Book 3 Chapter 19 Section 1-16
Three weeks ago I reached a milestone in my parental life. At the start of the summer I had taken the stabilisers off my daughter’s bike and had been teaching her how to ride on her own. Over the summer I have been running alongside her holding onto the bike teaching her all the skills necessary to ride on her own. Gradually I have been able to loosen my grip and just have my hand hovering alongside the bike as I jog with her.
Well, a couple of weeks ago we were all out as a family and I was jogging alongside her in case she fell. At one point I just knew that she really didn’t need me jogging alongside the bike, so I stopped and watched as she rode her bike down the lane on her own. I felt a strange combination of pride and anxiety – proud that she had finally managed it, but anxious in case she started wobbling. She was free to cycle on her own now, but needed to remember everything I had taught her if she was to stay upright. It is this mixture of a child’s freedom and responsibility that comes to mind when I read this chapter of the Institutes on Christian liberty.
Calvin lays the foundation for Christian liberty by reminding us that the there can only be individual discretion in things that the law is silent about. For when the law speaks on an issue we have no liberty to ignore it, we must obey. While recognising that we cannot perfectly obey, and that we are saved through faith apart from the law, it “ceases not to teach, exhort and urge us to good.” But for those things not mentioned in the law each believer is free do follow their conscience.
But recognising the dangers inherent in giving the children such free reign, Calvin cautions temperance. The danger of allowing individual freedom is that some take advantage, particularly in the area of material riches. Although Calvin admits that “ivory and gold, and riches, are the good creatures of God”, when they are used to “roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with present and be always hunting after new pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God.” These people “say they are things indifferent: I admit it, provided they are used indifferently.” Our consciences must be pure from ulterior motives and seek only to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, for “the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury.”
Our Christian liberty is very like our heavenly Father teaching us to ride a bike. When I let go of the bike I am trusting that my daughter remembers everything I have taught her about pedaling and steering, and in the same way God has given us his law that gives us the principles by which to use our liberty. Similarly, as I have taught my daughter to listen to her innate sense of balance to keep upright on the bike, so God has given us an inner guide, our conscience, to lead us in wisdom where his word is silent. Combining the two – the inner conscience and written law enables the believer to discern how God would have us behave in matters indifferent. As a loving parent he allows us the freedom and responsibility in many areas of life to act in a way that will please him.
We will even be able to adapt our behaviour as the apostle Paul did in order to maximise his witness amongst unbelievers and also avoid offending the weaker brother. Calvin cites a great example for “when he (Paul) adopts Timothy as his companion, he circumcises him; nothing can induce him to circumcise Titus” (Acts 16.3 & Galatians 2.3). To some this may appear as situational ethics, but the mature believer understands that this is rather the freedom they have in neutral matters. To so sub-serve our own agendas and desires that we are willing to adapt our behaviour with the sole aim of extending the kingdom and protecting the conscience of our weaker brother.
“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like the Jews…To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9.19-23
Father, help us to grow into this freedom. To know your word in our hearts and to listen to our renewed consciences that we may be guided in paths of righteousness. Show us what a life lived like this would look like today – help us to see how we must accommodate our behaviour to win those who are far from you and strengthen our fellow believers. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.