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Christian Liberty and the Principle of Faith

“Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that judgeth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. But he that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because he eateth not out of faith. For whatsoever is not out of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:22,23). By faith here is to be understood, not faith in the gospel, faith in Christ, which is not to be kept to oneself, but confessed and published to others, but the full persuasion in one’s own mind (v.5) that the free and moderate use of things indifferent is lawful.

The “strong” has faith in exercise of his Christian liberty. The “weak” does not; doubt robs him of the execution and enjoyment of his liberty. But where the strong has faith (in a matter adiaphoron), let him have it to himself before God, and not disturb his weak brother with untimely and out-of-place declarations of his faith, or untactful exercise of his liberties, To have faith before God, secretly hiding it from the weaker brother, for his sake until he becomes stronger, is not easy. But let him not flaunt his faith or his liberty before the weak. Rather let him rejoice to himself and before God in his privileges. For use of privilege has root in faith. I may in good conscience and before God perform a certain given practice which another in his good (but weaker) conscience cannot. If my example or practice perplexes, causes doubtful action, emboldening one to go against conscience, it is wrong in that it encourages to sin. Unrestrained exercise of Christian liberty is not always right. The “strong” is right, his faith is right, his exercise of his liberty is right in itself, but he may not display his freedom in such a way that he practically forces his faith down the throat of a weaker brother. There are times when the strong must practice abstinence, in deference to the weak. There are times when the strong must sacrifice his liberty, yet never may he sacrifice his love. Christian liberty is not an absolute liberty to do as we choose, but a regulated liberty to enjoy life according to the Word of God without hindrance from man. Therefore liberty must bow to love. Love never fails. Love suffers long and is kind. Love bears all things. Liberty, as a matter of fact, is always limited by love — sometimes by love for the brother, always by love for self (Matt. 22:39; Eph. 5:28, 29) and love for God (John 14:21,23). Liberty must often wait for its time. Love’s time is always. I like what Tennyson wrote in a certain passage of his “Love and Duty,” True, he did not always put human thought in a way most acceptable to the Christian. For example, I cannot agree with him that love may take part against itself, or that duty may oust the betrothed maiden of love from our wedded embrace and say, “I am thy bride!” But let me abstract these words of his from the use he intended and pour into them the Christian content of the above Scripture and thought.

“Wait, and Love himself will bring

The drooping flower of knowledge changed to fruit
Of wisdom. Wait, my faith is large in Time,
And that which shapes it to some perfect end.
Will someone say, ‘Then why not ill for good?
Why took ye not your pastime?’ To that man
My work shall answer, since I knew the right
And did it; for a man is not as God,
But then most God-like being most a man!”

“Happy is he that judgeth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.” This is the man with a good, clear conscience who will not argue and rationalize as permissable that which he secretly (in his conscience) condemns. An action may be indifferent, yet if a man regards it as sinful he ought not to venture into it while such a misconception persists in his thinking. The application of cosmetics to the face in order to improve the personal appearance is by some deemed a sign of worldliness. A generous and judicious use of soap, toothpaste, toilet lanolin, deodorant cream and deodorant powder also lend improvement to the outward appearance, yet worldliness would not necessarily be involved, whereas cleanliness would. However, if cosmetical exterior decoration, no matter how modest, be presumed a worldly custom, then to employ it while so convinced would be a sin. To be unconvinced of the lawfulness of a thing and yet to indulge in it, to take in an area where one has doubts, is to sin against one’s own conscience. It is wrong to put a difference on things where there is none, but he who does so, esteeming a perfectly legitimate thing to be unclean, then to him it is unclean (Rom. 14: 14). Objectively, however, i.e., actually, “all things are pure, but it is evil” for one to do anything with offence (14:20), in doubt (23), in presumption or in trusting one’s own judgment (22) failing to see God’s judgment in the matter.

“But he that doubts (has misgivings, is in suspense, halts between two opinions) is condemned if he eat, because he eats not out of faith,’’ i.e., not out of knowledge and heart-assurance. Whenever we do that which we are not sure is right, we do wrong. It is wrong to do anything we think to be wrong even if the thing in itself is not wrong. Whatever a man’s conscience deems wrong, to him it is wrong. To him it is not indifferent, but definitely sinful. His own (poor) judgment is that it is a No. Yet he sees the practice of the other which urges and pushes him into a Yes. He therefore commits sin because he does not act on the principle of faith. Whatever does not come out of our faith comes out of our flesh, and is therefore sin. This means, too, that whatever comes out of one not a Christian is nothing but sin. Even the “virtues” of a non-Christian are sin, because he has no faith at all and is nothing but flesh (John 3:6). He does nothing but sin. His vestigial glimmerings of natural light, his intellectual knowledge of God, his natural knowledge of natural things, his appreciation of the difference between good and evil, his regard for virtue, his good order and good development in society, his employment of things natural and civil, — all this light—he does not only NOT use a-right, but is incapable of doing so, and, furthermore, renders it all, not merely spotted with imperfection, but wholly polluted, and holds it all down in unrighteousness! (Canons III, IV, 4). It is not beside the point here to examine the Westminster Confession on Good Works, VII, which states, “Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they, may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others, yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word, nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.” The reprobate and unregenerate may do many things which in themselves are what God commands. These works may be good relative to their fellows, but not relative to God. At best, all of man’s best works are not only inadequate, but ungodly. What if an unregenerate outwardly conforms to the command? What if he does not steal? What if he does protect the property of his neighbor? There is a difference between an action considered in itself, and considered in its motives and purpose. A work truly good in the sight of God is one which is motivated by faith, and the purpose of which is the glory of God. The works of the natural man are not of this character. All the natural virtues of man are sins in God’s sight. Truly, “whatsoever is not of faith is sin!’’ This precludes the lubricous contention that this axiom applies only to things indifferent, not to everything. For Paul says pan, everything, absolutely! This means, then, that the wicked, in the sight of God (the only point of view worth arguing about) are in all that they do, not merely “very far gone,” but “wholly gone from original righteousness,” and never do any good, but only evil continually. Whatsoever, whether a matter natural, civil, moral or spiritual, whatsoever is not of faith cannot be cleared of sin. Whatever cannot be done out of the principle of faith, ought not to be done! Works not performed on the basis of faith are not pleasing to God.

The conclusion of all this is, “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (15:1). Paul ranks himself among the strong, and teaches that the weak are they who have but a feeble grasp of the liberty Christ has provided. But what does it mean to bear the infirmities of the weak? Certainly not to bear with their petty whims, opinions and rules. It means to give practical aid and instruction to those lacking the light that the strong have. We are to please the neighbor “for his good to edification.” That is what is meant. It is not good to have any part of God’s will concealed from him. To take this, however, as do the weak, and the expression, ‘‘and not to please ourselves,” to mean that the strong should abstain from what the weak think, is wrong! Bearing their infirmities does not mean that we must forego something out of respect to the weak. It means to instruct him, and to expound to him the way of God more perfectly. Thus, he is edified. Thus, we bear his infirmities. And what are infirmities? The self-imposed abstinences due to ignorance of the truth. What is for the neighbor’s good? His further enlightenment in the teaching of the Word.

There are some things which are a matter of duty, necessity and command, which are regarded by others as matters indifferent. For example, attendance upon the ordinances of God are regarded as indifferent, to be used or not, according as the individual pleases. But since these things are not indifferent, are actually commanded, and therefore necessary, then we are bound to pay no attention to such opinions, to even scorn them. If the world will be offended at us for doing our duty, let it be offended. The world will criticize right conduct and strictness of life as sourness and puritanism, or as an ambition after reputation and singularity. But we must obey God rather than men.