A few years ago, Christian author, speaker, and apologist Os Guinness wrote a book called, A Free People’s Suicide. In it, this British gentleman offered some advice to Americans and free people everywhere on the price of their freedom; not the cost, but the price. He talked in particular about what he called the golden triangle of freedom.
Guinness argues that freedom, the likes of which we have enjoyed in this country far longer than any other nation in the world has enjoyed something similar, requires something to be maintained. What it requires is virtue. It requires righteousness. A virtuous people need little external restraint on their behavior. They choose what is best for, not simply themselves, but for their community, for their nation, of their own generous volition. They don’t behave in ways that will impinge on the ability of their neighbors to pursue their own heart’s desires. Their neighbors do the same, and everyone lives happily ever after.
In the absence of virtue, however, we begin to need some external restraints. These restraints are called laws. We don’t choose to drive safely on our own and so we have traffic laws with punishments designed to make obeying posted traffic laws more convenient than disobeying them. We don’t like paying the taxes that allow for the state to furnish the conveniences and necessities that everyone enjoys, and so there are laws making the cost of not paying taxes far higher than the cost of simply paying them.
We don’t choose to restrain our public behavior in such a way that contributes to the safety and harmony of the people around us and so there are laws designed to encourage us to do just that. The less virtuous we are on our own, the more laws it takes to keep us within the lines the broader society has deemed necessary for the proper, healthy, happy functioning of public life. And the more laws there are, the less free we are. In other words, the less virtuous we are as a people, the less free we are as a people.
Whether you are a Jesus person or not, this is a point that is hard to deny. The lower our standards of behavior are in general, the stronger the external restraints (i.e. laws) must be to keep us from hurting one another and otherwise interfering in the efforts of the people around us to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
We had neighbors once who had dogs they fairly well just let loose to roam around their yard…and ours. The problem was, they were mean, little dogs who terrorized our kids by chasing and barking at them. This continued for weeks in spite of our patiently, but directly, expressing our frustration to them. Finally, one of the dogs tried to bite me. One call to my friend who was the head of animal control later, and the dogs were fenced on the opposite side of the house from then onward. They wouldn’t choose wise restraint on their own and so external restraints had to be put in place. Freedom requires virtue.
But, virtue isn’t something we can produce on our own either. Virtue doesn’t come from within. We do not naturally choose the good and right of our own volition when left to our own devices. The apostle Paul makes this point in his letter to the believers in Rome. In Romans 3:10, quoting from the Psalms, Paul writes this: “There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” He spells it out even more a couple of verses later: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Where, then, do we find this virtue? Paul spells it out in the two verses before this one: “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction.” You see, freedom may require virtue, but virtue requires faith. If we are going to become the kind of people who can live with the freedom so many brave men and women have not only won, but protected, for us, we are going to have to tap into a source of virtue that goes beyond us. And there is no more consistent source to be found than Jesus.
To put a nice little cherry on all of this, then, our freedom is a precious thing. It is a priceless gift. It has been won and guarded over many generations for us to be able to enjoy now to its fullest. But if we want to be able to continue enjoying it for many more days yet ahead of us, Jesus is the place we need to turn. We need Him to not simply save us, but to make us over in His image by the power of His Holy Spirit into the incredible men and women we were created by the Father to be in the first place. If we do that, virtue will come easily, and where there is virtue, there is freedom. As you celebrate your freedom this week and in the days ahead, may you do so in the virtue that comes from a faith that is not merely claimed, but actively lived to the fullest.