Monday, August 2, 2010

Christian Freedom, Part I

This morning I am trying to catch up a little from not posting over the weekend. Between my class reunion, my wife spending the weekend with our grandson, and other things going on around here, I managed to miss both the weekend days for posting. I hope to get caught back up and on schedule soon.

I find this to be a very interesting and important doctrine for the believer. Calvin says that "it is a thing of prime necessity." It is a part of the doctrine of justification. Like all other doctrines, there are those who wish to undermine Christian freedom. There are those who think that it leads to anarchy because some of the rules and regulations of old are no longer required for justification. A right understanding of this doctrine is imperative because "unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of the soul, can be rightly known."

There are three parts to Christian freedom. The first part is freedom from the law or an "all-works" righteousness. Calvin writes, "the question is not how we may become righteous but how, being unrighteous and unworthy, we may be reckoned righteous."  We have read ad nauseum about how there is no way for us to earn salvation.  We are unable to fully follow the law, therefore we are unworthy of God's favor.  It is through God's mercy alone that we are able to be reckoned righteous.  However, just because we are unable to perfectly keep the law does not mean we should not strive to be good.  "The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness, for we have been called to sanctification."

Some have reasoned that Paul's letter to the Galatians which speaks to Christian freedom, is only referring to a freedom from Jewish ceremonial law.  Calvin calls this idea to be "absurd."  Galatians 5:1-4 reads:
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Paul makes it clear here that someone who is trying to follow the law to earn salvation, must keep the whole law.  No where does Paul separate the ceremonial law from the rest of the law.  Now, Christ's coming has shown us more clearly what was foreshadowed in the ceremonial laws.  We have been freed from the law in part because there was still no way for us to earn righteousness through the works of the law, because even our best works are still imperfect and tainted with sin.  Calvin writes about Galatians 4:5, "...he teaches that through the cross of Christ they are free from the condemnation of the law, which otherwise hangs over all men, so that they may rest with fill assurance in Christ alone."

The second part of Christian freedom which is dependent on the first part is "that consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of the law, but that freed from the law's yoke they willingly obey God's will."  This immediately made me think about little boys and baths.  Almost no little boy likes to take a bath, no matter how dirty and stinky he is.  Fortunately, his mother will always make sure that he bathes every day.  Later, when the boy has become an adult, there is no one there forcing him to bathe on a regular basis.  However, even though he has been freed from his mother's rules, he still voluntarily submits to this rule because he enjoys the benefits that a bath brings.  Calvin reminds us that the crux of the law is this: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5).  When we examine our imperfect works and realize that we fail all the time, we understand why our works cannot be judged as being good.  If our good works are not perfect, than they are not truly good works acceptable to God.

Calvin's next point is that under the law, we are like slaves to a harsh master.  We are assigned certain tasks which must be fulfilled perfectly in order to be acceptable to our master.  However, when we are no longer under the yoke of the law, we become like sons to that master.  We present our incomplete, imperfect works to our father and he accepts them even though our works do not achieve what the master intended.  In reality, we do have a generous Father who readily accepts His children.  We should no longer fear the remnants of sin now that we have been freed by God's grace.  Paul wrote, "For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14).

The third and final part of Christian freedom "lies in this: regarding outward things that are of themselves 'indifferent,' we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently."  There are those who think it is frivolous to have discussions about "the unrestricted eating of meat, use of holidays and vestments, and such things."  Christians no longer worry about the dietary requirements of the law, observing all the Jewish holidays, nor any of these other ceremonial concerns.  Calvin argues that it is not frivolous to have discussions about them, because if there is misunderstanding about them people will be drawn into superstitions surrounding them.  They will really worry themselves over questions surrounding food, dress, and more which would lead to doubts in their faith.

There are two extreme positions when it comes to the use of gifts from God.  Some have a "daring confidence" in these things which turn them away from God since they are ignoring Him anyway.  Others have an unreasonable, overpowering fear of God.  Both of these positions lack thankfulness to God for the gifts He has given us.  Things that are gifts from God should be used in the manner they were designed.  "We should use God's gifts for the purpose for which he gave them to us, with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind.  With such confidence our minds will be at peace with him, and will recognize his liberality toward us."

Christian freedom is not an excuse for gluttony and luxury.  Christian freedom is a "spiritual thing" whose "force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God."  It is not an excuse for excess.  Calvin writes that "there is almost no one whose resources permit him to be extravagant who does not delight in lavish and ostentatious banquets, bodily apparel, and domestic architecture; who does not wish to outstrip his neighbors in all sorts of elegance; who does not wonderfully flatter himself in his opulence.  And all these things are defended under the pretext of Christian freedom."  He points out that these desires result in covetousness, which is sin.  We should exercise soberness and moderation in using the gifts of this world.  Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11-12, "Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need."  We should be content with the gifts we have received, and those which we have not.  The gifts we have received, we should use them in the way God intended, not flaunted in front of everyone else to cause jealousy.

Tomorrow's reading:  3.19.10-3.19.16

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