Sunday, August 2, 2009

Christian Liberty

There are few topics more misunderstood in our profession today than Christian liberty. I myself have stumbled over the freedom that we have in Christ, and err toward legalism more than I ought. Others I know who confess Christ tend to stray into license, or using the name of Christ to do whatever they wish, either since they are saved and do not fear wrath, or do not understand what they are doing. Through ignorance or deliberation much damage has been done to the idea and reality of Christian liberty.

The lengthiest doctrine for Christian liberty is found in Romans chapter 14, where Paul lays the groundwork for this incredible teaching. Our first instruction is that mature Christians are to receive those who are weak in the faith, I would wager largely because of their youth, and do not receive them to dispute with them. This simply means that many preconceived notions we have before we are saved carry over into our new life in Christ, and an older believer is not to hold this against the newcomer. Within this context, we shall examine the chapter. There is a kind of Christian whose spiritual walk has so led him that he does not consider food, drink, holidays, or other material or ritual things offensive any longer, for he knows that there is nothing in them to commend him to God, or condemn him before God. The new believer, or weak believer may read such things, but the weight of his conscience still crushes him, and he feels that he must observe (or denounce) Easter, avoid beef during the prescribed days of Lent, and refrain from so much as setting foot in a Muslim or Hindu shrine for any reason.

This chapter is actually directed more to the mature believer than to the babe in Christ. While the weak believer is directed not to judge the older believer because they walk at liberty, the older Christian is not to despise the weak brother because they yet have their reservations about certain habits, activities, or functions. To the mature believer it is said to keep his good from being spoken of as evil, and to have his faith to himself. Refrain from placing a stumbling block before a weak brother because you are confident in your liberty. The babe in Christ is yet fragile, and a mature Christian's seemingly lazy spiritual attitude may destroy a newcomer's desire even to pursue such a life further. It is not that the mature believer is indeed lazy in this regard, but that the weak Christian is not built up enough to understand that a believer's life does not have to be rigid law. Paul elsewhere says, "Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak," 1st Corinthians 8:9. If a young believer follows your lead without knowledge, they do not know that it is safe for them to walk in such a way, so their walk is not in faith. Whatever is not done in faith is sin, Romans 14:23.

There is a balance to be struck between the mature Christian and the babe in Christ; guidelines if you will, that are settled to protect us from ourselves, and so we do not turn our liberty into license or legalism. These are the grey areas that a Christian must enter with conviction, fully assured that what they are doing before God and men is permissible, and acceptable to the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us.

A simple list of tests (far from exhaustive) how to determine whether an action is acceptable to a Christian are as follows: the act in question is pleasing to the Lord (Romans 14:23, 1st Corinthians 10:23), it is consistent with our new life (2nd Corinthians 5:14-15), the Holy Spirit leads us in that direction (1st Corinthians 6:19-20, Galatians 5:16-18), the act won't hinder or harm our Christian witness (Romans 14:13,21, 1st Thessalonians 5:22), We won't be in danger of becoming addicted (1 Corinthians 6:12, Ephesians 5:18), Jesus set us an example (1st Peter 2:21, 1st John 2:6), we are confident the action brings glory to God (Colossians 3:23). If it is a list someone would require, saying: "what are these grey areas?", I humbly submit these items forward. These tend to arouse controversy (some of which I have been involved in one side or another). This list again is not exhaustive, nor is it intended to be, since every case is individual concerning what is permissible for you. The list includes: smoking, tattoos, piercings, holidays, music genre, horror/violent movies, dare-devil sports (cliff diving, bungee-jumping, etc). While there may be warnings in Scripture about the nature of the items listed, such things are not strictly forbidden, and therefore every Christian must come to them on their own terms, in good conscience...or not at all as the case may be.

There is a score of simple advice given in Scripture to use as a litmus test, to see whether we ought to be doing what we are doing. We are not to use our liberty as a cloak or covering to perform evil, but to serve God (1st Peter 2:16). Having been called to liberty, we should not use such freedom to indulge the flesh, but rather to serve others in love (Galatians 5:13). We are to continue in the law of liberty, and prove an effectual doer of the word, not a forgetful hearer; and that such persevering will be blessed by God (James 1:25).

What is this law of liberty? By our liberty serve our Lord and serve others freely and cheerfully, looking every man to another's wealth and not his own. In essence, we have here the greatest commandments according to our Lord Jesus Christ; to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. So perhaps there is something else to be deduced from this: it is not really a question of "is this wrong for me to do?" but more importantly, "is it right for me to do?" Do you improve or build up others, or do you glorify God? Just because you can do something, does not always mean that one should plunge straight in and do it. If there is no benefit, then is there a point?

We are to serve God with our body, Romans 12:1. We are to abhor what is evil and cleave to what is good, 12:9. Therefore there remains a distinction allowed between these two (good and evil), and it is a Christian's lot to avoid even the appearance of evil, 1st Thessalonians 5:22. We are called to be holy in all manner of conduct, 1st Peter 1:15. Good and evil are not abstract terms, but absolute realities which exist separate and apart from us. Something is either good or evil, no matter how you attempt to interpret the fact. To murder is evil; to commit adultery is evil, to lie (even a 'white' lie) is evil; to be hospitable is good; to practice mercy is good; to care for fallen men and to give them the gospel of Jesus Christ is good. To withhold the gospel, knowing it but being afraid or apathetic, is evil.

Some may defend their position by light of today's low standards, but God does not change and has no such fallen, human standards. To commit adultery and call it 'love' is still evil. At best we are sorely misguided on what constitutes a relationship; at worst we are masking our lust with pretty terms, deceiving even ourselves. To kill an unborn child is evil. Exodus 21:22-23 records something akin to abortion. If a man were to harm a pregnant woman so she miscarried, the loss of life would be the death penalty for that man in question. Obviously an infant unborn is still an infant, equipped with all of the personality and soul they shall have when born into this world. By aborting them, you are murdering, which is evil. Christians are not at liberty to conduct themselves in such ways. Peter informs us that before we were saved we spent enough time wasting our lives in such a manner, 1st Peter 4:3.

Paul's command even enters our manner of speaking when he tells us, "But fornication, and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh the saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks," Ephesians 5:3-4. Also see Ephesians 4:29, which exhorts a believer to speak no corrupt word, but only that which is good for edification. Again, it seems to turn toward how our conduct in daily life serves others or magnifies God, not how it pleases us. We were not set at liberty to serve ourselves. Christians are to lay aside all evil speaking, 1st Peter 2:1; instead we are exhorted to speak the truth in love for the building of the body of Christ, Ephesians 4:15.

I do not say such things to try and leash anyone, God forbid, but to warn and edify. Be careful, you who name the name of Christ, that your liberty does not do terrible damage to your potential witness. People are listening more than we know, and what we say reflects upon us, and the Lord who purchased us. We would do well not to be gossips or busybodies, 1st Timothy 5:13, which Paul denounces as unfit for Christian behavior but is so fashionable and enjoyable today. James gives the most succinct description of our choice of words: "the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! and the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell," James 3:5-6.

Again, I'm not trying to bridle anyone, but before a Christian makes a decision on what to do, or what is permissible, perhaps forethought and discernment should be exercised. As we  mature by the Holy Spirit's work within us and our reliance on God's word we attain discernment. The Holy Spirit says, "Everyone who partakes only of milk (the elementary teachings of the Bible and the gospel) is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food (deeper teachings brought out by diligent, Spirit led, study) belongs to those who are of full age, that is, who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil," Hebrews 5:13-14. How does one attain this discernment? By reason of using it! It requires exercise to grow and become strong, and become habit for us, to safeguard us from poor choices. How is this accomplished? I only offer my personal counsel here. When given opportunity to partake of something, anything at all, first recall whether Scripture clearly forbids the practice. Murder, adultery, fornication, lying, homosexuality, etc, are clearly forbidden for a believer to enjoin himself to. Any action which Scripture casts as evil is not to be enjoyed by a believer.

If no clear red flag arises, you may have passed the first exam. I do exhort all brothers and sisters: you cannot know Scripture well enough! Become familiar with God's word, because it is the truth, and it is given to us not only for salvation, but to protect us and guide us. We need the words of the Holy Spirit to witness to others, defend the faith, and to test the spirits. How else will you know anything if God's word is foreign to you? How will you know the fraud unless you become familiar with the authentic? You won't, and you will succumb to many hurts, and be spiritually impotent, and cry out to God as to why your life is like this. But how can we know God's will for us unless we learn His word intimately?

The Holy Spirit does not act apart from the Scriptures He inspired prophets and apostles to write. Psalm 119:11 says, "Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You." In fact Psalm 119 is 176 verses of praise regarding God's written, inspired, infallible revelation, which we are to live by. It is our necessary food; in fact it is more precious, Job 23:12. The Bible is also the sword of the Spirit by which a Christian may do battle, Ephesians 6:17. Will you march into battle without a weapon? How shameful would that be to your Captain!

This is why I stress that you must know Scripture thoroughly. When a clear command is not given, now enters the practice and gift of discernment. Yes, discernment is a gift, and an apparently rare one, perhaps from lack of use. The very things brought to us by the Spirit of God are spiritually discerned, and we are assured that such is the only way we can receive them, 1st Corinthians 2:14.

There are many topics that wander into the grey area, uncovered by Scripture, or perhaps not directly covered. Take slavery for example. On both the Old and the New Testament there are concessions regarding slaves and their treatment. Never is there a direct statement by God saying, "Thou shalt not take to thee a slave!" Yet anyone who knows the heart of God, how He liberated Israel from Egypt, and how He liberates men from the yoke of sin and Satan, does not approve of slavery. Paul's nearest account is in 1st Corinthians when he says, "Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it," 7:21. He also appeals to Philemon over Onesimus, Philemon's runaway slave. Jesus tenderly called out to everyone weary and heavy laden to come to Him for rest, Matthew 11:28-29. He also delighted in releasing captives from Satan's power, like the woman debilitated 18 years, Luke 13:11-17.

Does God want us to have slaves? He gives rules on their fair and humane treatment, yet this does not mean He condones the idea. Polygamy is another issue. In the Old Testament God gave concessions through Moses about the proper treatment of unfavored wives (see Exodus 21:10-11 for a start), but does this mean He approves of the act, or merely knows men are going to do it, because it pleases them? Knowing our evil hearts, He instituted rules of conduct. In the New Testament Jesus sets the matter more clearly. "Because of the hardness of your heart [Moses] wrote you this precept (about divorce). But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate," Mark 10:5-9. Now judge, does Jesus endorse polygamy? Here is where spiritual discernment is crucial, or our flesh will get the better of us, convince us that all is well, and we will stray into sin, striving to please the lusts of the flesh. "For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish," Galatians 5:17.

If your choice is bound to produce any fruit from this forthcoming list, that would be a red flag to abstain, and practice discernment: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, Galatians 5:19-21. It is well to surround yourself with the godly, people who will care about your spiritual health, and love you. Entrust yourself to fellowship with like-minded believers, to pray and meditate on God's word together. Where you are weak, do not enter that arena, but like Joseph flee from your formerly darling sin. If it is gambling, run far. If it is alcohol, do not go near it, or anyone who will entice you to do likewise. If it is lust, perhaps, just perhaps, you should find a husband or wife and marry. It is better to marry than to burn with lust, 1st Corinthians 7:9. "Do not be deceived: Evil company corrupts good habits," 1st Corinthians 15:33. Some people will lead you into temptation without thinking about it; others may do so because they don't care. But you are answerable to God and your own conscience, not to them. Refrain when wisdom dictates. It may be the Spirit trying to guard you from error.

I pray this exhortation on Christian liberty was helpful at all to any who read. We all struggle together as we follow the Spirit's lead, and stumble many times. But look before you leap and save yourself a possible world of hurt by doing something utterly contrary to your God's will in the name of liberty. It may be something you consider small, but Christ's sacrifice on the cross for us is priceless; do not use your liberty to shame your Savior. Christ died to set us at liberty as sons of God, to serve one another, not to live selfishly for our own pursuits. May the Holy Spirit continue to lead us into all truth. Amen.

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All Scripture is taken from the King James Bible (KJV) or New King James Bible (NKJV). Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.