I’m going to give you some biblical rules, but not the ones you think. Paul, in his great teaching on freedom and grace to the Galatians, says we are to be free, but we aren’t to use our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.
So is there any place where we should draw the line? Here are four “nevers.”
The Importance of Holiness
We must never soften the clear teaching of the law of God. The Christian faith is not a methodology to help wild, disobedient people do whatever they want and still feel good about themselves. When Paul said that we must never use our liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, he was saying, in effect, that those who do, haven’t understood.
I often get criticized. (Anybody who says they like criticism will lie about other things too.) Some people criticize my teaching because they don’t like me or anything for which I stand. When those people come to me with their spurious “godly correction,” I usually tell them to go hang it on their ear and that it will get very cold in a very hot place before I change my teaching to accommodate their narrow, unsophisticated, unbiblical views.
But other folks love me. I have experienced their love and concern, and they have earned the right to be heard. I can’t say that I like criticism or that when they criticize me I thank them and change immediately. But I’ll tell you this, when people who love me criticize me, I listen. I have a friend who has earned, with his love, the right to say anything to me. Recently he told me I should take a certain sermon and “put it on the bottom of the pile.” Guess what? I put it on the bottom of the pile!
When I became a Christian two things happened. I got saved and I got loved. I got loved so deeply that it still amazes me when I think about it. Because I got loved so deeply, I want to please the One who loved me that much. I may not always please Him—sometimes I even run in the other direction, because His love can really hurt. I may chafe against pleasing Him; I may find myself in a very far country; I may not even speak to Him. But I’ll tell you something: I want to please Him and when I don’t please Him it hurts.
Now if I really want to please Him, I must know what pleases Him. I find that out by reading the Word and listening to His commandments. When I know what He wants, I want what He wants. Love does that to you. But I must know what He wants. That is why we must never soften the teaching of the law of God. Holiness is a very important teaching as long as it is given in the context of God’s love.
The Reality of Disobedience
We must never pretend that the world is any different than it really is. The law of God is given to show us the best way to live. God doesn’t sit around trying to dream up the best ways to make us miserable. The law reflects the way the world works in the same way an instruction manual for a computer explains how the computer programs work. You can ignore the instructions, but the programs won’t run. If God, who loves us, has given us an instruction manual, and we ignore the instructions, we have no right to complain because we are miserable and hurt. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of Christians who sow their wild oats and pray for a crop failure.
The principle is this: Obedience comes through freedom, not freedom through obedience
It should not surprise anyone that Paul, toward the end of his magnificent teaching on freedom, should say, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7). We need to be just as clear on that as Paul was. If you jump off a ten-story building, there is going to be an abrupt, painful stop. That’s just how things are. If you disobey God’s laws with impunity, you’re going to get hurt. That’s just how things are.
When everything is messed up because people wanted to do it their way rather than God’s way, we need to be able to say, “Look. Don’t whine. We told you that God has given instructions. If you don’t obey them, don’t be surprised if the thing doesn’t work.”
But we need also, when someone hasn’t obeyed the instructions, to let them know that they have a grand opportunity to experience Christ’s love and grace. If we don’t tell them that, we will be giving only half of the message.
The Presence of the Holy Spirit
We must never forget about the Holy Spirit. In John 16 Jesus is telling His disciples that He is going away. They are not very happy about the prospect, so Jesus tells them: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:7-14).
I thought all that was my job. I’ll bet, if you are a mature Christian, you thought it was your job too. Almost everything we do wrong in regard to freedom—judging other people, trying to get them to fit our Christian mold, telling them what they ought and ought not do, deciding on whether they are good enough to be called a part of our family, being overly concerned with our witness in the community—is the business of the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of leading Christians in the right direction. He is also perfectly capable of convicting them (and us) and of motivating them (and us) to do what the Father wants them (and us) to do.
The Freedom in Grace
We must never soften the clear teaching of the Bible on grace. Paul in his teaching on freedom speaks of those people who had come into the congregations at Galatia and caused a number of people (including his young friend Titus) to be confused about their liberty. Paul writes, “And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Gal. 2:4-5).
I can understand those who came into the churches at Galatia and tried to get the people away from Paul’s teaching. If I had been a church leader, I probably would have at least thought about doing the same thing.
I hope I would not have done it dishonestly. I hope I would have gone to Paul and tried to reason with him. I would have said, “Paul, I too love the fact of my freedom, but these folks are going to leave the faith altogether. They are just not mature enough for your kind of teaching. We need to establish some rules and tell them that God’s holiness will eat them alive if they get out of line. After all, Paul, we need to maintain the proper Christian witness in the community. We must remember that when Christ calls us He bids us come and die. Paul, don’t bring shame on Christ by allowing too much freedom. Those folks are not as mature as you are. They will just use their freedom as an excuse to sin.”
That seems to me like a perfectly reasonable and logical way to deal with the problem. Only the Bible and experience tell me that it just doesn’t work. In fact, it has just the opposite effect.
The principle is this: Obedience comes through freedom, not freedom through obedience. We must never soften the teaching of grace, lest we miss the joy God has promised.
Adapted from Steve’s book, When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough.