Every July 4th we celebrate our national independence, the founding of our great country. On July 4th 1776 the Continental Congress passed, and later signed, the Declaration of Independence making America a free and independent nation. The Declaration of Independence is one the great documents of human history. It not only began our nation, but has shaped its course and defined our natural understanding since that time. Today we find other voices making claim to the nature of freedom. I think it’s a good idea to take a deeper look at this great document. I encourage you to read what follows. The argument may at times be a little dense, but I encourage your to stick with it to the end.
The Declaration of Independence is an incredibly amazing document for several reasons. It is a document that brought together the ideas and struggles of our founding fathers to form the new nation. These ideas had been previously expressed by other political philosophers, but the founders brought them together in a unique way. It is also a document that explains some essential and fundamental truths about life.
Amazingly theses truths are found in a single sentence, the second sentence of the document. This sentence is one of the most recognized and well known sentences in American history. The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This breathtaking sentence is made up of its central idea with three qualifiers that complete the meaning of the central idea. The central idea of the sentence is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The founding fathers are saying that in this declaration they are presenting certain truths (plural) that are so obviously true that their mere statement is validation of their truthfulness. They give three truths that are self-evident and imply that they are given in a descending order, that is the next self-evident truth flows from its predecessor.
The first of these great truths is, “that all men are created equal.” This statement of the universal equality of all people is astonishing for that day. It flies in the face of the notion of the divine rights of kings, which was prominent at the time. It also puts the lowest slave on the same par with the highest noble. It denies all classism, racism, sexism, or any other idea that makes one person inferior to another. The declaration of this truth does not automatically mean its reality in life. Indeed, the history of our nation is a commentary on the struggle to put this self-evident truth into practice. To say this struggle has been a painful one is an understatement. Yet, this ides is so noble and so worth pursuing that while acknowledging our failures we must not negate the noble idea by overemphasizing the negative in this painful struggle.
But this phrase also says something else we should notice. This truth states that all people stand equal before their Creator, but not necessarily equal in their capacities or determination. It also does not mean to imply that all people have equal privileges in life. It does mean that we are equally meaningful to God and should have equal dignity and respect before the law. This idea is expressed more fully in the third truth.
(2) Unalienable Rights
The second great truth is, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Philosophers and other intellectuals of that day, and previous to that day, were discussing the rights of man. Many made the case that there are two kinds of rights, legal rights and natural rights. Legal, or civil rights are conveyed by a government through a decree or statute. In America, our Constitution and our civil laws are the basis for our legal rights. Natural, or moral rights are not conveyed by a government, or any person, or any group of persons, but by God himself. They are unalienable and are therefore universal, applying to all people. No government or anyone else has the right to give them or take them away. They come directly from God.
(3) Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness
The third great self-evident truth enumerates and explains these unalienable rights. The third self-evident truth is: “that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” There is a hierarchy at work here. The unalienable right to life is the most basic right endowed by God. Above every other right a person has, or any other person has, is the right to life. The right to life is at the core of our creatureliness made in the image of God. So the right to life trumps any right to liberty such as choice. Every human being has the right to live. There is a difficult and delicate balance that must be maintained when people try to unlawfully or immorally take the life of another.
The unalienable right of liberty flows from the right to life. The right to liberty is the right to basic human freedom. In the right to liberty there is an active and passive freedom every person should possess. The active freedom is the freedom to do what the will chooses as long as it does not violate the liberty of another person. Passive freedom is the right to not be coerced to do what one’s will does not desire to do, except under the narrowly defined circumstances of the greater common good. Every person’s right to liberty exists in delicate balance with every other person’s right to liberty. This balance is tenuous at best. We are forever stepping on someone’s right to liberty with our own right to liberty.
The third unalienable right flows from the first two and is the right to the pursuit of happiness. The idea of the three unalienable rights was borrowed from the 17th century English philosopher, John Locke. Locke had a different wording to his presentation of unalienable rights. He said the three basic human rights are life, liberty and estate (meaning property). Thomas Jefferson changed estate to the pursuit of happiness, a more basic right than the right to property. The right of the pursuit of happiness is merely the recognition of reality. All people by nature pursue happiness. It is how God created us. Through the pursuit of happiness we can realize our God given potential.
This sentence in the Declaration of Independence, which we have analyzed in depth, beautifully expresses the national freedom we enjoy as Americans. But there is another kind of freedom we can have as human beings. This freedom is spiritual freedom. Our national freedom comes to us from God and was merely recognized by our founding fathers and codified in our national documents. Spiritual freedom comes to us from God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
We read in Galations 5:1, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore stand firm and do not become entangled again in a yoke of slavery.” The freedom Christ gives is freedom from sin and its consequences. Christ set us free by foregoing all the unalienable rights the Declaration of Independence says we have from God. Jesus set aside his life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. When we receive the gift of spiritual freedom by faith, we enter into the experience of that freedom.
National freedom is a great blessing. Spiritual freedom is a greater blessing. National freedom exists for the purpose of spreading spiritual freedom. Without spiritual freedom national freedom cannot exist to its fullest. That is not to say that the institutions of the Church and the State become one, they do not. They should, however, have a symbiotic relationship, each benefitting the other. God has greatly blessed America so that the gospel of Jesus Christ would grow and spread around the world. America became a bastion for freedom under God’s grace so that people might have the freedom to preach Christ and the freedom to respond to Christ.
When Christians celebrate their national freedom they should also celebrate their spiritual freedom. They both come from God. Let us pray and act to promote national freedom, but more so let us proclaim the spiritual freedom that only comes through Christ.
Let freedom ring!