Abusing Liberty

I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
~ Romans 14:14

As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.
~ 1 Corinthians 8:4

If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.
~ 1 Corinthians 9:12

Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.
~ 2 Thessalonians 3:9

But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
~ 1 Corinthians 9:27

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
~ Galatians 5:1

Abusing Christian Liberty, by John Calvin. The following contains an excerpt from his work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”.

We must carefully note that Christian freedom is, in all its parts, a spiritual thing. Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God—that are perhaps disturbed and troubled over forgiveness of sins, or anxious whether unfinished works, corrupted by the faults of our flesh, are pleasing to God, or tormented about the use of things indifferent. Accordingly, it is perversely interpreted both by those who allege it as an excuse for their desires that they may abuse God’s good gifts to their own lust and by those who think that freedom does not exist unless it is used before men, and consequently, in using it have no regard for weaker brethren.

Today men sin to a greater degree in the first way. There is almost no one whose resources permit him to be extravagant who does not delight in lavish and ostentatious banquets, bodily apparel, and domestic architecture; who does not wish to outstrip his neighbors in all sorts of elegance; who does not wonderfully flatter himself in his opulence.And all these things are defended under the pretext of Christian freedom. They say that these 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.

Paul’s statement best distinguishes among things indifferent: “To the clean all things are clean, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is clean, inasmuch as their minds and consciences are corrupted” (Ti 1:15). For why are the rich cursed, who have their consolation, who are full, who laugh now (Luk 6:24-25), who sleep on ivory couches (Amo 6:4), who “join…field to field” (Isa 5:8), whose feasts have harp, lyre, timbrel, and wine (Isa 5:12)? Surely ivory and gold and riches are good creations of God, permitted, indeed appointed, for men’s use by God’s providence. And 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 use of God’s gifts.

Away, then, with uncontrolled desire, away with immoderate prodigality, away with vanity and arrogance—in order that men may with a clean conscience cleanly use God’s gifts. Where the heart is tempered to this soberness, they will have a rule for lawful use of such blessings. But should this moderation be lacking, even base and common pleasures are too much. It is a true saying that under coarse and rude attire there often dwells a heart of purple, while sometimes under silk and purple is hid a simple humility. Thus, let every man live in his station, whether slenderly, moderately, or plentifully, so that all may remember God nourishes them to live, not to luxuriate. And let them regard this as the law of Christian freedom: to have learned with Paul, in whatever state they are, to be content; to know how to be humble and exalted; to have been taught, in any and all circumstances, to be filled and to hunger, to abound and to suffer want (Phi 4:11-12).

Against the abuse of Christian freedom to the injury of the weak! In this respect also many err. They use their freedom indiscriminately and unwisely, as though it were not sound and safe if men did not witness it. By this heedless use, they very often offend weak brothers. You can see some persons today who reckon their freedom does not exist unless they take possession of it by eating meat on Fridays. I do not blame them for eating meat, but this false notion must be driven from their minds. For they ought to think that from their freedom they obtain nothing new in men’s sight but before God, and that it consists as much in abstaining as in using. If they understand that it makes no difference in God’s sight whether they eat meat or eggs, wear red or black clothes, this is enough and more. The conscience, to which the benefit of such freedom was due, is now set free. Consequently, even if men thereafter abstain from meat throughout life and ever wear clothes of one color, they are not less free. Indeed, because they are free, they abstain with a free conscience. But in having no regard for their brothers’ weakness, they slip most disastrously, for we ought so to bear with it that we do not heedlessly allow what would do them the slightest harm.

But it is sometimes important for our freedom to be declared before men. This I admit. Yet we must with the greatest caution hold to this limitation, that we do not abandon the care of the weak, whom the Lord has so strongly commended to us.

On offenses: Here, then, I shall say something about offenses—how they are to be distinguished, which ones avoided, which overlooked. From this we may afterward be able to determine what place there is for our freedom among men. Now, I like that common distinction between an offense given and one received, inasmuch as it has the clear support of Scripture and properly expresses what is meant.

If you do anything with unseemly levity, or wantonness, or rashness out of its proper order or place so as to cause the ignorant and the simple to stumble, such will be called an offense given by you, since by your fault it came about that this sort of offense arose. And to be sure, one speaks of an offense as given in some matter when its fault arises from the doer of the thing itself.

An offense is spoken of as received when something, otherwise not wickedly or unseasonably committed, is by ill will or malicious intent of mind wrenched into occasion for offense. 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!

For Paul fully shows us in many passages what must be yielded to weakness. “Receive,” he says, “him that is weak in the faith” (Rom 14:1). Also: “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way” (Rom 14:13), and many passages with the same meaning, which are more suitably sought in their place than referred to here. The sum is: “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification” (Rom 15:1-2; for v. 2, cf. Vg.). In another place: “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak” (1Co 8:9). Likewise: “Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake” (1Co 10:25). “Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other…Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God” (1Co 10:29, 32). Also, in another passage: “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). So indeed it is. Our freedom is not given against our feeble neighbors, for love makes us their servants in all things; rather it is given that, having peace with God in our hearts, we may also live at peace with men.

We learn from the Lord’s words how much we ought to regard the offense of the Pharisees. He bids us let them alone because they are blind leaders of the blind (Mat 15:14). His disciples had warned Him that the Pharisees had been offended by His talk (Mat 15:12). He answered that they were to be ignored and their offense disregarded.

On the right use of Christian freedom and the right renunciation of it: Still the matter will remain in doubt unless we grasp whom we are to consider weak (and) whom (we are to consider) Pharisees. If this distinction is removed, I do not see what use for freedom really remains in relation to offenses, for it will always be in the greatest danger. But Paul seems to me most clearly to have defined, both by teaching and by example, how far our freedom must either be moderated or purchased at the cost of offenses. When Paul took Timothy into his company, he circumcised him (Act 16:3). But he could not be brought to circumcise Titus (Gal 2:3). Here was a diversity of acts but no change of purpose or mind. That is, in circumcising Timothy, although he was “free from all,” he made himself a slave to all; and “unto the Jews” he “became as a Jew” in order to win Jews; to those under the law he became as one under the law that he “might gain them that are under the law” (1Co 9:19-20); “all things to all men that” he “might…save some” (1Co 9:22), as he elsewhere writes. We have due control over our freedom if it makes no difference to us to restrict it when it is fruitful to do so.

What he had in view when he strongly refused to circumcise Titus he testifies when he thus writes: “But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Gal 2:3-5). We have need also to assert our freedom if through the unjust demands of false apostles it be endangered in weak consciences.

We must at all times seek after love and look toward the edification of our neighbor. “All things,” he says elsewhere, “are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth” (1Co 10:23-24). 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. There are those who pretend a Pauline prudence in abstaining from freedom, while there is nothing to which they apply it less than to the duties of love. To protect their own repose, they wish all mention of freedom to be buried; when it is no less important sometimes to use our neighbors’ freedom for their good and edification than on occasion to restrain it for their own benefit. But it is the part of a godly man to realize that free power in outward matters has been given him in order that he may be the more ready for all the duties of love.

Observe the aggravations of this sin, which briefly are such as these: 1. Scandal is a murdering of souls. It is a hindering of men’s salvation and an enticing or driving them towards hell. Therefore, in some respects, (it is) worse than murder, as the soul is better than the body. 2. Scandal is a fighting against Jesus Christ in His work of man’s salvation. He came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luk 19:10), and the scandalizer seeketh to lose and destroy that which Christ would seek and save. 3. Scandal robbeth God of the hearts and service of His creatures; for it is a raising in them a distaste of His people, Word, ways, and Himself; and a turning from Him the hearts of those that should adhere unto Him. 4. Scandal is a serving of the devil, in his proper work of enmity to Christ and perdition of souls; scandalizers do his work in the world and propagate his cause and kingdom.—Richard Baxter

To the proud and unbelieving Jews, (Jesus) was a stone of stumbling and rock of offense; but to us who believe, He is precious.—Octavius Winslow