Christian Liberty

I’ve had a lot of discussions with people about the subject of Christian liberty. What are Christian standards? How is this different from legalism? How about brothers with weak faith?

Lo and behold, this question was clearly answered almost five hundred years ago in a little pamphlet of only about 30 pages. Martin Luther’s Christian Liberty is excellent at answering this question.

Luther does not address the question of sinful acts at all. Those are clearly to be avoided. A Christian has no business getting drunk or high, engaging in extramarital relationships, dressing immodestly, participating in forms of recreation that are designed to cause them to lust (whether that’s porn, the SI Swimsuit Edition, a movie with some racy scenes, or whatever), being entertained by ungodliness (Will and Grace comes to mind, as does Friends…). This is a “gimme”.

But once you leave the area of “sin”, there’s a huge questionable area of works. Should a Christian watch this or that? Mixed swimming? Drinking at all? Dancing in clubs? Wear certain types of clothes? Listen to certain forms of music?

Luther divides “works” into several classes, and covers the range from legalism to licentiousness.

First, he addresses legalism, which he correctly defines as an attempt to earn God’s favor through external actions. He writes

It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.

He even writes, speaking of “ceremonialists who … prescribe, and insist upon their ceremonies as a means of justification” that “in the presence of such men it is good to eat meat, break the fasts, and for the sake of liberty of faith do other things which they regard as the greatest of sins.”

The next area of works which Luther discusses is perhaps the most pertinent to our discussion. He goes to great lengths to distinguish the flesh and the spirit, the inner and outer man. Faith alone justifies and santcifies the inner man. But, as Paul explained in Romans 7, their is a war between the inner and outer man. My spirit is willing to serve God, but my flesh is weak.

Luther writes “In this life he must control his own body and have dealings with men. Here the works begin; here a man cannot enjoy leisure; here he must indeed take care to discipline his body by fastings, watchings, labors, and other reasonable discipline and to subject it to the Spirit so that it will obey and conform to the inner man and faith and not revolt against faith and hinder the inner man”.

These works are not done in order to justify a man, or to gain extra favor with God, since we are saved and sanctified by faith. These works are battles in the war we fight inside ourselves. These works perfect (mature) our faith (James 2:22).

These are the types of works that Christians have been lacking in. We have neglected the battles between the inner and outer man. We do not try to conform our flesh to the will of the spirit. We wallow in our vaunted liberty without realizing that the way we exercise it is only hurting our Christian growth.

Can I watch a movie filled with violence and profanity? Sure. Can I drink without sinning? Yep. Can I read, watch, listen to, whatever I want (within certain broad limits)? Sure. Go to clubs? No problem.

But in doing so, I’m neglecting my spiritual development. These things fail the test of Philippians 4:8. I’m not testing everything and holding on to what is good.

Paul wrote in 1 Cor 9:27 that he beat his own body (perhaps metaphorically) in order to keep it under subjection, for the sake of his spiritual life (which he calls a “race” rather than a “walk”). We, on the other hand, won’t give up our TVs or certain types of music or certain types of fashion because we have liberty.

(I fall into this category too. For instance, I am currently wearing shorts, do not forbid my wife from wearing jeans or shorts, listen to alternative CCM, and watch some – not much – TV and movies. I don’t know if this makes me a hypocrite or not.)

Luther next addresses works done for the good of others. In this, he includes works done not to offend those still struggling with legalism. He distinguishes between those who teach and preach legalism, who he suggests we go out of our ways to offend, and those who are simply caught in its snare, who we must be very sensitive to. And he discusses all the good works that we must do for one another.

Finally, Luther addresses antinomians.

Finally, something must be added for the sake of those for whom nothing can be said so well that they will not spoil it by misunderstanding it. It is questionable whether they will understand even what will be said here. There are very many who, when they hear of this freedom of faith, immediately turn it into an occasion for the flesh and think that now all things are allowed them. They want to show that they are free men and Christians only by despising and finding fault with ceremonies, traditions, and human laws…Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.

Luther compares works to building plans. They are not to be despised, but are valuable while the work is going on. The work is our practical sanctification, the maturing of our faith. They are not, however, ends unto themselves, which is to say they do not contribute to our justification. He writes “what we despise is the false estimate of them since no one holds them to be the real and permanent structure”.

A proper understanding of the nature of works should help a Christian navigate the course between legalism and antinomianism. Our works – both what we do and what we avoid – are indispensable tools to guide us towards a mature faith where the flesh is under the control of the spirit. They do not justify us, but neither are they to be disregarded in favor of a false understanding of Christian liberty. Our liberty is a liberty from legalism, not a liberty from obedience.

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One Response to Christian Liberty

  1. Great article! A topic that is often discussed and disagreed upon, and Luther’s words are very enlightening. The disciplines are a lost art in today’s Christianity. There should be something like a course on the disciplines in every church. Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines is a great read on the topic.

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