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Christian Liberty as the Basis of Christian Vocation

by randy on February 12th, 2010

The doctrine of Christian Liberty (Inst. 111, 19) forms the appendix to justification, and without it there cannot be the “right knowledge of Christ, or of evangelical truth, or of internal peace of mind.” But when this doctrine is mentioned there are two violent reactions: some, “under the pretext of liberty, cast off all obedience to God, and precipitate themselves into the most unbridled licentiousness; and some despise it, supposing it to be subversive of all moderation, order and moral distinctions” (par. 1). These are the reactions of the worldling and the ascetic. Calvin is equally opposed to these two evils, worldliness and world-flight. This, however, does not make him a middle-of-the-roader in the sense of one who wants his cake while he eats it. Calvin did not straddle issues, but his balance is scriptural, and he goes as far as the Word goes.

In its essence, of course, Christian liberty is spiritual. It consists of freedom from the bondage of the law and restoration to voluntary obedience to the will of God. Since we are free from the law as an instrument unto salvation, we respond as children to the service of God with joy and alacrity. Liberty is enjoyed in the way of faith and it ought to animate us to virtue, but slavish minds, who would use it to fulfill the lusts of the flesh, have no part in it.

Since Paul makes all external things subject to our liberty (Rom. 14:14), there is nothing unclean in itself, provided we use our freedom before God and not before men. God’s good gifts are abused if they are too ardently coveted, too proudly boasted, and too luxuriously lavished. However, unto the pure all things are pure, but all that is not out of faith is sin, and “unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure: but even their mind and conscience
is defiled” (Titus 1: 15) .

The Christian, who is God’s freeman, uses this world in faith, that is, in obedience to the commandments of God unto his glory. He must observe moderation lest he abuse God’s good gifts; he must be patient and submissive when deprived of earthly blessings. He is called to exercise love and forbearance in the use of his liberty, so that his neighbor may be edified. But since the things of this world are not sinful in themselves he may possess them, but must guard
against being possessed in the process. The pursuit of cultural achievement and the attainment of wealth are not evil in themselves; the enjoyment of food, drink and luxury are not to be despised or condemned, but God’s curses fall upon the rich because they are immersed in sensual delights and their hearts are inebriated with present pleasures while perpetually grasping for new ones (Inst. 111, 19, 9 & 111, 6-10). In his meditation upon the future life Calvin says we must learn to despise this present world because it draws us away from our calling. In that sense the things good in themselves become evil to us; hence we must learn to look upon all things in the light of eternity.

Here is the crux of the matter. This is the decisive issue! For Calvin one’s cultural striving is good or bad, depending upon one’s faith. All that is not out of faith is sin. All apostate culture is selfseeking in which man saves himself by his works and exalts his own glory. But the doctrine of justification by faith with its appendix of Christian liberty sets man free to serve God in his cultural calling. Abraham Kuyper, in his Stone Lectures, signalizes this point when he reminds us that it was this liberation of the medieval man from the burden of gaining salvation by works that set free the energy and interest which produced our modern world of science, industry, and invention. For, by Calvin’s emphasis on the proper use of this world, the gaze of the believer was directed to this beautiful cosmos in which God calls us to be his cultural agents, and to have dominion over the earth, to replenish it, and to cultivate the ground.

(The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, Henry Van Til)

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