Calvin’s View of Christian Freedom

July 20, 2016

by William Edgar

When considering the topic of ethics, few topics are more central than the freedom the Christian has in Christ. Calvin treats this topic extensively in Book 3, Chapter 19 of his The Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is here more than anywhere else that Calvin treats of the conscience. He calls it an “appendage of justification,” and considers it impossible to summarize the gospel without a strong mention of the power of freedom. And of course, this is one of the clarion calls of the Reformation. Again he is concerned both to avoid antinomianism and to promote a proper sense of Christian liberty. “Unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known” (3.19.1).

Calvin explains that Christian freedom is in three parts:

(1) Conscience must rise above all law righteousness. Justification is a matter of God’s mercy alone. And while the law retains its (third) use, that has nothing to do with being Christ alone (3.19.2). This, he reckons, is the entire argument of Galatians (3.19.3). Here Calvin argues against the imposition of anything unnecessary (in rebus non necessariis).

Even though we do not feel that sin is fully conquered, being emancipated by grace we are truly free.

(2) True freedom is to obey without compulsion. That is, the conscience must obey the law not by constraint but because now that we are free from its yoke, we readily embrace its teachings (3.19.4). Again, he stresses adoption. Those who are sons will obey imperfectly, but freely, knowing they are already approved by the Father (3.19.5). Touchingly, he adds that we need no longer fear the remaining effects of sin. Even though we do not feel that sin is fully conquered, being emancipated by grace we are truly free (3.19.6).

(3) The third subject is the adiaphora, or “things indifferent.” This is a crucial concern in the Reformation, one which was already addressed by Luther, but here made much tighter. Calvin’s pastoral concern emerges throughout. He does not want believers to be in doubt, but free of conscience (3.19.7). Here he elaborates on what he said in 3.10.1–4. He takes up one of the classic texts, Romans 14, and gives extensive comments. (He briefly refers to the other significant passage on the adiaphora, 1 Cor. 8–19, in 3.19.16.) He argues that not by daring all things, but by using them for the purpose given by God, we may truly be free in practicing things indifferent. In a way, therefore, nothing is quite indifferent, since every practice ought to be subject to God (3.19.8). Always seeking a balance, Calvin cautions against opulence in the name of freedom (3.19.9). Though we have never been forbidden to laugh, eat well, gain wealth, enjoy music, or drink wine, yet when desire gives way to gluttony, then we lose all sense of propriety in the exercise of freedom.

In 3.19.10–13 Calvin discusses how freedom must rightly guard the conscience of the weaker brother. Here he carefully distinguishes between proper respect for the weak and the need to declare our freedom before men. We must distinguish between the truly weaker brother and the legalistic Pharisee, and make our decision accordingly. Care for neighbor should always guide our conscience. “Nothing is plainer than this rule: that we should use our freedom if it results in the edification of our neighbor, but if it does not help our neighbor, then we should forgo it” (3.19.12). He reminds the reader we are not talking about absolute matters, on which there is no room to move, but things indifferent. For example, the papal mass is not something indifferent. To practice it is not a matter of being immature, or feeding on milk (1 Cor. 3:2), but of taking poison (3.19.13)!

Finally (3.19.14–16) Calvin has some words on civil government, a topic he more fully treats in book 4. Still addressing the matter of conscience, he here wants the Christian to be free in the right way with regard to laws and constitutions. He explains that we are under a twofold government, the one spiritual and the other political. Is Calvin here teaching the two-kingdoms view of the Lutherans? It would appear that his position is very close, particularly when he argues that there are two worlds over which different kings and laws have authority. But a closer look reveals that Calvin is simply maintaining that we are not less subject to the government, though it be ruled by magistrates, than to the church.

Calvin’s main concern here is for the place of conscience. As mentioned above (our comments on 3.7.7), the conscience for Calvin is a tribunal in the heart. Quoting Quintillian, he calls it an awareness of “a thousand witnesses ” (3.19.16). As always, spirituality for Calvin has a God-ward reference. Whereas it is perfectly proper to claim, as did Paul, that we need to take pains to walk with a clear conscience “toward God and men” (Acts 24:16), that fundamental concern is for conscience to respect God alone. Were there no people on earth, our conscience would still be bound to God’s bidding.

This piece is adapted from William Edgar, “Ethics: The Christian Life and Good Works According to Calvin (3.6–10, 17–19)” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008) 344–346. Used with permission of the publisher.

William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

Next Post...

Entering the Kingdom as Children

July 18, 2016

by Kent Hughes