Rethinking Christian Liberty: How Much Freedom Do We Really Have?

Nowadays, it seems as if Christians are free to do as they please. One need only read the Barna Group’s various studies to understand that many professing Christians are living contrary to what their faith protests. Secular media has also taken notice of these trends. Recently, CNN made note of a study done by Relevant magazine, which stated that single Christians are almost just as sexually active as single non-Christians [1]. Even pastors in the “Bible-Belt South” readily acknowledge that many of their churches are plagued with nominal Christianity. Additionally, the rise of interest in books on spiritual discipline further supports the claim that licentious living has run amuck [2]. Even regarding worship, the idea of Scripture regulating worship appears to have been replaced by a “whatever-goes” mentality. Such symptoms continually point toward a growing problem: Many Christians do not live according to the Gospel they adamantly confess.

Unfortunately, many of these developments, along with several others, have taken place in the name of Christian liberty. “Like a coin handled too long by too many hands, ‘freedom’ has lost its clear imprint,” writes Reinhard Hütter [3]. Now, “we no longer know what ‘freedom’ means” [4].  As a result, principles that conform, define, or articulate our Christian freedom are increasingly viewed as disdainful in our postmodern age, and are automatically labeled as legalism. These issues raise important questions about the nature of Christian liberty [5]: What is it? How should it function in the Christian life? What guides our freedom? How does it help us to advance Christ’s kingdom? The neglect to adequately answer these questions has led to the abuse of Christian liberty among evangelicals.

Surveying the Biblical Landscape for Christian Liberty

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all,” wrote Martin Luther [3]. These paradoxical statements describe the very essence of Christian liberty. Luther derived these statements from the apostle Paul: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself servant to all” (1 Cor. 9:19). Paul states similarly, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:23-24).

In order to understand more clearly the Bible’s teaching on Christian liberty, we must first examine the background of Paul’s statement, “All things are lawful.” What did he mean by this? Here, Paul references a phrase that “mature” Corinthian believers used to boast in their knowledge that eating meat offered to idols was a permissible act, since idols had no real existence anyway (1 Cor. 8:4). The problem with this was that their actions caused weaker Christians to violate their conscience, thus causing them to sin. Additionally, it caused the mature to also sin, against their Christian brothers and sisters, and against Christ Himself (1 Cor. 8:12). Therefore, Paul reminds them that such knowledge “puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:2a), if not used responsibly. Instead, love, not knowledge, serves as the guiding principle for appropriating Christian freedom because love “builds up” (1 Cor. 8:2b). “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak,” said Paul (1 Cor. 8:9). Without the guidance of love, their freedom was rendered useless.

Paul expresses similar thoughts in Galatians 3 and 4 where he teaches on adoption and sonship. Paul explains: Until Christ’s coming, the Mosaic Law guarded God’s people like children until we received our full inheritance as adults (3:24). Paul warned the Galatians against reverting back to the Mosaic Law since Christ had now come (Gal. 5:1-2). They were no longer under the rubric of the Law, but instead had received their adoption as adult-sons (4:4) [4]. However, if they returned to the Law, they exchanged the Christian freedom of adult-sonship for adolescent bondage, making themselves no different than mere slaves (4:1). Paul makes his point in 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Now love becomes the guiding norm for exercising Christian freedom instead of the Law. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love you neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14).

Defining Christian Liberty

These passages clearly define for us the nature of Christian liberty. God gives us this liberty so that we may appropriately apply Christian virtue to life circumstances. Without it, we would have no effectual means to deal with life’s complexities and battle in spiritual warfare. From Galatians, we learn that Christian liberty provides us with a better and more effective means of serving the Church through our freedom as adult-sons. First Corinthians teaches us that Christian freedom is neither self-indulgent, nor license to do as we please. And it refers neither to lawless living, nor to absolute freedom.

Rather, Christian liberty provides us with the flexibility to serve others and thus glorify God. In fact, because we are adult-sons in Christ, the responsibility of using our liberty wisely is even greater. Paul teaches us that liberty is conformed, and even sometimes confined by love. Without it, liberty is selfish. “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,” says Paul, “but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Love is always the framework under which Christian liberty operates.

Correcting the Abuse of Christian Liberty

Unfortunately, many evangelicals improperly equate Christian freedom with absolute freedom and use it as grounds for self-indulgence. They claim that Christianity “is not a religion, but a relationship,” which suggests that we have turned Christianity into legalism through the rules of religion. They claim that the Gospel does not confine us to the rules of conformity that religion requires. Instead, the Gospel is unbounded and non-conforming [5]. Consequently, issues that once mattered to evangelicals no longer do. Under this way of thinking, Christians need not concern themselves with the specifics of corporate worship. Church membership is of no consequence. Church discipline is certainly out of the question. Neither should we expect or teach Christians to act a particular way, nor challenge them to refine their cultural norms and practices. Religion does these things. It sets rules in place that confine and hinder us from experiencing the Gospel.

Though this “come-as-you-are” mentality is appealing, it grossly misunderstands the Bible’s teaching on Christian liberty. True liberty enables us to think responsibly about moral and ethical issues we experience daily. It even allows us to deal with issues that are not directly addressed within the Bible. Propriety, culture, etiquette, the Arts, and many other ethical issues are not clear-cut, but are necessary for Christians to discuss. Consider the issue of modesty. Since many view it as legalistic to teach on propriety regarding dress, it has become difficult to actually provide a proper standard for modesty in the Church. Now, many churches are plagued with immodesty because such a discussion might result in them being written-off as legalists. However, Christian liberty holds us responsible for addressing these difficult issues.

My intent in commenting on these matters is not to offer a top-down solution, but to illustrate the consequence of having an improper view of Christian liberty. The failure to understand Christian liberty in its proper context has eroded our moral vocabulary to the extent that we are incapable of discussing these matters properly—or even at all. In effect, we now struggle to define the bare minimum.

The Responsibility of Christian Liberty

Christian liberty makes us responsible for wrestling with the Gospel’s substance and form. Its substance will necessarily lead us to establish principles and rules that will guide our thinking and behavior. This is not the result of legalism. Rather, it is the result of responsible, mature, Christian thought and the consequence of Christian liberty. Only when form (rules or guidelines) replaces substance (the principles these guidelines embrace) does legalism become problematic [6]. Christian liberty does not free us from the fallacy of establishing rules and it does not keep us from becoming “religious.” Rather, it requires us to think seriously about important issues in order to develop guidelines that will shape our ethical practices. The development of rules is inevitable.

Not all Christians will agree as to how substance necessarily affects the Gospel’s form. This is why Paul frames Christian liberty within the confines of love. Form should always be evaluated because cultural contexts change. However, we should not change the form just because it is no longer trendy or appealing to the culture. That would be a mistake. Though Christians may disagree in regard to appropriating the Gospel’s form, it requires us to wrestle with it nonetheless.

What we must remember is that Christian liberty does not free us from discussing these matters, but holds us responsible for addressing them by providing us with an appropriate platform for doing so. As we work together to think responsibly and use effectively our God-given freedom, the Spirit works to further restore His image in us. It is through the confines of Christian liberty that the Spirit brings about our sanctification and, ultimately, our glorification.

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[1] John Blake, “Why Young Christians Aren’t Waiting Anymore”; http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/27/why-young-christians-arent-waiting-anymore/; Accessed 27 January 2012; Internet.

[2] Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christians Life, and Richard Foster’s Celebration of Spiritual Disciplines: The Path to Spiritual Growth, are two popular books that were written to address these issues.

[3] Reinhard Hütter, “(Re-)Forming Freedom: Reflections ‘after Veritatis splendor’ on Freedom’s Fate in Modernity and Protestantism’s Antinomian Captivity,” Modern Theology 17:2 (April 2001), 118.

[4] Ibid, 118.

[5] I used the terms freedom and liberty interchangeably to have the same meaning.

[6] Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty, trans. W. A. Lambert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 2.

[7] The idea present does not appear to be the adoption of someone who was an outsider to becoming a son. Rather, the idea present seems to be that of child-sonship to adult-sonship. Paul’s reference to the Law functioning as the tutor or child-leader (paidagogos) further supports this notion. I credit much of my thinking on this issue of Galatians to F. Leroy Forlines. To better understand Galatians 3 and 4 and the results its implications on Christian ethics, see Biblical Ethics: Ethics for a Happier Living (Nashville: Randall House, 1973), 68-82; The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2001), 491-494. See also Grevor J. Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (Downer Groves: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 125-151, for a thorough discussion of adoption and sonship in Galatians.

[8] Such sentiments are embodied in the current Youtube video by Jefferson Bethke entitled, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus”; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY; Accessed 27 January 2012; Internet. This even caught the attention of the CBS network: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7396087n&tag=mg;mostpopvideo; Accessed 27 January 2012; Internet.

To some extent, I think much of the language of “Religion vs. Gospel” finds its root in much of contemporary Lutheran and Reformed theology, since this discussion is often interpreted from within the confines of the law/gospel debate. Religion is often equated with the Phariseeism found in the gospels. The Pharisees often had restrictions that went beyond the Law, such as tradition of hand washing (Mk. 7:1-13), by which Jesus accused the Pharisees of holding to the “tradition of men” (Mk. 7:8).  Often, this passage is used as an example to show how the Pharisees had succumbed to “religion” while rejecting the Gospel that Jesus offered.

However, I think when we look at how Paul frames the discussion of the Law in Galatians 3 and 4, the idea of “Religion vs. Gospel” loses its foundation. The Law functioned as an eschatological servant or tutor (paidagogos) until the time of Christ. The problem with the Law is not that it was bad (Ps. 19:7; Rom. 7:12). Rather, the Law’s external regulations were now insufficient as the rubric for the redemptive and ethical needs of God’s people in light of Christ’s coming. The tutor was now unnecessary.

Thus, I do not think that we can so easily equate “Religion” with the Law or the “tradition of men.” Let me say that I do think that there is some truth in what people mean by this, but I do not think it should be the locus of the discussion in this regard. We cannot say Christianity or the Gospel is opposed to “Religion” when Christianity is a religion in and of itself. Even Jesus was a religious man. However, I do think that the Gospel is the only thing that truly defines religion for us. Dare I say, along with the Reformers, that it is the only true religion! Religion makes no sense outside of Christianity.

[9] This is what many current evangelicals are reacting against, and rightfully so. In so doing, however, they are still ignoring the substance of the Gospel and, as a result, are substituting one kind of legalism for another. The mindset goes: “If the Bible doesn’t prohibit it, then I’m free to do it.” However, what they have done here is only shorten their list of rules. They have replaced long-list legalism with short-list legalism. Since they do not have a long list of rules to abide by, they think they no longer have a problem with legalism. But the problem of legalism still remains. For a further discussion on the difference between long-list and short-list legalism, see Forlines, The Quest for Truth, 496.

Author: Jeremy Craft

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