Legalism Indulges the Sinful Nature (Bridges)

 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…. You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free” (Gal. 5:1; 13 NIV).  One awesome outcome of Christ’s death and resurrection is that we are free in Christ.  Now it is true that sometimes Christians flaunt their freedom by bragging about what kind of alcohol they drink or by using foul language.  People who flaunt their freedom actually lack love towards other Christians (Rom 14:15).

Alternatively, sometimes Christians go to the other extreme by living as if they are not free in Christ.  I appreciate how Jerry Bridges addresses this problem:

Despite God’s call to be free and his earnest admonition to resist all efforts to curtail it, there is very little emphasis in Christian circles today on the importance of Christian freedom.  Instead of promoting freedom, we stress our rules of conformity.  Instead of preaching living by grace, we preach living by performance.  Instead of encouraging new believers to be conformed to Christ, we subtly insist that they be conformed to our particular style of Christian culture.  Yet that’s the ‘bottom line’ effect of most of our emphases in Christian circles today.

…We are much more concerned about someone abusing his freedom than we are about his guarding it.  We are more afraid of indulging the sinful nature than we are of falling into legalism.  Yet legalism does indulge the sinful nature because it fosters self-righteousness and religious pride.  It also diverts us from the real issues of the Christian life by focusing on external and sometimes trivial rules.

Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace, page 134.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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The Liberty of the Will (Muller)

“The freedom or liberty of nature; viz., the liberty that is proper to a being given its particular nature.  No being, not even omnipotent God, can act contrary to its nature.  In man, this ‘libertas naturae’ can be distinguished into four distinct categories or states:

  1. The ‘libertas Adami,’ or freedom of Adam, before the fall – this is the ability or power not to sin, potentia non peccandi, and Adam and Eve are described, in the traditional Augustinian terminology, as ‘possse non peccare’, able not to sin.
  2. The ‘libertas peccatorum’, or freedom of sinners, a freedom that is proper to and confined within the limits of fallen nature and is therefore an absolute ‘impotentia bene agendi’, inability to do good or act for the good, with the sinner described as ‘non posse non peccare’, not able not to sin,
  3. The ‘libertas fidelium’, or freedom of the faithful, a freedom of those regenerated by the Holy Spirit that is proper to the regenerate nature and is characterized by the ‘potentia peccandi et bene agendi’, the ability to sin and to do good; the regenerate, because of grace, can be described as ‘posse peccare et non peccare’, able to sin and not to sin;
  4. The ‘libertas gloriae’, or liberty of glory, a freedom proper to the fully redeemed nature of the ‘beati’, who, as residents of the heavenly kingdom, as ‘in patria’, are now characterized by ‘impotentia peccare’, inability to sin, and as ‘non posse peccare’, unable to sin.

Richard Muller, Dictionary, p. 176.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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

The Conscience, Love, and Submission

I’ve always been fascinated by the human conscience.  Maybe it started about 20 years ago when I first read Luther’s self-defense where he said his conscience was held captive by God’s Word.  Maybe my interest in the conscience started when I was learning about freedom of conscience in the context of the Reformation and sola Scriptura.  Or maybe my interest in the conscience started when I was very young and wrestled with a sensitive conscience myself.  Whatever the case, Christopher Ash’s book on the topic is wonderful.  I’ve mentioned it before, so I won’t go into details.  However, I do want to share two short sections I underlined in my copy:

“Love makes it easy for others to follow their conscience.  The individualistic and selfish insistence that I will do everything I am free in Christ to do, whether it be eating idol food (in Corinth) or eating bacon sandwiches (in Rome) is not motivated by love.  If I love someone and I understand just how important it is for them to maintain their integrity by doing only what their conscience allows, then I will do all I can to make it easy for them to do that.  ‘Knowledge puffs up’, makes me feel good about myself, ‘while love builds up’, that is, builds up the church (1 Corinthians 8:1).  If I cause their conscience distress by my actions then I am not acting out of love (Romans 14:15)….”

Our consciences need to be trained to submit to the Bible.  …Our unreliable consciences ought to be deliberately and consciously subject to the reliable Word of God.  There is such a thing as the tyranny of the weak conscience in a church.  This  is where people who are actually wrong cling so tenaciously to the preciousness of their (misguided) conscience that they will never learn anything else.  ‘Oh,’ they say in a prissy voice, ‘you musn’t trouble my conscience!  I am very protective of my precious conscience!’  And so they end up making an idol out of their conscience.

…[In Romans 14:5 Paul] does not want anyone to do something while convinced in their own mind that it is wrong.  That would be sinful.  But it is also sinful if I treat the conviction of my own mind as my ultimate authority.  …[Paul] wants our consciences to be in a constant process of recalibration, so that they get more and more closely aligned with the Word of God.”

Christopher Ash, Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience (p. 156-158)

Shane Lems

The Christian School, American Liberty, and the Christian Faith

J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings I’m thankful to God for the small but solid Christian school I attended in rural Northwest Iowa some years back; I’m also thankful for the small but solid Christian school my kids attend today here in Western Wisconsin.  On the topic of Christian schools, this speech J. G. Machen gave in 1933 at the “Educational Convention of the National Union of Christian Schools” has been on my mind quite a bit since I first read it a few years back.  Here’s how Machen opens the address:

“The Christian school is to be favored for two reasons.  In the first place, it is important for American liberty; in the second place, it is important for the propagation of the Christian religion.”

Later, concerning the first reason, he said,

“If parents cannot have the great incentive of providing high and special educational advantages for their own children, then we shall have in this country a drab and soul-killing uniformity, and there will be scarcely any opportunity for anyone to get out of the miserable rut.  … Every lover of human freedom ought to oppose with all his might the giving of federal aid to the schools of this country; for federal aid in the long run inevitably means federal control, and federal control means control by a centralized and irresponsible bureaucracy, and control by such a bureaucracy means the death of everything that might make this country great” (p. 167).

“Against this soul-killing collectivism in education, the Christian school, like the private school, stands as an emphatic protest.  In doing so, it is no real enemy of the public schools.  On the contrary, the only way in which a state-controlled school can be kept even relatively healthy is through the absolutely free possibility of competition by private schools and church schools; if it once becomes monopolistic, it is the most effective engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation that has yet been devised” (Ibid.).

Concerning the second, and more important reason (Christian schools are important for propagating the Christian faith), Machen said this:

I believe that the Christian school deserves to have a good report from those who are without; I believe that even those of our fellow citizens who are not Christians may, if they really love human freedom and the noble traditions of our people, be induced to defend the Christian school against the assaults of its adversaries and to cherish it as a true bulwark of the state.

But for Christian people, its appeal is far deeper.  I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the earth but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism.  If, indeed, the Christian school were in any sort of competition with the Christian family, if it were trying to do what the home ought to do, then I could never favor it.  But one of its marked characteristics, in sharp distinction from the secular education of today, is that it exalts the family as a blessed divine institution and treats the scholars in its classes as children of the covenant to be brought up above all things in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (p. 172).

After this paragraph, Machen took some time to encourage and support teachers and volunteers at Christian schools; I’ll quote that here in the near future, since it is quite encouraging.  In case you want to read it (and I do recommend it!), the entire article is found in chapter 14 of his Shorter Writings.

shane lems

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