Tuesday, December 05, 2006

John Calvin on Christian Liberty

For some, this may sound like an unlikely topic. John Calvin on Christian liberty? Might as well consider Oliver Cromwell on the divine right of kings! What's that old disciplinarian, got to say about the subject of Christian freedom? Quite a lot actually. He devotes a chapter to this theme in his Institutes of the Christian Religion - Book III:XIX. Indeed, he says, "if the subject be not understood, neither Christ, not the truth of the Gospel, nor the inward peace of the soul is properly known." (Sect. 1.)

The basis of Christian freedom is justification by faith. The believer is free from the accusations of the law of God, having been justified by grace through faith in Christ. The Epistle to the Galatians is the great charter of Christian liberty. Paul teaches that believers have been freed from the ceremonies of the law such as circumcision. We have also been liberated from the curse of the law in Christ who was made a curse for us. The law reveals the way in which Christians should live, but it cannot condemn us:
For when the conscience feels anxious as to how it may have the favour of God...if brought to his judgement seat... the requirements of the law are not to be brought forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is alone to be held forth for righteousness. (Sect. 3.)
We are not free to sin because we have been called by the grace of God to righteousness and holiness. But we do have freedom when it comes to adiaphora or things indifferent. This is a very important point, "The knowledge of this liberty is very necessary to us; where it is wanting our consciences will have no rest, there will be no end of superstition." (Sect. 7). Believers are fee to eat, drink and wear what they please. These things were written against the background where Roman Catholic traditions like eating fish not meat on Fridays were observed by many people. Such matters are adiaphora - the Christian is free to do as he likes with regard to such issues. We are not bound by the traditions of men. Calvin also deals with the tendency toward asceticism in those who have not grasped the principle of Christian liberty,
If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarce drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will dare not to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure. In fine, he will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a straw lying in his way. (Sect. 7.)
Liberty is to be used responsibly. We are not to abuse our freedom by offending the conscience of the weaker brother. On the other hand, we must not to yield to Pharisaical types who would seek to rob us of our true freedom in Christ.
Christian liberty is one of the precious fruits of the gospel. But this important principle has often been forgotten in the history of the Church. Who said that believers should abstain from meat on Fridays or than Ministers should not marry? We are called to freedom in such cases.
The Evangelical Church is not without fault in this matter. Christian holiness has sometimes been reduced to a list prohibitions. These often concern things that are adiaphora at best. "Thou shalt not drink alcohol!" "Thou shalt not go to the Cinema!" "Thou shalt not listen to rock or pop music!" Oh really? Why then does Psalm 104 tell us that God has given us wine to "gladden the heart"? (vs 15). Are Christians really forbidden to watch all films? Why can't a believer enjoy Coldplay just as much as Chopin or listen to Snow Patrol rather than Shostakovitch?
A believer will be discriminating about what he watches and listens to. But the blanket prohibition of all alcohol, movie-going and pop music is a violation of Christian liberty. Fundamentalism has often been guilty of a legalistic approach to holiness. This can make the Christian life seem joyless and unattractive. Evangelicals need to embrace the principles of gospel liberty set out so clearly by John Calvin.

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1)

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