Luther was once asked by one of the papists:
What would you do if you held the legate, the pope, and the cardinals in your hands, as they have you now in theirs?
I would show them all possible honor and respect. But with me the Word of God is before everything.
Then the papist answered:
Eh, eh! all honour!…I do not believe a word of it.
(story quoted from The History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, J. H. D’Aubigné, p. 138)
Liberty is usually defined as the freedom of man to do whatever he would like to do. While most people would like such a situation for themselves, the government must limit that liberty to a certain extent, or else sinful man would misuse it to abuse his fellow men.
But the above definition falls far short of the gospel definition of liberty. True liberty is not that outward liberty for which men are prepared to fight, but the liberty within, which is known only by those who are free from the bondage of sin. This is demonstrated by the martyrs who were truly free within themselves when they were in prison or at the stake.
The difference between both definitions of liberty can be described thus: In the world, the liberty of a person is measured by the freedom which others give him, while in God’s kingdom, the liberty of a man is measured by the freedom he gives to others.
Now if a person feels that he is not getting the liberty he ought to get, and he begins to fight for it by accusing his brethren, then he reveals that he is not free indeed. He imagines that he is suppressed by others, but the real cause of his loss of liberty is an evil spirit within himself, the bondage of sin and of fear.
We can define this principle in the following way: He who feels persecuted is usually the persecutor at heart. With his complaints he wants to check others and insists that they do as he directs. This is the spirit of persecution. The disciples had this when they expected Jesus to become an earthly king. They thought that He was hard on them, whereas in reality they were hard on Him.
In order to really understand what I am saying, ponder carefully the statement:
In the kingdoms of the world, position meant self-aggrandizement. The people were supposed to exist for the benefit of the ruling classes. Influence, wealth, education, were so many means of gaining control of the masses for the use of the leaders. The higher classes were to think, decide, enjoy, and rule; the lower were to obey and serve. Religion, like all things else, was a matter of authority. The people were expected to believe and practice as their superiors directed. The right of man as man, to think and act for himself, was wholly unrecognized.
So far, everyone would agree with that statement, even those who are persecutors at heart. We can say that no one would give a stronger consent to it, than those who think that they are suppressed, but in fact are not. But we easily forget that this statement was not written for my oppressors, but for poor me! Jesus did not address himself to the kings of his time primarily, but rather, to his poor disciples who were in danger of suppressing others. Now let us read further on the same page:
The words of Paul reveal the true dignity and honor of the Christian life: “Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all,” “not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” 1 Corinthians 9:19; 1 Corinthians 10:33.
This is true liberty according to the definition of the gospel.
The papist whom we quoted above did not know this inner freedom as is made evident by his determination to bring the reformers under total control; even unto martyrdom if need be. He feared that if Luther were given freedom, the oppressed would immediately become the oppressor. It has happened every time men without the gospel were able to shake off the power of their persecutors.
Though not yet lived out in Luther’s time, the French Revolution demonstrates what happens to oppressors when they lose control of those whom they have oppressed, without the oppressed being liberated within.
That which applies on a national scale also applies with equal force to the individual. A fear complex of being oppressed is a sure sign that the disposition to oppress exists within the heart.
Let us search our hearts to see if any such fear reigns therein, and let us remember:
1 John 4
18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.