Saturday, August 1st, 2009...10:17 pm

An Essay On Christian Liberty

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As Christians, we have been baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, our Lord. The old order was nailed to the cross with Jesus. The Law of Moses was nailed to the cross with Jesus. But on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead according to the Scriptures. For those in Christ (including the faithful saints of old that looked forward to his coming), God’s commandments are not written on tablets of stone as a testimony of guilt and condemnation. Rather they are written on our hearts that we may obey the Lord out of gratitude. We have been brought from death to life. We are no longer slaves to sin and death, but neither are we set free to a life of autonomy. We are bondservants to Christ. To quote a particularly keen insight from the pop-theologian Bob Dylan, “you gotta serve somebody.” As such, Christian liberty must always be understood in the context of our standing in Christ.

In our day-to-day lives, we frequently encounter circumstances where we can’t simply go to a single verse of scripture to obtain guidance. For example, if you look up “birth control” in your concordance, you will not find anything. Does this mean that the question of “family planning” is somehow outside of realm of Christ’s Lordship? God forbid! The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and all scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness. How should we respond to circumstances where we can’t locate a tidy chapter-and-verse citation. What should our mindset be?

In exercising Christian liberty, there are two deep ditches on either side of the road. One ditch is occupied by those who see fit to bind others’ consciences with a list of dogmatically-held, extra-scriptural scruples. (This is not to be confused with genuine Christian wisdom, even though the external conclusions arrived at may sometimes be similar.) Here you will find gnat-strangling and camel swallowing in abundance. People in this ditch assume that everybody who does not conform to their external scruples is mired in libertine debauchery. The other ditch is occupied by those who believe that unless you can show them a chapter-and-verse citation, they will do whatever they want. They have a tin ear to the scriptural concepts of wisdom and folly, glorification and degradation. They seek to discover how close they can come to violating God’s commandments without actually doing so (often crossing that line in the process). Both of these ditches share things in common. They are both constantly on guard against the temptations of the people in the other ditch, they both accuse true practitioners of Christian liberty of being in the opposite ditch, and they both fail to esteem others as more important than themselves. I recognize that there are some issues where I am tempted toward and have at times fallen into one ditch and other issues where I have the same experience with the opposite ditch. I pray that the Lord will continue to help me to see these abuses of Christian liberty when they may occur and repent of them.

The focus of our exercise of Christian liberty should be to honor the Lord and edify others, rather than to serve ourselves and tear others down. One goal in this regard should be to generally mind our own business rather than concerning ourselves with others’ stewardship of their own Christian liberty. This is especially true for people we don’t have a close friendship or covenantal shepherding relationship with. Eagerly confronting acquaintances in the church about the homeschooling curricula they are using or their nursing schedules for their children is generally not advisable. This does not preclude giving your counsel on a particular subject if it is requested, or pointing out “big E on the eye chart” sins to others.

With respect to our own application of Christian liberty, we should seek wisdom. We should meditate on the Word of God day and night and actively seek the counsel and perspective of older men in the church. We need to search our own motives and see if they are grounded in a desire for Christ-likeness or in selfish ambition and vain deceit. Moreover we need to be sensitive to the particular circumstances of each situation. It may be appropriate to exercise your Christian liberty one way in one situation and another way in a different situation. You can behave one way out at a ballgame and another way at a funeral without being guilty of relativism or liberal situational ethics. Below, I will provide brief treatments of my personal application of Christian liberty to the subjects of drinking and smoking. There are some Christians who believe that both of these are inherently sinful, and I will address each of those claims as well.

I currently drink alcohol occasionally. If expense was not an issue, I would probably have a beer or a glass of wine every night with supper. Very rarely, I have had more than one drink within the course of an evening. I have never been drunk, nor do I ever wish to attain a state of drunkenness. I believe that my use of alcohol is well within the bounds of Scripture. More importantly, I see wine as a blessing from the Lord and partake of it in thanksgiving. I believe that the Lord’s Supper should be administered with wine rather than grape juice because it is the practice of the church dating back to its institution, and because wine better reflects the potency of the gospel. As such, I believe that all Christians should drink at least some alcohol. While recognizing that many people have been severely affected and traumatized by chronic drunkenness and the sins frequently associated with it, I believe that the prohibitionist and proselytizing strict teetotaler cannot make a scriptural case against responsible alcohol use. If they attempt to make the case unscripturally, they must, by necessity believe that they are holier than Jesus, who himself not only drank alcohol but transformed water into large quantities of wine.

I do not smoke and never have, but I do not believe smoking is sinful. There may be practical reasons for or against tobacco use, but I have seen too many people over eighty years old smoking like chimneys to conclude that smoking is somehow a clear prima facie violation of the sixth commandment. I also don’t believe the apparent addictiveness of nicotine is a reason to avoid smoking. I intentionally started drinking coffee regularly within the past six months, knowing full well that caffeine can be addictive. My primary reason for not smoking is that my wife dislikes the smell of tobacco smoke, which is particularly difficult to mask or eradicate. Considering her comfort and well-being more important than my own, I gladly refrain from something that is otherwise permissible. I believe that Christians should have no part in the current prohibitionist civic crusade against smoking (which can border on idolatry), whether or not they personally like smoking.

In conclusion, our goal in our exercise of Christian liberty should be to imitate Christ, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. We should love those within the body of Christ, esteeming them more important than ourselves. Above all, we should acknowledge that true Christian liberty is the power to keep the Lord’s commandments out of love for him, cheerfully submitting every fiber of our being to the Lordship of Christ to the glory of God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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