Freedom, Legalism, Responsibility, and Grace

By Tim White

Fair trade, organic food, low-emission cars, video games...our days are filled with choices that many of our friends and acquaintances have strong feelings about. Some of the feelings are valid. It is harmful to the body to smoke. But when conviction leads to extra-biblical legalism, where do we draw the line?

It is true that addiction (and abuse) is a sin. But we need to be careful not to let context control our convictions. There was a period of time when pastors smoked as an acceptable practice. For some ministers' groups (according to a story in Grace Awakening, by Charles Swindoll), the minister could drink beer, but was shunned if he light up a cigar.

Every passage on Christian conduct can be taken out of context to support a pet peeve. My wife and I were once associated with a circle of friends who believed it was our Christian duty to make vows against eating sugar, white flour and processed milk. Although we valued the friendship of these people, they will sadly tell you we never saw the light or took the vows.

We are to honor God with our bodies. First Corinthians 6 is clearly speaking of immorality and practices which are dishonoring towards God, but it is not referring to anything you eat or otherwise consume. In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, the sin of sexual immorality is actually distinguished from other sins that are not against the body. "Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body."

This blends in with what Christ said, "Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person" (Matthew 15:10-11).

So what do we do when convictions about food, alcohol, smoking, and other things feel stronger than Scripture? When we realize our strong convictions are not found in God's Word?

The reason this catches my attention is the difficult lesson with which I continue to struggle. Do I elevate what I feel to the level of clearly defined Scripture? Or am I practicing idolatry, with my feelings being the idol that I must follow?

The Bible is filled with illustrations that our feelings are not to be our guide, even in our most spiritual moments. Cain killed Abel because his feeling of jealousy and anger seemed to justify the act. Moses killed an Egyptian. David committed adultery and murder. Many prophets asked to be relieved of their mission because they did not feel up to the rejection. Jonah didn't even ask, but headed in the opposite direction, and was livid when his enemies repented and were spared.

Even Jesus indicated that He didn't feel prone to complete the mission for which He was sent. Luke 22 records that the emotional turmoil was so great Jesus sweat drops of blood as He said, "Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42-44).

These stories remind us that our feelings and emotions can steer us away from God's plan, so feelings cannot be trusted.

Feelings can also permit us to replace dependency upon Christ in our daily walk to dependency upon activity and rules. Acts 10, the call of Peter to the Gentile searcher, is a great illustration of this. God dealt with Peter's lack of comfort in dealing with what he had been taught was unclean. Through a vision, God addressed this with animals, or food, when God said, "Kill and eat" (Acts 10:13). Even Peter's conscience was hindering him from the freedom to pursue God's plan of dependence upon Christ and Kingdom victory.

There are some areas that we have to be particularly cautious about in living in the freedom in which Christ called us. The true freedom of Christ is found in our freedom to depend upon Him, not freedom to live without Him. Within that freedom, Paul said, "All things are permissible [or not forbidden], but not all things are expedient [or good for my dependence upon Christ]" 1 Corinthians 10:23. He goes on to say to live in consideration of the effect on other people, not on our freedom. We are free to eat white sugar or not, depending on our health and our personal convictions — that doesn't mean we should tell others eating white sugar a sin, or be convinced by others of the same.

We must live in a way to keep others from stumbling. However, it is not always causing another to stumble if the offense challenges their understanding of freedom. If everyone in your Church believes it is a sin to eat peanut butter, that idea probably needs to be challenged, and it would cause people to stumble in their growth if you stopped eating it.

When does a challenge encourage their growth instead of being a hindrance? I cannot know apart from walking in the Spirit and depending on Him to guide me. It is not my decision, but His, and He is faithful to direct me even in those troubling areas.

Still confused about the relationship between freedom in Christ, legalism, and causing others to stumble? A great book for you to read would be Charles Swindoll's Grace Awakening. He has the best treatment of this tricky topic I have read.

Image credit: Porphyria Poppines; Creative Commons

See Also

"Exit" by Lauren A. Birago
"Guilt Trip: Freedom from a Guilty Conscience" by Stephanie Ismer
"Adding Legalism to Faith Part 1: Pharisees in the Pulpit" by Jim Allen
"Doing All to the Glory of God" by Kersley Fitzgerald
"Christian Modesty and the Skirt Police" by Robin Schumacher

TagsBiblical-Truth  |  Christian-Life  |  Controversial-Issues  |  Current-Issues  |  Personal-Relationships

comments powered by Disqus
Published on 3-12-14