(This essay was prepared for the Officebearers’ Conference held in October, 1977 at Faith Church, Jenison, Mich. It was prepared for publication in theStandard Bearer at the request of those present at the conference. It will appear in the Standard Bearer in two successive installments.)
I would define Christian liberty as the privilege and the ability to serve God in love with our whole life and being.
This stands diametrically opposed to the theories of Christian liberty advanced in our day. Some years ago, during World War II, I was invited to attend a meeting in the University of Chicago where the Queen of the Netherlands, then Princess Juliana, was present. The spirit of the entire meeting was that God was on the side of Juliana and the Netherlands, and that He would undoubtedly liberate them from the oppression of the Nazis. The meeting was concluded with the singing of Psalm 68, “The Lord shall arise and by his might put all his enemies to flight in fear and consternation.”
This seems to be the theory of McIntire and others, who speak of Christian liberty as a purely political matter.
The result of all this nonsense is that freedom of speech, freedom from want or from war, and all the other freedoms are confused with Christian liberty, which is solely a spiritual matter.
For our present discussion, I refer, first of all, to, John 8:36, “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”
This freedom of which Christ speaks is twofold. First of all, Christ delivers us from the curse of the law. I need only remind you that when our first parents fell into sin, they fell under the curse of God. God had said, “The day that thou eatest thereof (of the forbidden tree), thou shalt surely die.” This death included the accursed death of hell. Therefore Christ had to come to bear that curse under God’s wrath in torment of hell. He atoned for sins. He paid the debt. He merited for us righteousness and eternal life. Christ also assures us of that righteousness by His Word and Spirit. He forgives our sins, adopts us to sons, makes us heirs of salvation. In that sense the law can never touch us again. We can boldly say, “Law, you cannot touch me, you cannot condemn me: for I am righteous in Christ eternally.”
Moreover, Christ delivers us from the power of the law, which holds us in the bondage of sin. Sin, as you and I know from experience, is a cruel tyrant who makes us her slave. You know how miserable a drunkard or fornicator can be. He knows that he is destroying himself, his business, his family, and all that he holds precious. At times he suffers bitter remorse, resolves to break his miserable habit; yet he cannot. A power stronger than any magnet draws him irresistibly back into his sin, like a pig returning to his wallowing in the mire. Still worse, sin is an octopus that wraps its tentacles around us to crush us to death. Sin breeds sin. One evil desire leads to another. Insatiable cravings silence the conscience and lead to deeper passions. Proverbs speaks of the man who returns to his sin as a bull allows itself to be lead to the slaughter. There is the point of no return. No firm resolve, no human will power, nothing that we can do can deliver us from the dominion of sin. God’s law stands over us with its powerful testimony, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide in all that is written in the book of the law to do it.”
Christ delivers us from that power also. Paul writes, “Sin shall not have dominion, for grace abounds.” When a slave is freed, he is generally left to shift for himself. Even though he is given his liberty, he is not taken into the family. God delivers us for the very purpose of bringing us into His family. He even doubly frees us. He gives us a place in His family, and also changes us so completely that we are His sons and daughters, restored in the image of Christ to love and serve Him forever.
Thus our liberty means this: we MAY serve God, we have the right to serve Him. The living God banishes sinners out of His sight; He receives us as His children. We CAN serve God. We are ‘restored in the likeness of Christ to be friend-servant in His house, using our gifts and talents to His glory. We WILL serve God. The psalmist sang, “’tis good to do His will.” In the Dutch we used to sing, “Thy loving service has never yet wearied me.” From all this follows the MUST. We may, and we also must. There is no conflict here. This must is as much the inner impelling of the Spirit as the outer command of God’s law. The desire lives in our heart to serve the Lord our God, to hate sin, and to flee from it. This obligation we gladly assume.
Paul admonishes us in Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” We are still by no means perfect. Sin still wars in our members, drawing us back into our former bondage. Satan does all in his power to take our liberty from us, to make the work of grace seem in vain. Therefore Scripture raises a warning finger against the dangers that threaten us. We are walking, as it were, on a narrow bridge without guardrails. On the one side are the murky waters of antinomianism; .on the other side are the deep pools of legalism.
Returning once more to Galatians 5:1, we read: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” The Galatian church was in danger of being entangled in a yoke of bondage. The very fact that this is recorded in the Scriptures means that this danger is not foreign to us. The Galatians, maybe unawares, were bringing themselves once more under the bondage, of the law. The law in the old dispensation was like a schoolmaster, as Paul tells us elsewhere. The word “schoolmaster” actually refers to a governor, one to whom the child is entrusted all the day long. This governor awakened the child in the morning, laid out his clothes for him to wear, gave him his breakfast, took him to school, taught him, hovered over him when he played, and finally, having fed him once more, stowed him away for the night.
The law did that to Israel. It told them how to build their houses, what land they might possess, what seed they might use in their fields, what clothing they might wear, and even what they might eat and drink. The law demanded that the Israelite love the Lord his God with his whole being every moment night and day. And if he failed in any given instant, the law declared: “cursed art thou!” Every Friday afternoon, when the Jew washed himself and prepared for the Sabbath, he was forced to exclaim, “How can such a sinner as I am keep Sabbath? I have not loved the Lord my God as I should. I have transgressed all God’s commandments, and kept none of them.” He could only enter into the Sabbath rest in faith, trusting in the merit of the promised Savior. In anguish mixed with hope, he prayed. ‘”Rise, help and redeem us, Thy mercy we trust.”
The lesson of the old dispensation is that also we are saved in no sense by the works of the law. All our tears cannot atone for a single sin. All our good deeds merit nothing in the sight of God. Nor is this necessary. Christ fulfilled the law for us. It would be a denial of the perfect atonement of the cross to try to work out our salvation by our works. We are righteous in our Savior. Our Catechism teaches us that good works are the result, the fruit of our righteousness. Good works are the evidence of God’s grace in us. We can, we may, we will, and therefore we must walk in all good works. We must beware that we do not become entangled in a host of do’s and don’ts, because that robs us of our Christian liberty. One clear example of this is that while the Old Testament gives numerous civil and ceremonial laws, we do not have all of that any more. In fact, we do not even have a direct command to baptize infants. Nor are we told how often we should go to church on Sunday, or how often we must celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Our Christian liberty prevents us from growing lax in these matters. We must beware that we do not bring ourselves back into bondage.
On the other hand, there is also the danger of antinomianism, or libertinism. Paul warns the Galatians (Galatians 5:13), “For brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion for the flesh.” The word “occasion” in this passage means. literally “a base of operation.” This implies warfare. In warfare the army has a base of operations where the soldiers are trained, the ammunition is stored, or where the missiles are sent out against the enemy. Just as in World War II England was the base of operations for the attack against Hitler, so our warfare proceeds from a certain base of operations. You get the picture. The devil, the world, and our flesh are always at war with us to destroy us. Because of the sinfulness of our flesh, they use our Christian liberty as the jumping off point, the base of operations, the occasion to lure us into sin. This is done to you and me in many ways. For example, the argument is raised, “Where do you read in the Bible that dancing, movies, or the labor unions are wrong? Where do you read that we must attend church twice on Sunday?” You are placed before the question, “Understandest thou what thou readest?”—in order to convince you that neither you nor the church fathers ever understood the Scriptures. There are those who appeal to their sinful nature. They reason: no one is perfect. Others do it, and get away with it. You cannot blame me, for that’s the way I am. Chain smoking, drinking, being a bit dishonest in business, living in hatred against my neighbor, that’s my affair and no one need criticize. It is my Christian liberty to do what I want to do. I can go to church once on Sunday, I can watch TV, even the late late show; I can refuse to attend societies, or to give up my hard-earned money for kingdom causes—all on the basis of my Christian liberty. There are even those, like the Jezebel Society in Thyatira (Revelation 2:24), who advocated that one must have tasted the depths of sin to experience a real conversion, and to know what that is all about. Young people can have their good times, can indulge in the pleasures of sin, in order to settle down and become better fathers and mothers in the church. It is the old theory of, “Let us sin, that grace may abound.”
Scripture has something to say about that in I Peter 2:16, where we read, “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness.” I shall return to this passage later, but I want to refer to the “cloak of maliciousness” now. Just two remarks. First, “cloak” is literally a veil, a cover-up. The word “maliciousness” should be translated as “baseness, wickedness.” The context speaks of opposing authorities. We refuse to obey those in authority because they are the world, they are wicked men. Peter, let us not forget, wrote this at the time when the ungodly rulers of the Roman Empire were in power and when Christians were persecuted far and wide for their faith. They were warned, even as we are, never to show defiance against the magistrate, or any other authority, no matter whether they are just or unjust, whether good or bad, whether we like them or not. There is only one reason why we can refuse to obey those in authority over us, and that is when they tell us to disobey our God. In that case we answer, “We must obey God rather than men,” and take the consequences, even if that means starvation, imprisonment, or death. In a word, Christian freedom is never licentiousness, libertinism, antinomianism.