We are masters at justifying our behavior. If we REALLY want something then we will find a way to convince our brains and our hearts that it is okay to do it. Those of us who are really slick and have a little bit of the Bible tucked away in our heads will bring up Scripture to justify our behavior.
The Apostle Paul once heard a report from the church in the city of Corinth that blew his mind. It seems that one of the church members had an affair with his father’s wife. The church was so proud of their liberty and freedom and openness. Paul was not proud. Instead, he wrote:
Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? (1 Corinthians 5:2)
I would guess that a good many of us have never tried to get frisky with our step mothers, there are other areas in our lives where we do what we want to do even when we know we shouldn’t be doing it.
Someone once talked to me about the two types of Christians: law-driven people and grace-driven people. When it comes to justifying our behavior we all suddenly turn into grace-driven Christians, promoting God’s grace above all else.
“God’s grace covers all.”
Paul had to fight this mentality from the church in Rome. His response:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2)
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big believer in God’s grace. If God were not gracious with us we’d all be toast. But we must walk that line between receiving grace and abusing grace.
Grace does not give us carte blanche to sin and willfully make unrighteous decisions. Grace does offer to catch us when we fall. Grace helps us get back on track. But as we grow in our faith and in our relationship with God, our new life should pull us away from the old behavior into a new way of doing things. It’s spiritual maturity. Paul continues:
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires….For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:11-14)
Remember when you fell in love for the first time? Most of us will go through a lot in order to change ourselves so that we can be the perfect partner for the one we love (many young people foolishly pretend to be something other than what they really are, and that will blow up later). The point is this – grace isn’t about abusing the freedom God has given us. It’s not a get out of jail free card to continue making evil choices. Grace should be drawing us in a closer relationship with God to the point where we WANT to be different.
It’s not about “How bad can I be and still be a Christian?”
It’s about “How much do I love Jesus, and what am I willing to do to belong to him?”
I love Big Macs. I don’t even remember the last time I had one, though – they’re really not good for you. One little hamburger. 540 calories. But it tastes sooo good!
It’s hard to believe that something like could cause problems in a church. How can one little burger cause division and tension among good Christian people? I don’t think anyone reading would object if I had this burger. Okay, my wife might object, but that’s purely for health reasons. But in the early church, whether or not you ate meat was a big deal. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes:
1Accept anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about doubtful issues. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, but one who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 One who eats must not look down on one who does not eat, and one who does not eat must not criticize one who does, because God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to criticize another’s household slave? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And he will stand. For the Lord is able to make him stand.
Can you imagine? All this fuss is over whether or not people should eat meat. The real issue is not exactly vegans vs. carnivores. You see, in the ancient pagan world, people would make pagan sacrifices to their gods and then that meat would be sold in the market. There were some Christians who said, “We should not be eating any meat that has been sacrificed to false gods.” And since it is nearly impossible to tell which meat has been a sacrifice and which meat is clean meat, we just shouldn’t eat meat at all.” It was a spiritual decision, not a health decision. Other Christians said, “Why is any of it unfit for eating? Those pagan gods are false gods, and meat offered to a false god will not hurt a Christian.” They felt free to eat meat from the public market. So they would go back and forth – “We shouldn’t eat meat from the market!” “We can eat meat from the market.” “It may have been sacrificed to false gods!” “We serve the only real God, and that meat won’t hurt us!”
This is what Paul addresses in Romans 14 – Christian liberty and freedom – and he’s trying to tell us, “Hey, it’s okay to disagree on whether or not certain behaviors are appropriate for Christians. If you feel free in your conscience and spirit to do those things, don’t look down on others who don’t have that freedom. If you don’t think it’s appropriate for Christians to engage in certain behaviors, don’t judge those Christians who do feel free.” This is the central thrust behind the idea of Christian Liberty.
Christian liberty is the freedom from God to do whatever you wish in any matter the Bible does not address. Christian liberty is not an excuse to sin, break biblical principles, start arguments in the church, or to give Jesus a bad reputation. Let’s be super clear here: what God commands, we do. What God condemns, we avoid. When God seems silent, we have liberty to behave according to our own convictions. How does this play out in real life? God repeatedly condemns and forbids adultery. That’s a no-no. You can’t say, “I have freedom in Christ, so I’m gonna fool around on my spouse.” Liberty is not an excuse to sin. God condemns drunkenness. You can’t say, I have Christian liberty to get smashed every weekend!” Liberty is not an excuse to go against what God has declared. God directs us to submit to the governing authorities and live lives of obedience. You cannot knowingly engage in illegal behavior (cheating on taxes, stealing, dealing drugs, whatever). What God commands, we do. What God condemns, we avoid.
So what kinds of things might be areas of liberty – areas that are not directly covered by God’s commands or prohibitions? Here are some examples: watching R-rated movies. Pornography is never okay, but what about non-porn R-rated movies? Freedom. Drinking alcohol. Drunkenness is never okay, but there are places in the Bible where the writers encourage alcohol and where wine is seen as a blessing. Freedom. Smoking cigars. Make-up on girls. Plastic surgery. Voting Republican or Democrat. Tattoos. Clothing. Hobbies.
The Bible does not address these things and so, Paul says, there is freedom to act according to our conscience. And don’t fight each other over matters of freedom and conscience.
But get this: Paul says, “If it is a matter that God doesn’t address and your conscience, your own convictions, tell you it’s wrong, then for you it is a sin.” The Bible does not condemn having a beer, but if something in you says, “I think it’s wrong,” then for you to have one is a sin. Wild, isn’t it? Paul says in vs. 14, “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean.” Because what is acceptable to some of us might be a sin to others, Paul writes that we need to act in love towards each other.
Love is acting in the best interest of others. Paul continues:
15: If your brother is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking according to love. 19 So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Everything is clean, but it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats. 21 It is a noble thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother stumble. 22 Do you have faith? Keep it to yourself before God.
God wants us to act in the best interest of the entire group. Am I free to engage in certain behaviors? Yes, and God does not condemn us for those areas of liberty! But if the exercise of my freedoms causes someone else to have a moral failure, then I have wronged that person and I have wronged God. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:13 that “if food causes my brother to fall, I will never eat meat again, so that I won’t cause my brother to fall.” Wow! Do you mean to tell me that God wants me to restrict myself? Yes, for the benefit of others. You have the freedom not to exercise your freedoms! And if you can’t live without your freedom, you don’t have a freedom, you have an addiction.
I’ve tried to talk to people about this concept before. I’ve said to people, “Be careful about your public behavior because you never know who is watching and how your actions will affect others.” I’ve had people tell me I’m being a hypocrite – allowing behavior privately but restricting it publicly. I tell you what, I’m stinkin’ tired of being called a hypocrite. The people who label that hypocrisy are then calling God a hypocrite. Look again at Romans 14:22 ~ Do you have faith? Keep it to yourself before God. I didn’t make it up – God did. So you have freedoms in Christ – you don’t have to flaunt them in front of everyone else. It’s okay to exercise your freedoms in private and show grace and love towards people who might not share your freedoms while in public. The guiding principle here is that God wants us to act in the best interest of the entire group, not just our own interest. Am I looking out for my fellow Christians? Am I acting in their interest?
It all comes down to this: What God commands, we do. What God condemns, we avoid. In all other areas we have liberty to follow our conscience. But God would rather that we restrict our own liberties for the sake of promoting peace and building each other up. Put love above your liberty. It’s time to make a radical shift. I think too many Christians do not put love first. We fail to think and act in the best interest of the church. We prefer to act in our own best interest. In the way we behave, in the way we talk to each other. In the way we talk ABOUT each other to others. It’s time to leave self-interest behind and act in the best interest of the church of Jesus Christ. It is time to do a 180 degree shift, to let God change us. Some of us need to repent for flaunting our freedoms in the faces of others. Some of us need to repent for judging and criticizing those who exercise certain freedoms. We need to repent for the way we talk to each other and about each other. It’s time to put love above our personal liberties and freedoms.
How about you? What freedoms do you judge others for exercising? What freedoms have you been judged for exercising?
Before coming to pastor in Central Illinois my family had been in Florida (about halfway between Orlando and Tampa). My kids had no real knowledge of what it was to live in a place that experiences real seasonal change. Last year my two year old spent the entire winter in long-sleeved shirts. That’s all he knew that winter. I vividly remember the day the weather turned warm and we brought out the warm-weather clothes. I put a short-sleeved shirt on him for the first time in his life (as far as his two year old memory knew). He spent five minutes tugging at his short sleeves, trying to pull them down like all of his other shirts. It was pure comedy.
Truth be told, we behave similarly as adults. We become so accustomed to our habits, patterns, and ruts that often we fail to see that there are other ways of doing things. There are other ways of behaving. There are other ways of living life. Our ruts become blinders that disallow us to see anything else. “Of course I can’t change. This is the way things have always been. This is the way things always will be.” At least that’s the lie we tell ourselves. And we thus give ourselves permission to stay stuck in the old ways of living life. This is the mindset that the Apostle Paul writes against in his letter to the Roman Church
“[A]re you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life…. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims…. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God…. Romans 6:3-14
There’s a new way of life that is made possible because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are not the people we used to be, so it’s time to stop acting like the people we used to be. A few weeks ago we had the privilege to baptize 12 people after our Sunday worship service. Baptism is the epitome of the life-change made possible through Jesus. It is us declaring to the world: “I have given myself to Jesus and I will now walk his path – not my own.” Now each of those people needs to start living a changed life.
I frequently hear people talk (or see internet memes) about not judging people and that if Jesus loves and accepts without judging then so should we. But I don’t buy it. You know who we don’t judge? We don’t judge outsiders. We don’t judge non-believers. They don’t have the same belief system or value-set. How could we possibly judge them? But we do hold accountable people who profess faith in Jesus. We should not point fingers and say: “How bad you’ve been – you’re gonna burn.” We need to be helping guide others towards Christ and say: “This is the kind of behavior God expects from those who call themselves believers.”
I know what you’re thinking – you’re still picturing that meme that criticizes Christian snobs who judge others’ imperfections. But think about Jesus’ interactions with “sinners”. Did he criticize them for their ways? No, he did not. But look at what he DID do a couple of times. He said: “Go and stop sinning.”
An encounter with Jesus is not a clean slate to behave in devilish ways. An encounter with Jesus calls us to new life and a new way of behaving. I have told my church repeatedly (although not lately – maybe it’s time again) that EVERYONE is welcome in our church and will ALWAYS be welcome in our church. But…once you’re here we expect that you will be on God’s path for spiritual growth and maturity. Come as you are – and then let God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, affect real life change in you.
Have you had an encounter with the Living God? Then don’t keep living in the same ruts you’ve lived in for years. It’s time to break free from those habits and patterns and to begin living a new life characterized by godly growth and maturity.
Otherwise you’ll be tugging at your sleeves for the rest of your life….