Our Sins: Form Over Freedom


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It has been three Sunday evenings since we have considered the subject of our current series of evening sermons, so let me review our progress so far. We first considered the reality of sin in the believer’s life in general terms. We considered the importance of a Christian having and carrying about with him or her a living sense of sin and enumerated some of the blessings that come to us from an honest reckoning with how much wrong still remains in our hearts and our lives. We also described the two-dimensional problem we face: SIN and sins: SIN being the underlying and fundamental penchant for sin and love of sin and bent toward sin that lies deep within us and sins being the many particular violations of God’s will that come up from below. We also discussed the question, much discussed in the history of Christian theology, whether we can identify a bottom sin, an essential sin, the one sin from which all our sinning comes. We decided last time that the Bible really does not answer that question for us and quite often identifies or distinguishes specific sins. It does not treat all our sins as various manifestations of but one sin. And it summons us to deal with our sins individually, specifically, one by one and shows us how to do that. Then we began last time with the consideration of the first of the sins I want to treat in this series, viz. the sin of worldliness, by which I meant not simply the love of things and of pleasure but, using the term in a more serious, a more profound sense, a forgetfulness of what is unseen, a way of living determined by a forgetfulness of unseen reality, a way of living in which the world is taken to be all there is. No true Christian, of course, ever completely forgets the spiritual world, the unseen reality that defines and determines the nature of life in this world, but every Christian knows very well how often and sometimes how almost completely he or she has forgotten the reality that cannot be seen: the reality of God, of a present Holy Spirit, of the angels, the last judgment, and of heaven and hell.

The sins I intend to take up in this series do not make a typical list. We could, of course, talk about sexual sin (which in any case Pastor DeMass addressed the last two Sunday evenings), or the love of money, or dishonesty. The Bible certainly deals often and with emphasis with sins like those. In this series, however, I’m interested in considering sins that, I think, we too often do not recognize for what they are. If we admit that they are sins – and sometimes I’m not sure we really do even that – we don’t see the extent to which they rule in our hearts or the full measure of their results in our lives. These are sins that, as it were, lie in the layer beneath the more obvious blemishes of our lives and, at least to some extent, produce those blemishes. They are important precisely because they are intermediate between the penchant for sin and the spirit of rebellion that lie in our hearts and the specific acts of sinning that stain our daily lives. These sins are more basic, more structural. They are the sins that give life and strength to our particular acts of disobedience, the sins that make it easier for us to commit the thousand and one ordinary violations of God’s law, the sins that make it more natural for us to disobey than to obey, to dishonor God rather than to serve him. Think of SIN as the roots of the tree. These sins we are considering are the trunk and the largest branches. If we could get at these sins, if we could put these sins to death, the leaves and blossoms – our individual sins of lust, of selfishness, of dishonesty, anger, laziness, and envy would wither and die.

Tonight I want to take up the second of these sins and, for want of a better name, I’m calling it the sin of “form over freedom.” Now I use that terms for two reasons. First, the form and freedom form of words has a long history and so helps connect us to a great deal of useful thought and reflection on the subject. Second, it has the further advantage of not being as subject to misunderstanding and misapplication. You remember in the Gospels Jesus typically referred to himself as the Son of Man. Most biblical scholarship believes that his preference for that Messianic title was due almost entirely to the fact that it was not used in his day as a Messianic title. As a result he could pour his own meaning into the title without having always to assume that his hearers were bringing their understanding of the term to it when he used it. If he referred to himself as the Messiah, for example, everyone would have assumed he meant what they meant by that term: a king who would lead the Jews in victorious battle against the Romans, restore Israel to its rightful place as the greatest nation on earth, and bring unprecedented prosperity to his people. That wasn’t what he had come to do and so he avoided a term that the people were bound to misunderstand. He used Son of Man because they had no prior understanding of that term and his use of it, therefore, would not be prejudiced by their assumption that they knew what he meant by it.

Well in the same way, “form over freedom” does not carry with it the baggage of other descriptions I might have used. The one that I grew up with that was supposed to get at the same reality I want to consider this evening was the distinction between head knowledge and heart knowledge. That is the way people would often distinguish between a Christian who knew a lot of doctrine, who had an impressive acquaintance with the Bible and Christian Doctrine, on the one hand, and a Christian who had love, joy, zeal, and excitement. The Christian who had head knowledge didn’t have the glow of the one who was living out a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. Heart knowledge was good; head knowledge was bad. In my experience no one ever spoke of “head knowledge” and meant by it something positive, valuable, and important. But the form/freedom distinction is more balanced. Both form and freedom are good things in themselves and the Bible makes that very clear.

The head knowledge/heart knowledge distinction suggests – as I think it was usually meant to suggest – that head knowledge is not of much value and, in fact, is usually an obstacle or impediment to the truly spiritual life. The more one knows doctrine, it was thought, the less vital would be his Christian life. But that is surely not the Bible’s viewpoint. In the Bible ignorance is the mother of every kind of mischief and generally light in the mind comes before heat in the heart. One has only to read the Bible to realize how much it is an appeal to the mind, to the intellect first before it is an appeal to the emotions. It is all argument and persuasion. True Christian feeling and emotion comes from gospel truth. One’s beliefs are given much more attention than one’s feelings. When John wants to encourage Christians in the assurance of their salvation he points them to their beliefs, their convictions; he says little to nothing about their feelings or experiences. Apart from the embrace of biblical truth feelings are proof of nothing and help to nothing. The head knowledge/heart knowledge distinction suggests that head and heart are in some way in inevitable conflict with one another, that one had to have one or the other, one couldn’t have both; which is certainly not the Bible’s viewpoint.
The form/freedom gets it right and “form over freedom” accurately describes our particular sin that we want to study tonight. There is a form, a structure to the Christian life. It is composed of a set of convictions and beliefs, a moral standard, and a set of practices or customs. As Christians we believe certain things about God, man, and salvation. We have our doctrines and we Presbyterians have a lot of them, more than most Christians. Our church’s statement of belief is not contained on a single page as is the case with so many American churches. We have the Westminster Confession of Faith that is composed of thirty-three elaborate chapters and the two catechisms – Larger and Shorter – that provide still more detail. We have a moral standard, again elaborate and far-reaching. We know what is right and wrong and are committed to living accordingly. And we have a set of customs. We come to church on the Lord’s Day for worship; we are baptized and we celebrate the Lord’s Supper; we pray for one another; we share our faith with others; we give some of our money to the work of the church; we help others in need; we marry in a certain way and we are buried in a certain way; and so on. That, we may say, is the form of our Christian lives. And all of it is right and good. It is, in fact, precisely what the Lord has commanded us to do. This “form” is a good thing, a necessary thing. Without it we would not be living a Christian life. We would not be Christians at all.

But, as with every other form, it is intended to hold something. And the form of the Christian life is intended to hold a red hot mixture of love, joy, and zeal. Every Christian knows that into this form of the Christian life – these beliefs, ethics, and customs – is to be poured the feeling of our hearts. That is the meaning of the term “freedom” in this form/freedom distinction. The form is the structure of thought and conduct; the freedom is the personal engagement of the heart, it is the feelings, the longings, the aspirations, the emotions of the Christian life. Some relationships can be almost entirely form: many of you are now doing your banking on-line. You have to observe the rules, but you never actually talk to a teller or a banker. Some relationships are mostly form but may have some freedom to them as well. When you are checking out of the grocery store, the checker will ask if you found everything you wanted and you will reply; he or she may give you instructions about when to swipe your debit card and you will comply. But you may also engage the person in conversation about the weather or chuckle with them about something or another. Years ago, when our children were small, I had a kind of relationship with some of the checkers at our grocery store, so much so that without my even asking they would give me change in dollar bills and quarters with which to pay the kids their allowance. But other relationships have much more freedom. Some relationships are form but just as much freedom. And such is the Christian life.

This has always been the case, from the very beginning. Take as an example, Deuteronomy 12. That chapter begins a new section of the book, the third and longest section of Deuteronomy, the section containing the specific commandments and stipulations of God’s covenant with his people Israel. And that section begins with a list of specific stipulations or regulations touching the right worship of God. The chapter opens with the general command that Israel must not worship in the manner the Canaanites worship. When Israel enters the Promised Land she must destroy and never use the Canaanite venues for worship. She cannot worship at any place she chooses but only in the place that God designates – which, of course, would eventually be Jerusalem. Then they must use the liturgy of sacrifice that was laid down in the Law of Moses. They are not free to invent their own services of worship; they must worship God as he has instructed them. Stipulation after stipulation follows and it is all summed up in the last verse of the chapter:

“See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.” [12:32]

That is form! There is a certain way Christians are to act, to behave; certain regulations to observe; a certain conduct that is required of them. But, throughout that same chapter, Deut. 12, there is a persistent emphasis on the state of heart with which all of this regulated worship is to be offered to God.

“There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you.” [12:7]

And again in v. 12 – “And there rejoice before the Lord…” – and again in v. 18 – “and you are to rejoice before the Lord your God…” It is not enough to observe the form. There must be the engagement of the heart. And lest this point be somehow missed, it is put negatively and still more strongly later in the book. In 28:45-47, after a long and depressing list of threatened punishments should Israel not be faithful to God’s covenant with her, we read:

“All these curses will come upon you. They will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the Lord your God and observe the commands and decrees he gave you. They will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever. Because you did not serve the lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity…”

Take note of the equal ultimacy of the obligations of both form and freedom. The curses will befall them, the Lord says, because they disobeyed (form) and because they didn’t serve the Lord joyfully and gladly (freedom). Christians are not free to worship however they please – an important caution for believers to hear today (there are some striking similarities between Canaanite worship and what passes for Christian worship in some quarters!) – but in worship they are also not free to observe the proper form without the engagement of the heart and the affections.

And what is true of worship on the Lord’s Day is true of the entirety of the Christian life. Form and freedom must be found together. There must be right beliefs, moral living, and the observance of biblical activities, but these things must be done with a full heart, with love, with thanksgiving, with joy, and with zeal. Usually when the Bible makes a distinction between form and freedom it is exposing a problem. For example, the Pharisaic form was in most respects acceptable, but their hearts were wrong. The Lord Jesus made this point repeatedly. But ordinarily no distinction is made: form and freedom are mixed together. Take a typical paragraph of exhortations from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, 5:12-18. We read it this morning in the 8:15 a.m. service as the law of God. He tells them to live at peace with one another, to warn the idle, to help the weak, not to take revenge, to pray continually, to be kind, and so on. But in the midst of all of that he tells them to be joyful always.

In Philippians 4 it is the same. Side by side are commandments to get along with one another and to rejoice in the Lord always. Or we have the striking statement in Romans 14:17:

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit…”

Peace and joy belong more to freedom than to form, righteousness to form rather than to freedom. And everywhere we look in the Bible we find this thorough mixture of the elements of form and freedom: beliefs and conduct on the one hand and feeling, emotion, and inner experience on the other.

Now we Presbyterians are thought of by others as being “form” Christians. We have a reputation for loving doctrine and order. We pay a lot of attention to right belief and right practice. But, the fact is, we are not unusual in that way. Every Christian tradition has a particular commitment to a certain form – an understanding of what the Christian life is and how it is to be lived – and it is their temptation as it is ours to be satisfied with the form – whether emotional Pentecostalism or staid Presbyterianism – and be careless of the lack of personal, heart engagement with God and the things of God. It is just as likely that a Pentecostal who wept and shouted his way through a church service will live his life in days after with precious little heart engagement with the Lord as it is that a Presbyterian who carefully observed his thoughtful liturgy will do the same. I say this not to take comfort from the failures of others but to remind us how common, how inevitable, how pervasive this sin is: of satisfying ourselves with the form of godliness while denying its power (2 Tim. 3:5).

We all know how susceptible we are to this spiritual condition. How often our lives are formal in the bare sense of the word. We do what we are supposed to do, we engage in Christian practices, but our hearts are hardly in them. We pray but with little sense that we have been given an audience with the Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth. We sing hymns but without the joy and gladness in our hearts that such sentiments ought to evoke in us. We tend to our affairs but with little thought that the Lord has provided for us in his grace and mercy, with infrequent shivers of gratitude that we are on our way to a world where everlasting joy will rest on everyone’s head, with hardly a calm smile at the thought of that ocean of divine love upon which we float through this world, with nary a tear for the suffering that our Savior had to endure for our peace with God. And without that engagement of the heart, without that feeling, without those pure and proper emotions, without that inner experience, our thoughts, words, and deeds lack the power and the effect that they ought to have. Form can be powerful if full of light and heat, but it is cheerless and weak if empty. We’ve all been able to tell the difference between a Beethoven Sonata played by a novice who is just trying to get all the notes struck and the same piece played by a master who can pour into the music all the emotion Beethoven himself intended. In the one case we are relieved to get to the end, in the other we hope it never ends.

Now, we have often enough been put on notice of the danger of emotionalism, an over-heated feeling-centered Christian life. Luther, who was full of spiritual experience of every kind, still said on one occasion, “God give us the experience of being freed from experience.” [Cited in M. Barker, Pulpit and People, 95] Lloyd-Jones, no less, a preacher who strongly emphasized the importance of feeling and emotion in Christian living, nevertheless did not hesitate to say,

“Emotionalism is ever the most real, because the most subtle, enemy of evangelicalism.” “Tears are a poor criterion for faith, being carried away in a meeting by eloquence or singing or excitement is not the same as committing oneself to Christ.” [In I. Murray, Lloyd-Jones, i, 216]

Feelings are very easy to counterfeit; so easy we ourselves cannot always tell whether our inner experiences are authentic or not. How many times have people claimed to be in love only to lose the feeling quickly thereafter? How often does someone say that he is deeply sorry for something he did – even to say it with tears – only to prove by his subsequent conduct that his sorrow was only skin deep? We may rightly remain unimpressed by much of what passes for “experience” or “deep feeling” among evangelicals in some quarters, but it is as surely true that we can be put too much on guard against emotionalism.

I remember what Prof. van der Linde said to me when I interviewed him in his Utrecht home in 1984. He was the world’s authority on what is called in Dutch church history the Nadere Reformatie, the further reformation or what we are inclined to call in the history of English speaking Protestant Christianity the Second Reformation. The Reformation had transformed the doctrine, the worship, and the customs of the European churches. They believed differently – at least formally – they behaved differently as people and their services on the Lord’s Day were markedly different than they were before the Reformation. But a growing number of ministers came to believe that, all of that dramatic and wonderful change notwithstanding, there were a great many people in those now Protestant churches whose hearts had not changed. They had not embraced Christ for themselves. They were lacking the joy of salvation and the peace of conscience and the zeal for holiness that ought to mark true Christians. And so they began to preach for that. And a great deal of the opposition came from orthodox Reformed men. Dr. van der Linde told me that he had searched the Opera of Franciscus Gomarus, one of the influential Reformed theologians of the time – not a simple task as that amounts to three large Latin volumes – but could not find a single statement to the effect that Gomarus was concerned about the spiritual condition of the church, that he would not be satisfied until he saw more love and peace and joy in the lives of God’s people. The form was enough for him. He was one of ours, but he didn’t care nearly enough for what Scripture teaches us to care for, a Christian life that is form and freedom together.

No one can read the gospel without immediately understanding that someone who is embraced by this eternal love, who has been rescued by this terrible sacrifice, has been promised this indescribably wonderful future, should find his or her heart love, joy, peace, sorrow, thrill, and zeal all compact. And what we would expect to be true we find to be true throughout the Bible. We have sorrow for sin: think of David’s days and nights on his face before the Lord in repentance for his sin or Peter’s “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” at the great catch of fish. Or think of Jeremiah’s “Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears.” We have love and thanksgiving and joy shot through the experience of biblical figures. Think of David leaping and dancing before the Ark of the Covenant or the man in Psalm 73 whose doubts were overcome by a new sight of God.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” [Psalm 73]

Or think of the apostles under persecution.

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” [Acts 5:41]

And, of course, we could go on and on. We come to Christ, Augustine said, on our affections. And it is true. We rightly measure the sincerity of our faith and our commitment to Christ by the depth of feeling they produce and rightly believe that a lack of emotion and experience appropriate to the magnificent realities of the gospel is a serious defect in a Christian life.

The summer before our wedding Florence and I spent apart, I in St. Louis working and she at home in Iowa preparing. This was the day before cell phones – if you young people can believe that there was a day before cell phones – and calling was expensive. It was also before email. So we wrote letters. One day I received a stinging letter in the mail with a message the rhetorical climax of which was “Your last letter to me could have been written to your mother!” That accusation was, to be sure, completely unjustified because she had no idea what sort of letters I wrote to my mother. But, you get the point! You are supposed to write a different sort of letter to your fiancé than you write to other people. There is supposed to be a freedom in those letters that you wouldn’t find in others: more emotion, more feeling, more longing, more joy. And when there is not at least one of you regards it as evidence of a defect in your relationship. I replied to that accusation that I was lacking freedom with some more form: I sent flowers!

We all know marriages that are entirely acceptable as to form. The husband and wife are faithful to one another. They are polite and agreeable in one another’s presence. They are loyal to the obligations of married life. He takes out the garbage; she does the laundry. They sleep in the same bed. They raise their children together. They give one another gifts at the appointed times. But, we also all know that if this is all there is to the marriage something very important is missing. All of that form is to be filled up with passion, with desire, with delight. It is not enough to be polite. Husbands and wives must caress. It is not enough to do for one another; there must be delight in one another’s company and the give and take of love. Love must be more than loyalty and duty. And it is only when love is passion and joy and desire that marriage becomes what it is meant to be and what we long for it to be. The form is essential. Without the form it cannot be a marriage and all the passion in the world cannot make it a marriage. Without the form passion will finally destroy the relationship instead of purifying and deepening it. Remember Elizabeth Taylor’s explanation as to why she and Richard Burton divorced the second time? “They simply loved one another too much,” she said! Nonsense! No, the problem was a want of the true form of a marriage. They didn’t practice their marriage as husbands and wives should. Had there been the form the passion would have adorned it and completed it.

Well, what of us? Is it not true that one of our constant failures is to fill up the form of our faith with freedom of a loving, joyful, grateful, zealous heart? Do we not find ourselves far too often going through motions? And is not our willingness to be content with form more than anything else what saps the strength of Christian life. Love and joy empower. Going through motions must eventually weary us and causes us to lose interest. A Christian life that is boredom inside must be a weak and unfruitful Christian life and it will always be boredom inside unless there is this personal element, this engagement of the heart with the Lord and his salvation, this glorying in what he has done and given, this joyful experience of his love, this thrilling expectation of things to come.

But how does one overcome this failure to feel? Surely feelings are beyond our control? Well, no, not exactly. The measure of our feeling may well be God’s to determine, but not to feel is a sin and sins are to be confessed and repented of as often as they are committed. And then new obedience is to be practiced. Call to mind the reasons for your joy. David did that in Psalm 103. Sing out your joy. Give thanks to God and so cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving. Remember that the Lord is near and practice his presence until it is more real to you, a reality with power over your heart and soul. Seek to inspire your zeal by reading of the life and work of noble Christians of the past. And pray that the Lord would make the most wonderful things most impressively real to you and that he would enable you to live your life in living communion with him.

Your life in Christ is not complete without joy, without love, without gratitude, and without zeal in sufficient measure to bathe every one of your beliefs, your duties, and your activities with the warmth of this wonderful reality: you, an unworthy sinner have become forever a child of God.

Over the mantel of Nathaniel Ward’s house in Ipswich (the Puritan who lived from 1578-1652) the previous owner had carved what he took to be the virtues that together summed up Puritan holiness: sobriety, justice, and piety. Ward hired a craftsman to add a fourth: laughter. That is right. And he could have written any number of other additions: joy, love, zeal. Form chock full of freedom. That is what we are after, that and nothing less. Form with little freedom is too often our sin. Let us repent together and possess our possessions. For surely in Christ, in a Savior who has promised to be with us to the end, we have been given not only truth to believe and law to keep and a life to live, but a passion to make it all so wonderfully and personally rich pleasing, happy, and satisfying. It is the measure of God’s goodness and the reality of his gifts that they should produce such wonderful things in our hearts. It is ours not to rest until we are as happy and full of love as we can be.