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Freer Than Thou: How Wisdom Avoids Legalism and License

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"To give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion..."
Proverbs 1:2-4


We are so good at being legalists. One minute we're the "older brother" in our Lord's parable, resentful of the Father's lavish grace showered on the prodigal son; the next minute we're smug judges of the "pharisees." To reverse the roles in another parable, gospel-liberated heirs can be, rather ironically, like the Pharisee who prayed (at least in my version), "Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee. I know that I'm totally depraved and am justified by grace alone. I'm so glad I 'get it'—of course, thanks to you."


One way of asserting this superiority, waving the "I'm-one-of-those-who-get-it" flag, is to turn the taboos of our past on their head. We've discovered liberty in "things indifferent"—adiaphora, or things that are not identified in Scripture as sins. Don't get me wrong: this liberty is precious. In fact, Calvin went so far as to call it "an appendix to justification." As he said, to bow the neck to a yoke of slavery in practice is to deprive oneself and others of the joy of the gospel. Yet, as the reformer also observed from Paul, love is the rule. For the weaker brother or sister, we restrain our liberty, but we will not surrender that freedom for which Christ died to those who would exercise tyranny over consciences.


What's interesting in the Lord's parable is that the prodigal son never once expressed superiority toward his older brother. The Father had enough love and forgiveness to go around: for both brothers. Enough to unite them in fraternal bonds.


We're all on a long road to maturity. The problem is that when I behold the holy and generous Father, I can only confess with Isaiah, "I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips." Not that long ago, there was a shared culture of propriety. Even unbelievers who swore like a sailor with their buddies on a fishing trip held their tongues in check around the women and children. They weren't foul-mouthed in business meetings.


Today, however, there is a culture of baseness. The lowest forms of cultural expression have become the most pervasive, tearing down all of the dividers between "appropriate here, but not here." Even middle-aged people sometimes try to mimick the youth culture. We see this not only in the sloppy dress that has now become de rigeur, but in church services that borrow from the trivial banalities of pop culture as if it could authentically convey the riches of Christ from generation to generation. Pastors even sometimes say they use of foul language in the pulpit as a missional device, but the justification sounds eerily familiar to that of the shock-jock looking for ratings. Our friend Shane Lems has written a thoughtful post about this topic recently. It affects the way in which younger pastors sometimes dismiss the wisdom of older generations. Even when they talk about wives submitting to husbands—and perhaps members submitting to them—they do not themselves submit to elders and a wider body of fellow officers. It's sloppy. It lacks discernment. And when it involves swearing while speaking in Christ's name, it's sacrilegous. Most non-Christians I know get that. They're not impressed by preachers sharing their sex life in vivid detail; it sounds like someone who just discovered that sex isn't a sin.


"Oh, Grow Up!"


In all the pendulum-swinging between making a rule and breaking a rule, what we've lost is wisdom or prudence. There are some rich words in the older Christian vocabulary that tag along with these pregnant terms. One is circumspection (from the Latin compound circumspectio; literally, "looking around": the art of using one's own judgment (discernment) to apply general biblical teaching and common sense in specific contexts where there is no universally-applicable biblical rule.


It's all about growing up. When we're children, we learn the grammar. As disciples of Christ, we learn the basic words, teachings, stories, and rules of God's Word. Then we enter the dialectical (or logical) stage, when we look for connections and ask questions about what we believe and why we believe it. It's like learning to ride a bicycle: focusing on the pedals and steering without falling off. Or learning to play the piano: focusing on the placement of our hands and looking at the notes on the page. But then we enter the rhetorical stage, where we're actually riding the bike, attending directly to the road rather than the pedals, and actually playing the music instead of focusing back and forth on our fingers and the notes. Growing up into Christ is a lot like that.


Legalism messes all of this up, because it keeps us from growing up, from going on to that rhetorical stage where we're practicing the faith that we profess. It keeps us looking at our fingers and the notes. How far can I go with my girlfriend? What's the line I can't cross in doing my taxes? These are the sorts of questions the Pharisees asked Jesus. It's the genre of questions I often hear at conferences.


If we are drawn to the lowest forms of culture, we shouldn't be surprised when even non-Christians respond, "Is that all you can sing?" Or "Are your vocabulary, life experience and imagination so limited that you have to shock people with vulgarity?" Even in areas where we're free, there is wisdom. And in any case, Christians are not free to violate standards of propriety that Scripture does in fact directly condemn.


In Reformed circles it's often called the "cage phase": that familiar introductory period when neophyte Calvinists ought to be held in a medium-security facility to ensure the safety of others and themselves. Not only is there the obvious theological revolution that occurs and generates a certain excitement as well as a sense of being let down by one's churched background; there is, for many of us who came from fundamentalist or evangelical circles, a newfound Christian liberty. Where once the little legalist inside us loved to wave the flag of superiority by parading our dedication to rules that weren't even found in Scripture, now we do the same thing by parading our liberties. A cigar and a beer aren't just a cigar and beer, but banners unfurled for all to see. It's just legalism of a different sort. In either manifestation, it's childish.


Growing in wisdom is a lot more difficult. It's like becoming a vintner, a barber, a musician, or an athlete: it takes time, attention, meditation, and art. It requires submitting to expertise—something that we as Americans especially shy away from in our egalitarian culture where everybody is as competent as the next person.


"The Charioteer of all Virtues"


Not surprisingly, most of the references to prudence in scripture are found in Proverbs. Prudence is distinguished from wisdom as a species from its genus. If wisdom is the general capacity for evaluating and following the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (which, Proverbs tells us, begins with theology—i.e., the fear of God), then prudence is that particular exercise of wisdom that involves discrimination. One does not need to exercise discretion in deciding whether to love God and one's neighbor. However, discretion is called for when deciding on a vocation for that aim, in the week's bustling priorities, and how best to fulfill it. You can't learn to ride a bike just from reading a manual; you have to do it, informed by a biblical outlook and common sense, and when you fall you have to get back on and ride.


Here, the specific context, not the general rule, guides moral reasoning: "I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge and discretion" (Prov. 8:12). One not only is expected to do prudent things; rather, prudent things are done by a prudent person. The goal of character, Christian or otherwise, is to develop habits of picking up on both general biblical wisdom and particular, immediate contexts. We know a prudent person when we see one: "A fool's wrath is known at once, but a prudent man covers shame" (Prov. 12:16). "The heart of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge" (Prov. 18:15). If our only categories are "right" and "wrong," we will miss the opportunities to develop a moral conscience, the character of a prudent person. This isn't just about Christian practice, but the wisdom that goes with the grain of our created nature.


Plato called prudence "the charioteer of all virtues" (Phaedrus), but Aristotle especially developed this notion in a direction that many, including myself, regard as remarkably consistent with scripture. (And why not? Aren't we talking about civic righteousness and common grace? Even Luther, who disliked Aristotle generally, said that he was "very good in the area of moral philosophy," Luther's Table Talk, #411).


In Book 2 of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguished virtue as being of two kinds: intellectual, formed by teaching (experience plus time), and moral, formed by habit. In Greek, he points out, ethike "...is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit)." People become builders by building, musicians by playing, and so forth. Aristotle emphasizes the fact that we are responsible not only for our actions, but for our lives—our character, who we are and who we become. (Again, we're not in the realm here of redemption, but of common grace.) Our culture today is starving for this sort of moral discourse, especially when the idea that we are passively shaped by our environment is so rife.


I think that Aristotle would tell a mother who is worried about her children seeing any movies, reading any fiction, or hanging out with the wrong crowd, "Give them an alternative prize." In other words, it is at least in part up to us as parents to provide an environment where truth, goodness, and beauty are known and experienced in depth. If they are gripped by the truth, they will less likely to believe the latest lie. If they become intimate with that which is good, noble, and worthy of respect, they will be less inclined toward the shallow narcissism that feeds immorality in the first place. Familiar with great lives of great men and women who were shaped by integrity and wisdom, they will at least have something to contrast with the trivial characters that they see promoted in the culture. And they will only come to recognize the inferiority of that which is ugly by being familiar with that which is beautiful. Prudence is thereby molding character in such a manner that even where there is not a specific rule or defined expectation in a given situation, they will be able to size things up and make a mature decision. A rule-oriented existence usually stunts the moral growth of people and communities.


Granted, this is more difficult. It would be great if wisdom were just a matter of acquiring information and applying it. That's how a lot of people do actually think about discipleship: it's something you can get out of a catalogue. You can't buy it—it's not on sale anywhere. In our modern culture, calculative or instrumental reason (what Aristotle called techne: "know-how") has swallowed the horizon. You can't Google "winemaking" or buy a kit and think you'll give Stag's Leap a run for its money. The difference between pop culture and serious culture is not "common person" versus "elitist," but values dominated by consumption versus creation, distraction versus attentiveness, passing fancy versus caring.


The Puritans were brilliant at "cases of consciences." These were fat volumes of ministerial counsel in concrete, specific cases. It was neither "situation ethics" nor Kant's categorical imperative ("act in such a way that you would decree that act as a universal law"). Most cases pastors faced (and still do) aren't answered in black-and-white laws that can be applied universally. In some cases, a wife would be counseled to divorce her husband, while in others not; the difference was the specific set of circumstances. A wise person has to get inside the situation and look around, ask questions, spend time, and evaluate—with the advice of others in similar positions of spiritual authority. As Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin explain the approach, "The prudent person is aware that although the final end of human life is fixed by divine providence, the means to achieving that end are 'of manifold variety according to the variety of persons and situations.'"[1]


Their goal was to educate the conscience, drawing on both the light of nature and the light of grace. Anglican and Puritan divine William Perkins's Whole Treatise of Cases of Conscience (1606) represents a major contribution. In that book he begins by saying that such an exercise is essential since many Christians struggle with a heavy sense of guilt and "have either growne to phrensie and madness or els sorted unto themselves fearfull ends, some by hanging, some by drowning." But, according to Jonsen and Toulmin, pietism and rationalism steadily diminished this practice, with the triumph of legalism and the Enlightenment's "universal morality."[2]


Calvin on "Things Indifferent"


After his lengthy treatment of justification, Calvin offers a section on Christian liberty in 3.19. of the Institutes. Note how many times Calvin mentions the conscience: "[A]part from a knowledge of [Christian liberty] consciences dare undertake almost nothing without doubting; they hesitate and recoil from many things; they constantly waver and are afraid" (Institutes 3.19.1). The legalism-license pendulum was familiar also in Calvin's day:

For, as soon as Christian freedom is mentioned, either passions boil or wild tumults rise unless these wanton spirits are opposed in time, who otherwise most wickedly corrupt the best things...Others disdain it, thinking that it takes away all moderation, order, and choice of things. What should we do here, hedged about with such perplexities? (ibid.)
I know what many of my friends from my upbringing would say to this: with so many perplexities, don't even open the can of worms. If it could cause anyone offense, don't do it. So everyone ends up being enslaved to those who do not allow for liberty, since these are (wrongly) categorized as the "weaker brother." But Calvin says this easy rule-oriented piety comes at too high a price:
Shall we say good-by to Christian freedom, thus cutting off occasion for such dangers? But, as we have said, unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known. Rather, we must take care that so necessary a part of doctrine be not suppressed, yet at the same time that those absurd objections which are wont to arise be met (ibid.).


After carefully delineating what sense in which believers are even free from the law of God (viz., "...before God's judgment seat it has no place in their consciences" to condemn them), Calvin explains how freedom from "the severe requirement of the law" actually releases timid consciences to serve God and neighbor (3.19.5).


But there is a further freedom of the Christian, a liberty in "things indifferent": these are things concerning which "we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions." "Today," he says, "we seem to many to be unreasonable because we stir up discussion" over medieval rules. Why not just go along with it all? Who's getting hurt? "But when consciences once ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of." First, the sensitive person will say that one thing is wrong, then a further thing, until finally, his conscience will force him "to turn over in his mind" the most trivial matters. "To sum up, he will come to the point of considering it wrong to step upon a straw across his path, as the saying goes" (3.19.7).


The "weaker brother," Calvin argues, is the one who questions his faith because of using or not using his liberty, not someone who questions the faith of others. Thus, many "weaker brothers" are actually pharisees, and for the sake of the liberty for which Christ died they must be resisted. Christians must not miss a single opportunity to "recognize [God's] liberality toward us." It isn't a small matter then: "Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God..." (3.19.8-9). For that reason, one need not (must not) give up his or her liberty for the sake of the "pharisee":

Here is no 'given' offense, but those wicked interpreters baselessly so understand it. None but the weak is made to stumble by the first kind of offense, but the second gives offense to persons of bitter disposition and pharisaical pride. Accordingly, we shall call the one the offense of the weak, the other that of the Pharisees. Thus we shall so temper the use of our freedom as to allow for the ignorance of our weak brothers, but for the rigor of the Pharisees, not at all! (3.19.11).


As a side-note here, we could observe Paul's attack on the Judaizers who came to "spy out the liberty" that believers enjoyed. During the Reformation, open-air barbeques were held every Friday in Zurich, the day on which the medieval church had forbidden the eating of meat. Princeton theologian A. A. Hodge, though he personally did not like whiskey, felt obligated to imbibe on occasions when he was called upon to abstain by abstinence groups trying to make his freedom a federal crime. Charles Hodge both reported and commended his son's practice.


But are these illustrations of a universal rule, an anti-legalistic legalism, that would dictate our policy in each case? Not at all. These Christians exercised discretion, judgment, analysis of the particular situation and the various implications, including their weighing the priorities of both charity and the importance of this truth. At the same time that Paul warns of spying legalists, he adds, "For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13). Are we following such a general rule in our exercise of prudent application? The general rule is set in stone, but prudence is exercised by an educated conscience in particular circumstances that must be carefully evaluated.


So what's the outcome of all of this? The monks tried to outrun each other in deprivation. But what's our response, asks Calvin, "...to outstrip his neighbors in all sorts of elegance..." under "the pretext of Christian liberty"?

They say that these things are things indifferent. I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. But when they are coveted too greedily, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are lavishly squandered, things that were of themselves otherwise lawful are certainly defiled by these vices...We have never been forbidden to laugh, or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine. True, indeed. But where there is plenty, to wallow in delights, to gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones—such are very far removed from a lawful [i.e., prudent] use of God's gifts (3.19.9, emphasis added).


Luther too reminds us, "God has given poor consciences, which lie captive under the accusation and curse of the Law, the comfort of spiritual liberty. But the devil interprets this as liberty of the flesh and creates nothing but confusion and disorder. As a result, his dupes want to be free in everything, lords of all government, and rulers of everybody. In this way the devil sanctimoniously disguises himself under the semblance of the Gospel and Christian liberty and yet overthrows both the Gospel and Christian liberty" (Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, December 9, 1528).


The point is best summarized by the Apostle Paul: "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (1 Cor. 6:12). You see, this is the hinge! The question in such matters is not whether they are lawful (and therefore, permissible for a Christian), but whether they are helpful. In some cases, they will be—no matter what rule-oriented folks may think. But in other cases, not.


Lazy consciences will cut this process off at the pass. So, in the "worship wars," one group can end the conversation with the wielding of a rule (such as the regulative principle) that is confused with its application. In many cases, that settles everything about as much as merely crying out against those who drink moderately, "Don't be drunk with wine!" On the other side, there are those who think that if it isn't forbidden, it's acceptable. In both cases, more work is required. Both groups should concede that (a) the general rule does not necessarily rule out the category of "things indifferent" and that (b) that fact does not mean that everything permissible is necessarily helpful. So let's talk about whether our particular practices in worship are "helpful," conducive to the divinely-prescribed goals, elements, and forms of worship. Surely by bringing both sides out of the legalism-license rule-orientation we could begin a fruitful dialogue in prudence.


Don't miss Paul's point: "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." Reverse legalism keeps us slaves of the rule-oriented system of our past. If we are to be genuinely free in things indifferent, we must no more be expected to indulge than to abstain. That's what genuine freedom is all about. And that's where the re-formation of prudent character—more than that, our conformity to the image of Christ—can begin.





1. Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 68, 130. [Back]
2. ibid., 163.[Back]
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  • ... the distinction should be made between things commanded/forbidden and things indifferent.

    Amen.

    Still chewing... Is it then consistent to say that going back, at times, to the notes and our fingers ("the story, the doctrines, and the commands") to evaluate our execution is to be done upon the ground of the Gospel and according to that purpose or direction which honors God and is best for my neighbor (a pleasing performance for the listener) whether concerning things commanded/forbidden or indifferent? And that it is that very discipline that promotes wisdom for the edifying "ad-libbing" in those things not directly addressed by Scripture?

    Apologies for the over-extended analogy...

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  • [...] Freer Than Thou: How Wisdom Avoids Legalism and License  White Horse Inn Blog [...]

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  • Guest - Michael Horton

    I'd definitely agree that looking at the notes means giving priority to the gospel when it comes to the assurance that we are "in Christ" and the power to go on from bad performances because Christ is sufficient. Nevertheless, we look at the doctrines for hope and to the commands for direction. We look at both--for different things.

    It's healthy to evaluate how we're doing: to kill our spiritual pride and measure our need for Christ, but also to show us where we need to pay closer attention to the notes. We don't improvise when it comes to direct commands, but only when we're dealing with things indifferent.

    In everything, though, we fix our eyes on Christ!

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  • Thanks, Dr. Horton. That is clear and helpful... And evokes a big Amen.

    I'm very grateful for the work you and your cohorts are doing. A much needed blessing to the Church. Keep it up... We are listening!

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  • For some reason, your title reminds me of Weird Al's Amish Paradise.

    "Think you're really righteous? Think you're pure in heart?
    Well, I know I'm a million times as humble as thou art!"

    Good article, I'm just starting a series in Proverbs and anxious to leave them with a sense of awe at Christ and the gospel while we attend to matters of practical holiness.

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  • Guest - Garry

    Thank you! "Is it helpful?" is the hinge. Thanks for reminding me! Liberating!

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  • [...] week, happily, Michael Horton served up a blog post that helped me to organize my vague thoughts. His post was a timely pushback at a trend that has [...]

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  • [...] Reverse Legalism To reverse the roles in another parable, gospel-liberated heirs can be, rather ironically, like the Pharisee who prayed (at least in my version), “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee. I know that I’m totally depraved and am justified by grace alone. I’m so glad I ‘get it’—of course, thanks to you.”   Reverse legalism keeps us slaves of the rule-oriented system of our past. If we are to be genuinely free in things indifferent, we must no more be expected to indulge than to abstain.  [...]

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  • [...] sanctification, and Christian Liberty in this short video interview. His recent article Freer Than Thou: How Wisdom Avoids Legalism & License is in the November/December 2012 issue of Modern [...]

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  • [...] not hold convictions for God’s or their neighbor’s sakes. Like Michael Horton encourages in his article, we need to ask the Lord for wisdom to demonstrate our Christian liberty in such a way that [...]

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