There were in the days of the Reformation an influential group of men dubbed by the faithful as “Libertines.” While professing to be Christians, they made a mockery of true religion. For them, grace was a license to sin. Let the godly preachers say what they might about obedience to God’s holy law, and the Libertines responded with mantras still among us today: grace, freedom, Holy Spirit. Calvin once wrote that these men were a thousand times worse than the Roman Catholics, for at least the Romanists gave some attempt, however buried under their Pharisee-like traditions, to appeal to Scripture. Of these Libertines Calvin also wrote that they used the Holy Spirit like “table gravy, covering everything,” for they claimed to be led by him, even when they sinned. Thus, it was useless to argue Scripture with them, for they either fell back upon their right of private interpretation – “Scripture does not mean that to me” – even if their interpretation opposed the plain meaning of Scripture and the well-tested interpretations of God’s word among the godly in all ages, pled “Holy Spirit,” which supposedly freed them from the need for further defense or argumentation, or simply ridiculed those who tied themselves to a “dead book,” the Bible. For the Libertines, feeling and freedom were everything, and they were especially opposed to the Old Testament.
When our need to return to the old paths of Scripture has rarely been direr, with so many false teachers, doctrines, and paradigms sweeping the church into the abyss of relativism and irrelevance, we find the Libertine spirit alive and well. For some, it is all about the freedom of grace. This t-shirt definition of grace means in practice that one need not worry about being right and wrong concerning biblical truth, or be morally and theologically precise, or anxious to defend clear Scriptural doctrines and practices. This is harsh, unloving, and narrow-minded. These tendencies make one unable to relate to and capture the spirit of the age. It is like the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal, who for some represents believers who insist upon attending church regularly and hold fast to religious traditions with unswerving devotion, especially those whose rigorous beliefs make them unable to embrace the more free-spirited prodigal, who is the virtual hero of many segments of the emergent church. After all, who wants to be boring like the elder son: committed to serving his Father, diligent in his duties, obedient, and suspicious of the prodigal who has just wasted his patronage in sinful indulgence? It is claimed we need more openness to the prodigal, especially since our entire society is prodigal from the living God. Now, God certainly saves sinners and receives the repentant, humbled prodigal back home. The prodigal in our Lord’s parable, however, does not represent seekers outside the church but a rebellious young man within it. Yet the central point of our Lord’s parable is the glory of our Father’s mercy to wayward sinners, not a backhanded endorsement of free-spiritedness in religion and condemnation of religious orthodoxy and commitment to obeying our Father according to his word. Even assuming we should press the parable beyond this fundamental point – and it has always been a recognized danger in the interpretation of our Lord’s parables to look for hidden meaning and bizarre paradigms behind their secondary trappings – we might say that the elder son was too stingy in his understanding of divine love, not too narrow in his intolerance of sin.
This dangerous misinterpretation of grace elevates freedom beyond measure. Grace makes me so free I can virtually live as I please and never feel guilty before the living God for any sins I commit as a believer. After all, Jesus died for me; I am free, including freedom from worrying about those rather unpleasant details of God’s word that inhibit the free expression of my freedom in Christ. Against these, Paul strongly rejoined: “God forbid: whose damnation is just” (Rom. 3:8). Grace does not make us free to live as we please, believe what we want, or worship God in a way that gratifies our misguided feelings. Grace frees us from the tyranny of sin that we may be slaves of righteousness, as Paul so beautifully argues in his sixth chapter of Romans: “Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness” (6:18-20). And Peter, immediately after writing that we are free, adds: “not using liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16). He then proceeds to show that true freedom in Christ empowers us to live as our Savior walked, in all humility and submission, honoring and submitting to all men according as duty and station require obedience (v. 17). Freedom in Christ does not overturn the existing order God has established at Creation and reinforced in his commandments, as Peter’s directives to servants make clear (vv. 18-20). Instead, the freedom of grace is far more profound than these giddy spirits can ever imagine. It sanctifies even the most abusive human relationships, enables believers to imitate Christ in his submission to his Father’s will, and causes the gospel to extend throughout the world, not through exaggerated claims of doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and cultic freedom but through showing God’s power in the lives of those who truly know him, enabling them to obey his law and cheerfully endure abuses from unbelieving men. The gospel is not a calling card of “do your own thing;” it releases us from the miserable enslavement to sin and the self-willed life so that we may deny ourselves and find all our joy and peace in obeying our Father, as our Savior did (John 15:9-11).
Above all, however, the Libertine spirit manifests itself in its abhorrence of God’s law. Various paradigms are put forward to replace the ethical vacuum created once God’s law is rejected: the Sermon on the Mount, love, follow the Spirit, be a Jesus-freak, define your own spiritual quest. Once God’s law – his will revealed throughout Scripture, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and made efficacious in our hearts by the indwelling Spirit – is rejected as the “eternal rule of a devout and holy life,” as Calvin so beautifully described it, then the church enters a vortex of ethical relativism and spiritual immaturity. The new paradigms sound exciting and creative, but it is really nothing more than “every man for himself,” find your own meaning, and Christian living by slogan du jour, which explains why churches and leaders today more resemble chameleons than the deep-rooted tree that slowly but surely spreads deep roots into the safe and healthful soil of God’s word, bringing forth fruit in due season. Change, newness, and enthusiasm are all the rage among the Libertines, but not change unto holiness defined by God’s word, newness by the Spirit writing God’s law upon our hearts and minds with his invigorating power, and the enthusiasm that comes by enjoying God’s covenanted presence through submission to his living Word and Spirit.
Against all this dangerous silliness, our Lord made it clear that obedience to God’s law is the mark of his true disciples: not high-sounding religious language, mighty works, or self-justifying claims to be following him where he leads. “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” His response is terse and clear: “And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:21-23). The last word is critical. The Greek is “against the law,” anomia, from which we derive the English equivalent “antinomian.” What our Lord says here strikes at the very root of much that passes for genuine Christianity. Whatever one’s profession, whatever works one professes to have done in Christ’s name, if the heart is not submissive to God’s law and the life an active obedience to God’s law, that profession is illegitimate. Our Lord and his apostles, who constantly affirmed the continuing validity and authority of God’s holy law, make the test of Christian discipleship, the standard of judgment on the Last Day, to be conformity to God’s law. And as God’s will is not otherwise known than by close, careful, and humble study of his revealed will in Scripture, his warning cannot be evaded by the often heard statement, “I am seeking and doing God’s will,” when the Bible is treated as a manual of principles and paradigms to support the latest spiritual fads or some sort of spiritual portal to encounter God and find new spiritual meaning. What is written is God’s word and will.
Our Lord does not hereby encourage a cold, joyless, legalistic way of life. Admittedly, this is the prevailing response to calls for a return to God’s law. How often have we responded to a preacher’s impassioned plea to read and study God’s word or that what our churches and nation most require at this moment is a heartfelt return to God’s word with a certain degree of coldness, as if we have heard all this before, with the desire for the preacher to give us something new? Quiet, consistent, prayerful study and meditation upon God’s wondrous word does not attract in an age addicted to flickering screens, instant messaging, and “doing something useful that will change things and be relevant.” Ah, how immature we are: can we do anything of lasting kingdom significance and honoring to God unless we are being quietly remade in his image and deeply sifted by his word? Each one of us has this nasty little desire to find joy on our terms, to live as we think best, to be free from having to confine ourselves to what is written in an old book. Our age’s priorities and loves feed this but only because the root was already present. But none ever possessed more sincere warmth for men, genuine joy, or deeper peace than our Savior. He tells us the reason. “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:10-11). Here is the path laid out for us: love and joy through obedience.
We have forgotten something very important. Only God can tell us what happiness is, where it is to be found, how to obtain it. Even more, our only happiness lies in holiness – not doing our own thing, sinning without guilt under the guise of grace, relating to men without being concerned with inconvenient truth so that we can really reach them where they are. God has made us in such a way that all true joy and peace come to us only when we walk with him in obedience to his will. Our Savior saved us by this path; the Spirit leads God’s true children only in this path; the Bible alone shows us this path. Hence, if there is coldness in us, the fault does not lie with God’s law but with our worldly hearts that constantly crave some other path of happiness. If we do not have joy, it is because we are not walking as our Savior walked: in submission to his Father’s revealed will. And as for legalism, this charge can only be laid against those who follow man-made paths and principles for living, who feel their consciences bound and their spirits elevated only when they follow the latest fads of doctrine and worship. It is never true of those who, humbled by the redeeming love of God in Christ, seek to obey God’s law with thankful hearts, only too delighted to submit to the will of our merciful Father who has saved us by his grace and set us free from our own stupidity that we might serve him according to his word. This is grace; this is freedom; this is where the Spirit leads; this is joy.
The Lord is driving his church back to his law. Look around you. Social conservatism has largely failed and will fail more exactly because it is built upon a foundation of moral relativism and seeks common political ground with Christ-haters. The sheer force of current events will eventually so humble the church before the throne of God that she will be forced to reaffirm her ancient commitment to the City of God ruled by the law of God, and will likely suffer for it before the dawn of God’s help and reformation arises. There is no other alternative: God’s law or tyranny in society; God’s law or immaturity, vanity, and compromise in the church. Libertinism will not save or better our marriages; it will make them worse. It will not give us strength to resist the wiles of the devil; it will make us his dupes at best and slaves at worst. It certainly will not withstand the tidal wave of lawlessness that is beguiling many of our young; it will distract them from the true path of godliness and leave the church in the next generation more impotent than she is now, if that is possible. Libertinism, under whatever version, is simply lawlessness under a cloak of spirituality, a form of godliness lacking power, words without substance, and feelings without foundation. Grace is not free; its price was the precious blood of the Son of God. Our freedom does not consist in “following the Spirit” as an excuse to do what we want but in submitting to his mind revealed in Scripture. Jesus Christ is not silly-putty that can be remade as we see fit; he is the suffering-Savior who obeyed his Father perfectly and delivered us from our chains so that we might be the willing servants of God Most High and walk as he walked: in submission to the will of God (1 John 2:6). Let him never ask us: “And why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say” (Luke 6:46).