Twenty years ago, I remember sitting in my church in Virginia listening to a story that Marilyn Hickey related about an experience she had with another passenger on an airliner. It went something like this:
I was seated next to a man who became disturbed as I took my Bible out to read. He said, “Oh brother. You’re one of those.”
“One of what?” I asked.
“One of those ‘Thou shalt not’ Bible thumpers,” he replied. “You people are all about restricting people’s freedoms.”
“Freedoms to do what?” I wanted to know.
“You know, you Christians can’t drink alcohol and condemn anyone who does.”
“That’s not true. I drink all the alcohol that I want. No restrictions.”
“What? You’re allowed to drink booze?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Okay, then you’re not allowed to have extra-marital sex.”
I laughed. “Actually, I have all the sex outside of my marriage that I want.”
This floored the man. He didn’t know how to respond, so I told him, “I am allowed, in the freedoms that God gave me, to do whatever I want. I just choose not to do them, because I love the Lord so much, and I want to honor Him with my life.”
It seems that Marilyn Hickey took the Bible literally where it says, “All things are permissible, but all things are not beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)
How literally should we take this verse? Is there context for it? Are there other verses to compare it with?
Let’s look at how free our freedom in Christ really is.
Legalism teaches that all of the commandments of the Old Testament are applicable to the New Testament Church; except for those that can be safely dismissed as a result of Jesus’ or the Apostles’ direct teachings. An example of this would be not eating certain types of foods, per Levitical law. However, the New Testament has Jesus saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Act 10:9-16) Outside of a direct reversal, legalists proclaim all law still in effect. Some even create new laws that were never even in the Old Testament, because they are not addressed in the New Testament. An example of this is not allowing musical instrumentation in churches, because nowhere in Scripture does it say that the early Church used them. By its very absence, some legalists say they are clinging to the original ways of worship in the early Church.
Let’s take a look at what Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5.
17″Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until Heaven and Earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of Heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
There are some great things in this passage. First, it’s obvious that He came to fulfill the Law. And in order for Jesus to fulfill the Law He had to both live the Law and preach the Law without one slip-up. Those were His requirements—His constraints—pertaining to the Law being completely fulfilled. Therefore, as we read about Jesus dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” (“the least stroke of a pen”) He is living the Old Covenant not the New Covenant. He preached a better covenant was on its way as a result of Him and that when those of His day saw Him, they were witnessing the fulfillment of the Old Covenant (according to the Apostle Paul, the “shadow” of good things that would later come) and the transition—through His death and resurrection—to the New Covenant (the kingdom of God). And because of that transition, we are not subject to having to fulfill the Law that Jesus was required to uphold before He died.
What it truly means to be a Christian is written within the letters of the apostles, starting with the book of Romans and concluding with the book of Jude. These are the instructions on how to become a Christian and how to live the Christian life, given to us by the First-Century Church leaders by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to be passed down to the Church throughout the ensuing ages.
What Jesus did prior to the cross, and up through His death, culminated in a finished work. The Law is fulfilled. The real question is, what does it mean when Scripture states that Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets?
It means that He did, in our stead, what we could not and cannot do for ourselves. He took care of it once, for all time. He also said, that He didn’t come to abolish the Law, that the Law would stand until it was accomplished in Him.
Now, notice something important. In verse 19 of Matthew chapter 5, Jesus says there is a consequence for breaking the law and teaching others to do the same even after the Law has been fulfilled. What is that consequence? Being “called the least in the kingdom of Heaven.” Those who love the Lord with all of their hearts, even if they disobey the Law, and teach others to do the same (though why a lover of Christ would ever do this is beyond me) will have a lesser place in the kingdom, not a place in Hell. In this passage, Jesus separates the Law from righteousness, stating that “Unless your righteousness [made possible through His coming sacrifice] surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law [the legalists, relying on something other than only Christ to save them], you will certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Legalism isn’t just restricted to “legalist” churches, by the way. It’s difficult for churches to not have something to enforce. There are rules: Ten Commandments, rules of conduct, rules of ceremony, etc. Enforcing these is policy. The first question is, What is the Lord’s focus when it comes to obedience and the Law?
In the Old Testament we are told that “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 15:22) Actions, born out of your love for God, will accomplish what trying to perform something “holy” in order to gain God’s favor cannot—Relationship. The second and third questions are, What do we have to do in order to have God’s favor? and How does God’s favor figure into our freedom in Christ?
Let’s take the three questions one at a time.
1. What is the Lord’s focus when it comes to obedience?
Is God looking for someone that is subservient to His every will and whim? Is He a taskmaster bent on having people do things for Him? I think that if we look at the Bible as a whole, we see a grand epic of God’s progress toward redeeming Man back to Himself so that we can enjoy the relationship with Him that was lost at the Fall of Adam and Eve. God’s intention is to restore, not to place rules. In fact, when we read of what Heaven will be like, there is no mention of another Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. There will be a Tree of Life, but nothing that can lead to man choosing against God again. It appears that “All things [will be] permissible” in Heaven, as there will be no measurement of sin again. Interesting to think about, isn’t it? Just don’t read into this that we’ll somehow still have hearts that are evil and will want to test how “permissible” things will be in Heaven.
2. What do we have to do in order to have God’s favor?
In the Old Testament, it appears that in order to gain God’s favor, one must have made sacrifices and been obedient to the Law. However, if you look at the Old Testament’s friends of God, you’ll see that it had nothing to do with the Law, even back then. It had to do with relationship and with the heart. The Law gave people a 24/7 focus on not being able to be perfect enough in God’s sight. We see that now when we look at the Ten Commandments—the futility. Sacrifices in the Old Testament didn’t make people’s hearts right with God, it only covered people’s sins. It was impossible to wash away their sins with this system. Instead, it was people with hearts that desired to be made right, who were making sacrifices for forgiveness. Do you think that people who brought sacrifices to the altar with hate in their hearts got any benefit from them? No way. Even in the New Testament, before Jesus’ completion and fulfillment of the Law, Jesus said that “if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” So, to have God’s favor is to have a right heart toward Him and toward one another. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “The whole of the Law is wrapped up in these two commands…” Love God and love your neighbor—words of perpetual, life-filled action, not dead law.
To have God’s favor means to be forgiven of everything, because according to Jesus, if you’re guilty of breaking one law, you’re guilty of breaking them all. That part of gaining God’s favor has already been settled. The work on the Cross was perfect, and performed perfectly for every person who ever lived and ever would live. There is not one person who has not been forgiven by God. All have been forgiven, but many people will never accept that forgiveness and, as a result, will remain outside of God’s completed work. So, you can see that it’s not a matter of what we can do to gain God’s favor. God’s favor is not the issue. We’ve got it. God is “especially fond” of each and every person He has ever created. It’s a matter of accepting His favor.
3. How does God’s favor figure into our freedom in Christ?
Here’s another radical thought. God’s favor is not earned, so neither is it lost. God’s favor simply is.
There is freedom in Christ because of God’s non-earnable, irrevocable favor, which comes from His perfect, no-strings-attached love. If God’s love is perfect, and if Christ fulfilled the entirety of the Law, how much Law do we have to live up to in order to have God’s love and favor? None.
When the apostle Paul said, “All things are permissible,” he meant it. Here is a man who was taught his entire life to be obedient to the Law of Moses. He was a “Pharisee of Pharisees” and to him all things were not permissible. Then Jesus interrupted his life and told him “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.” That’s an analogy that means “You are trying so hard to hurt My Gospel, but you’re injuring yourself by your blind pursuit of the Law.” If anyone knew the fallacy of trying to maintain the Mosaic and Levitical Law, it was the apostle Paul.
Let’s look at another Scripture verse that legalists use to keep people “in God’s good graces.”
“If you love Me,” says God, “you will obey Me” (John 14:15). Seems plain enough, doesn’t it? In fact, this verse seems to conclusively prove the legalists correct. In order to prove your love for God, you had better obey Him. But, let’s see how accurate that interpretation is when matched up with other Scripture.
“If you love Me, you will obey Me” is actually a Cause & Effect phrase, not a directive as I will demonstrate below.
Jesus was actually saying something entirely different in this wonderful verse. I do not believe He was saying, “Obey Me. This is how I will know that you love Me.” No, He knows our love by our hearts, not by our actions. God’s heart is not about obedience, rather it is about relationship.
“If you love Me” is a causal statement, while “you will obey Me” is the effect generated by that cause.
So, here’s how I believe this verse is supposed to be interpreted: “Love Me, and as a result you will obey Me.” “If you love Me [the end result will be that] you will desire to do My will.” Doesn’t that just seem more right in your spirit? In fact this seems to be confirmed in the same chapter in verses 23 and 24:
23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.”
If anyone loves me …
- He will obey my teaching.
- We will come to him and make Our home with him.
He who does not love me …
- Will not obey my teaching.
It’s our love (a response to His love) that causes us to obey; it’s not the obeying that is the precursor to a loving relationship with our Creator God.
Does obedience reflect our love? Absolutely! It shows that we are empowered by His love. His love empowers us to want to love Him with our actions, not just our words.
Does all of this mean that we are absolutely free to do whatever we want without losing God’s favor and His love? Here’s the scary answer for all of us. Yes, that’s exactly what that means. We are free to do whatever we want. We are no longer bound by the Law. All of the requirements of the Law are accomplished through our love for God and our love for others. All of them. And how do we know this? Romans 13:8 says, “Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law.”
By accepting the work of Christ on the cross into our hearts; by accepting the Holy Spirit to indwell us, we have gained freedom. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
The final question is, What do we do with this freedom?
I think the best answer to this question is a statement I make to myself whenever I see what appears to be an obvious move in a good game of Solitaire: “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.”
Let’s face it; Jesus made it clear that there are still consequences to our actions. Even the laws of physics dictate that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Everything we do affects something. It affects something positively, neutrally, or negatively. So we should be asking ourselves a primary question when we have a dilemma: “How will this affect my communication / relationship with the Lord or with someone else?”
If I use my freedom to drink, will it cause a “weaker” brother to stumble if he sees me?
If I use my freedom to have sex outside of marriage, will it cause my partner to stumble in relation to the Lord? And if my partner is unsaved, did I pass up an opportunity to be a witness for the sake of a good sensation?
If I use my freedom to cheat on tests, will it affect my future ability to apply what I should have studied and learned?
If I use my freedom to gossip, will word get back to the person I talked about, or will the person with whom I spent time gossiping do the same behind my back?
If I use my freedom to lust with pornography, am I creating an unhealthy view of the opposite sex and how to treat them in person (let alone the wasted time in a vain pursuit)?
When I do something that goes against what I feel the Lord would have me do, I end up feeling guilty afterward. This causes me to turn my face from Him. I drop communication in favor of nursing my shame. This does not make for a healthy relationship. The trade-off for reckless abandon is not worth it.
When Paul says, “All things are permissible, but all things are not beneficial,” we come to understand two things:
- I’m allowed to do whatever I want and still have the kingdom of God as my inheritance (if I’m a Born-Again believer).
- Just because I’m free to do whatever I want doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy the end results of my actions. “Whatever you plant, you shall likewise harvest.”
As Christians we live apart from the Law. But does that mean that the Law has no purpose and that it is not good? No! It doesn’t mean that at all! In fact, Paul said, “The Law is good for the purpose that it has” and that purpose is to show people that they cannot be perfect and that every individual is a sinner in need of a Savior—a Redeemer.
Praise the Lord, though, because these five aspects of God’s grace are certain:
- We cannot dismantle Christ’s perfect work!
- We cannot undo His forgiveness!
- We cannot undo His love!
- When we fall we are still counted righteous!
- We cannot outsin His faithfulness to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!
With His work on the Cross, Jesus took every sin we would ever commit upon Himself, so that we can know and experience such amazing grace! Such amazing freedom in Him!
“He who the Son sets free is free indeed” (John 8:36).
“There is, now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
“So stand firm in the liberty—[the grace]—that Christ used to make us free, and do not let yourself be entangled again with bondage to the Law” (Galatians 5:1).