Christian freedom is an important yet confusing topic. Jesus said to those who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31–32)
Free from what? By context, He was talking about the bondage of trying to earn salvation by rule-keeping. Keeping God’s law is not wrong (otherwise we would be free to covet, hate, and murder), but He is referring to motive. I’m to do what I do because I love God, not because I’m trying to get in.
In the Galatian church, Christians had the notion that to stay saved, they had to keep certain rules. Paul told them: “Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (Galatians 2:4–5)
Yet freedom in Christ does not mean freedom to do whatever I please. Think of it this way: a horse eats oats and hay. That is all he can do because he is a horse. Then a miracle worker changes that horse into a man. Now he is free to eat steak and chocolate bars, but he can also eat oats and hay. However, what he eats has become a choice, not a compulsion of his nature.
In the same way, as a sinner, my nature gave me no other option but sin. But Christ changed everything by making me a new creature who can now choose to serve Him. Before, I was free to do whatever I wanted, but those options were all sin. Now I am free to do what is pleasing to God because my nature is changed. Freedom is being released from the dictates of a sinful heart, not by being zapped but by being given the ability to choose.
The New Testament is full of direction on how to live now that I’m a free person. Instead of letting the old nature rule, I’m to live in that freedom —listening to Christ, learning how to discern His will for me. Of course, that will is obvious in most moral choices, but much of life is not about good and evil. There are whole areas of choice involving preferences like eating, vocations, what color to paint the house, and what car is the best.
The legalistic person (who thinks rule-keeping makes him more acceptable to God) will have a list of rules, of ‘best behaviors’ that not only rule his life, but he thinks should rule the lives of everyone else. To this, the Bible says:
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” (Romans 14:1–13)
These ‘rules’ often show up as religious traditions, customs or superstitions. Traditions tell us what to wear to church and forms used in worship services. Traditions are okay for making people feel comfortable knowing what to expect. The downside is forming a habit that prevents hearing the Lord who may tell us to do something different.
Not only that, these ‘rules’ can become an obsession, even what is called an obsessive compulsion. The person locked into them is totally uncomfortable about change. In their minds, the rule has become acceptable behavior and change is not tolerated. This is bondage.
God tells me not to submit to this legalism, but at the same time, I’m to be careful that I don’t pressure people to act contrary to their conscience. If they figure it is wrong to wear jeans to church, I’m to respect their decision. It is not up to me to change how they think or even decide that they should change. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, freedom is wonderful yet can be complex. For that reason, I’m glad that You lead me in uncertain areas, and that I can serve You without concern that my choices will sever me from Your love. That love is the reason for obedience, and grace keeps me, not rule-keeping.