Wednesday, March 30, 2016

21 The True Nature of Christian Freedom

Calvin considered the basis of Christian freedom to be justification by faith.  The believer is no longer under the curse of the law.  Instead, believers have been justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  Christian freedom consists of three parts: 1) righteousness cannot be found in the law, but only through Jesus Christ;
2) believers voluntarily obey the law; 
3) the knowledge that believers are freed from the bondage of “things indifferent,” adiaphora (matters not regarded as essential to faith, leaving the believer to do as he likes with regards to these matters).  

In 3.19.3, Calvin references Galatians as the basis for his first point.  Paul teaches that “through the cross of Christ they are free from the condemnation of the law, which otherwise hangs over all men, so that they may rest with full assurance in Christ alone.” (pg 836)  The law reveals the way in which Christians should live, but cannot condemn us.  “...where consciences are worried how to render God favorable, what they will reply, and with what assurance they will stand should they be called to his judgment, there we are not to reckon with what the law requires, but Christ alone, who surpasses all perfection of the law, must be set forth as righteousness.”  (3.19.2, pg 835)

Calvin’s second point states that if we are believers, we will want to obey God’s law.  Our obedience to the law is not required in order to gain salvation, but is a natural expression of our salvation.  God’s law is a gift that shows us how to live in order to obey God’s will.  His law helps us to understand God’s will and purpose for our lives.  Our obedience to the law is an expression of our gratitude for God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ.  “…all our works are under the curse of the law if they are measured by the standard of the law!  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.”  (3.19.4, pg 837)

The third point deals with adiaphora or “things indifferent. “  We are not free to sin, but we have been called by the grace of God to righteousness and holiness.  However, we do have freedom when it comes to “things that are of themselves indifferent. “   The believer is free to do as he likes with regard to eating, drinking and clothing.  “…we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently.”  (3.19.7, pg 838)  We are not bound by the traditions of man.  However, liberty is to be used responsibly.  Do not overuse this freedom so as to offend others.  On the other hand, don’t overuse this freedom for the sake of self-indulgence.  The purpose of this freedom is so that we can pursue God, not sin. 

What does Calvin understand by Christian freedom?
Christian freedom describes our new life in Jesus Christ.  God’s moral law, expressed in the Ten Commandments, is the expression of God’s will.  It tells us how God wants us to live, in relation to Him as well as to one another.  We will grow in God’s grace as we obey God’s law and will out of gratitude for the wonderful gift of salvation.  This frees believers to love others, which is our motive for Christian living and the expression of our union with Christ.  Instead of seeking independence from God, believers seek in all things what is God’s will and the good of their neighbor.  This is our liberty in Christ.

According to Calvin, we do not need to exercise our liberty in order to enjoy it.  Without making a list of “do-this” or “don’t do-this”, how do you suggest that we examine each of our many choices in our very blessed lives to determine if we are making choices that are best for the kingdom or best for us? 


  1. Pam, excellent summary! It is beautiful to see, as we travel through the Institutes, that each section builds on others. We could not have this doctrine of freedom in Christ unless we have justification by faith and how works pertain to us. I particularly like his section regarding freedom to fulfill the law with joy rather than fear. "But if freed from the severe requirements of the law, they hear themselves called with fatherly gentleness by God, they will cheerfully and with great eagerness answer, and follow his leading." (3.21.5) I often believe people would achieve much greater heights if the fear of failure didn't loom so large. Jesus doesn't say, "Knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless you knock incorrectly, and then look out when the door is opened!" He is sure we will like what we find on the other side if we but knock.

    As regards your question about making right choices, I have a wise friend who once said to me, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." I have used that as a measuring stick whenever I come across a situation that pits my Christian freedom against others' feelings. I think Calvin makes two very good points. Do not do something that willfully hurts others. But, if someone is trying to suppress our Christian freedom for the purpose of building themselves up, have at it. (3.21.12-13)

    I want to throw out a situation that I think is particularly sticky and see what others think. When worshipping at a church where we are 'forbidden' to take communion with the congregation, should we a) abstain because it would be hurtful to that congregation if we took communion or b) take it anyway because we wouldn't want to pass up an opportunity to be in relationship with Christ? I have tended toward the first, but maybe I'm being too reluctant to take a necessary stand.

    1. I enjoyed reading your reply to Pam's post.. Your "Sticky Situation" is one I have found to be problematic too. I like visiting Catholic Mass but, do not want to walk up only to have to cross my chest, do not want to sit through it as if I do not acknowledge the presence of Christ...
      I think it is right to speak with the Priest, ahead of time and explain yourself. I have shared communion during Catholic Mass at a Benedictine Church after a short conversation with the Sisters, and I have spoken to a Catholic Priest who said that communion is available to Christians who have accepted Christ and understand the Sacrament being given. And so, you might have a conversation with someone in the leadership of the church.
      Not knowing the denomination or those involved I would suggest you abide by the rules of the church under which you are worshiping.

    2. Holy Communion House Rules. Let's say that you were invited into the home of a friend and they asked you to please take off your shoes, it's a 'Japanese home'. Would you stomp right through the door and tell them, "Well we keep our shoes on at my house". I think you would respect the rules of the house that you have been invited into.

    3. Sharon, I would follow the "rules" of a particular church that I was visiting...but I am definitely a peace-maker, rule follower! =0)) I don't think that you are "passing up an opportunity to be in relationship with Christ." In fact, I think Christ would be smiling at your gracious behavior and holding you close in his arms!

    4. OK - I'm going to add this story for fun! I live in one of the country's most conservative Catholic dioceses where no one not Roman Catholic would dare take communion. The bishop often denied communion to even his own flock if he deemed them unworthy. Herein comes my acquaintance who was blocked from communion. He went up to the front to take communion, the bishop denied him, so he took it upon himself to physically take the wafer from the plate for himself -- in front of everybody -- claiming that the bishop had no right to deny him communion since his conscience was clear. While I certainly got his point, what a statement and confusing act in front of the others.

    5. Thanks, Pam, for this great post and for fostering this discussion.
      Great question, Sharon. I have a story to add to what others have said in response. I lived as an exchange student in France my junior year of high school, where Protestant churches were few and far between. There was one church in the rural community where I lived, and it was Catholic. I knew from experience that non-Catholics were not allowed to participate in Eucharist. Week after week, I watched as everyone in Mass went to receive bread and cup. Feeling very excluded, I brought my concerns to the priest after mass one day, and much to my surprise he invited me to partake.
      Like Tim pointed out, it's first and foremost "house rules." That said, I'm continually amazed at the effectiveness of open dialogue.

  2. I underlined and really loved Calvin's comment which you shared in your post, and I paraphrase it here, 'freed from the law we cheerfully and eagerly answer the gentleness of our father's call'(3.19.5). I also like the reminders of our faults in our abilities, the graciousness of God's willingness to accept my 'half-baked, defective works' and make them Godly.(very paraphrased from Calvin's 3.19.5 remark)
    In answer to your question, I have a habit of prayerfully asking if the choice I am about to make is 'self motivated' I follow up with "Lord, let me not be self-motivated", I wait, I listen for conviction in my heart.. and do my best to be honest with myself about the motivations I have for a decision I make. I have said to others that what I want most in this life, is to have a calm wake behind me. I test my actions with the thought of what kind of wake I will leave behind me with this or that decision. Now, this is what I have come up with after churning up some horrible waves behind me, but now in my older age, I see how I can in a way look forward and see how my decision might effect others or the next decision I will need to make.. So, it is a mental list I guess :) Thank you for your post.

  3. As said by those above, nice summary. The great thing about Christian freedom is that it is liberating. But at the same time it is scary because it seems like the guidelines are more blurry. I think when we come to have faith, it is like a child becoming an adult. We are no longer restrained by the old household rules and chores we grew up with. Yet those guidelines we learned, like making our bed in the morning and brushing and flossing, still remain important.

    As for Sharon's sticky situation, that is a tough one. I was raised Catholic, but in the most recent masses I have attended I refrained from taking communion. Perhaps this was because I live in a small town and everyone knows I am a Presbyterian. I think many would take umbrage at my taking communion, especially knowing I had not gone to confession or likely even said an "act of contrition" in a while.

    By the way this section, as it deals with the uses of the Law, reminds me a lot of Book 2, Chapters 6 and 7 of the Institutes.

  4. Great summary! As far as an answer to Sharon's question regarding communion, I have faced that situation when I attended st. Vincent college as an undergrad. I often spoke to the serving priest for the particular mass and explained my position, and sometimes even went as far as explaining how I felt about an "open table" for all baptized believers. Sometimes the priest saw my viewpoint and sometimes he didn't Depending on the response I would either receive or refrain from communion. With respect to freedom, I am drawn back to Calvin's description of righteousness. It is not we who are righteous in and of ourselves, but God in Jesus Christ who makes us righteousness. I return to prayer when it comes to making these decisions. Does the thing which we are wishing to do add to or detract from the portraying of God's righteousness. Sometimes I think the freedom of omission is just as difficult as the freedom to do something.

  5. Great job Pam! If and when I slow down enough to actually reflect on my decisions and choices, I hope I am able to consider others ahead of myself. In XIX, 4, we read that in order to love God with all of our heart, soul and strength, we need to empty ourselves of other feelings and thoughts as we cleanse our hearts of all desires. This, of course is impossible, but somehow in the shrinking of self, we are poised to make choices that are best for the kingdom. I like how Calvin writes on page 845, “We must at all times seek after love and look toward the edification of our neighbor.” Then Paul says how all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. We should be making choices that build others up. (Easier said than done!)

  6. Pam thanks for your post and final question. "According to Calvin, we do not need to exercise our liberty in order to enjoy it. Without making a list of “do-this” or “don’t do-this”, how do you suggest that we examine each of our many choices in our very blessed lives to determine if we are making choices that are best for the kingdom or best for us?"
    For me the process is to always be in a state of self-examination. Two days ago I was asked a question by a friend that hit a nerve and lot of stuff that had been simmering inside all came out. Now lucky for me, this was a very good friend who was more concerned about my state of mind, than what I had said. Someone had hurt my wife's feeling last summer (LAST SUMMER) and I just took it because I am the pastor. For almost a year I kept pushing it down... And when it came out I lost control. I was very disappointed in myself for losing it. Now you Might say, that it this case it was OK to explode like that, but I expect more from myself. I have spent the last two days 'examining this situation'. And that's how I would answer your question. We as Christians should overthink what we say and do, because it is a matter of personal integrity.

  7. Pam my favorite part of your post was going back to the freewill doctrine once again in Calvin. I think you nailed it when you said "This is our liberty in Christ". The way I see it the unregenerate man has freewill he thinks, but every time he will make the choices that is the most pleasing to himself. Once in union with Christ we are set free from the law and are now at liberty to choose the things of the Kingdom. Freewill and having liberty of the new man in Christ is to me really sanctification process that those in Christ go through. We know that process will produce good fruit. Peace

  8. Thank you Pam for summarizing this section and for all of the interesting comments. I keep thinking about the ongoing nature of faith, the constant reflection and prayer required of the Christian who may be free but yet because of this freedom live in the ongoing life of faith. This reflects, I think, what Tim talked about in his constant state of self-examination. There is not a static reality for the Christian but rather the very fluid existence of faith which we "live in" not live by. As Sharon points out, she measures how her response will impact others. This reflects that fluid nature of faith.

    I frequently teach Islam and it is a faith known for its orthopraxis or outward conformity to the faith which may or may not reflect real faith. The practices of a devout Muslim are clear and simple - 1. Shahada 2. alms giving 3. pilgrimage to Mecca 4. ritual prayer 5. fasting during Ramadan. That's it and this outward conformity supposedly reflects your inward spirituality. For Calvin faith gives us the greatest freedom from all of this type of legalism which is joyful, but faith also enslaves us to joyful rigors. "It is the part of a godly man to realize that free power in outward matters has been given him in order that he may be the more ready for all the duties of love." (3.19.12)

  9. This is a great summary Pam. I was drawn to the title of section five, Freedom from constraint makes us capable of joyful obedience (Institutes, 3.19.5). That is a pretty positive statement from Calvin. It is pretty relieving to have these discussion and guides to get us through. Calvin does not hide the fact that he does not think much of the human condition left alone. But here, I think it is a pretty uplifting title. I don’t think we can measure up to the law, but I also don’t think we should purposely defile it either. I think relieving ourselves from the bondage of law, we are better prepared to live better. I sometimes ask for forgiveness for the things I did and did not know they were wrong.

  10. Thank you for the summary. The three points you highlighted are very important. Your question is thought provoking. Christians are divided on the exercise of liberty. One such area is drinking (alcohol especially), eating and clothing. To what extent do we indulge in these. It is difficult to know. I have heard that a pastor in justifying his lavish spending and magnificent living styles, once said that Jesus wore designer cloths – hmm.
    The freedom that we have in Christ has limitations, and such limitations we must observe. Paul teaches in many places about Christian living, why not follow his examples.