STUDIES IN BIBLICAL ETHICS No. 9 May 5, 1996
We have been, for some weeks now, considering the foundations of Christian ethics, the sources of our ethical direction and guidance for life. Where do we learn and how do we know what is right and what is wrong? We have so far considered the law of God, the commandments of Holy Scripture, and considered both the abiding authority of these commandments and the proper approach to their application to the thousand and one ethical questions of daily life. Most recently, we considered the question of the guidance of the Holy Spirit and how that comes to us, how we are to make decisions and find the right when we are faced with alternatives that, in and of themselves, are neither approved nor disapproved in the Bible.
Before we move on, I want to stop and take up two separate matters related to what we have so far considered of biblical ethics. Tonight I want to treat the subject of Christian liberty and then I want to discuss in two separate Sunday evenings the law of love, the law with which the Bible summarizes all of the commandments of the law. What do the two great commandments mean? I want especially to consider the second great commandment — to love our neighbors as ourselves. What does that mean in general, in the first place, and, then, what does it mean in the particular case of forgiveness — what does the requirement to forgive those who sin against us actually oblige us to do?
But, tonight, Christian liberty.
The liberty of the sons and daughters of God is a reality with many sides or facets in the Bible. Our confession of faith begins its chapter (XX) entitled “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience” with this paragraph:
The Liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and a willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law [i.e. in the epoch before the incarnation]. [Now if they had stopped the paragraph there that would have been excellent and, indeed, the proof texts given for all of those statements do actually demonstrate everything they have so far said to be biblical. Unfortunately, they went on to say…] but under the New Testament the liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected [what yoke? the only yoke the Bible speaks of was that created by a legalistic view of the ceremonies, not by the ceremonies themselves; what is more we have ceremonial law and, if 1 Cor. 11 is anything to go by, our law is just as stiff in its stiff parts as anything in the OT!]; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace [where is that taught; the proof text the divines cite says nothing of the kind], and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of [the proof text they cite, once again, does not say this or anything like it, nor does any other text of the Scripture, though many teach the reverse].
But, you see, that in its most fundamental respect, Christian liberty is freedom from the power and the corruption and the guilt of sin and freedom of access to God, such freedom of access as all children have whose father loves them greatly and tenderly. We might call these aspects of Christian liberty its theological or soteriological aspects, having, that is, to do with the blessings of salvation, indeed, being another way of saying what it means to be saved from sin and death.
But there is another aspect of a Christian’s liberty that is taught in the Bible and this has a more direct application to ethics or behavior. Our Confession of Faith deals with this Christian Liberty in the second paragraph of chapter 20:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience…
Lest anyone misread their points the Westminster divines went on to say in the following two paragraphs of the chapter that this liberty was never to be subverted or corrupted by being made a freedom to sin — for this liberty is a liberty to serve the Lord in holiness and righteousness — nor were Christians, because of this liberty, to claim a right to oppose any lawful power — civil or ecclesiastical — or any lawful exercise of that power. Christian liberty, in other words, is not a license to sin, it is not the end of all obligation to obey others, it certainly does not set everyone free to do his or her “own thing.”
Christian liberty, in this second, ethical sense, means rather
First, if anyone, including the government of the state or the church, commands you to do what God forbids or forbids you to do what God commands, you are free to disobey. We must obey God rather than men. And, second, every Christian is free to practice that liberty of judgment that God has granted his people in respect to that large part of life and living that is not specifically directed by the Word of God.
We spoke of this liberty last Lord’s Day evening in respect to guidance. The Lord has left us vast amounts of freedom to choose between any number of acceptable alternatives. When the Bible, for example, has ruled out for us some ways of making a living — ways that are sinful (e.g. mobster [Mickey Cohen], prostitute, loan shark; or, more practically, occupations for which we are ill-equipped or ill-suited; etc.), it has still left us to choose among many others, any number of them choices that a Christian man or woman might make righteously.
But we encounter the issue of the believer’s liberty, that his conscience has been left free by the Lord from the doctrines and commandments of men (insofar as those commandments either contradict or go beyond anything required in Holy Scripture itself), at many points.
In our century in the United States the discussion of “Christian liberty” became a discussion of whether certain practices that were not specifically forbidden in the Bible should, nevertheless, be discouraged or even forbidden by the church. When I was growing up it was generally agreed in my circles that Christians should not drink alcoholic beverages, smoke, play cards — particularly the kind of card games that were used for gambling –, attend movies in a theater, or attend and participate in social dances. Ballet was acceptable, the prom not very.
1. Now in the Reformed fundamentalist church in which I was raised it was acknowledged — it had to be acknowledged for it stood so clearly there in the WCF — that no one could be absolutely forbidden to do these things for the Scripture not only did not forbid them, but in the case of
drinking wine and beer had good things to say about the
practice, which our Savior had himself indulged.
2. And so the argument tended rather to be made on the strength of Paul’s expressed concern that Christians not practice their liberty at the expense of those whose consciences are still bound by some false sense of obligation and who would, therefore, be offended that other Christians engaged in practices they still thought, though mistakenly, were sinful. The case Paul raises, you remember, is the matter of eating meat sold in the meat market that had been offered to idols. He discusses the question in 1 Cor. 8, 10 with regard both to “strong” Christians and “weak” Christians. There was nothing wrong in a Christian’s eating this meat, after all it is not as if an idol is a real god, but care should be taken not to offend those who thought it was an evil for Christians to eat such meat. (In Romans 14, in connection with different issues, Paul again tackles the question of Christians with extra-biblical scruples.)
3. The very interesting thing about the use of this teaching in my upbringing was that it was exactly reversed. We supposed that the “weak” Christian was the person who wanted to drink and might be led astray into drunkenness, or the person who might see us going into the theater to see “Snow White” and conclude that it was, therefore, acceptable for him to see “Midnight Cowboy.” In fact, the actual situation, in terms of Paul’s teaching, was exactly the reverse. We were the weaker brethren because we thought it wrong to do something that we had every right to do, and the Christians who might, as a result of our drinking, have taken comfort in drinking themselves, were, in fact the “strong” Christians who were perfectly comfortable with doing what the Bible says they have every right to do.
What is clear, however, is that there are Christians who suppose that all Christians are obliged to do certain things or to refrain from doing others that the Scripture does not itself require or forbid. Now, I am not saying that these believers do not think the Scripture requires such things or forbids them. They do! That is precisely what they argue. No one says, I know the Bible doesn’t require it but I think we should do such and such anyway and require everyone to do it. No, they argue, instead, that by applying the teaching of the Bible, it can be shown that, as a matter of fact, the Bible does require a certain behavior, even if in a roundabout way.
Indeed, through the centuries, practices that some have claimed to be their liberty others have argued were forbidden and vice versa. We are having this debate now in the PCA with regard to drama sketches in church services. Questions of worship have often been debated as issues of Christian liberty and still are. Some in our church believe that the Scripture forbids such skits; others maintain that it permits them. No one believes that it requires them. Therefore the issue is between those who believe that there is no liberty given in regard to this practice and those who feel that they have freedom to do or not as they think best. It is exactly this that each must decide and that churches must decide: it is a matter of liberty or does, in fact, the Scripture speak?
1. Exclusive psalmody (the complicated historico-liturgical scheme
used to prove this);
2. No intoxicating beverages (the claim that the “wine” mentioned
in the Bible was not intoxicating; just grape juice. This is
a particularly egregious example of rewriting the Bible to one’s own tastes!)
3. The invitation system as the only faithful evangelistic method
(because the only system that actually works out in practice the call to “come to” Christ; or the summoning of people to
confess Christ before men; etc.
4. Either of the two poles regarding the observance of days such
as Christmas and Easter — i.e. that they are forbidden, or that they are required. We make a great deal of both holidays
and feel we have biblical justification for doing so; but, if
someone feels otherwise, we have no interest in condemning him
or forcing him to accept our practice as right and participate
with us in it.
Many other examples could be cited.
Now, it appears to me that the Bible says several important things about this liberty of conscience, all of which we must take seriously and make part of the practice of our liberty in Christ if we wish to be the free people Christ saved us to be and not simply folk who want to do whatever they please!
1. This liberty is always to be directed to holy ends.
“You my brothers were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.” Gal. 5:13
“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” 1 Pet. 2:16
Peter in his second letter (2:19) speaks of false teachers who “promise…freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity — for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.”
We must carefully examine our motives and our true intentions always. Am I seeking freedom for sin or in using my freedom to choose one thing or the other am I seeking only that which pleases God?
2. This liberty is limited by considerations higher and more sacred.
The exercise of our liberty is always to be in the service of Christian love.
Romans 14:14-15: “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself [that is, he has liberty to eat it all!]. But, if anyone regards something as unclean, then it is for him unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.” … v. 19 “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.”
Romans 15:2-3: “Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself…”
1 Cor. 8:9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
1 Cor. 10:23-24: “Everything is permissible — but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible — but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.”
Now it does need to be noticed in passing that Paul in these passages is not talking about Christians with over-scrupulous consciences getting their feelings hurt. He talks about them being destroyed or their consciences being defiled. He is speaking about major issues and very deeply held beliefs, however mistaken. He clearly does not mean that all of our opinions must be checked with everyone else before being expressed or acted upon. Otherwise there is no liberty at all, except theoretically.
3. This liberty is to be extended to others as willingly as it
is embraced for oneself.
That is, the spirit of Christian liberty is not only to enjoy for oneself a freedom of choice and movement in life, with regard to many tastes, practices, pleasures, and choices. It is as much to be glad that others who make very different choices than we do have the same liberty to make their choices as we have to make ours. (This is a problem for us all, isn’t it. I am free to make my wise choices and he is free to make his ridiculous choices!)
Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” [Memorize that last
sentence and use it often!] So James 4:12: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge…”
Matt. 7:1 with Bengel’s “sine scientia, amore, necessitate.”
The “sine necessitate” means, in part, that in areas of liberty it is not our business to tell others what they must do or to pass judgment on their choices. We are all such “but-in-skis!”
What this means, in practice, is this: In this church there will be those who drink wine and beer and enjoy it as a gift of God — as the Bible says it is. There will be others who think it best not to drink and teach their children accordingly. But, they are careful to respect the liberty of their brethren and there is no accusation thought or spoken regarding those who do drink. There will be others who don’t drink alcoholic beverages because they don’t like the taste and extend happily to others the right to drink or not to drink as they please. There are others who will not drink because to drink too much is a temptation they find particularly powerful. But, they likewise recognize that the danger is in them, not in the drink itself. As Luther put it, men can go wrong with wine or women, should we therefore abolish wine and do away with women?
And so it will be in matters of dress and appearance, the cars one drives, the homes one lives in, the jobs one takes, the music one listens to, and so on. All this liberty, of course, subject to the law and Word of God, but, beyond that, a true liberty that all of us should rejoice in for ourselves and jealously but sweetly guard for everyone else. We may joke about various tastes in music, but it should, at the last, be perfectly clear that country, blues, classical, even Barry Manilow, is all alike permitted here; whatever you enjoy! So Jane Austen and Louis L’Amour; Ingmar Bergman and the Three Stooges; cigars and the extra-mile to filter the air in one’s home. We may not understand how someone can stand that other stuff, but we laugh about it, not frown; cheerfully see if we can interest the other in our way of thinking, in our choices, and if we cannot, we slap them on the back or give them a hug and wonder aloud with them what sort of music or reading or smokes we are likely to find in heaven!
Unless, or until we find that someone is really struggling over one of these issues: is sure that music with a beat cannot be right, or that smoking a cigar must defile the Lord’s temple. In which case, we will take care, for our brother or sister’s sake not to flaunt our liberty but to protect his conscience, in hopes that loved in that way, he may come someday to the same sense of freedom we have found in the family of our heavenly Father.