On Good Intentions, Spiritual Disciplines, and Christian Freedom

Carter Lindberg tells the story of how the Reformation began to break out in Zürich in 1522:

During Lent of 1522, Zwingli was at the house of Christoph Froschauer, a printer, who was laboring over the preparation of the a new edition of the epistles of Paul. In order to refresh his dozen tired workers, Froschauer served sausages. Was it just a coincidence that the number of participants and the manner of distribution recalled the Lord’s Supper? This public breaking of the Lenten fast flouted both medieval piety and and ecclesiastical and public authority. The Zurich town council arrested Froschauer, but not Zwingli, who himself had not eaten the meat. Zwingli, who held the eminent post of people’s priest at the Great Minster church in Zurich, could have smoothed everything out. Instead he made a public issue of the incident by preaching a sermon, “On the Choice and Freedom of Foods” (23 March 1522), that was soon enlarged into a printed pamphlet (16 April 1522). Almost certainly influenced by Luther’s earlier (1520) treatise on Christian freedom, Zwingli argued that Christians were free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent. ‘In a word, if you will fast, do so; if you do not wish to eat meant, eat it not; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter.’ (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 161).

The recent controversy over the endorsement of Lent by some leading evangelicals is something that has been developing for several years. Christians without conscious confessional commitments or an intentional awareness of the Reformation tend to be rootless. Lacking a tradition of piety of their own they drift from one new thing to the next or borrow eclectically from this tradition and that like three-year olds playing dress up. When those who identify with aspects of Reformed theology however, borrow “spiritual disciplines” that the Reformed churches considered and rejected they are unintentionally creating the pre-conditions for greater problems.

As Lindborg tells the story, a Lenten fast was considered a matter of liberty but as the Reformation progressed through the 1540s the Reformed discovered that such ostensible adiaphora (matters morally indifferent) tend to become requirements. Some ministers in the English church learned this when they tried to exercise the freedom not to wear certain ecclesiastical garments (vestments), which they considered sacerdotal (tending to turn ministers into priests). When they objected to being required to wear the vestments, they were told that it was permissible to wear vestments because they were adiaphora. To which they replied, “If they are adiaphora, then we choose not to wear them.” Then they learned that the vestments weren’t actually regarded as adiaphora but rather they were really required. They were only called adiaphora to make conformity seem plausible. It has frequently been the case in church history that practices that begin as “indifferent” do not usually remain so.

This is why the Westminster Divines (in the Directory for Publick Worship, 1644) rejected the church calendar and why the Dutch Reformed churches rejected most of it. Judging by the Dutch church orders from the 1570s, the first impulse of the Dutch ministers was to reject the church calendar altogether on the grounds that it has no warrant in God’s Word but, over time, they weakened and conceded the so-called “evangelical” (Easter, Pentecost, Christmas) holidays under popular pressure. By 1619 the consensus of the churches was:

67. The congregations shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, with the following days. Since in most cities and Provinces of the Netherlands, besides these the days of the Circumcision and Ascension of Christ are also observed, all ministers, wherever this is still the custom, shall put forth effort with the authorities that they may conform with the others.

A concession to popular desire became church law. This happened in the pre-Reformation church too. In the late patristic period and early medieval periods the churches elaborated on the divinely instituted sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) with so-called “sacramentals,” popular practices that were eventually codified and declared by Fourth Lateran Council (1215) to be sacraments. Voila! Two sacraments became seven.

What began as ostensibly “helpful” spiritual disciplines became law and the church was taken into what Luther called a Babylonian Captivity from which she was rescued only by an intentional return to God’s Word as the sole magisterial (ruling) authority for the Christian faith (doctrine), Christian piety, worship, and the Christian life (practice). That is why the Reformed churches shed themselves of all manner of “helpful” practices that had been adopted by the medieval church including an extensive church calendar, the use of musical instruments in worship, and spiritual vows (e.g., monastic vows) that had no basis in God’s Word. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do no submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).

The history of the church tells us that the road to spiritual bondage is paved with good intentions. We don’t need a church calendar beyond the Christian sabbath. We’re called daily to die to self and live to Christ. We don’t know when the Lord Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary but we do know that he was. We know he was crucified, dead, buried, raised, and ascended but we have no example of special services to remember those events in the apostolic church. The Mosaic church had an extensive church calendar (“new moons and sabbaths”) but that was fulfilled by Christ and has been abrogated. The creational sabbath has been transformed by the inauguration of the new creation in the resurrection and thus we see the apostolic church gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day or the first day of the week. We don’t have any food laws because the dietary restrictions have all been fulfilled in Christ. We may not call unclean what God has called clean. The dividing wall has been torn down. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male, female, slave, or free. The 613 commandments are done. The moral law stands. The gospel stands.

The Reformed reformation of Christian worship was not the act of a collective kill-joy. It was an act of purification and a re-assertion of Christian liberty. That’s why the Reformed churches distinguished between elements of worship (Word and prayer) and circumstances (e.g., time, place, and language). The Word (read, preached, and visible in the sacraments) is God’s Word and prayer (said and sung using his Word) is our divinely authorized response. The elements are inviolable. The circumstances are mutable because they are morally indifferent. We have no moral stake in the time of the services but we have everything at stake in whether worship is conducted according to the express revealed will of God.

When Christopher Froschauer led the Lenten Rebellion of 1522 he may not have understood all that he was signifying but we know what it means: We’re free from all the “good ideas” that people continually invent and free to obey God according to his Word. The churchly understanding of what that means is publicly expressed in our confessions. We don’t need a renewed appreciation of Lent. What we need is a renewed appreciation of why the Reformation happened in the first place.

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  1. Any historical perspective on how this also leads to the debauchery of mardi gras, which I think leads into Lent? I think of Peter’s words, you lay a burden on them that we nor our fathers were able to bear. Very informative post Dr. Clark!

    • Hi James,

      No, sorry, I don’t know anything historically about Mardi Gras (or Carnivale). Theologically, it’s a testimony to the relations between legalism and license. If one’s standing before God is even partly contingent upon one’s doing (even if that “doing” is defined as “cooperating with grace) then God’s righteousness and law is something we sinners can master. Once the law has been “mastered” (as if it were possible) then we can set up a schedule or calendar and plan for license and then formal penitence. It’s all pagan foolishness, however, to think of God thus. We can almost hear the minor prophets saying, “I hate your fasting….”

  2. An excellent reminder that the Regulative Principle is not the enemy of Christian Liberty, but rather establishes it. Whenever men bring innovation into worship on the basis that God did not forbid it, the result is to bind the conscience with human invention.

  3. Thanks for this. Like a class of cool water in a desert.
    I might print it out and hand it to people when they look at me funny for saying I try and follow the regulative principle.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    If I may, for Lutherans “adiaphora” is in narrow reference to “for the forgiveness of sins.” So, yes, ceremonies and rites are “indifferent” as far as the forgiveness of sins is concerned, but not absolutely so. So forgiveness remains the same whether one uses Luther’s Formula Missae or Luther’s Deutsch Messe (or some other setting of the mass for that matter), but in our view that doesn’t make the traditional rites of the church “indifferent” in themselves. In other words, the same men who wrote Epitome X also wrote territorially binding church orders. This comes up in our circles today when Lutherans who want to be American evangelicals invoke “adiaphora” to justify worshiping like revivalists, and, you know, if you want Lutherans to use the Mass (as in Aug. XXIV) you’re obviously a legalist.

    Also, it seems like in the Reformed view “fulfilled” is equal to “abrogated.” Am I reading that correctly?

  5. Here’s our church’s liturgical calendar:
    Christmas, Palm Sunday (make sure you give out palm leaves for the kids to whack each other with), Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, Superbowl Sunday.
    Memorial Day fell on Pentecost Sunday, but instead of even mentioning Pentecost, an Army chaplain got up and quoted Ronald Regan saying that guys who died for America went to heaven.

    • Ethan,
      Thank you. Not only Mothers’, but Fathers’, and Veterans’!
      To paraphrase Ralph Cramden, adia-adia-adia-adiaphora!

    • Haha! It is bizarre, isn’t it, that we add all these days to “worship.”

      Ralph Cramden?! You’re showing your age! Mine too! (50 plus…)

    • Bob,


      It is a great feat for me to even be able to post something on a blog, that’s how how out of date I am.

      Live large, my friend!

    • “Memorial Day fell on Pentecost Sunday, but instead of even mentioning Pentecost, an Army chaplain got up and quoted Ronald Regan saying that guys who died for America went to heaven.”

      As an Army Chaplain, I would love to know when/where this happened. No a single one of the Chaplains I have worked with in the service thus far (I’m PCA, and worked with SBC, OPC, AoG, ARP, Grace Brethren, and others) has ever said anything of the sort. I know those guys are out there but the crew I have been blessed to work alongside knows Scripture and preaches God’s Word.

      I am frankly horrifed when I hear stories like this because we then get lumped together with “that guy.”


  6. “Christians without conscious confessional commitments or an intentional awareness of the Reformation tend to be rootless. Lacking a tradition of piety of their own they drift from one new thing to the next or borrow eclectically from this tradition and that like three-year olds playing dress up. When those who identify with aspects of Reformed theology however, borrow “spiritual disciplines” that the Reformed churches considered and rejected they are unintentionally creating the pre-conditions for greater problems.”

    Amen *and* Amen, Dr Clark.

  7. “…. (or some other setting of the mass for that matter).”

    That’s the thing, Nate. If we Lutherans use some *other* setting of the Mass uncritically, without proper discernment, then it’s not the Lord’s Supper. The Mass is divorced from the *Word*, from the Gospel … from the forgiveness of sins …

    IOW, the Sacrament of the Altar is not dependent on the ritual, but the ritual is dependent on the Sacrament of the Altar which is the Gospel.

    What we see is certain very narrow circles in the LCMS is the over-emphasis on what is common or shared (though not identical it has to be said) between Lutheranism and Rome. That becomes the focus of theological understanding and liturgical praxis.

    As Lutherans, we stand between the two extremes of revivalism and ritualism. That’s what the Reformation was about …

    • Any time I read “that’s what the Reformation was about” I get a little nervous, and suspect I’ve just been fed an ideology of some kind. I disagree that we’re left searching for some Aristotelian middle between revivalism and ritualism. Since our mass settings predate revivalism and all…

      I’m certainly not advocating using any setting uncritically. I’m not sure how anything I wrote could have given that impression. I’m perfectly happy with the common service tradition.

      Agreed, the Sacrament doesn’t depend on the ritual. That’s precisely what I said above. This is not about what’s common with Rome but what is Lutheran.

      The Mass *is* the Word. Have you noticed how it’s almost completely direct quotes from Scripture? When I say “Mass” I’m talking about Aug. XXIV.

  8. Excellent essay/post. Thank you! I learned a lot and was helped by what you wrote.

    I must say, I get creeped out when I go on “reformed” church websites that are drizzled with Lent and other such ideas. I often think, “Why are you all doing this?” Your comment about us not being grounded in The Reformation really shed light.

    Seems that the simplicity of the gospel, and of worship, and of knowing Christ by faith alone are lost in all the Lent action.

    Once again, thank you, Dr. Clark!

  9. I enjoyed the read, until I came to the part where worship with musical instruments was lumped in with monastic vows and the church Calender, then described as having no basis in God’s Word. Read Psalm 150. Is that not applicable to the church?

    • Hi Nathan,

      I understand your reaction. I had the same reaction when I first began thinking about these issues c. 1990. I’ve addressed them on the HB. You can find the discussions in this category and this.

      When the Reformed churches in the 16th century removed organs from their churches and sang only God’s Word in public worship, should we imagine that they were unaware of Ps 150? They were quite aware and had actually thought through these issues quite carefully. They knew that Ps 150 exhorts those who lived in the typological period to use instruments. They also knew that the Psalms exhorted the typological church to do other things such has to conduct holy war against God’s enemies (e.g., Ps 68, one the the favorites of the Reformed in the classical period). They recognized that with the fulfillment of the types and shadows and the abrogation of the Mosaic (old) covenant, the command to wipe out God’s enemies no longer applies literally. They apply metaphorically.

      That’s why Calvin said what he said about the use of musical instruments in new covenant worship: “stupid imitation.”

      Take a look at Recovering the Reformed Confession. There’s a chapter on this.

  10. The setting of the Mass was corrupted — to the point that the Mass itself became corrupted.

    Luther completely reversed the direction of the Mass and with that purged the Mass of its distorted practices. That’s what the Reformation was about.

    This is why Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper stand between the extremes of revivalism and ritualism.

    The Mass isn’t the Word when the preoccupation with ritual get’s in the way. That’s the whole point, you see.

    • Jason,

      If you wish to discuss this please feel free to contact me through my blog. I seriously doubt Dr. Clark wants a couple laymen hashing out ELCA-LCMS differences in his comment thread.

  11. Take the practice of kissing the wood of the Cross as a form of veneration. As a *public* display, it’s neither catholic nor Lutheran. It’s adiaphora. Best be left as a private devotional habit, and even so not necessarily encouraged. There’s nothing catholic about the practices promoted by von Schenk, Piepkorn, Corby, SSP, etc. What it is the so-called shared ritual tradition with Lutherans – which BTW is to be distinguished from the liturgical.

    One does not adore the Cross … that is “incorporate the Cross” into one’s personal faith or whatever … one is killed by the Cross in the Absolution, etc. IOW, our ritual and piety must be shaped by justification by faith alone, by the Gospel.

    On the other hand, when one is dying in bed, one can and should press the Crucifix against one’s breast as a sign of dying in, with, under and through the Crucifixion even as the priest lifts the Crucifix before the eyes of the dying one. This scenario is not a ritual but Christian piety.

    • Jason,

      The sort of practices you describe are exactly why the Reformed say:

      96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

      That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.


      1. The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

      You Reformed folk reading this thread, does your principle of worship agree with the Heidelberg and Westminster or does it allow for kissing the cross, processions etc?

  12. There is no basis in Scripture or history for the so-called “regulative principle.” Why don’t we ask those living in Calvin’s Geneva or the Massachusetts Bay Colony how much “Christian freedom” was allotted to them. Please don’t try to hijack the Reformation.

    Thank God I’m a Lutheran.

    • Nicholas,

      Not trying to hijack anything. Just trying to get Reformed folk to be Reformed.

      Why can’t the RPW, which applies ONLY to public worship, be distinguished from the church-state complex? It has been done.

  13. We are free to use tradition (or not) in helpful ways which keep Christ and His gospel central.

    Are there dangers? Sure there are. But if we realize that we can keep our guard up against legalism…and license.

    • Steve,

      Were the Israelites free to make golden calves at Bethel and Dan by which to worship the Lord? After all, young, vigorous, muscular calves are symbols of the Lord’s power and strength aren’t they?

  14. They made those golden calves to worship. Apart from the Living God.

    When we use Lent, or vestments, or candles, or stained glass windows, etc., we don’t make them objects of worship. We use them to help keep us anchored in Him…and tied to the great cloud of witnesses that have worshipped that way before us.

    We pretty much worship in the same manner that Jesus did. (plus Baptism and Holy Communion)

    • Do you think that the Israelites weren’t using the calves to worship the Lord, that they really thought that the calves had actually delivered them?

      The second commandment only limits us from worshipping idols? It says nothing about how we worship God?

  15. The form that we use in our worship is basically the same. Stained glass windows that symbolize Baptism, or Bible stories, etc., may be a great tool to support someone’s devotion.

    We truly are free to use them…or not.

    We aren’t legalists.

  16. I’ve herar people go on and on (not here) about “graven images”, etc..

    The Bible itself is graven.

    We don’t worship the Bible, do we?

    (I know there are some traditions that practically do :D)

    • Steve,

      Graven images = representations of God (including God the Son). God himself gave us his Word. He has not given us visible representations of himself apart from the holy sacraments.

  17. Thanks, R.S..

    I think you missed my point about legalism and tradition, and the freedom to use things to help us in our worship.

    And the Bible is graven. But so what? We don’t worship it. And we don’t worship altars and candles and stained glass windows.

  18. “And the Bible is graven”?!

    Distinguish: Graven images as one, visual representations of God or the creature and two, worshipped, both of which are forbidden in the worship of God, while images of the creature are not forbidden outside of worship. That versus engraved images of letters in the alphabet which represent sounds.

    That’s the real point.
    Lutheranism misses it because she divides the Ten Commandments like Rome and the Second disappears into the First.

    Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Reynold’s The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures and Eire’s War Against the Idols make for interesting and further reading on the topic which was at the root of the Reformation. Will we have pictures in passion plays, the mass or the sacraments or the preaching of the Word?

  19. We who have real freedom, and who are not biblicists, are not afraid of using things to help us in our worship, keeping those things in their proper places.

    We truly are free. I think I am starting to see what Nicholas (above comment) was talking about when he referred to Calvin’s Geneva. Very little freedom, and a legalism that hung thick in the air.

    It’s too bad. It’s not necessary.

  20. Dr. Clark, WCF 20 and 26 make clear that the church cannot require of believers anything in its worship not taught in Scripture or not a necessary consequence deduced from Scripture. Can you speak to the liberty of individual believers as to their private devotions. For instance – guitars (or musical instruments in general) are a ‘no’ in the church’s worship, but for private devotion? What about certain other practices or observances? Some yes, some no? Can there be Christian liberty for one man’s practice and yet we may say that that practice falls short of biblical teaching? Thanks.

    • Hi Jack,

      My principal concern is to try to help the church recover the confessional doctrine and practice of public worship. My understanding is that there is a difference of opinion re what may be done in private devotions. I don’t know that the church confesses anything in that regard. I would file it under “wisdom” and “moral law” and “Christian liberty.” E.g., it might not be wise for parents to train their children to worship like Pentecostalists and then expect them to worship happily in a rather different Reformed setting but I also think that our conviction re Christian liberty comes into play here too.

  21. Thanks. Wisdom, moral law, and Christian liberty…

    I sometimes think in topics like this (2K being another) that some don’t understand there is a difference between the Church as an institution and the individual Christian.

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