How do believers navigate life’s gray areas? When it comes to activities, amusements, or anything else God’s Word does not specifically address, how should conscientious Christians determine what they can and can’t do?
While the gray areas themselves might vary over time or by location, the church has always faced social issues, popular trends, and personal conduct about which Scripture does not directly speak. Dancing, drinking, and smoking are some classic examples, but postmodern life is full of choices about events and activities that don’t appear in God’s Word.
Typically, many believers gravitate to one of two extremes in response to life’s gray areas.
Some people like rules. They feel more comfortable with a strictly regulated asceticism, governed by a long list of dos and don’ts that they expect everyone to follow. Legalistic systems reduce the believer’s life down to basic conformity that he or she is convinced is equivalent to true spirituality.
With this oversimplified, black-and-white approach to living, there’s no necessity for personal faith and no real walking in the Spirit. Instead, the legalist is essentially living out the mentality depicted in the Pharisee’s prayer in Christ’s parable in Luke 18:11-12.
The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.”
In legalistic churches, spiritual growth is replaced by rigid adherence to the rules, and the test of spiritual maturity is merely what a person does or doesn’t do.
You may have spent time in a church like that—one where biblical principles about living the Christian life are more or less superfluous. And you can understand why such a system would appeal to weary and struggling men and women. After all, conformity is easy, and the list of dos and don’ts often functions as a default statement of faith. There’s no critical thinking, no decisions to make, and no tough questions to answer.
But that is not how Christians are meant to live. Righteousness and true spiritual maturity are not achieved by what people do and don’t do. As Paul wrote, “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law” (Galatians 3:21). Legalism usurps the work of the Holy Spirit, short-circuiting the conscience and setting up a false, man-made standard of righteousness. It sacrifices Christian liberty, and along with it any opportunity to grow and mature through that liberty. Instead, it encourages the empty religiosity and arrogant hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Legalists believe their rules and guidelines keep sinful influences at bay. They attempt to enforce holiness through strict standards and separatism. But the truth is that their Pharisaical self-deception is just as spiritually deadly as outright, blasphemous rebellion, if not more so.
The other extreme is likewise dangerous, but for the opposite reason. Rather than submit to an endless list of rigid rules, many in the church today have gone the other direction, determined to explore and experience the fullness of their liberty. They use their freedom in Christ as license for all sorts of behaviors, activities, and pursuits. Unrestrained, they push every boundary and embrace and enjoy as much of the world as possible.
In fact unless something is strictly forbidden in Scripture, they’ll try it. And they encourage others to as well—sometimes aggressively. Flaunting their freedom, they can’t stop talking about what they’re listening to, watching, and reading, where they’re going, what they’re buying, what they’re smoking or drinking, what they’re having tattooed on their bodies, or whatever else they’re doing to express and enjoy their liberty in Christ. And they can’t understand why you’re not doing the same.
That kind of libertine spirit has run rampant in the church in recent years, and its disastrous fallout is abundantly evident. Many professing believers have sacrificed their true liberty in Christ and become slaves to worldly pursuits. Their testimony has been tainted—or outright contradicted—by their behavior, and their usefulness to the Lord and His church hobbled by their love for the world. The evidence suggests that kind of libertine Christianity is nothing more than an invitation for temptation, corruption, and ultimately, moral shipwreck.
What Can We Learn from Our Liberty?
Those two extremes lead to dangerously skewed priorities and perspectives. Legalists tend to isolate themselves and force every gray issue into an inflexible black-and-white mold. For them, everyone outside their fortress of rules—including other believers—are wayward sinners. On the opposite side, worldly libertines sear their consciences, blurring every line until even once-clear biblical boundaries are no longer recognizable. There’s no thought about the example they set or the temptation their lifestyle invites—and any instruction about disciplined moderation is decried as legalism. While those two worldviews couldn’t be more different, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both have the same capacity to confuse and corrupt believers regarding their liberty in Christ.
Liberty in Christ is not something to fear, nor is it license to live however we choose. It’s a gift from God that often serves as the proving ground for our faith, where it’s tested, strengthened, and refined. And as such, we need to know how to properly use—and, yes, enjoy—it.
With that in mind, we’re going to spend the next couple of weeks looking at the biblical limits of our liberty. John MacArthur will carefully walk us through several important principles from 1 Corinthians, where Paul explains how our freedom in Christ ought to be a spiritual benefit to others and ourselves. This is a helpful, practical series you won’t want to miss.