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Monday, July 25, 2016

Christian Liberty Relinquished

The standard definition for the doctrine of Christian Liberty is something like this. Believers are free to do that which God has not commanded them not to do or to not do that which God has not commanded them to do in accordance with faith. That is, if God didn't say anything about the subject, your conscience (guided by the Holy Spirit, of course) should be your guide. The doctrine comes from a couple of biblical passages. One is Romans 14 and the other is 1 Corinthians 8. And most Christians who have heard of this principle are rather pleased with it.

Odd thing, however. If you actually read the texts involved, you would actually come away with something rather different. Romans 14, for instance, speaks about each of us being responsible to God. He offers examples -- eating meat or being a vegetarian, observing days or considering them all equal -- and suggests that we don't pass judgment on each other for either position. See? Christian liberty. Paul says, "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." (Rom 14:14) Again, Christian liberty. He does warn that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom 14:23), but it's still about Christian liberty, right? Well, in truth, this is not the message Paul is trying to convey. He goes on to say, "If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died." (Rom 14:15) And therein lies Paul's main thrust. "Do not destroy the one for whom Christ died."

He really drives this point home in the 1 Corinthians 8-10. Here he points out that food offered to idols means nothing since "an idol has no real existence" (1 Cor 8:14). So it doesn't matter, right? Paul says it doesn't. But, Paul argues for another consideration. "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do, but take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." (1 Cor 8:8-9) This is his key idea. He says, in fact, "Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble." (1 Cor 8:13)

Lots of Christians like this Christian Liberty principle. If God didn't say anything about it, we're free to live up to our consciences. Nice. And while this principle is valid, we need to be aware that it is not what Paul was trying to convey. The principle by which we ought to live is the principle of surrendered rights in favor of love for the brethren. The principle that Paul teaches is "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor." (1 Cor 10:24)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor 10:31-33)


Craig said...

Seems like this twist on Liberty is driven by selfishness as is so much of modern society.

David said...

That clause about not being a stumbling block for your brethren often seems to get overlooked in the discussion of Christian Liberty. We must always be aware of how our actions effect those around us.

Stan said...

Indeed, I would say that the basic problem of the sin nature is selfishness. It is sad, however, that Christians are driven to "Christian Liberty" as an excuse for selfishness.

Stan said...

Yes, indeed, David.

Jeff Lucas said...

this is from Philip Schaff's history of the Christian church. I think it compliments your blog here!

Conscience is the voice of God in man. It is his most sacred possession. No power can be allowed to stand between the gift and the giver. Even an erring conscience must be respected, and cannot be forced. The liberty of conscience was theoretically and practically asserted by the Christians of the ante-Nicene age, against Jewish and heathen persecution; but it was suppressed by the union of Church and State after Constantine the Great, and severe laws were enacted under his successors against every departure from the established creed of the orthodox imperial Church. These laws passed from the Roman to the German Empire, and were in full force all over Europe at the time when Luther raised his protest. Dissenters had no rights which Catholics were bound to respect; even a sacred promise given to a heretic might be broken without sin, and was broken by the Emperor Sigismund in the case of Hus.

This tyranny was brought to an end by the indomitable courage of Luther.

Liberty of conscience may, of course, be abused, like any other liberty, and may degenerate into heresy and licentiousness. The individual conscience and private judgment often do err, and they are more likely to err than a synod or council, which represents the combined wisdom of many. Luther himself was far from denying this fact, and stood open to correction and conviction by testimonies of Scripture and clear arguments. He heartily accepted all the doctrinal decisions of the first four ecumenical Councils, and had the deepest respect for the Apostles’ Creed on which his own Catechism is based. But he protested against the Council of Constance for condemning the opinions of Hus, which he thought were in accordance with the Scriptures. The Roman Church itself must admit the fallibility of Councils if the Vatican decree of papal infallibility is to stand; for more than one ecumenical council has denounced Pope Honorius as a heretic, and even Popes have confirmed the condemnation of their predecessor. Two conflicting infallibilities neutralize each other.

Luther did not appeal to his conscience alone, but first and last to the Scripture as he understood it after the most earnest study. His conscience, as he said, was bound in the word of God, who cannot err. There, and there alone, he recognized infallibility. By recanting, he would have committed a grievous sin.

to me, liberty of conscience, is the liberty to obey God from the bottom of your heart. The Biblical narratives show us the passage over from sin conceived of as the violation of external commands to sin conceived of as an unwillingness to keep the commandments in the depths of the inner life. The course of Biblical history is one long protest against conceiving of sin in an external fashion

I've enjoyed your blogs!

Stan said...

Can you tell me what you mean by "conceiving of sin in an external fashion"?