1 Peter 2:13-16
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;…
1. Earliest references. No doubt the reference, in the first place, is to that liberty of the gospel which distinguished it from Judaism or the old Mosaic law. Then came the gospel, that more spiritual and manly dispensation, with its great rush of liberty. Law gave way to principle, pupilage to manhood, contracted interests to worldwide fellowship. But with that freedom came danger: the danger of excess, of self-assertion, of even licence.
2. But this early application and experience was no uncommon or exceptional one. It was an example and an illustration of a very common danger and a very common experience. The early Christians were tempted to excess, not because they had been Jews and had become Christians, but because they were men of like passions with the rest of mankind.
(1) There is a great freedom open to man, but a freedom which does not belong to man completely nor at once. Within certain wide limits, man has a great area of freedom. Physically, socially, providentially, man cannot do all he likes, but within a wide area he has a liberty so great that few of us in our daily life are ever brought up sharply by obstacles and reminded that we are hedged about by hindrances. It is only when we attempt the impossible or the extraordinary.
(2) Now, this liberty, great as it is, is not attainable at once; we enter upon it gradually, often slowly. There is childhood turning to manhood, the wider area of liberty becomes at the man's disposal; but this is reached only after the lapse of the years of childhood, and boyhood, and youth. Or again, look at what is called success in life, when the man becomes more and more his own master, and the resources of life become more and more his; but this, too, is gained in the vast majority of cases, after years of toil. Or, once more, take political freedom. But here, too, liberty is gained not so much at once or by leaps and bounds.
(3) Thus we have seen that a great freedom is open to man, and that this freedom is not attainable at once, but rather gradually. The question now presents itself as to the extent of that liberty. As regards the individual. He has liberty, even when he treads upon forbidden ground. It is true that sooner or later the violated law will vindicate itself. Nevertheless, he is free to violate these laws. So with regard to the rights and interests of others. Beyond a certain point, his fellow men will step in and restrain his liberty of action, and by pains and penalties contract his freedom. But up to this point the individual has a wide field for the exercise of even his selfishness. Once more, with regard to God. It is true man cannot thwart the great sweep of God's providence. Yet, right or wrong, good or evil, wisdom or folly: these he can choose. And the great patience of God in allowing man to disregard Him is one of the great solemn facts of life. Man's liberty is great, and the wonder is not at man's lack of freedom; it is rather the other way: how fully and to what an extent he can act as if he were his own master.
3. But with this liberty comes the temptation to misuse it, to abuse it, to make it an occasion of evil rather than of good; and this individually, socially, religiously. Individually, by giving rein to the passions, turning liberty into licence. Socially, by defying the opinions and claims of others. Religiously — or rather, irreligiously — by ignoring God and His claim to our obedience, setting up self as the one great object of worship. And so liberty becomes a cloak of maliciousness and an occasion of evil.
II. THE USE AND SAFEGUARD OF LIBERTY.
1. The conditions of the problem are two fold. There must be respect for freedom and the recognition of liberty on the one hand; and on the other, reckless and malicious use of freedom must be counteracted. These are the two sides of the problem which must be kept in view. Extreme methods violate both these. On the one hand, if mere restraint be adopted, the result must be a reduction of liberty. If, on the other hand, the absence of all restraint be allowed, the result will be the destruction of all true freedom.
2. What, then, is to be done if liberty is to be preserved, and yet not abused? Three conditions must be fulfilled:(1) There must be respect for freedom, not the depreciation of it, if anything the enhancing of it.
(2) But that freedom needs to be guided towards noble ends to become a great spontaneous power which of itself will influence the life aright, and direct it towards what is high, and generous, and good. This is the more necessary the more freedom is granted. Side by side with freedom, if it is not to be abused, must be developed the spirit of voluntary acquiescence in what is right and a conscientious desire for what is best.
(3) The third condition is the sense of responsibility; that as each gift, power, opportunity has its corresponding responsibility, so has this freedom; that the greater the freedom, the greater will be the responsibility for its use.
3. Now, this is just what Christianity has done. At a critical period in human history, when the old order of tyranny and corruption was crumbling, and the ground was being prepared for the growth of liberty, Christianity came, implanting great principles, awakening the consciousness of wrong, and stirring up the love of what is right, and true, and good. Thus, as the old restraint of the law passed away, the new spirit of personal responsibility, that great spiritual force, came to men; and just because Christianity was this spiritual force, it could do what no other power did. It could do without the old Jewish economy, it could sap the foundations of tyranny, it could be the promoter of liberty. It is this action of Christianity which is illustrated in St. Peter's words. See how naturally, instinctively, and comprehensively he deals with the question of liberty. "As free" — as if he said, "You are free, you have been made free, you have a right to be free. The old bondage of the law is gone, gone forever, and the freedom which is yours has been brought to you by Christ. It is nothing less than a God-given possession." But every possession has its accompanying responsibility; the free man is not the same as the irresponsible man, In fact, our responsibility increases with our powers, our possessions, our gifts, our opportunities. What, then, is the great principle and power which is to direct each one in the use of this liberty? It is the great sense that while you are free, you are yet not free. You are to act "as the servants of God." Liberty is recognised, but a service is presented as well; but one which is not enforced, it can be given or refused. But these two, liberty and service, are connected by a sense of responsibility: and that a responsibility which recognises the claims of God upon them. It is just that which imparts dignity, and power, and great gladness to duty, when it is thus seen in the light of the great and glorious service of God. For it is only as we use our liberty and all our powers in obedience to God that we can hope and accomplish much. While we stand, or try to stand, alone, while we reject God as the great end of our service, our powers are feeble, and our acts work little good, great evil, and weariness or dissatisfaction takes the heart out of our labour. But when we bring our liberty and all our powers into the service of God, all we have and all we are and all we do become connected with what is best, and, falling in with the great work of God, we become not only doubly free, but doubly useful and doubly strong.
(A. Boyd Carpenter, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;