Of Coarse Jesting, Wisdom, And Christian Liberty

A faithful reader of the HB wrote to ask about to think about seeking God’s glory while hanging out with and having a good time with the guys. Here’s my expanded reply:


How do we think about hanging out with the guys (i.e., friends) and glorifying God simultaneously? This is a more difficult question than it might seem.

We have two dangers: license and legalism. First, let’s think about the latter. Those Christians who’ve been raised in or influenced by fundamentalism, the holiness tradition, or pietism are familiar with the kinds of purely man-made rules developed by Christians to make sure that no one ever sins. The Pharisees called these types of ostensibly well-intended rules, “a fence around the law.” To keep believers from coming close to transgressing the 613 laws of the Torah (e.g., don’t break the sabbath) they set up rules that went beyond God’s. They established the number of steps one could take on the Sabbath before one broke the Sabbath. They ruled that if one fell into a ditch on the Sabbath their counsel was to leave him there since he shouldn’t have been out walking on the Sabbath in the first place. This is why Jesus’ Sabbath miracles were so offensive. They had reversed things by making man for the Sabbath where our Lord said the Sabbath is for man (Mark 2:27). It’s easy to make up rules and to impose them as a standard of piety. In the early church Christians fled to the deserts in search of sanctity and communion with God. Before long enough joined that whole societies of monks were formed and societies need rules and vows. The piety of the medieval church was arguably dominated by monastic rules, vows, and an elaborate church order (canon law) that had virtually no basis in God’s Word. The entire church fell into what Martin Luther called a Babylonian Captivity of man-made theology, piety, and practice.

The Apostle Paul published the charter of Christian liberty against just this sort of error:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.1 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

If with Christ you died to the basic principles of the world (στοιχείων), why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting will worship (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ) and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col 2:16–23 revised from the ESV).

The answer the legalism is not license. The answer to legalism is to reassert the sufficient, clear, sole, unique authority of God’s Word (sola Scriptura) against rules and regulations without positive warrant in God’s Word. The legalists sought to bind the Colossian Christians to a combination of legalism and false spirituality. Where the legalists sought to reimpose the Mosaic religious calendar (hence “new moon or a sabbath”) and religious experience (visions, angels), Paul points them to Christ. What the legalists offered was in substance nothing more than what he calls stoichea, the sense of which is disputed but which arguably refers, in this instance, less to Greco-Roman philosophies than to legalism itself, i.e.., the idea either of presenting one’s self to God on the basis of law keeping (in justification) or of regulating the Christian life on the basis of human laws (sanctification). Paul here condemns both aspects of legalism. It’s almost as if Paul was looking ahead to the coming centuries when Biblical, Christ-centered theology, piety, and practice would be grossly corrupted by the very things he described.

The opposite error, of course, often comes in reaction to the first. Those who’ve been raised or affected by legalism react by fleeing to license. In the course of throwing off man-made rules for the Christian life Christians sometimes turn to license, i.e., they give to themselves permission to whatever they will and call it Christian liberty. The temptation opposite of  legalism is antinomianism, the rejection of the objective, revealed moral law of God. Of course, people rarely own up to antinomianism and they are just as rarely consistent in it. Few Christians will say outright: “I reject God’s moral law” or “In Christ we are free to commit adultery.” What they typically do is to so identify God’s moral law with the Mosaic-Old Covenant, with Sinai, that, in rejecting legalism and an in recognizing the inferiority of the Old Covenant, they think that they must do away with the Ten Commandments themselves. That is folly. The moral law as expressed at Sinai (Exod 20; Deut 5) is God’s law clothed in Mosaic-Old Covenant, typological language. Shorn of the typology (e.g., the saturday sabbath and the land promise), it is the creational pattern for the Christian life. Before Moses there was creation and that law was given as part of the creational pattern to govern human life. It is not temporary. It is not typological. It is a reflection of God’s nature and the revelation of his moral will for all of his creatures and especially those who confess the Christian faith. Remember, it is in the New Covenant, not the old, that we read that sin is lawlessness (1John 3:4). We are not free to commit idolatry, or worship God in any other way than he has commanded in his Word, to abuse God’s holy name, to break the Christian Sabbath, to defy divinely instituted authority, to murder, to commit sexual immorality, to steal, to bear false witness, or to covet.

God’s moral law is the divinely revealed, objective standard of Christian ethics and morality. In this way it is both the norm and the charter of Christian liberty. No one has authority to bind our consciences beyond what God has revealed. This is why the Reformed were originally so stout on the matter of the regulative principle of worship. The medieval church had abandoned the regulating power of Scripture and replaced it with ecclesiastical sanction. Rather than doing in worship only what God has revealed the church gradually usurped that authority and instituted 5 false sacraments (in addition to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper instituted by Christ) and all manner of putatively pious practices that led the church into a sort of Babylonian Captivity. This is why we should remember Paul’s condemnation of well-intentioned “will worship,” i.e., those religious practices that seem right to us but that God has not commanded. That is the way of slavery.

The law of God is also the objective standard for determining what glorifies God. In other words, there are not two moral standards, e.g., what God has commanded and what glorifies God. They are one and the same. We do not have to intuit or guess what glorifies God. Doing what he has commanded brings glory to his name.

Thus, when we think about hanging out with friends, about fellowship, there is an objective moral standard. It’s application may vary from time to time. It’s fine for friends to joke and to enjoy one and other’s company. Indeed, in an age of virtual friendship and communion, real human companionship is a great remedy to isolation of Narcissism. So, how far is too far, in joking and having a good time. Ephesians 5:4 warns against “crude joking .” So, it’s a good thing to have fellowship (including joking and banter) with other men but it’s not a good thing when that fellowship and joking descends into vulgarity.

Let there be no shameful (αἰσχρότης) nor foolish talk (μωρολογία) nor crude joking (εὐτραπελία), which are out of place, but instead tlet there be thanksgiving (εὐχαριστία).

To help us understand what he wants us to avoid, Paul uses three descriptors: shameful, foolish, and crude. He assumes that we know what constitutes “shameful” talk. He assumes that we have a conscience formed by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, that we know intuitively what sort of talk bring brings shame to our Lord. The adjective here is related to terms widely used in the NT to denote that which brings shame in this life or at the judgment. What sort of talk does this? It is foolish talk, i.e., that which is of no consequence, it is thoughtless (stupid). Finally, talk that brings shame to one’s self or Christ, stupid talk, tends to become crude. One these adjectives Calvin writes:

By filthiness I understand all that is indecent or inconsistent with the modesty of the godly. By foolish talking I understand conversations that are either unprofitably or wickedly foolish; and as it frequently happens that idle talk is concealed under the garb of jesting or wit, he expressly mentions pleasantry,—which is so agreeable as to seem worthy of commendation,—and condemns it as a part of foolish talking. The Greek word εὐτραπελία is often used by heathen writers, in a good sense, for that ready and ingenious pleasantry in which able and intelligent men may properly indulge.

Where is that line? That is necessarily a subjective judgment informed by principally by Scripture and secondarily by wisdom and thirdly by culture. In some cultures it is permissible to say one thing but impermissible to say the same in another. As much as possible we should try to be aware how our culture may differ from God’s Word. Certainly we should not assume that if our culture approves of something then Scripture must as well. No, we should seek to have our judgments informed by more by Scripture than by culture.

Wisdom is learning to think about life in God’s world in light of his Word, to understand ourselves properly, to understand how the world works and how to live in accordingly. Proverbs 1:7 connects wisdom, prudence, and knowledge to the fear of the Lord of the covenant:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;

fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov 1:7; ESV).

The beginning of wisdom is to fear God. Wisdom recognizes that one lacks wisdom. That’s why James encourages us ask our heavenly Father for wisdom (James 1:5). The fool doesn’t even realize that he needs wisdom and when he hears it, he rejects it. Proverbs teaches us to look at the outcome of a course of action. The outcome of sexual immorality is death. A wise man sees the outcome and flees. The fool says to himself, “that won’t happen to me. I’m different.”  We may apply the same test to joking around with friends. Where does it lead?

Does this approach lead to prudery? When Paul wrote to the Ephesians there were graphic homosexual pornographic drawings in public. He was aware of the sorts of things that occurred among men in the Greco-Roman world but he was not a prude. He was willing to use forceful, even rough language at times in order to make a point (e.g., Gal 5:12; Phil 3:8—note that the ESV and most other English translations do not well capture the fairly graphic nature of Paul’s language) but he was never crude or foolish or stupid.

In the late-modern West we live in a time of license. Restraint seems to have disappeared. Thus, lacking almost any external guides, we should be cautious. Here are some things to consider. Does it edify or does it tear down? Does it encourage? Will it lead one toward godliness or away from it?

It helps to see this approach in practice. I have a dear, mature, godly friend. He’s not prissy nor a sissy but he is never crude or rude or even thoughtless. He has a great sense of humor but I’ve never heard him say anything for which he should apologize. I  should seek to emulate him. Perhaps you have someone in your life like that, whom you can emulate as he or she follows Christ?

Finally, here’s rule I taught my kids: In this life you will rarely find trouble for what you did not say.

1. Revised from the ESV. The sabbaths to which Paul refers are the monthly lunar Sabbaths not the weekly creational Sabbath. He is not inveighing against God’s institution of one day in seven of rest and worship but against the reimposition of the Mosaic religious calendar. See the chapter on the Christian Sabbath in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

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  1. That is a truly efficacious expanded reply, Dr. Clark. I hope the faithful HB reader will appreciate it.

    I struggle with crudeness myself and pray every day that Christ come so I would never (be able to) sin against my holy creator again. Maranatha.

    Paul’s rough language, i.e. skubala, really says it.

  2. You could also add Ephesians 4:29. Sometimes we don’t consider those (men / women) who are on the receiving end of our talk as well. Good exposes.

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