Freedom of the Christian Man (2)

martin luther death maskPart 1. Many of us have spent time in forms of Christianity that are very strong on rules and slavery and very weak on grace and freedom. By “rules and slavery” I refer to the imposition of man-made rules by which sanctity is measured. There was the law of the “quiet time.” There was the (usually) unspoken law against smoking and drinking alcohol. Then there are rules about television, about clothing, and the list could go on.

The first aspect of the freedom of the Christian, is the unique, normative authority of the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) as confessed by the churches. The second aspect of Christian freedom is liberty from the tyranny of human opinion. Rules are inevitable. They are necessary. Church orders are unavoidable but they must remain subordinate to Holy Scripture. They must serve Scripture. They must have some Scriptural foundation. One of the great errors of the medieval church is that the church reversed that order. Scripture was subordinated to ecclesiastical authority and rules (e.g., monastic rules) proliferated.

Grace, on the other hand, liberates. Grace, in the nature of things, is given freely to sinners. Where sin abounded, grace abounded more. Grace brings freedom to helpless captives. Christ did not die for his people because they were good or even because he foresaw what they would do. He obeyed, died, and was raised for us with the knowledge of what we really are by nature, after the fall: sinners, rebels against God. Nevertheless, for Christ’s sake, God has freely loved us in Christ and lavished his favor upon us, made us alive, given us faith, and united us to Christ.

As recipients of such rich and richly undeserved favor freely given we are free. Because it was freely given it was not earned. Because it was not earned it cannot be kept. We do not “keep” it. Grace keeps us.  In that case, we are free from the tyranny of human expectations at least when it comes to approval from God. This is not antinomian counsel. Because we have been freed from the shackles of the demands of the law, for acceptance with God, we are free to obey God’s law, in the Spirit (who gave the law!), in Christ, in gratitude.

We are also free to push to the side purely man-made laws and rules, when they conflict with God’s Word. Arguably the sorts of rules that prevail in some forms of American fundamentalist Christianity may once have had a purpose but such rules often become disconnected from their original purpose and take on a life of their own.

One of the great blessings of the Reformation is that it not only delivered us from the tyranny of purely human (ecclesiastical) tradition. It also delivered us from the tyranny of informal rules. No one has to drink or smoke. Wisdom may dictate that abstaining is the best course of action but whether one does or doesn’t isn’t a matter of righteousness (conformity to God’s law) but wisdom and freedom. You might not approve of the sorts of people with whom one associates. People didn’t always approve of the sorts of people with whom our most Holy Savior associated.

Once more, freedom is not license to sin. It is license to serve Christ, to walk by the Spirit but it is for freedom that we have been redeemed.

Part 3

Originally published in June, 2013.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Nice work, R.S..


    Freedom from the religious/spirituality ascendency project.

    And freedom for the neighbor.

    A sort of unselfconscious existence. If we notice what happened in the Garden after they sinned, we’ll see that self-consciousness came upon them.

    In far too many churches, they won’t let you forget about you. ‘You’ are the focus. The whole cotton-pickin’ project revolves around you. There’s no freedom in that.


  2. Thanks. I keep reminding myself of the last verse you quoted. It is for freedom that Christ has set me free.

  3. There is precious little of the freedom that Christ has won for us, in Christian churches and proclaimed from Christian pulpits.

    Everyone (just about) has a little bit to add to that finished work.

  4. How would you reconcile the teaching of the Larger Catechism, for instance on the seventh commandment, and the whole history of the Reformed churches until recently with your criticism of “fundamentalist” “legalism”?

    What exactly does sanctification look like if Christians have liberty to dance, go to pubs, watch whatever they want on television, go to theatres, smoke &c.

    Yes Christ associated with disreputable people: but not in disreputable places and He didn’t condone the behaviour which made them disreputable. He told them to stop.

    • Alexander,

      Did you read the entire post?

      You seem to be assuming a great deal and lumping together a good number of behaviors/practices.

      Here’s what the WLC says:

      Q. 138. What are the duties required in the seventh commandment?

      A. The duties required in the seventh commandment are, chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others; watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel; marriage by those that have not the gift of continency, conjugal love, and cohabitation; diligent labor in our callings; shunning all occasions of uncleanness, and resisting temptations thereunto.

      Q. 139. What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?

      A. The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews, and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others.

      1. The “whole history” of the Reformed churches? Really? That’s a big claim.

      Who argued that Christians may “watch whatever they want on TV”? The moral law is the moral law and governs what we may watch. Still I want to defend Christian liberty on the basis of 1Cor 8 and 10. We are free to eat meet offered to idols until it becomes a religious/cultic matter. The moment a host makes a meal religious, instead of common, we may not partake.

      2. Is all dancing the same? Libidinous/licentious dancing is not ballet or folk dancing.

      3. Smoking? I don’t but I’m not judging Ralph Erskine or any of the other many Reformed folk who smoke (including many Reformed luminaries)

      4. I think the English Reformation has something to do with a pub in Cambridge.

      5. Ursinus defined drunkenness as “reeling and vomiting” the NEXT DAY.

      6. I understand that the stage (and later cinema and still later TV) was controversial for many years. I also understand that the Divines were reacting to widespread antinomianism and fear of libertinism. We should honor the intent of the law as summarized by the divines. There are, as I indicated above, things that believers ought not watch but there is also a degree of liberty. Am I to judge my brother if he watches things I would not? Isn’t that of the essence of Christian liberty? Doesn’t genuine Phariseeism lurk right here?

      As to associating with unbelievers, Paul gives clear instructions distinguishing between associating with unbelievers and associating with disobedient believers:

      1Cor 5:9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

      Again, as to where this happens, it seems to me that our Lord faced the scorn for allowing Mary to anoint his feet with expensive perfume. That was a scandalous thing for her to do, on more than one level (John 12).

      It is not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out that defiles him. So, I read the WLC in light of Scripture, in light of the history of Reformed piety, and in light of the way the churches receive the confessions and in light of the evident intent of the confession. We are called to holiness but in 25+ years in Reformed churches I’ve never had to deal with anyone operating a house of prostitution but I’ve dealt with lots of violations of the 7th commandment.

  5. Thanks for your post. I find if helpful.

    Certainly the things I listed can be separated. Smoking was widespread until very recently in the church, but knowing what we know now is it responsible for a Christian to smoke? How does smoking relate to the sixth commandment?

    My understanding is that all dancing- certainly social dancing- has been considered unchaste by the Reformed.

    Drinking of alcohol is certainly lawful; but is the frequenting of pubs? Places where drunkenness and unchaste behaviour is encouraged?

    My post was in reaction to what seems a common theme in American Reformed churches of seeking to glory in doing things which “fundamentalists” would condemn. But many of the same things were condemned by the Reforned churches.

    And surely Paul’s point is that our lawful affairs and employments in the world will require interacting with unbelievers. That is quite different from forming friendships with unbelievers.

    When you say that you read the confessions in the light of scripture how is that different from those who re-interpret the standards to suit modern sensibilities? Aren’t the confession and catechisms meant to be an exposition of Scripture? Therefore we should be reading them as written. Of course Scripture is the ultimate standard but I’m unclear how what you say isn’t a form of subjectivism.

    I did read the entire post(s) and I found then helpful. Of course the liberty won by Christ- liberty from superstitious worship and man made traditions- is to be cherished. But too often it seems Christian liberty is used to justify partaking of what the world offers because it is “neutral” or is not expressly forbidden in Scripture. A position which I think is a wilful misreading of what the Confession teaches on Christian liberty.

    As to enforcing rules: the church must decide what is and is not acceptable behaviour for her members. Sometimes private disapproval is not enough.

    • Alexander,

      You seem to have in mind rules and seem to want to impose them on others, e.g., smoking. You might not like smoking but it’s a matter of Christian liberty. Medical opinion changes and one has to through a couple of inferences before one gets to your conclusions and that ladder is a little rickety. If you press me on your rules v. Christian Christian liberty, I will side with liberty. Medieval moralism is a near neighbor to Phariseeism, who thought that their rules were good and right (except for themselves).

      I think you’ve missed Paul’s point. You seem to have established some extra-biblical and perhaps extra-confessional ethical standards. I have no sympathy with that approach and certainly not on Reformation Day, when we honor those who shed blood to free us from the tyranny of man-made rules, which is a deadly form of legalism.

      On pubs, I don’t think you have a historical leg on which to stand.

      I think the only place you might have a historical point is theater, but even then Theodore Beza wrote a play for the theater (Abraham Sacrificiant), that was translated and performed in the 16th century on the English stage. Sexually immodest theater is problematic but setting up strict rules runs to subjectivism and legalism. We must deal in principles.

      I do sometimes wonder if the old Dutch strictures on TV might not be wise today but those rules also produced as much hypocrisy as piety (hiding the TV for Huisbezoek). The same is true of dancing. I’ve lived (briefly) in the fundamentalist culture where dancing is forbidden and all it did was cause godly men to talk about dancing! The rules don’t work. The law doesn’t produce sanctity.

      If you’ll read Recovering the Reformed Confession I have a long, detailed discussion of how we subscribe and receive the confessions and catechisms. I argue for quiz subscription, i.e., we subscribe them because they are biblical. Nevertheless, our standards are subordinate to Scripture, they work for Scripture, as it were. When we have the clear teaching of Scripture on Christian liberty that trumps all. We do confess the perspicuity, sufficiency, and unique authority of Scripture. Sola scriptura. I address this at length contra biblicism and subjectivism. See also Mike Horton’s essay in Always Reformed on Semper Reformanda. I share your concern about subjectivism, that’s why we need to read the standards in their historical context to determine original intent.

      We also read the standards with the church. Our churches do not receive the standards to forbid visiting a pub. If you think having a drink in a pub where there are sinners is a sin, then charge someone with sin and test your views in the courts of the church. I think your case would be weak indeed.

  6. I noticed Dr. Clark quoted the WLC on the 7th commandment. What is meant by “untangling vows of single life”?

    I take the “undue delay of marriage” serious as well because I’ve never been married, so I should perhaps take time to think seriously about these things. Perhaps I’ve been influenced so much by my surrounding culture that I’ve become blind to this?

    • Alberto,

      I believe “entangling vows” = false monastic vows or false vows of celibacy.

      As to singleness, if one is not called to singleness, then one should be married but Paul does say that singleness is a good thing and useful to the church if one is called to it and gifted for it.

Comments are closed.