Christian Liberty in Real Life
Christian Liberty Briefly Described
Christians rightly exult in the truth that God amazingly sets them free from the slavery of sin and self by means of the glorious death of Christ. Romans 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.1 We, along with those newly converted Jewish believers, never tire of hearing the great news declared by Jesus himself, John 8:32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33 They answered Him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, 'You will become free '?" 34 Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 "The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
So, it should not surprise us to learn that a freedom from legalism in daily life flows from this freedom from slavery to sin. Freedom in position begets freedom in practice. The New Testament says it directly in Romans 6:12; 10:23, “All things are lawful….” The term “lawful” comes from a verb and a preposition put together literally meaning to be out of (ἔξειμι). Hence to go out or depart/leave – so Jesus was “going out” of the temple (Mark 13:1). Hence, the idea non-literally is that there are no restrictions – we can come or go as we wish! We can even depart from tradition!! Thus, the NIV may bring clarity by rendering, “All things are permissible….”
This crucial concept is referred to as Christian liberty. I have chosen to express it as anything that is not prohibited is permitted. No matter how it is expressed, it is an incredible notion. This is a rule of life that supersedes all rules. As a basic starting assumption I am permitted to do anything. This is a divine formula for daily living. Wow! Don’t forget this; it is a game changer. I am happy to report that we have enthusiastically embraced this biblical truth for decades here at First Baptist. I realize that in many Reformed churches a perceived tradition, or a confession, or the views of leaders are adhered to with nearly as much zeal as the Scriptures. Sometimes a tight noose is thrown around members who are expected to fall in line with the party position. Frankly, that is not what we are all about here at FBC. We heartily and unapologetically embrace the precious doctrines of grace. But we also joyously advocate and practice the transforming truth of Christian liberty. We strive for unity, not uniformity. We understand that God desires of us unity of relationship, not necessarily uniformity of opinions and resultant practices.
Consequently, Christian liberty means that Christians are free to follow the dictates of their own conscience regarding “all things”; Romans 14:5 One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. What a novel and refreshing idea! No wonder Paul boldly declares, Galatians 5:1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Why would a Christian, in Esau-like fashion, want to trade this liberating birthright for a mess legalistic stew (Genesis 25:30-34)?
Questions to Consider Before Using Christian Liberty
Before we gleefully tear through life under the blissful warrant of liberty there are certain factors we first must think about. In the days before GPS, a smart navigator always consulted a map before beginning a journey to unfamiliar parts. In the same way, the Christian pauses in order to get oriented before beginning. This pause, if characterized by sober reflection on the Scripture, should cause us to see some limiting factors that point us toward voluntarily restricting our liberty. I have chosen to get at this by means of simple questions that we must ask ourselves. I have not unpacked these questions in detail here nor have I dealt with all possible questions and related principles. However, I believe this brief treatment will move us in the right direction.
The main question: Has God spoken?
The principle of liberty is limited by the clear teachings and prohibitions of Scripture. The “all things” must be restricted to things that are not forbidden or commanded by God in Scripture. If he says “don’t” we have no choice – liberty doesn’t apply. If he says “do” we must – liberty doesn’t apply. “All things” cannot be taken in the absolute sense. For example, God says, “do not get drunk” (Ephesians 5:18). Sorry, intoxication is always a sin. He says, “do not be anxious” (Philippians 4:6). Worry is not an acceptable trait. He says, “flee immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18); if you don’t run from it you sin. You get the idea. God publishes many specific directives as well as general principles regarding how to go about daily life.
In other words, there is such a thing as moral absolutes. Liberty doesn’t lead to ethical and moral relativism. Wrong is wrong. I know this sounds old fashioned in our post-modern era of no boundaries. But when God clearly speaks through the Word, the matter is settled. Debate over. Conformity is expected; John 14:15 "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
On the other hand, when God is silent, we are free to follow the dictates of our Holy Spirit directed conscience. It follows then, that Christians will differ on matters that are not prescribed. So Christian liberty also addresses what our perspective should be when Christians differ with each other over matters not prescribed in the Bible. That is why we must strive for unity not uniformity.
When a Christian must decide whether or not he should participate in an event or engage in a certain practice several factors may need to be considered. Not all of the following questions may be applicable to any one given situation; however all do need to be in the Christian’s decision-making tool kit.
Will it violate my conscience? If you doubt the rightness of it, then don’t do it. To ignore your conscience and do so anyway is sin. Romans 14:22 The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. 23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.
Will it cause someone else to violate his conscience? We do live in community. Like it or not, what we do often has an impact on others. 1 Corinthians 8:10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? Romans 14:13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this-- not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way. How does a fellow brother “stumble”? Clearly we are not suggesting that if a fellow Christian is distressed by your conduct you have violated his conscience. Rather what is involved is that the fellow Christian has been emboldened to do what you do even though his conscience tells him not to. This is stumbling. And sadly, when one Christian causes another Christian to sin by violating his conscience, he also sins. 1 Corinthians 8:12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
Will the gospel be impeded? Notice how Paul expressed his passion for the gospel and for the unconverted. 1 Corinthians 9:12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 1 Corinthians 9:19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 1 Corinthians 9:22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. 1 Corinthians 10:32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God. We need to routinely think in larger terms than our interests. What about the gospel? How will what I do affect the gospel ministry? Unfortunately too many of us do not think gospel first. This also means we must be alarmed about the eternal future of the unconverted. We all have unsaved neighbors, friends, family members, or colleagues. What about them?
Will it have good results? 1 Corinthians 6:12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable…. 1 Corinthians 10:23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable…. Note the variety of translations of this word – “profitable” (NAU); “helpful” (ESV); “expedient” (KJV); “beneficial” (NIV). The term has the literal notion of to bring or carry together with. Might it have the idea that not everything fits with the bigger picture of godliness after which we strive? So, in the impersonal sense it means something that is good. We must be forward thinking; will this turn out to the advantage of others and myself?
Will it become a platform for sin? The opening verses of 1 Corinthians 8 indicate that this doctrine of liberty was being misunderstood by the Corinthian church; in fact, it was undoubtedly being abused. Certain professing believers were using this doctrine as a cover for questionable conduct if not as a license to sin. Not only were they insisting on their right to eat meat offered to idols no matter if other members of the church were offended by the practice. Some may have gone so far as to suggest that it was even acceptable to join the festival-meals at the pagan temple. Galatians 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 1 Peter 2:16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bond slaves of God.
Will it look right? Occasionally in real life a certain thing may be good innately, but it may appear bad. This possibility is addressed in 1 Thessalonians 5:22; abstain from every form of evil. The term “form” (eidoj) means that which is seen externally. Hence, the KJV translates “appearance.” This appearance of evil may not have any basis in reality; however the Christian must limit his right to engage in the practice. Undoubtedly this restriction of liberty protects the reputation of Christ and promotes the welfare of others.
Will I be comfortable in divine company? The truth of the matter is that God himself accompanies us on life’s journey. 1 Corinthians 6:19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?We must take Jesus at his word, Matthew 28:20 … and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." This consideration gives substance to the often trite quip, “what would Jesus do”?
Will I surrender control? God’s expectation for us is crystal clear, 1 Corinthians 6:12 … All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. This means that I will not be mastered by a certain thing from among the permitted things; namely a certain thing that masters me. And, what masters you may not master someone else and vice versa! The thing itself may be morally neutral; however being mastered by it is not. When something has addictive capacity for us the red flags should go up all over the place! We must ask if this thing, whatever it is, has the potential for addiction. “Mastered” is a strong word. The term carries the idea of rule or reign over by exercising authority therefore NIV has “under the power of” (exousia).
Will it glorify God? This is undoubtedly the most significant a Christian can ask as he/she contemplates exercising liberty in non-proscribed matters. It certainly is the high-water mark in Paul’s liberty discourse in 1 Corinthians 8-10. 1 Corinthians 10:31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. So, how should this play out in our life? It means that we should do all things in such a way that God may be glorified. It speaks to the question of how we live. In other words, will others see Christ in our actions? Will our actions be a light that exposes God’s generous character? Will men praise the God who we profess to worship? Will they sense that God is present? What is our purpose for living? These are big questions! A similar idea is stated in Colossians 3:17: Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
All Christians should formulate personal preferences regarding non-proscribed matters. Of course, care must be taken so as not to elevate these preferences to the level of Scriptural fiat. We all can easily make this mistake. Almost without realizing it we can demand that other Christians adopt the same practices and pass judgment upon them if they don’t. NAU Romans 14:5 One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
All Christians should accept those who differ with them. Liberty allows for a difference of opinion and practice regarding non-proscribed matters. Romans 14:3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.
All Christians would do well to adopt a Christ oriented philosophy of life. Thinking through a Biblical philosophy of life should give us pause as we wrestle with liberty decisions. Perhaps Paul was on to something when he declared Romans 14:7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; 8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.
Never surrender your liberty. We end where we began.
1 Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations taken from NAU……
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.