Moderation, Contentment, and Christian Liberty (Calvin)

John Calvin’s section on Christian liberty in his Institutes is one of my favorite parts of this outstanding book.  It’s biblical, Christ centered, founded on grace, pastoral, and very level-headed.  At one point Calvin says that Christian freedom does not mean we can be luxury-seeking gluttons and drunks who chase after our own lusts.  Note how he talks about moderation and soberness, and also notice how he explains that Christian liberty has to do with contentment:

“Where there is plenty, to wallow in delights, or gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones – such are very far removed from a lawful use of God’s gifts.”

“Away, then, with uncontrolled desire, away with immoderate prodigality, away with vanity and arrogance – in order that men may with a clean conscience cleanly use God’s gifts.  Where the heart is tempered to this soberness they will have a rule for lawful use of such blessings.”

“But should this moderation be lacking, even base and common pleasures are too much.  …Thus let every man live in his station, whether slenderly, or moderately, or plentifully, so that all may remember God nourishes them to live, not luxuriate.  And let them regard this as the law of Christian freedom: to have learned with Paul, in whatever state they are, to be content; to know how to be humble and exalted; to have been taught, in all circumstances, to be filled and to hunger, to abound and to suffer want (Phil. 4:11-12).

John Calvin, Institutes, III.XIX.9.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

That’s Not Christian Liberty, That’s Immaturity!

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by [Naselli, Andrew David, Crowley, J. D.] Christian liberty is one of those great biblical truths the Protestant Reformers recovered.  The papacy had made all sorts of rules, regulations, doctrines, and so forth that were neither commanded nor taught by Scripture.  The Reformers, thinking of texts like Matthew 15:9, Acts 5:29, Galatians 5:1 (and so on), said that to believe man-made doctrines or to obey man-made religious laws destroys the freedom of the conscience (see WCF 20.2).

The Reformers also talked about Christian liberty in terms of the gospel, that our consciences are be free from the terrors of the law because Christ obeyed in our place and paid for all our sins.  Justification by faith alone is very closely related to Christian liberty!

John Calvin said the following:

“…Christian freedom is, in all its parts, a spiritual thing.  Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God – that are 1) perhaps disturbed and troubled over forgiveness of sins, or 2) anxious whether unfinished works, corrupted by the faults of our flesh, are pleasing to God, or 3) tormented about the use of things indifferent (Institutes, III.XIX.8)”

Of course, Christian liberty has a few angles to it.  It also means we should obey God and seek to be holy – Christ saved us to do good works! (Eph. 2:10).  I also appreciate how Naselli and Crowley explained Christian liberty as they reflect on 1 Corinthians 9:19 and the surrounding context:

“Christian liberty isn’t, ‘Cool! I finally get to do the stuff I’ve always wanted to but my strict upbringing wouldn’t let me.  Then you Facebook about it so that everyone knows you’re hip.  That’s not Christian liberty; that’s immaturity.  Christian liberty is the domain of the mature, not the immature.  When the immature get ahold of it, they make a mess of it, like some of the Corinthians did.

Christian liberty is not about you and your freedom to do what you want to do.  It’s about the freedom to discipline yourself to be flexible for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of weaker believers.”

In summary, Christian liberty 1) frees us from man-made laws and doctrines, 2) is based upon the gospel and justification by faith alone, and 3) isn’t about doing whatever you want to do, but in self-control being flexible for the sake of the gospel.  Here’s Calvin again:

“Nothing is plainer than this rule: that we should use our freedom if it results in the edification of our neighbor, but if it does not help our neighbor, then we should forego it.”

The above quote by Naselli and Crowley is found on page 132 of Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Christian Liberty, Beer, and Blogs

Institutes of the Christian Religion (Battles Translation) (2 Volumes) [This is a slightly edited repost from August, 2009.  Note: I’m not 100% sure the opening paragraph is still accurate, since I no longer read blogs.  But I believe the point still stands.]

The Christian blogosphere and web community is filled with trends and fads – blogs have the clout and power to set Christian trends.  Though this may rub a few of our readers the wrong way, one trend or fad I can’t help but notice is to include all things smoke and drink into the blog, Tweet, or Facebook update, possibly under the banner of Christian liberty.  In the blog world of Calvinism, for example, it is trendy and fashionable to compare weak Christians to light beer and strong (manly?) Christians to stout ale.  Christians post pictures of the beer they drink for all to see.  It is trendy in the blog world to trumpet fat cigars and craft beer while even mocking Christians who do not do these things or do them in “weakened” form.

A few things have to be said to this.  First, Christian liberty is different than the liberty we enjoy in Western culture.  Civil liberty means you may listen to music “x” as long as it isn’t over a certain decibel level.  However, Christian liberty is quite different because 1) it puts our neighbor first and 2) because it is tempered with self-denial.  Calvin explains it this way (while reflecting on Rom 14.1, 13, & 1 Cor 8.9, among other texts in his Institutes, III.10-12):

“We who are strong ought to bear with the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves; but let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him.”

“We have due control over freedom if it makes no difference to us to restrict it when it is fruitful [i.e. benefiting our neighbor] to do so.”

“Nothing is plainer than this rule: that we should use our freedom if it results in the edification of our neighbor, but if it does not help our neighbor, then we should forgo it.”

“Our freedom is not given against our feeble neighbors, for love makes us their servants in all things….”

In other words, Christian liberty (as with all true liberty!) has boundaries.  Christian liberty is tempered with love for neighbor (think of him/her before our liberty) and self-denial (we don’t need to indulge in this liberty).  If Christian liberty is not tempered with love for neighbor and self-denial, it is more like an immature high school fad (i.e. the shoes or brand of jeans you wear) than a Christian ethic.

Matthew Henry, in his comments on 1 Cor 8.7-13, says it this way:

“We must deny ourselves rather than occasion their [the weak] stumbling…if Christ had such compassion as to die for them, we should have so much compassion for them as to deny ourselves, for their sakes.”

“We must not rigorously claim our own rights, to the hurt and ruin of a brother’s soul.”

I don’t have time to comment on it, but one other thing should be considered: it is probably not a sign of “weakness” if a Christian does not drink beer or smoke cigars – it doesn’t make him the weaker brother.

shane lems

Live Above, But Walk According to the Law

The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Puritan Paperbacks) I’ve mentioned this book and these paragraphs before here on the blog, but as I was reading parts of it again, I thought it was worth repeating.  This quote is found near the end of Samuel Bolton’s book, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom.  It’s all about justification, sanctification, and Christian liberty.

“Maintain your liberty in Christ by refusing to look any more to the law for justification, and by refusing to fear its words of condemnation. You are to live, in respect of your practice and obedience, as men who can neither be condemned by the law nor justified by it. It is a hard lesson to live above the law, and yet to walk according to the law. But this is the lesson a Christian has to learn, to walk in the law in respect of duty, but to live above it in respect of comfort, neither expecting favor from the law in respect of his obedience nor fearing harsh treatment from the law in respect of his failings.”

“Let the law come in to remind you of sin if you fall into sin, but you are not to suffer [allow] it to arrest you and drag you into the court to be tried and judged for your sins. This would be to make void Christ and grace. Indeed Christians too much live as though they were to expect life by works, and not by grace. We are too big in ourselves when we do well, and too little in Christ in our failings. O that we could learn to be nothing in ourselves in our strength, and to be all in Christ in our weakness!”

“In a word, let us learn to walk in the law as a rule of sanctification, and yet to live upon Christ and the promises in respect of justification.”

Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2010), 219.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Maintaining Christian Liberty

The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Puritan Paperbacks) Near the end of his excellent exposition of Christian liberty, Samuel Bolton (d. 1654) explained how Christians are to stand fast in the liberty which Christ has won for us (cf. Gal. 5:1).  Here’s one helpful paragraph from that section.  I suggest reading it more than once!

“Maintain your liberty in Christ by refusing to look any more to the law for justification, and by refusing to fear its words of condemnation. You are to live, in respect of your practice and obedience, as men who can neither be condemned by the law nor justified by it. It is a hard lesson to live above the law, and yet to walk according to the law. But this is the lesson a Christian has to learn, to walk in the law in respect of duty, but to live above it in respect of comfort, neither expecting favor from the law in respect of his obedience nor fearing harsh treatment from the law in respect of his failings.”

Let the law come in to remind you of sin if you fall into sin, but you are not to suffer [allow] it to arrest you and drag you into the court to be tried and judged for your sins. This would be to make void Christ and grace. Indeed Christians too much live as though they were to expect life by works, and not by grace. We are too big in ourselves when we do well, and too little in Christ in our failings. O that we could learn to be nothing in ourselves in our strength, and to be all in Christ in our weakness!”

“In a word, let us learn to walk in the law as a rule of sanctification, and yet to live upon Christ and the promises in respect of justification.”

Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2010), 219.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

The Fundamental Principle of Protestantism

Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes One of the high notes of the gospel is that Jesus has set his people free from sin’s guilt and bondage, Satan’s tyranny, and the demands and curses of the law as a covenant of works.  Since he has set us free, we are to walk in that freedom (Gal. 5:1).  We obey his law out of gratitude, and submit willingly to him, but we do not allow human laws and traditions to bind our consciences.  Sola scriptura: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, for man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).  Charles Hodge explained this in a wonderful way (if you listen carefully, you can hear echoes of the Westminster Standards and Martin Luther in these words):

“It follows from the fundamental principle of Protestantism, that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice, that no work can be regarded as good or obligatory on the conscience which the Scriptures do not enjoin. Of course it is not meant that the Bible commands in detail everything which the people of God are bound to do, but it prescribes the principles by which their conduct is to be regulated, and specifies the kind of acts which those principles require or forbid.”

“It is enough that the Scriptures require children to obey their parents, citizens the magistrate, and believers to hear the Church, without enjoining every act which these injunctions render obligatory. In giving these general commands, the Bible gives all necessary limitations, so that neither parents, magistrates, nor Church can claim any authority not granted to them by God, nor impose anything on the conscience which He does not command.”

“As some churches have enjoined a multitude of doctrines as articles of faith, which are not taught in Scripture, so they have enjoined a multitude of acts, which the Bible neither directly, nor by just or necessary inference requires. They have thus imposed upon those who recognize their authority as infallible in teaching, a yoke of bondage which no one is able to bear. After the example of the ancient Pharisees, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, and claim divine authority for human institutions. From this bondage it was one great design of the Reformation to free the people of God. This deliverance was effected by proclaiming the principle that nothing is sin but what the Bible forbids and nothing is morally obligatory but what the Bible enjoins.”

“Such, however, is the disposition, on the one hand, to usurp authority, and, on the other, to yield to it, that it is only by the constant assertion and vindication of this principle, that the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free can be preserved.”

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, book 3 page 237 (III.XVII.4.3).

shane lems
hammond, wi

My Conscience is Captive to the Word of God (Luther)

(This is a repost from September, 2011.)

Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is one of those books that I’ll never forget reading.  I first read it around 10 years ago; I could not set this book down.  In fact, it led me to enjoy and appreciate church history in general, and Reformation history more specifically.  In my opinion, it is even better than Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (although that may be an apples/oranges comparison, and I do really like Here I Stand).

Here’s a little snippet from Oberman’s book.  It has to do with Luther’s famous answer while he was on trial for his writings: “…My conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, for going against my conscience is neither safe nor salutary….”

“Luther’s appeal to conscience as the highest authority made an extraordinary impression on later generations.  Out of the understandable desire to declare Luther as the forerunner of the Enlightenment, the statement ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ was reinterpreted as the principle of freedom of conscience.”

“But that is missing the whole point.  Appealing to conscience was common medieval practice; appealing to a ‘free’ conscience that had liberated itself from all bonds would never have occurred to Luther.  Nor did he regard ‘conscience’ as identical with the inescapable voice of God in man.  Conscience is neither neutral nor autonomous: hotly contested by God and the Devil, it is not the autonomous center of man’s personality, it is always guided and is free only once God has freed and ‘captured’ it.  What is new in Luther is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils….”

“Luther liberated the Christian conscience, liberated it from papal decree and canon law.  But he also took it captive through the Word of God and imposed on it the responsibility to render service to the world.”

Well said.  In Reformation terms, we say that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (WCF 20.2).  The Lutheran Confessions (I’m thinking primarily of the Augsburg Confession and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession) also explain clearly and frequently that humans or human traditions cannot bind the conscience – only God can by his Word.  Commenting on Acts 15:10 and Galatians 5:1, the Apology says,

“Just as Alexander solved the Gordian knot once for all by cutting it with his sword when he could not disentangle it, so the apostles free consciences from traditions once for all, especially if they are taught to merit justification” (Apology XV).

The above Oberman quote is found on pages 203-204 of Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.

rev shane lems

sunnyside wa