REFORMED piety is a free piety. This we stated explicitly in our first article. (Volume I, No.4).
But since then we have developed two other characteristics of Reformed piety. characteristics also mentioned in the first article. In the first place we were quite emphatic about it that true piety is a piety of law of recognition of the unalterable and exclusive authority of the moral law of our sovereign God. (Volume I, No.5).
Then, in the second place, we dwelt on the fact that true piety is an inward piety. It is a matter of deep spiritual commitment and responsibility, not of easy and superficial externalism. (Volume I, No.6).
Now we face this question: How can such a piety be free? If the individual is under the constant imperium of absolute law, how can he be free? And if his relation to the holy Law of God is a matter of profound inward commitment and responsibility, how can the pious heart escape the burden of exacting requirement, awful failure and tormenting guilt and fear? How can he enjoy a free conscience if he must be obedient to God’s changeless moral law in the inner man?
The “Freedom” That Enslaves
To many, many people these questions are unanswerable. They see in such questions an impossible dilemma. For many people law and authority are always something forbidding, legalistic, crippling, enslaving.
Such people can see only one way out of this problem. It is the way of the rejection of all binding moral standards. It is the way of license. This answer is in many ways characteristic of modern man. So commonly he sees liberty as the direct opposite of authority. For him liberty means to “do as I please.” With Omar Khayyam he would throw these sobering marks of the godly man to the winds with words
Come, fill the cup and in the fire of spring
Your winter-garment of repentance fling.
Here is the spirit of modernity with one of her most false faces. To use a different figure of speech, here is one of the most marked symptoms of the sickness of modern man. In fact, this is “natural” man in the stark nakedness of his naturalness. It is sickness, deep spiritual sickness, to think that freedom is a matter of complete relief from binding moral controls. Such thinking fails utterly to do justice to a very simple and inescapable fact. This fact simply is that the very idea of freedom has place only in a setting of law and control.
We must be very clear at this point. Plainly enough it is a basic point. The casting off of all law and control does not mean freedom. It means something quite other than freedom, call that something license or chaos or slavery or death. This is true on every level of life. A car cannot be said to be “free” when it is started and permitted to run as it may without proper controls. It will soon be a sad looking wreck. Atomic energy expressed without proper controls is a fearful thing. A fish set “free” from the rule that it must live in water will soon die. A child permitted to express his native energies without certain controls becomes a quite impossible creature. Social and political groups that do not recognize the limitations of law and fair play upon their demands soon destroy a free society.
The nature of the law and controls will differ with the nature of the being involved. The laws governing the existence of a fish are not the same as those governing the life of a car. And so it is with man. He is a physical being. He must obey the laws of nature in matters of food, drink and rest. But he is also a rational-moral being. He can reflect on the meaning of his experience. The words “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” apply to his conduct. H e has been created in the image of God. He is therefore subject to God’s moral law. He cannot be free in the true sense of the word except in the setting of God’s moral law, no more than a fish is ‘free” when taken out of his bowl and given the run of the house. For man to think that he can be free in complete disregard to God’s moral laws is the height of delusion and the depth of folly. Indeed, reduced to its real character such thinking is sin. This was precisely the character of sin when it first appeared in human history in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve sought “freedom” in their own judgment in disregard of the command of God.
Such “freedom” enslaves. It enslaves man to the whim of his own undisciplined sinful self. It enslaves man to the delusion of self-sufficiency. It enslaves man to spiritual hollowness and decadence, for a person undisciplined in the moral law of God develops no spiritual muscles. It enslaves to cynicism and despair. It enslaves to death.
This Is Liberty
This, then, is liberty—man living out the energies of his being within the controls of the law of God. Freedom and control balance each other. This perfect balance was man’s blessed estate in Paradise. Here he enjoyed delightful freedom in sweet fellowship with God and with God’s creation. He felt no sense of shame, of condemnation, of guilt. Freedom and law were in perfect equipoise.
Then came sin and rebellion. Guilt, shame and condemnation took the place of happy and free communion with God. Where law and freedom had been in perfect balance now the curse came upon man and the tyranny of false “freedoms.” In time God gave exact verbal expression to His moral law through His servant Moses. But the law condemned man the sinner. He could find no liberty in the law. The law makes him groan, “O wretched man that I am.”
The law of God stands. Man is still creature. He must still find his freedom within the bounds of God’s law. But the law condemns him as sinner. How then can he find this true freedom?
The answer lies in Christian liberty. that liberty with which Christ has made us free. It is that Christ wrought freedom whereby the sinner can look at the holy, sovereign law of God with a clear eye and unburdened soul and make the amazing declaration, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man.”
Plainly enough we are dealing with something wonderful and exceedingly important. The matter of Christian liberty deserves very careful thought. It is a subject on which there is more than a little misunderstanding and confusion.
A minister once asked the following question of a young candidate during examination (or ordination: “Do you believe in Christian liberty or self·denial?” Does this question reveal a true understanding of Christian liberty? We think not, decidedly not.
There are those who seem to think that when one asserts his belief in Christian liberty he thereby means to say that he may do certain things which he would not do if he did not believe in Christian liberty. Is such a notion correct? Not necessarily. Such a notion may be incidentally true in certain instances, but it has really nothing at all to do with the essence of Christian liberty.
We shall try to outline what we believe Christian liberty to be, step by step.
1. God’s Law Stands
God’s moral law is an expression of His holy being. Paul declares God’s law to be “holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). Paul is using words that apply to the being of God. God’s law is an expression of His “holy, and just, and good” character. That the very expression of God’s holy being should ever be nullified or abrogated is unthinkable. Hence, when Paul states in Rom. 6:11 that the Christian is “not under the law, but under grace,” he may not be understood to mean that the Christian’s life is free from the direction and control of God’s moral law (the ten commandments and whatever else in God’s Word is nonnative for human conduct). That God’s moral law cannot be set aside should be clear from the earlier discussion in this article, Man as creature simply is a being subject to law.
Before this holy law the sinner stands condemned. Even before God codified this law by the hand of Moses man was condemned by it. Cain, for instance, bore the mark of its condemnation. The people of Noah’s day were condemned by God’s law even though that law had not yet been put into written form. By the judgment of this holy law “there is none that doeth good, no not one.” Indeed, “as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12).
2. “There is no condemnation…”
The rich eighth chapter o[ Romans opens with a pronouncement that is nothing short of spectacular. “There is therefore now,” goes this stirring declaration, “no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”
What has happened to the condemnation of God’s holy, majestic, inescapable law? Christ took it away. Please take carful note—Christ did not take away the law of God. He came, not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. (Mt. 5:17).
Christ was “made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). He was born subject to the demands of God’s whole law. And Christ did not fail, like the first Adam, Rather, He fulfilled the law of God by obeying it to the full in His active and His passive obedience. In so doing He took upon Himself the curse of the law and thus removed this curse from His elect ones. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
In this sense, therefore, Christ fulfilled the moral law of God. He met its demands perfectly and He took away the sting of its curse and condemnation. By paying the full penalty of guilt in His shameful death He removed the curse of the law. By His active obedience Christ gained perfect, unfailing and unassailable righteousness for His people. In this sense the Christian is not under law but under grace. Before that Iaw he is free, just because it can condemn him no longer. But he must still keep that moral law. As a free man in Christ, however, he strives to keep the moral law as a grateful child of Christ living ill newness of life. Even as he still sins against that holy law, he looks upon that law without duress of fear or guilt. He is justified by faith and therefore has peace with God, with the God of the law and with the law of God.
3. All of God’s Law Fulfilled
The great mind of Paul was commandeered by God through the Holy Spirit to carry the revelation of God through a big step in its progress. What was that step? That step was simply that Christ fulfilled the whole law of God—not only the moral law but also the ceremonial law and the civil law. How this great mind exerted itself in revealing this tremendous redemptive fact to men! With decisive clarity Paul threw out the challenge of this great fact to the Galatians, “bewitched” as they were in their failure to see this point. “Behold, I Paul say unto you,” rings the dear-cut challenge, “that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” (Gal. 5:2).
His point was simply this: you are not a free man before God if you do not accept Christ’s fulfillment of the law at every point. Christ fulfilled the whole law. Failure to see this at any point is to put yourself in bondage to the curse of the law of God.
To understand Paul’s great argument we must realize that there are different types of law and different types of law are fulfilled in different ways. Moral law can be fulfilled only as we have described above—by perfect obedience and by the removal of the sting o[ its condemnation. This is the case, as we have seen, because moral law as the very expression of God’s holy being cannot by its very nature be set aside.
Ceremonial law was fulfilled by Christ also, but in quite a different fashion. God’s laws regarding sacrifices and offerings, feasts and sabbaths, were temporary laws—laws to be observed by God’s people until such time as God would make their observance unnecessary. In the fullness of time God made their observance unnecessary by sending His Son into the world. Christ is the real substance symbolized by all the Old Testament sacrifices and ceremonies. The sacrifices, offerings and ceremonies were only a temporary historical shell around the Christ who is at the heart of all redemptive revelation. In the fullness of time Christ broke this shell when He came as the true lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Circumcision was part of this ceremonial law. To continue the practice of circumcision out of mistaken obedience to God’s law after Christ had come amounted to an assertion that Christ had not come and had not fulfilled the law of God.
The Old Testament also contains a large number of civil Jaws. These Christ fulfilled also. But their fulfillment was once more of a different character. Israel of old was a church-state. God maintained Israel as a national unit in history because this nation was chosen by God to perform a very special mission in God’s program. Israel was kept and ordered as a nation by the whole body of laws and ordinances and statutes that God gave to Moses. Then Israel as nation had fulfilled this special mission in history by producing the Redeemer of men from the royal line of David, those laws that especially applied to Israel as a nation were set aside. The Old Testament church-state was replaced by the New Testament church and kingdom, in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek.” Of course, whatever elements in the civil law were o[ an abiding moral character (see Ex. 21–23) were fulfilled in the same manner that the basic moral law was fulfilled.
4. The Obedience of Freedom
A story that has often been told should help us to understand the real character of the Christian’s liberty before God and His law. In the days of slavery in these United States a splendidly built young negro was on the block. There was character in his fine face. There was some pride there. He had spirit. He resented being dealt with as a piece of property. He was heard to mutter that he wouldn’t be a slave to any mall. The bidding went on and upward. One man seemed to be especially determined to buy him. This rather fine looking gentleman was bidding persistently.
The negro glowered at the persistent bidder. Finally the bidding stopped. The persistent bidder had won, and the stalwart young negro was turned over to him. The negro was sullen, belligerent. As he came near to the buyer, his new master said to him in a most kindly tone, “Don’t be angry, son; I bought you that I might set you free. You are no longer a slave but a free man.” The negro was dumbfounded. He could say nothing. Tears came into his eyes, eyes that had just been flushed with hate, and he finally managed to cry out, “Don’t send me away. Ah loves yuh. Massa, ah’lI be yo slave long as ah live. Ah’II do anything fa yuh.”
The Christian’s relation to the law or God is that of a free man, not of a slave. This free man’s relation to the law of God enjoyed by Christians is shown in “their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love, and a willing mind” (Westminster Confession, XX, 1).
5. Freedom Before God’s Law Only
If the Christian’s obedience to the law of God is to be the obedience of freedom something very important is necessarily implied. This highly important consideration is simply this: the Christian’s freedom is only before the law whose curse Christ bore and from whose bondage He set us free.
It is this law and this law only that the Christian, like Paul, would lovingly obey after the inward man. In other words, God alone is finally man’s only lawgiver.
Much of Paul’s great argument on Christian liberty has to do with this point. Christ’s work on the cross would mean nothing if Christians subjected themselves to the law of circumcision (Gal. 5). In the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians he makes clear that to bow before the judgment of men “in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days” is to bow, not before the law of God, but before “the rudiments of this world.” Therefore he is not bound before God to subject himself to laws like “touch not; taste not; handle not.” Since Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law such rules are not the law of God but are rather “after the commandments and doctrines of men.”
As a free man in Christ, therefore, the Christian genuinely and freely accepts the control of God’s holy moral law over his life. And in the inmost moral-spiritual arena of life this law only has the mastery of the Christian’s soul. In the final analysis there is no condemnation other than that which Christ removed. There is no guilt other than that which Christ took upon Himself in our behalf. Hence, Christians may not set up standards and regulations for man’s moral behavior which are not clearly and necessarily implied in God’s given moral law. “There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?” James 4:12.
At this point we must be exceedingly careful and yet direct. It has long been the habit in Christian groups to single out certain practices as especially worthy of condemnation. In reality, though not in intent, the singling out of these particular practices amounts to the setting up of semi-legal standards for the Christian life. The Christian’s conduct is judged by these semi-legal standards and his place in the fellowship of the church often determined to a very great extent. In fact, in certain Christian communities such semi-legal standards are often enforced with greater strictness than the decalogue itself.
Here we mention only two of the more common examples of this practice—the ban on movie attendance and the ban on smoking. In either instance it is perfectly obvious that elements of God’s moral law are involved in these two practices. In the average Hollywood production today and in the lives of those who produce them there are so many evidences of disrespect for and disobedience to God’s moral laws that a Christian is doing well when he says, “I will have none of it.” And although the case is not so clear to us in the matter of smoking, yet it is not hard to see that Christians might ban this practice because of possible harm to the body and because it involves a waste of money that ought to be put to better use. Many Christians regard the practice as an instance of poor stewardship of life and goods.
He who is sensitive to the full sweep of God’s moral requirements no doubt has a greater or lesser measure of sympathy for such rejection of certain practices found among men. And yet we are persuaded that there is something faulty about the singling out of certain practices in this fashion. May a Christian’s conduct be absolutely judged by such semi-legal regulations of conduct? May every breach of such explicit or implicit rules be called sin? The Christian Reformed Synod of 1951 would not say that.
What is at stake here? An important element of Christian liberty is at stake, namely, that God’s law only shall finally judge the conscience of the child of God. It is doubtful that one could successfully claim that such semi-legal standards do not have a human element in them. What is that human element? The human clement is simply the choice of a particular occasion for sill as sinful. What might be the sin in movie attendance as judged by God’s holy law? Is being in a certain building with its characteristic equipment and lighting sin? No one could claim that. Is the sin to be found in the looking at a picture that moves and is therefore more entertaining? No one could claim that. What might be the sin in smoking? One could hardly claim that the mere drawing of smoke into the mouth from a dried weed is in itself sin. (The case of marijuana is palpably of a different character since this narcotic interferes with the proper exercise of man as moral agent).
We do not mean to say that one could not sin in a theater or in smoking. Quite definitely not. But that is another matter. We must insist that the occasion of sinning, be it ever so pregnant with sinful possibility, is not the sin. If we do not abide by this distinction we open ourselves to a multiplication of rules and regulations that would soon rob the Christian life of its vital breath, and the Christian life is in danger of becoming a matter of obedience to men rather than to God. If we single out special occasions for sin and ever so carefully avoid them we may get outward conformity but not necessarily a genuine regard for the holy law of God. A Christian may be ever so conscientious about avoiding these few specified occasions for sin, and yet he may be guilty of other instances of the very sins that may be committed in the occasions that he avoids. Many a person may never enter a motion picture house and yet fill his home with so many luxuries and with such a preoccupation with things and more things that the children in that home find it very hard indeed to seek first the Kingdom or God.
In short, then, the avoidance of any practice must grow out of a genuine commitment to Christ and to His law. When the Christian as a free man loves his Lord who bore the load of his guilt and condemnation in his stead, there is little need for setting up semi-legal standards of conduct, standards that concentrate on the occasion for sin rather than on the sin itself. A genuine piety wholeheartedly hates sin. That should take care of the occasions for sin. The Christian earnestly prays as instructed by his Master, “Lead us not into temptation.” It is most certainly the task of the Church as proclaimer of the Word to warn its members against all forms of temptation and occasions for sin and worldliness. Also, he who in sincerity prays that petition will not heedlessly and wantonly place himself in positions of occasions for sin. It is a compelling awareness of his own sinfulness and depravity that prompts him to cast himself wholly upon Christ. The godly man, ever aware of the sinfulness that makes Christ so precious, heeds the admonition of St. Paul, “Wherefore, let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” (I Cor. 10:12). Christian liberty is always Christian liberty.
A.C. De Jong is pastor of the Boston Square Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.
Edward Heerema is public relations secretary for the National Union of Schools.
John H. Piersma is pastor of the Franklin St. Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.