased by those weird voices many a mile.

But yet a nobler cunning Orpheus used:

No fetter he put on, nor stopped his ear,

But ever, as he passed, sang high and clear

The blisses of the Gods, their holy joys,

And with diviner melody confused

And marred earth’s sweetest music to a noise.1 [Note: R. C. Trench, Poems, 143.]

(2) This means also freedom for the will. A man may see and know the right, and yet shrink from doing it, because of the fear of suffering or reproach. This is to be in a state of bondage. He may see the evil and know that it is his duty to avoid it, and yet he may be drawn to yield to it because of the pleasure that is more or less blended with it. How is liberty from such a condition to be brought about? Suppose that the will is strengthened, and that by dint of a high sense of duty the man is enabled to rise superior to the power of his passions; shall we have in such an one an example of true liberty? Surely not. What the will needs, in the first place, is not strengthening, but liberating. It must first be brought into its proper environment; there it finds its freedom. It may be weak, but it is no small matter that it is free. And being liberated, it is now prepared to be strengthened. The element in which the will finds its freedom is the love of God.

In the paper on “The Force of Circumstances” (Works of T. H. Green, iii. 3) the relation of the Divine spirit to the human individual is more particularly developed. The “environment” or “system” of which each man may be regarded as the centre, is not “the outcome of the workings of the human mind,” nor on the other hand is the human mind its creature or slave. If rightly regarded, it manifests to us in various ways “the spirit in whom we live, and move, and have our being”; through what we call the “external world,” the Divine mind, in whose likeness we are, is continually communicated to us, and in this communication we find ourselves and attain freedom. Man becomes free, not by flying from the inevitable nor by blindly acquiescing in it, but by recognizing in his very weakness and dependence the call of a being “whose service is perfect freedom.”2 [Note: R. L. Nettleship, Thomas Hill Green, 29.]

There are two stages of experience, both included in the life of the Christian—the one being animated chiefly by a sense of right, the other by the power of love. We may illustrate the two stages by two concentric circles—the outer circle representing the duty-life, and the inner circle the love-life. We may be within the first, and yet not within the second; but it is impossible to be within the inner circle, and not be within the outer circle also. So, if we are “dwelling in love,” we shall know what it is to do the right for its own sake as well as from inclination.1 [Note: E. H. Hopkins, The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, 86.]

3. Liberty is not perfectly realized until it has transformed our outward conditions. Meantime its progress is evident. Wherever the gospel of the grace of God has free way—is preached and accepted—there you always find liberty following in its wake. Liberty is the attendant angel of the gospel. Let God’s truth lay hold of any land, and despotism dies. The gospel creates an atmosphere that suffocates a despot; and where it is free it exercises an influence under which slavery of every description is certain to wither. Has it not been so in our own history as a nation? England owes her present liberty and all her glorious privileges to the possession of a Bible. Search through history and you will always find that a nation’s greatest benefactors have been religious men; you will find also that those who have struck the hardest blows for political liberty have been those who have loved the gospel most dearly. What all the secret political societies in the world may fail to do, that the gospel will accomplish simply and easily if only it is once let free. Let the truth as it is in Jesus spread through India, and India’s caste thraldom shall be broken through. Let the truth only win its way amongst the nations of Europe, and all tyrannies shall depart; for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

Just as the alabaster box was in the house, and its presence may not have been known, so Christ has been a long time with many of His disciples, and they have not known Him; that is, they have been comparatively ignorant of His glorious fulness. But no sooner was the box broken, and the ointment shed abroad, than the odour filled the house. So, when the love of God is poured forth by the Holy Ghost, when the infinite treasures of Divine love stored up in Christ are disclosed, revealed in us, shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, their subduing, liberating, and transforming influences begin at once to be seen and felt.2 [Note: E. H. Hopkins.]

There is a meadow in a lonely place between high rocks on the banks of Lake Lucerne. In that spot, five hundred years ago, one still, dark evening, three patriot soldiers, with stout blades and sturdy hearts, met to spend the night in long and earnest prayer to God. “Where the Spirit of the Lord was, there was liberty”; and Swiss Independence dates from that night. “The knowledge of the Lord” has not yet “filled the earth as the waters cover the sea”; but there is coming a time when, as we are told, it shall; when all the kingdoms of this earth’s monarchs shall become the absolutely free kingdoms of our spirits’ Ruler, “the Lord, and of his Christ.” Adam’s degenerate sons, banished from Paradise—i.e., limited in liberty on account of sin—shall again regain it. Along the pathway of the world’s progress, we need not hear alone the wails of woe and the clanking chains of bondage; we need not see alone the flames of cherished institutions, and the stifling smoke of conflict. Beyond all these, there is a stretch of heaven’s own blue. There is a gleam of lofty walls. There is the flashing of a flaming sword withdrawn. Between wide open gates, there waits for all the garden.1 [Note: G. L. Raymond, The Spiritual Life, 305.]

A voice from the sea to the mountains,

From the mountains again to the sea:

A call from the deep to the fountains,

O spirit! be glad and be free!

A cry from the floods to the fountains,

And the torrents repeat the glad song,

As they leap from the breast of the mountains,

O spirit! be free and be strong!

The pine forests thrill with emotion

Of praise, as the spirit sweeps by;

With a voice like the murmur of ocean,

To the soul of the listener they cry.

O sing, human heart, like the fountains,

With joy reverential and free;

Contented and calm as the mountains,

And deep as the woods and the sea.2 [Note: Charles Timothy Brooks.]

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