God went to great lengths to set his people free both from slavery to sin and the burden of trying to earn our way back to God. This truth is declared clearly in the book of Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Throughout human history, there have generally been two dangerous perversions of this revolutionary gospel-freedom. They are the sin of license and the sin of legalism. Both are forms of slavery and both are distortions of God’s intention.
“License” describes the point of view that thinks Jesus paid it all so, therefore, it doesn’t matter how we live. The person who believes this might say, “Jesus died for my sins. Now I can do whatever I want!” The sin of license is a rejection of the gospel. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection did not simply change our legal standing before God (from guilty to free). It also ushered us into an entirely new way of life. To think that how we live does not matter to God is to reject one of the primary purposes of Jesus‘ mission on earth—restoring God’s people to life the way it was meant to be lived.
The mistake the person who falls into license makes is thinking that God’s commands are about fulfilling the divine check-list in the sky. God’s commands were never simply about pleasing him, though. In Psalm 16:11, King David declares, “You will show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
God’s commands were never harsh demands of an overbearing task master. They have always been about God’s people experiencing life, the fullness of joy, and pleasure with him forever. To say we can live however we want because of the work of Christ is to say we know better than God and to miss out on the life he created us for.
“Legalism” describes the point of view that thinks Jesus made us right with God but that relationship can be severed again unless we behave right. Legalists see the gospel as a divine booster shot that makes us capable of living better. They think that if we live well enough, God will be pleased with us and we can stay in relationship with him. They wrongly seek approval from God and others by obeying rules or a man-made code of conduct, not resting in the finished work of Jesus. This too is a rejection of the gospel.
The rules they seek to follow can include both Old Testament laws such as circumcision or observance of special feasts as well as modern day preferences like a certain dress code, style of music, or even color of carpet. Legalism says, “Sin is such a big deal that Jesus had to come and die. I really better make sure I don’t sin anymore,” and they miss out on the joy of being in a safe, secure relationship with God. Our right standing with God is a free gift of God’s grace, not a reward for work we do. This grace is not a booster shot, either. It is the saving and sustaining power of God.
Gospel freedom walks the line between legalism and license. God has given Christians the liberty to make decisions in various situations. This freedom does not say, “do whatever you want” but rather, “there’s a better way to live.” This kind of freedom requires dependence on God’s Spirit, attention to God’s Scriptures, and wisdom from God’s community. These decisions, bathed in prayer, are informed primarily by the Scriptures as well as the individual’s conscience and context.
Our conscience is a gift from God that helps us to make decisions that lead to life. It’s sometimes thought of as the “little voice” warning us in certain situations. That little voice isn’t always perfect and sometimes we sinfully ignore it. We can help our conscience grow and become more accurate, though, through reflecting on God’s word and spending time in prayer. Molding our conscience is an essential part of the Christian life because there are countless situations we will face that can’t be solved by a simple verse from the Bible. Should you see an R-rated movie? How much money should you give to the church? Is it OK to listen to the radio? Can I get that plastic surgery? Who should I vote for? The examples are endless.
License says, “do whatever you want.” Legalism says, “create all the rules and then follow them.” Gospel freedom says, “all things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial. God, show me what’s best.”
Along with molding our conscience, we must learn to pay attention to our context. Our context is wherever we are and whoever we are with. There may be a decision that is completely acceptable in one situation and completely sinful in another. Consider some of the examples used above. Imagine you are going to Thanksgiving at your in-laws. You know that your father-in-law loves drinking wine and has an impressive collection. You search the Bible, pray, and talk to your community group about the upcoming holiday. With their help you come to the conclusion that it is fine for a Christian to drink alcohol and soon you are excited about trying something new and special. You have a great time with your in-laws, the wine is delicious, and you head home satisfied.
The next week, you are scheduled to have Thanksgiving dinner with your family. You get word that your uncle will be joining the family and everyone is excited. You go to a local wine shop to pick up one of your father-in-law’s suggestions. As you reach for the bottle, you feel your conscience tugging. You realize you haven’t seen your uncle for a few months because he has been in an alcohol recovery program…
This is nearly the same situation as before, but the context has changed. It may be permissible for you to drink wine alongside your alcoholic uncle, but it is the best decision? How will it affect him? How will it affect your family? You search the scriptures and find this: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak…When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:10, 12).
It was completely acceptable to drink wine with your in-laws, but now you feel convinced that it would be completely sinful for you to drink wine with your family.
The people of God must stay as close as we can to what God has revealed in the Bible. Not every question is explicitly addressed in the pages of Scripture, though. That is why we embrace the gift of God’s Spirit inside of us, the conscience he has given us, and the people with whom he has surrounded us. We don’t want to invent new rules to follow or add verses to the Bible. We want to celebrate the gospel by molding our consciences, paying attention to our context, and enjoying the freedom Jesus has provided for us.