240 years ago yesterday, July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the words of the Declaration of Independence.
Among the most famous lines is this: that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those who founded the United States of America determined that these rights were failing to be respected and protected by the government of England to which they were subject, and thus a new country was born.
A government that seeks protect these “unalienable Rights” is in very large measure a blessing to live under. I surely enjoy the fruit of this even more than I realize.
But there is a similar and yet greater set of blessings that the Christian has – blessings that are not granted equally to all men. They are in fact, granted to no one in his unredeemed state. They are exclusive, and are granted by God’s grace, specifically in the giving of the Holy Spirit. And far from taking them for granted, we do not consider them as rights, but rather as divinely-given privileges.
They are: life, liberty, and the pursuit not of happiness but of holiness.
These privileges are expounded in Chapters Five through Eight of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here are some of the key ideas:
The Spirit of God gives life where the unbelieving man was formerly subject to the condemnation of death. Through Adam’s act of disobedience to God, death became the ruler over all men (Romans 5:17). Sin, in fact, is said to reign through this death (Romans 5:21). The natural man is in a state of bondage to the body of death (Romans 7:24).
But in Christ Jesus, the Spirit of life – the Holy Spirit who gives life, has set believers free from the law of death that once ruled them (8:2). Their body is still “dead” because of sin, but they have the Holy Spirit who enables them to participate in the initial stages of eternal life even here and now (Romans 8:9-11).
This spiritual, eternal life is far more significant even than the physical life that we are so careful to preserve – and it has been granted permanently by God.
The unbelieving man is in bondage not only to death but also to sin. But that is no longer the case either because of the Spirit of God.
That is why Paul says that the Spirit has “set you free… from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2). Sin no longer has dominion – the believer is free – because he is under divine grace (Romans 6:14). Everyone is by nature a slave of sin. But when he comes to Christ he is released from this slavery and instead now belongs to God (Romans 6:17-20, 22).
Very often you will hear people say that they “can’t” do a certain moral behavior because it is too difficult to obey God’s word in that way. For the Christian, this is not the case. Sin does not rule any longer – you are no longer a slave to it, and you are not obligated to obey. You are free from sin’s mastery and now have the glorious privilege of being free to obey God’s word.
What is a man to do when he has life and liberty? The Declaration of Independence sets forth happiness as what should be pursued.
And being happy certainly is in itself no wrong! But too often happiness is assumed to come by pursuing certain behaviors that do not align with the word of God.
This is itself a great mistake. The late bishop J.C. Ryle wrote in his classic work Holiness: “Let us feel convinced, whatever others may say, that holiness is happiness, and that the man who gets through life the most comfortably is the sanctified man.”
His statement aligns with Solomon’s wisdom in Proverbs 4:18-19:
18 But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
19 The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know over what they stumble.
True happiness only comes as a fruit of holiness.
And the Christian has been given life and freedom not so he can simply bask in it and pursue his own pleasures, but rather for a better purpose – pursuing the holiness that he has been set apart to by God.
Why did God give us the Holy Spirit and thereby give us life and freedom? So that the law’s “righteous requirement” might be fulfilled by us who have them (Romans 8:4). So that we are not obligated to fulfill the lusts of the flesh, but rather to put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). So that we might draw near to our heavenly father rather than falling back into slavery (Romans 8:15).
Whatever privileges we who are American citizens may have, they do not compare with what we have now as Christians. May the blessings of life and freedom be something that point us this day toward an even more significant life and freedom, and the responsibility and privilege we now have to be holy by the power of Christ.