Where Pietists and Presbyterians Differ on Christian Freedom

Chris Gerhz preached a pretty (pretty pretty pretty) good sermon (though if he’s not ordained to preach I hope he only exhorted) on Christian freedom around the time of our Independence Day holiday. What was particularly good was his understanding of freedom as a spiritual reality:

Paul assumes that Christians will be persecuted by those in power… and yet remain free in Christ. Meanwhile, we Americans know how easy it is to live in political freedom… and yet be a slave to our worst impulses.

In his greeting, Paul wishes the Galatians the grace and peace of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (1:3-4). If God kept a record of our sins, the psalmist asks, “who could stand?” But with God “there is forgiveness” (Ps 130:3-4). In Christ we are free from sin, free from everything we think, say, do, and leave undone that keeps us enslaved to the powers of this world (Gal 4:3,8-9) and in rebellion against God.

That was a recurring theme for Paul, as he took Christianity farther and farther from the place where it was born. In Acts 13 he tells people in the city of Antioch — both “Israelites, and others who fear God” (v 16) — that through Jesus “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (vv 38-39).

Before Christ, all we had to modify our behavior was law — and the carrots and sticks that come with following and breaking laws. But Paul teaches that the law cannot stop us from wanting to sin. Only faith in Christ can make us righteous in God’s eyes (Gal 2:16) and start to change our hearts from the inside out.

But some Jewish Christians — the so-called Judaizers — want Gentile converts to join them in continuing to honor the old laws — including the ancient one requiring men to be circumcised. Apparently they’ve persuaded some Christians in Galatia, because Paul says right away that he’s “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). If righteousness actually came through the law, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). “For in Christ Jesus,” he concludes. “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).

That’s not the end of the story; that’s just Paul’s argument to one church. We need to read the theology of Galatians 5 alongside the history of Acts 15. Paul returns to Jerusalem to make his case to the leaders of the church, including Peter, who agrees that the Judaizers are “putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v 10).

The church decides: we are free, no longer staggering under the burden of laws that can never really release us from the slavery of sin, but accepted as God’s children, free heirs of his promises.

That’s fairly close to what the Confession of Faith says about Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

You might think that with that start, Gehrz is headed to an affirmation of the spirituality of the church. But you would be wrong:

But the kingdom he proclaimed isn’t just spiritual. We are free to proclaim a gospel that has consequences in this world. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to go forth in the name of the Messiah who was “anointed to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Freedom in Christ is freedom to give freedom! To free those kept in the spiritual bondage of sin and the physical bondage of human trafficking, to free those mired in poverty and hunger, to free those oppressed for no reason other than who they are, what they think, or what they look like.

Free from sin, we are free to do what Paul says is the only thing that actually counts: “faith working in love” (or making our faith active in love).

For Presbyterians, though, freedom from the guilt and penalty of sin means submission to the powers that God has ordained. The gospel doesn’t lead to social activism or wars of independence; it nurtures living quiet and peaceful lives:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

And that’s a reason why Presbyterians should be a tad reluctant to hitch Christian notions of freedom to Independence-Day ideas about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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