Saturday, January 4, 2014

Considering Christian Liberty (2)

Now back to Christian Liberty... John Calvin opens the chapter on this topic in his Institutes with the following:
We are now to treat of Christian Liberty, the explanation of which certainly ought not to be omitted by any one proposing to give a compendious summary of Gospel doctrine. For it is a matter of primary necessity, one without the knowledge of which the conscience can scarcely attempt any thing without hesitation, in many must demur and fluctuate, and in all proceed with fickleness and trepidation. In particular, it forms a proper appendix to Justification, and is of no
little service in understanding its force.
Something about having a good handle on the liberty we have in Christ - the liberty that Jesus purchased for us with his blood - is linked to our justification. Calvin writes that "without the knowledge of which [i.e. the matter of liberty] the conscience can scarcely attempt any thing without hesitation, in many must demur and fluctuate, and in all proceed with fickleness and trepidation." And as Scripture makes clear, it is in our conscience that the doctrine of justification is intended to have a powerful and liberating effect (Hebrews 9:14; 10:22). It's in the conscience where the assaults of guilt and condemnation come. And those accusations are effectually rebuffed only by God's liberating good news (Acts 13:39).

As those born under the law (covenant) of works, we are wired to look to ourselves and our works (Romans 2:15) for a ground of acceptance in our own eyes, the eyes of others, and ultimately God. The problem is that we know on some level we do fall short, and that something really is wrong with us.  As sinners our righteousness is as filthy rags measured against the standard we are meant to live by. Yet reflexively we often do everything we can to find some ground of justification in ourselves when presented with any accusation, real or imagined. We find ourselves looking to quell questions of conscience (you didn't do what you should have... you shouldn't have done that) with rationalized proofs of our good intentions, that we're being misunderstood, or denial of short-comings even though we know on some level that we do come-up-short.  When it comes to the righteousness of the law and our conscience, search and rationalize as we might, no help is to be found within us or in our works.  Before the law of God we stand condemned.  Before others we often don't measure up (and we judge them likewise!). Where are we to turn?  Calvin:
First, the consciences of believers, while seeking the assurance of their justification before God, must rise above the law, and think no more of obtaining justification by it. For while the law, as has already been demonstrated, (supra, chap. 17, sec. 1,) leaves not one man righteous, we are either excluded from all hope of justification, or we must be loosed from the law, and so loosed as that no account at all shall be taken of works. For he who imagines that in order to obtain justification he must bring any degree of works whatever, cannot fix any mode or limit, but makes himself debtor to the whole law. Therefore, laying aside all mention of the law, and all idea of works, we must in the matter of justification have recourse to the mercy of God only; turning away our regard from ourselves, we must look only to Christ.
What we need can't be found in us or in our works of the law! We are found exceedingly short of the mark when it comes to measuring up to the law. So the question really is the one Calvin poses:
For the question is, not how we may be righteous, but how, though unworthy and unrighteous, we may be regarded as righteous. If consciences would obtain any assurance of this, they must give no place to the law.
The answer isn't in trying harder to measure up in order to ward off guilt. The answer isn't found within us or in what we do but is found only in Jesus Christ and what he has done for us: his death in our place for our sins, his righteous obedience accounted to us by God in place of our lack. And the sinner/saint receives and holds this, that which Christ has done, only as an unmerited gift of grace from God through faith. As Paul wrote,
There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus [who trust in him]. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Romans 8:1-2). 
It would seem that this is a good starting place for understanding Christian liberty, a place we shouldn't leave behind as we live the Christian life.

Considering Christian Liberty (1)


  1. Thanks, Jack, for this excellent, edifying reminder.