Thursday, August 5, 2010

Christian Freedom, Part II

After several days of slacking, I am back in The Institutes.  Those of you following along in the McNeill edition have probably been thinking "when are we ever going to do this last section for volume 1?"  Well kids, today is the day!

Calvin cautions his readers to choose wisely in their freedom.  They should be careful not to offend others, especially those weak in their faith, with their new-found freedom.  Therefore they should abstain from practices that might damage another believer's faith.  "For they ought to think that from their freedom they obtain nothing new in men's sight but before God, and that it consists as much in abstaining as in using.  If they understand that it makes no difference in God's sight whether they eat meat or eggs, wear red or black clothes, this is enough and more."  God has commended the weak to us, therefore we must take care in exercising our freedom not to further weaken their faith.

Next, he distinguishes between offenses given versus offenses received.  An offense given is one that if someone causes a simple person to stumble, then it will be counted as an offense.  Even if the action would not otherwise be considered an offense.  Paul uses the example of those who eat meat versus those who might be offended by it.  1 Corinthians 8:9-13 reads, "But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble." An offense received is anything that would not by itself be considered an offense, but by ill will or malicious intent it becomes an offense.  The example Calvin uses for an offense received is that of the Pharisees.  They performed all sorts of actions like praying on the street corner or giving alms to the poor.  These practices by themselves are not offensive, but when they are done with the intent to draw attention to the doer of them rather than as a response to God's love, then they become an offense.

We are called to be able to distinguish between the weak and the Pharisees if we are to properly exercise or refrain from our Christian freedoms.  Paul set an example for us in the fact that he circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3) but did not circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3).  Calvin sets forth a rule for us to use as a guide when determining whether or not to exercise our freedom: "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."

Only those things which are indifferent and not other offenses which are always sinful are what Calvin is talking about in this chapter.  Therefore we should be careful to not offend God under the pretext of loving our neighbor by exercising our freedom.  Calvin ranks freedom below love which "abides under purity of faith."  He then turns to the Roman church and some of their practices.  The church calls some of their practices "milk" like Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:2.  Calvin claims that this cannot be milk "for milk is not poison."  These false practices performed in the Roman church do not build up the believers, but only fill them with superstition and false hope.  We have been freed from any man-created observances.  Calvin says, "Paul does not hesitate to say that Christ's death is nullified if we put our souls under men's subjection."  It is not the law we must obey, but Christ.  Galatians 2:21 reads, "I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain." 

Calvin speaks of a distinction between two kingdoms: the spiritual and the political.  The spiritual kingdom is that whereby the conscience is instructed.  It deals with inner mind.  The political kingdom is where man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship.  It deals with outward behavior.  Calvin tells us to recognize the distinction.  As Christian, we are still subject to the laws of the land even though our consciences are free in God's sight.  Often men fail to make this distinction clearly enough.  He tries to clear up the distinction by making these two statements: "...through the mind and understanding men grasp a knowledge of things, and from this are said 'to know,'" then, "so also when they have a sense of divine judgment...this sense is called 'conscience.'"

To further define "conscience," Calvin writes, "Therefore, as works have regard to men, so conscience refers to God.  A good conscience, then, is nothing but inward integrity of heart."  Calvin insists that even though a good conscience is sometimes credited to men such as in Acts 24:16, truly it belongs to God.  However, the fruit of a good conscience can be seen in men's actions.  Calvin concludes by reiterating a previously made point with a slight addendum, "For we ought to abstain from anything that might cause offense, but with a free conscience."

Tomorrow's reading: 3.20.1-3.20.6

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