05 July 2011

Liberty of Conscience

Galatians 5: 1-16

Third Sunday after Pentecost/ July 3, 2011

Martin Laird teaches in the theology and religious studies department at Villanova University.  In his book, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, he recounts an encounter he once had walking along open fields (probably in England).  He would take this route whenever he needed to clear his head.  He often saw a man walking his four Kerry blue terriers.  “These were amazing dogs. Bounding energy, elastic grace, and electric speed, they coursed and leapt through open fields.  It was invigorating just to watch these muscular stretches of freedom race along,” he writes.  Three of the four dogs acted this way.  The fourth stayed behind and, off to the side of its owner, ran in tight circles.  Laird never understood why he did this; the dog had all the room in the world to leap and bound.  One day he asked the owner, “Why does your dog do that? Why does it run in little circles instead of running with the others?” He explained that “before he acquired the dog, it had lived practically all its life in a cage and could only exercise by running in circles.  To run meant running in tight circles.”[1] 

            Laird writes that this event has stayed with him as a “powerful metaphor of the human condition.”  This is how Laird puts it:  “For indeed we are free, as the Psalmist insists, ‘My heart like a bird has escaped from the snare of the fowler” (Ps. 123:7). But the memory of the cage remains.  And so we run in tight, little circles, even while immersed in open fields of grace and freedom.”[2]

            Although Laird cites Psalm 123, he could have just as easily quoted from Galatians 5.  He could have easily cited Paul’s deep anguish over the plight of Christians in Galatia who, even though they had been invited by grace of Christ to live immersed in open fields of grace and freedom, prefer instead to live in tight cages of soul-crushing, life-denying legalism. That’s what Paul is getting at here in this epistle, this chapter in particular.  “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). For freedom Christ has set us free – we’ll come back to this phrase in a minute.  But first, note the tense.  Not some day we’ll be free in Christ. Not, if you live a certain way, behave a certain way, then you’ll be free in Christ.  Now. Already, Christ has set us at liberty. It’s a present reality.  And because freedom is offered to the Christian, as a priceless gift, a grace, Paul is anguished, frustrated, indeed furious with these new Christians because they’re trading freedom for slavery to a former way of living.  And that former way of living was a life of legalism, a life under the Law, a religious life that believes one can curry God’s favor and acceptance by living in a certain way, behaving in a certain way, believing in a certain way. 

            Odd as it may seem to our ears today, Paul is struggling with Christians who believe that in order to follow Jesus they must first become ethical Jews, follow the Jewish Law, which would include, for men, the practice of circumcision as a sign of the covenant with God.  Paul has explained to them, repeatedly, that that practice no longer has any ethical, theological meaning.  Because if you’re going to follow the Jewish law on this one issue, then you’re “obliged” to obey the entire law, which includes not just the Ten Commandment but all 610 laws in the Old Testament.  Paul is clear – we are not justified, that is made-right with God, by following the Ten Commandments.  Paul is insistent – we are not justified, that is brought into a right-relationship with God, accepted by God, by following the rules, by trying to be good.  If “you want to be justified by the law,” Paul writes, with an intentional play on words, then “you have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”  In the end, neither circumcision or uncircumcision counts for anything – the only thing that counts is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

            To be bound by the law, to live with the anxiety that one might not be justified with God, to live with the question that one might not be accepted by God and then live exerting considerable energy to prove to yourself, others, and even God that you’re acceptable, good, worthy – because you’re following the Law – is not to live in freedom.  It’s the very opposite of freedom.  It’s a kind of living hell.  “For freedom Christ has set us free.” 

            What is this freedom?  What is Christian freedom? It is the freedom that comes with knowing that we don’t have to be anxious about the state of our relationship with God.  It’s the freedom that comes knowing that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8), which means that Christ really loves us, and that even our sin cannot separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:39).  To live with this kind of knowledge, to have this peace of mind, to know deep in one’s heart and soul that one is, right now, profoundly loved, accepted, forgiven, redeemed, claimed, saved, justified, and sanctified – this is freedom.

            To forget this, to try to earn one’s salvation is to fall back under the former yoke of slavery.  This is what happened in Galatia.  Paul is furious here:  “You were running [so] well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?  Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you [meaning God].  …whoever it is that is confusing you,” Paul writes, “will pay the penalty.”  He doesn’t say what that is.  Then, in one Paul’s most uncharitable statements – one of the most unloving verses in the New Testament, he says, of those who wield the knife of circumcision, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.”  (I’m not making this up; it’s all there in the text.)

            “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.”  Why is Paul so troubled by what’s going on in the church?  Why is Paul so angry?  Because he knows what’s at stake here, he knows from his own experience that at the core of the Christian life is freedom. It’s because the experience of freedom is an “indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15) that Paul is at pains to stress.  He wants them to get it.  He wants us to get it:  that the grace of Christ is a gift, something is giving to us in the relationship, something that changes the way we see ourselves, the world, and even God, and one dimension of that gift is the gift of freedom.  “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

            Christ wants us to be free and wants us to live a life from within the knowledge of this freedom.  This was true for Paul and it was taken up again by John Calvin (1509-1464).   Stacy Johnson, professor of theology at Princeton Seminary, writes, that “One of Calvin’s most powerful convictions is that we are enabled to be free and responsible persons in Christ.”  “Living in the Spirit brings with it freedom.”[3] It might come as a surprise then to learn that Calvin was a theologian of freedom – what he experienced in Christ in his own life was an experience of liberation, a freedom from the errors of the past, freedom from a burdensome, legalist faith, and freedom for a new life in Christ, freedom for the future, open to where the Spirit might be leading him, freedom to develop and grow. 

            And at the center of Calvin’s theology of freedom was his concern for the liberty of conscience.  What did he mean by this?  “For Calvin the freedom that conscience provides is not a freedom to do just anything.  Our consciences are meant to be captive to the Word of God.”[4]  Freedom is the knowledge that comes when we know our lives are bound to God, dependent upon God, connected to God.  To live apart from God, to live as if one can do without God, to make choices assuming that God doesn’t not exist is not freedom, but the opposite of freedom.

            Human beings possess conscience (literally, with knowledge, con+scientia=knowledge), with this conscience we are able to discern, however imperfectly, the claims of God upon our lives.  Conscience helps us to know things – who we are and who we aren’t,  how to evaluates things we have done and have left undone, whether our lives are aligned with God’s will or thwarting God’s will or against God’s will.  Conscience tells us these things.  Calvin, and the Presbyterians who later followed him, have always claimed that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”[5]  And it is through the conscience, imperfect as it is, that God attempts to communicate with us, to speak to us.  Conscience can convict us of sin, show us our ingratitude, challenge us, maybe even judge us.  Conscience, as a kind of knowledge, can also liberate, it can lead us in the right direction, it may challenge us to grow or to change.  Ultimately, what matter most for Calvin is that it was important for the conscience to be at rest – it should not be in a constant state of anguish, worry, or guilt. 

            Christian freedom has three features in Calvin’s view:  First, “we have the freedom that is ours in salvation by grace alone.”  This brings us back to Paul – Christ frees us from the rigors of legalism.  Calvin was troubled by his experience of Roman Catholic in which people were always worried about the state of their souls, weighed down with guilt and shame, living with the sense that whatever good one did, it was never enough to remove the burden of sin.  That’s not freedom.    Second, “we have the freedom of responding in gratitude.”  We follow God and serve God and love God, not because we have to, but because we can and because we want to – freely.  When one is bound by sin, we are not free to respond toward God with gratitude.  Third – and this is important – the “gift of freedom of conscience regarding adiaphora.”  Adiaphora is Latin meaning “things indifferent” or “things that do not matter.”    These are things “over which Christians may reasonably differ without breaking fellowship with one another” – like whether one kneels for prayer or sits, whether a minister wears a pulpit gown or not, or whether women could speak in church or should they wear head-coverings in public (according to 1 Cor. 11:5).[6]

            Freedom was so important to Calvin, because he believed, “Christ is obscured, or rather extinguished in us, unless our consciences maintain their liberty.”[7] The liberty of one’s conscience, itself, liberates humanity and increases liberty and freedom within and among God’s people.

            On this weekend as we celebrate our independence, watch parades and fireworks, cherish our freedoms and liberties, as we give thanks for the likes of Washington and Jefferson, we should also lift a glass of thanks to John Calvin.  Theologically, philosophically, and politically there is a direct line from Calvin to John Winthrop (1587/88-1649) and the Puritans in New England (whose search for religious liberty was rooted in an act of liberty of conscience, to be free from the Church of England[8]) to the American Revolution.  John Adams (1735-1826), himself, attributed the work of Calvin and Calvin’s Geneva, which was a “free city” of refuge for those seeking liberty of conscience throughout Europe, as the birthplace of the Revolution, particularly liberty of conscience.[9]    Liberty of conscience frees the individual to act.  It’s this idea that empowered the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and empowered people to rebel (the Revolution was known as the Presbyterian Rebellion in the Houses of Parliament in London), and to imagine a new world.  Unfortunately, the founders did not go far enough at the time to liberate everyone – a Civil War would later do that, which, too, was an act of conscience.

            We’ve come a long way from Paul – who, along with Calvin, could not have imagined a Democratic, capitalist world.  What they taught us and continue to teach us, however, – and it’s built into the experience of Christ – is that freedom is a grace, it’s a gift.  The nature of freedom is that it frees us to determine the things that matter and the things that do not matter and the freedom to determine what matters and doesn’t matter.  Our Presbytery polity is structured to ensure that nothing binds the conscience of our neighbors in Christ.  We make every effort to try to keep the conscience free. This means we are free to decide what is and what isn’t adiaphora. 

            Sometimes in our public life and in the church, we argue and debate over adiaphora (things that don’t matter) as if they were things that matter.  And when we do this, the things that ultimately really do matter – like faith working through love – are tossed to the side.  We become like the dog who runs in tight circles and then expects everyone else to run in the same tight circles, because to give freedom to others to run around in the vast, open, expanse of grace and freedom is just too threatening.  Love, you see, creates a space of freedom.  Freedom liberates.  The more we know our own freedom in Christ – when our consciences can rest in Christ’s love – the more we can let things be, let people be, allow freedom to thrive and grow.  It’s a way for faith to work through love.  And as Christ showed us with this life, to be loved by God is to be free indeed. To love is to free and freedom liberates.

Image: The Assertion of Liberty of Conscience By the Independents at the Westminster Assembly of Divines,” John Rogers Herbert, R. A. (1810-1890)
[2] Laird,
[3] William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin:  Reformer For the 21st Century (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 69.
[4] Johson, 69.
[5] Westminster Confession of Faith (1644).
[6] Johnson’s summary, 69.
[8] See the new interpretation of Puritan life and thought in David D. Hall, A Reforming People:  Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (New York:  Knopf, 2011).
[9] Charles F. Adams, ed. The Works of John Adams [1851], Vol. 6, 313-314.

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