Theology

“No Law Where There is None”: On Christian Liberty

Justin Puckett

In the fifteen years I have been a Christian, I have never heard a sermon on Christian liberty from the pulpit in the churches I have attended. The topic has never come up in the context of a Bible study and has rarely come up in personal conversations. On the off occasion, I have actually heard someone speak on Christian liberty, it’s coming from a man by way of the radio.

Christian liberty is not as exciting as end time’s prophecy nor as culturally relevant as abortion or transgenderism. However, this topic is timeless, essential, and much needed in our day. In a culture of tribal, ignorant, emotionally driven selfishness, Christian Liberty calls for communal, discerning, and intentional selflessness. Instead of pride and tyranny Christian liberty calls for humility and meekness.

This is not a slander against my local church (God forbid!) or other faithful churches. However, I do believe failing to speak on this topic is indicative of a gap in the teaching of most western Christians. This is no small matter. Scripture dedicates several chapters to this single topic and if God, who never wastes time nor words, chooses to speak hundreds of words across multiple chapters pertaining to a subject, we ought to pay attention and teach about it.

This is an area where the rubber of gospel truth meets the road of the Christian walk. It is an area that, if well studied and faithfully submitted to, will bring about mature fruit in any believer and a greater love for the brethren.

(I highly recommend to read Galatians 3-5, Romans 14-15, and 1 Corinthians 8-13 if you are unfamiliar with them. If so, be sure to do so before continuing this piece. I do not want my words elevated above the Lord’s, but only desire that they might help you better understand and obey the above biblical texts).

Defining Terms

Let’s start with some definitions. Since this is an uncommon subject, it’s possible that you may be unfamiliar with the terms and conditions:

First, God does not speak directly in all areas or on all topics. There are times when a specific issue arises amongst His people, and so God sent a word speaking directly to that subject. For example, Paul’s confrontation with a certain individual having relations with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians chapter 5, or, dealing with the heresy of Docetism in John’s epistles. However, at other times God lays out general principles that we can transfer to similar situations that relate to our time. Such principles are to be applied to daily situations and circumstances in the life of a believer—specifically life’s gray areas. This is the exercise of Christian Liberty.

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on opinions. Romans 14:1

 Christian Liberty deals with morally neutral subjects and circumstantial opinions. In these areas, God has given each individual a conscience and His Word to help guide Christians into faithful obedience.

The Gray Areas

Second, let’s look at two areas that God leaves open for the exercise of Christian Liberty. Remember, these are subjects which the Bible, not man’s traditions, deem morally neutral. These I call “The Gray Areas”, and include the following: Entertainment, dress, worship style, food and drink, alcohol use, tobacco use, Bible translation, medicinal use, career choice, and school choice.

Then, there are what I will call “The Gray-ish Gray Areas”. These are areas in which we must allow for some difference in opinion but deal directly with the interpretation of scripture. We do not break fellowship over these differences, but they do have significant impact upon the believer. Again, I must reiterate, that these are morally neutral subjects.

These include Eschatology (theology of end times), mode of baptism, church government, use of the charismatic gifts, and soteriology (theology of how God saves).

Don’t Be Gray About the Gray

Now, more than likely you are already feeling anxious about some of these issues I have listed, and others not so much. That is perfectly fine. You should have some conviction, not only about some of these issues, but all of them.

One person judges one day above another, another judges every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. – Romans 14:5

What Paul means when he says, “fully convinced”, is not about emotions, but a conviction that comes from knowledge. When you have studied deeply on both sides of an issue and have concluded, you have become fully convinced, based upon truth, and you are able to adequately defend your position. This is what God wants us to do in areas of Christian liberty because Paul will go on to say, that whatever is not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23). You cannot do something in faith which you know nothing about. The word of God does not allow us to be ignorant, lest we sin.

Meat Sacrificed to Idols

The most prominent issue concerning Christian Liberty in the early church was eating meat sacrificed to idols. This is most notably detailed in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.

In short, many of the early Christians were saved out of Roman paganism. Part of the worship, much like in Judaism, involved sacrificing animals to the gods. Given the quantity of sacrifices given each day, the animals were not just burned or thrown away, but butchered and then sold to the public at a lower cost.

This became a tough issue for the Christians who just left that system, knowing the evil behind the pagan worship. To some, consuming the sacrifice was just the same as being involved with the sacrifice itself. To others, it was an easy way to provide meat for their families. They knew and understood the Gospel. They knew they were a new creation, and no longer worshiped the false gods of their past, but now worshiped the one true and living God, and gave thanks to Him for the nourishment of the meat.

What’s Meat Got to Do with It?

As stated before, God often speaks directly to a problem or lays down a general principle. With the issue of meat sacrificed to idols, God kills two birds with one stone. He is addressing a real issue within the time period of the early church, and laying out a principal foundation that future generations can apply to other areas. Moving forward, there is nuance in this topic of Christian Liberty. Even in Paul’s situation, he says that all things are clean and nothing is defiled in the Lord Jesus in itself (Romans 14:14, 20), yet tells the Corinthians that they need to beware that by eating the meat they are sharing in the cup of demons and risk provoking the Lord to jealousy (1 Cor. 10:18-22), and that if meat is served to you, it’s better to not even ask where it came from (1 Cor. 10:25).

Strong vs. Weak

Paul distinguishes between these two groups as the weak, and the strong (Romans 14:1-2, 15:1). These were not terms to shame the weaker brethren, nor puff the strong up, but a way to exhort the weak to grow in knowledge and maturity while encouraging the strong to be humble, meek, and loving.

It is the tendency of the weaker brethren in these areas to judge the stronger brethren as being liberal, undisciplined, careless, and possibly unconverted. It is the tendency of the stronger brethren to judge the weak as legalistic, superstitious, and self-righteous. However, Paul gives warning to both sides:

Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand – Romans 14:4

To the strong: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone thinks that he has known anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he has been known by Him. – 1 Corinthians 8:2-3

To the weak: But food will not commend us to God. We neither lack if we do not eat, nor abound if we do eat. – 1 Corinthians 8:8

The warning to both sides, despite the issue, is there: Do not hold yourself to a higher level of spirituality or righteousness because of what you either do or don’t do. Neither changes our position before God because we rest in the perfect righteousness of Christ, not our own. His perfection cannot be made better through our petty works. If you think so, Paul says you have “not yet known as he ought to know.”

“Let All That You Do Be Done in Love”

In John’s first letter He writes these striking words:

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has beheld God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. – 1 John 4:11-13, 19-21

Love is a strange word in our language and cultural context because of its varied uses. The Bible links love with action and specifically action in accordance with God’s word and after God’s own character. Love is selfless, and the standard is Christ Himself.

We find the best definition in the all-too-familiar chapter of 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind, is not jealous, does not brag, is not puffed up; it does not act unbecomingly, does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered; it does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

However, our tendency is to go to the extreme. We do point to the dying Savior upon the tree as the ultimate example of love, but often hold that up as the only example of selfless love. In doing so we fail to show the ordinary and common actions of love. Few are called to the selfless love of martyrdom, but many are called to long lives of faithfulness in the body of Christ. Therefore, what God requires, God provides. He gives us ways to selflessly love one another, through ordinary, common, everyday means of Christian Liberty.

“Not Just Please Ourselves”

Christian Liberty, or freedom, is a gift from God. It is the result of Christ’s atoning work upon the cross. We have been set free from the Law of sin and death; set free to righteousness and eternal life.

Like other gifts of the Spirit, liberty and freedom is not for our self-gratification, but for the edification of others.

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his building up. For even Christ did not please Himself. – Romans 15:1-3

If you feel you must exercise your liberty in Christ, then you are no longer free, but enslaved to your liberty. The whole point of liberty is that it is not a commandment of God, but left for the individual to discern for themselves on the basis of their conscience, which is to be informed by scripture. However, if what was made for freedom is now turned into Law, it is no longer freedom, but a commandment. We must not make a law where God has granted freedom, either for ourselves or others.

If you go out to dinner with a brother that you know struggles with alcohol and looks to you as an example, you are met with a decision. Do you gratify yourself and exercise your freedom for a drink, potentially causing your brother to stumble, or do you give up your freedom for the sake of Christ, and love of your brother? One brings reproach upon yourself and your brother through sin, and the other brings love, glory, and honor to Christ.

“It’s My Right”

Why would you want to go through all this effort, for someone else? Does the world not tell us, “Go ahead you deserve it. It’s your right.” If you’re an American, you especially struggle with this idea. We love our “capital-R-God-given rights.”

Freedom is a good thing and a gift from God. But freedom at the expense of another is tyranny.

Paul says,

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but that of the other person. 1 Corinthians 10:23-24

In 1 Corinthians chapter 9, Paul lays out that he has the authority, according to God’s law, to be paid for his ministry work. However, he chooses not to exercise his authority for the sake of the churches he ministers to. He does not want to be a financial burden to them, nor allow anyone room to boast for supporting him. Instead, he picks up a second job and stores up treasure in Heaven.

Nobody had more “capital-R-God-given-rights” than Jesus. And no one gave up more of his rights than Jesus.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. Isaiah 53:7

Why did He give up his rights? Love.

In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:10-11

Walking Through the Issues

To end practically, if you are unsure about a certain gray area of life, here at some questions to ask yourself to help make a conscientious decision:

1: Is it a sin?

  Does God permit it?

  Does it violate your conscience?

  Is it a moral issue?

2: Is it a right/freedom for you to do it?

3: Do you have to do it?

  If so, why?

4: Can you love/build up a brother by not doing it? Is this an opportunity to sacrifice for the sake of a brother?

5: Can you glorify God through it?

This is not an exhaustive list of concerns, but it will get you started. Romans 14:22 tells us the best thing to do is keep our convictions between us and God. We do not know the convictions of everyone around us. When our liberty may cause a brother to stumble, so keep it privately before God, and let everything you do be done in love.

Conclusion

Often, exercising your Christian liberty can cause more heat than light in a discussion. Traditions and personal opinions can be passionately defended, but we must not make a law where there is none. Don’t make your thing your brother’s thing. If you are convinced of freedom in an area, do not try to convince a brother who is not causing him to violate his conscience and follow your example. That work is God’s, not ours.

God grants freedom according to the measure of faith given, and some may be restrained in an area because it could easily become temptation to excess and sin. Moderation prevents the extreme of flaunting your liberty leading to excess and sin. It also prevents the extreme of total abstinence, leading to legalism and improper judgment of others.

May you be fully convinced in your own minds of the matter.

For you were called to freedom, brothers; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13


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