THE LIMITS OF
"You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature (i.e., the flesh); rather, serve one another in love."
Galatians 5:13 (NIV)
We have reached a time in the history of Christianity in which it is very popular not to emphasize good works as an essential part of salvation. If you talk too much about good works, people will call you a "legalist," one who believes we must follow various laws and rules to be saved. They will say that you are in bondage, and that God has called us to be free. "We are free," they say, "we are not bound by a bunch of written laws any more. God loves us and forgives us forever no matter what we may do. We don't have to strain up trying to live by some set of rules. Good works don't save us anyway. We have liberty to do whatever we want to do."
Christians have liberty, it is true, but we need to realize there are some restrictions on that liberty. According to Galatians 5:13, which is quoted above, we are free, but not "to indulge the sinful nature." We must not use our freedom as an "opportunity or excuse for selfishness," as this same verse reads in the Amplified version. Also, the apostle Peter explicitly warns in 1 Peter 2:16 (NIV), "Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God." In The Living Bible, that verse reads like this: "You are free from the law, but that doesn't mean you are free to do wrong. Live as those who are free to do only God's will at all times."
As Christians, we don't have very many specific laws commanding us what to do and what not to do. Instead, God has given us several spiritual guidelines and principles to govern every area of our lives. It is our duty to live within those guidelines. It is our privilege to do whatever we want to do as long as we don't violate one of these principles. We are free and at liberty to live however we want to live as long as we stay within the spiritual guidelines God has given us.
What are some of these guidelines? The scriptures above contain one of the most important guidelines of all: Never use your freedom from rules and regulations to indulge your flesh, but live only to do God's will at all times. Here are two more very important guidelines by which Christians of all ages, times and places must govern their lives: "So then, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you may do, do all for the honor and glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31), and "Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus..." (Colossians 3:17).
Thus, we are free, but free to do only God's will. We can do whatever we want to do, as long as it's God's will. We can do whatever we want to do, as long as it is done "to the honor and glory of God." We can do or say or go or think whatever we want to, as long as it is done "in the name of the Lord Jesus."
What does it mean to "do all in the name of the Lord Jesus?" It means to do it on His behalf. As The Living Bible renders this verse, it means "whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus." It means that, since Jesus is up in heaven and no longer on earth, you, as His agent, will do it for Him. Thus, if you decide to cuss your neighbor out, don't forget that you're doing it as a representative of Jesus Christ. When you realize this, you will soon see why, as a Christian, you cannot cuss your neighbor out or "give him a piece of your mind:" it just cannot be done in the name of Jesus nor to the glory of God. If you decide to mistreat your wife, remember that you are doing it to her just as if Jesus is doing it to her. You could actually say, as you smash her in the face, "Jesus asked me to beat you," which is, of course, not true. Viewing it like this, you will probably not want to treat her that way. It would be very difficult for her to believe that Jesus is beating her, screaming at or ridiculing her.
In this age in which so many are so concerned about avoiding legalism, this is what I've noticed: we are free all right, but very few Christians use their freedom for spiritual purposes. Instead, the majority of Christians use their freedom from written rules and laws to indulge their flesh and to fulfill their selfish desires. Because there are very few written rules and regulations, and because there are no human taskmasters standing over us threatening to beat us or stone us to death if we don't live right, we tend to live as selfishly as we think we can get away with.
Let me mention some common practices where Christians abuse their liberty and indulge their flesh:
The New Testament never really says it's a sin to stay home from church. So you are free to stay home and watch the football game if you want to. Or tinker around in your yard. Yes, you can even get a job on Sundays so that you show up at church only about once or twice every three months. The pastor is not going to make you come to church, and the deacon is not going to come looking for you with a big stick. You are free. But you are using your freedom to indulge your flesh, and that kind of freedom God never gave you.
The New Testament never really says that we must tithe ten percent of our income to the Lord. Actually, we are free to give whatever we want to the Lord. But it would never make spiritual sense for us living under grace, in which Jesus Christ now claims to own us 100 percent, to give less than those under the Mosaic Law, in which God only claimed ten percent. Thus, we say that tithing is where we start in our giving. God really wants more. But do most Christians tithe? By no means! As a whole, Christians give an average of only three or four percent of their income to the Lord. Nobody's going to stone you to death for doing this, but, brother, this is a definite abuse of your freedom.
Several stories could be told about this subject, but I'll just mention one that I partially remember. A Christian went to worship with his Jewish friend one Sabbath day. When it came time for the offering, the Jewish friend took out his checkbook, wrote a check, and laid it on the collection plate. The Christian was very curious, and asked to see how much the check was for. It was a check for $75. "Abraham," the Christian exclaimed, "do you always give this much to your synagogue?" "Why, yes," replied Abraham, "we are required to give a tenth of our income to the Lord. How do you Christians do it?" "Oh, it's simple," answered the Christian. "We don't need a law to tell us how much to give. We just pay all of our bills and things, then give the church whatever is left over." "Wow!" replied Abraham. "Almost persuadest thou me to be a Christian!"
Another way in which many Christians abuse their liberty concerns foreign substances of various types that they take into their bodies. The New Testament never specifically mentions one word about smoking cigarettes or taking drugs or the like. It says very little about drinking alcoholic beverages, (although it does emphatically condemn getting drunk). So does that give us the liberty to smoke and drink and take drugs? Definitely not! First of all, all of these substances are poisonous and harmful to the body. Millions of people die each year from smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. But remember, our Christian guidelines say that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, do all to the glory of God and in the name of Jesus. So how can I destroy my body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), to the glory of God? How can I gradually kill myself in the name of Jesus?
But in addition to the above guidelines, we have a few more. In 1 Corinthians 10:23 (Amplified), the apostle Paul writes: "All things are legitimate-permissible, and we are free to do anything we please; but not all things are helpful (expedient, profitable, and wholesome). All things are legitimate, but not all things are constructive [to character] and edifying [to spiritual life]." And again in 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul writes, "Everything is permissible for me-allowable and lawful; but not all things are helpful-good for me to do...Everything is lawful for me, but I will not become the slave of anything or be brought under its power."
So then, these foreign substances, like nicotine, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, etc., are all addictive, and therefore violate the principle Paul mentions here. He will not allow himself to be brought under the power of anything but the Holy Spirit. Anything that masters you and addicts you is wrong for a child of God to indulge in. Anything that controls and enslaves you and prevents God from having complete control of your soul, body, and mind, is wrong. Anything that alters your state of mind so that you are not in control of your faculties is wrong. A Christian is not free to indulge in those practices.
This takes in many other things, in fact, all of the things that create either mental or physical obsessive behaviors. Gambling is addictive. (It is also a huge waste of the money you claim belongs to God.) Shopping can get to be addictive. There are all kinds of sexual addictions. TV is addictive. Indeed, there is no limit to the number and types of human bad habits. But everything that brings you under its power violates this principle.
There's so much of modern human life about which there are few or no written rules in the Bible. Therefore, we feel free to go where we want to go and do what we want to do. We read whatever we want to read. We work at whatever kind of job we want to work at. We spend our money however we want to spend it. We associate with whomever we want to associate with. We wear whatever kind of clothes we like. We listen to whatever kind of music we like.
We don't want anyone telling us what to do or how to live our lives. We don't want anybody limiting our freedom. But the truth is, we are free, all right, but only to live holy lives that honor and glorify God from top to bottom. Therefore, if what you are wearing is not modest or does not honor God, or is designed to increase sex appeal, attract undue attention, or identify you with a negative element of society, then those clothes are not for Christians. If the music you like appeals only to the flesh and does not truly glorify God or make you more spiritual, then that music is not for Christians. If you can't imagine Jesus getting involved in your activities, then those activities are not for Christians.
But whatever you do, don't forget: it's got to be upbuilding; it's got to be expedient, something that a Christ-like person would be involved in. It's got to be something that does not control and enslave you. It's got to be something that honors and glorifies God. And it's got to be something that Jesus Christ Himself could and would do. If it's not, then you are indulging your flesh and abusing and misusing your freedom. And in so doing, you are violating the clear commands of God in Galatians 5:13 and 1 Peter 2:16.
The New Testament never says that it's a sin to be rich. It never says that it's wrong to be a workaholic, and work yourself to death. But countless millions of us Christians have gotten mixed up in our priorities and are out dreaming about and working hard for wealth, luxury, leisure, and financial security, as if these things are the highest good and the ultimate goals of life. Nobody's going to beat you if you do this. We're not even going to say you're not a Christian. But we will say that you would never catch Jesus Christ lying around in a $2 million mansion, with servants and four or five luxury cars, squandering the time, money, and talents God has given Him, while the rest of the world is hungry, suffering, and, worst of all, on its way to a devil's hell.
There is no written rule in the New Testament that says it is wrong to go to the movies. Accordingly, many Christians feel free to go. But remember, when you go, you go as the representative of Jesus Christ. You go on His behalf. Can you see Him paying His good money to go watch the ungodly, evil-glorifying garbage Hollywood puts out today? Can you see Him stuffing His divinely pure and holy mind with vivid scenes of sex and illicit love and violence and gore and off-color foolishness? Can you imagine Him wasting His precious time entertaining Himself with such meaningless trash? Do you think He would sit for hours worshipping and adoring and making heroes and "role models" out of the low-life characters the world mistakenly calls "stars?"
For instance, why did the world think it's so unusual or remarkable for the famous actor Hugh Grant to be found stooping to commit lewdness with a common prostitute, when for years he shacked with a woman he's not married to? Was he ever some kind of wholesome role model or something? Can you possibly watch all of this, at the movies or even at home on your own video or TV screen, to the "glory and honor of God?" Can you do this in the name of Jesus?
So then it is obvious that our Christian liberty is actually very limited. As Paul writes in Romans 6:22, we have been set free from sin, but "have become slaves to God." We are duty-bound to do only those things that please Him. We are not free to please ourselves, although that's what many, if not most, of us are doing. What God really intended when He freed man from the Law was that He would supersede it with a higher, more spiritual law that emanated from within. He promised in Ezekiel 36:25-27 to cleanse us from all our filthiness, to give us a new and tender heart full of good desires, and to give us a new spirit that would cause us to obey His commands and keep His laws. In Hebrews 8:10, Paul reminds us of God's promise to put His laws into our minds, and write them in our hearts.
Thus, we see God's goal was that, by being born again and filled with His Spirit, Christians would have within them everything they needed to cause them to live as God intended. They would not need a large set of written rules and regulations and a bunch of people standing over them forcing them to obey the rules.
The question then, my friend, that we should each ask ourselves is, "Have I experienced this miracle in my life? Have I been radically changed from the inside out, so that I now want to do the things and live the way that God always intended for people to live? Are His laws truly written in my heart?"
The Christian who abuses and misuses his or her Christian liberty is not being honest and sincere with God. In essence, that Christian is saying that since God never explicitly commanded him not to do a certain thing, he's going to do it anyway, disregarding the fact that he could never do that thing to the glory of God and in the name of Jesus. He ignores the fact that he would never catch Jesus Christ doing anything like that practice, whatever it may be.
He remains conveniently (and willfully) ignorant of the fact that God would rather that he not do that thing. He is being technical, like the little schoolboy whose father told him, "Son, I would rather that you not stay after school and play today. I would rather that you come straight home." However, the little guy, being a smart aleck, stayed after school anyway. Late that evening, his father asked him why he had disobeyed. "But, Dad," the son replied. "You never really told me to come straight home. You just told me you would rather I come straight home." God has spiritual "rathers" that many of us Christians feel free to routinely ignore.
God did away with the external, written law, so that we might be governed by an internal, spiritual law. But He never intended that we live with no moral law at all. He never made us that free nor gave us that much liberty. We must be bound and obligated to obey some law, only this time He expects us to obey an inner law working through our new nature. If we ever get to the place where most "Christians" experience little or nothing of the new nature, the new heart, and the new Spirit, then we will end up with people who obey neither the inner law, because they don't have it, nor the external law, because it has passed away. We will have a religion filled with permissiveness and license to be sinful and selfish. And this is just about how things are in American Christianity today.
But we have been called to holiness (1 Corinthians 1:2). We must live holy as He is holy. We are free to live however we want to live, but only as long as it is still holy. And if we live true holy lives, we will find that many of the liberties we are now taking are nothing more than carnal indulgences of our flesh. We will find that we are using our freedom from immediate punishment and Godly disfavor as a chance to stuff our lives with as much selfishness as we can get away with. Therefore, let us examine ourselves closely and honestly, and see if we are really living holy. Let us scrutinize our lives and see how much selfish garbage we can dump. "Let us," as the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:1, "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God."
Let us pray: O God, we thank You for the freedom you have given us. We thank You that people are no longer stoned to death for violating Your laws. But, Lord, help us to realize we must still live holy lives. Write Your laws within our hearts that we might not sin against You. Give us the inner motivation to do only those things that please You. In Jesus' name, Amen.
© 2007 Philip A Matthews