Freedom in Christ is one of the sweetest gifts of the gospel. It’s also a topic that creates no small amount of confusion in the church. Are we free to do whatever the Bible commands? Are we free to do whatever the Bible does not forbid? Are we free to do whatever seems good to us as long as our fellow Christians approve? The way you answer these sorts of questions depends entirely on your understanding of Christian freedom.
Over the last two years, I’ve been slowly working through Book I of John Calvin’s magisterial treatise – The Institutes of Christian Religion. A few weeks ago, I came across an insightful little section on Christian freedom (III.XIX). Calvin contends that the topic “is a thing of prime necessity” and quickly points out the danger of getting it wrong.
“Some, on the pretext of this freedom, shake off all obedience toward God and break out into unbridled license. Others disdain it, thinking that it takes away all moderation, order, and choice of things. What should we do here, hedged about with such perplexities? Shall we say good-by to Christian freedom, thus cutting off occasion for such dangers? But, as we have said, unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can rightly be known” (III.XIX.1).
Calvin goes on to help us rightly “comprehend” Christian freedom by making three simple points, to which I will add some brief commentary. His observations are by no means exhaustive, though I think they provide a cogent foundation for further wrestling with the issue.
1. “The consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness.”
We typically conceive of freedom in terms of freedom from someone or something. Christian freedom is no different. To be free in Christ means (more than anything else) to be free from trying to earn right standing before God on the basis of our obedience to the law. No matter how long you’ve been a Christian, it is so easy to abandon the gospel on this point.
Did you get up when you’re alarm went off to read your Bible?
Has it been at least a week since you looked at porn?
Did you avoid yelling at your kids last night?
Boy, it feels great to be on God’s good side today.
There are good reasons to feel good about all those accomplishments, but knowing you’re on God’s good side is not one of them. Why not? To quote Calvin again, because “Christ alone, who surpasses all perfection of the law, must be set forth as righteousness” (III.XIX.2). That’s the heart of the gospel – freedom from obeying the law of God as a means of securing the righteousness of God.
2. “Consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of the law, but that freed from the law’s yoke they willingly obey God’s will.”
With this point, Calvin hits on my greatest, single concern for the church right now. Yes, through the gospel, we are freed from the “necessity” of obeying the law. Good works are no longer the means by which we merit the love and favor of God. Yet the union with Christ that brings freedom fromobedience out of a sense of duty is the same union with Christ that brings freedom for obedience out of an abundance of joy (Romans 6:13-14).
Listen to how Calvin summarizes the radical change the gospel produces in the motivation behind our obedience: “See how all our works are under the curse of the law if they are measured by the standard of the law! But how, then would unhappy souls gird themselves eagerly for a work for which they might expect to receive only a curse? But if, freed from this severe requirement of the law, or rather from the entire rigor of the law, they hear themselves called with fatherly gentleness by God, they will cheerfully and with great eagerness answer, and follow his leading” (III.XIX.5).
3. “Regarding outward things that are of themselves ‘indifferent,’ we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently.”
We make decisions every day for which the Bible doesn’t give an explicit command one way or the other.
Am I free to watch that movie?
Am I free to attend that party?
Am I free to buy that new car?
“Oh come on man”, some might say, “Don’t get all legalistic. We’re free in Christ! God doesn’t say not to do it. So enjoy it!”
Calvin begs to differ (and rightly so). Sometimes watching a particular movie is wrong. Sometimes it’s right. Sometimes buying a new car is wrong. Sometimes it’s right. Is he talking out of both sides of his mouth? Not at all. He’s simply recognizing that what makes a particular choice on a matter where Scripture is “indifferent” the right decision is whether we are using the gift of the movie, the party, or the car “for the purpose for which [God] gave them to us, with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind. With such confidence our minds will be at peace with him, and will recognize his liberality toward us” (III.XIX.8).
Bottom line here, Calvin presses us to answer this all-important question: Can I make this choice, at this time, with a clear conscience that gives thanks to God for every part of it? If the answer is “yes,” we must further consider the impact of our liberty will have on the people around us, especially other Christians. Does it pass the test of “edification” (III.XIX.8)? Will the exercise of my liberty help them or hurt them (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)? Assuming it will help, I am free to enjoy my liberty, giving thanks to God for granting it to me.