Maximum Christian Freedom
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, October 17, 1999
Copyright © 1999, P. G. Mathew
The subject of this passage is Christian liberty. The Christian life is a life of maximum freedom. Christians enjoy freedom from sin, freedom from Satan, freedom from the law, freedom from death, freedom from the wrath of God and freedom from all the evil forces that are opposed to us in this world. The Christian life is the liberty from slavery to powers that oppose God and the freedom to love and serve both God and men. It is the liberty given to us so that we can fulfill God's claims upon our lives.
This freedom is not something achieved by man; it is a free gift of God's grace. It was to bestow this freedom that the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, came into this world and became incarnate. To this purpose God the Father anointed him to proclaim liberty to captives, to preach the gospel to the poor, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
There are Christian preachers and theologians who use this portion of Scripture to find fault with the apostle Paul. They say that in this passage, Paul is acting like a chameleon, changing his mind and perhaps questioning the sufficiency of Christ and abandoning the message that he preached and taught that salvation is by grace through faith plus nothing. This is a false judgment of Paul. In this study we will demonstrate that Paul was a man who understood and enjoyed maximum Christian freedom.
Slaves to Sin
To understand Christian liberty we must first understand what we are liberated from. The Bible tells us that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, you are a slave to sin. There is a Latin phrase to describe your state--non posse non peccare--meaning it is not possible for you not to sin. Yes, you have freedom, but it is freedom only to sin--freedom to sin in the morning, freedom to sin at noon, and freedom to sin at night all the days of your life. You are not free to do anything outside of the realm of sin.
But if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed. The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ came to overthrow the prince of this world, to bind the strong man, and to set the prisoners free, that we may enjoy maximum freedom. The moment you trust in Jesus Christ alone, you are characterized by a different freedom--posse non peccare--which means it is now possible for you not to sin. Now you are free to love and serve God, and that freedom increases throughout your Christian life. And when you go to heaven, you will be characterized by non posse peccare, which means it will not be possible for you to sin. That will be maximum freedom--to not be enslaved to sin, Satan, the law as a system of salvation, and death. It means you will be enslaved to God forever--no longer under his wrath and free to enjoy his presence forever. That is true happiness, both for now and for eternity. That is the freedom Jesus Christ calls us to.
Paul Takes a Vow
The apostle Paul preached the gospel of maximum freedom and enjoyed it himself. As Saul of Tarsus, he first experienced this freedom when, as a slave to sin, he was arrested by the Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Instantly he was justified by faith; his sins were all forgiven; and he was delivered out of the kingdom and authority of Satan into the kingdom and authority of God's Son--the kingdom described in the Bible as the sphere of life, peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Paul was gloriously converted and instantly became a new creation. He was no longer to be described as Jew or Gentile, but as a new creation: the old was gone; behold, the new had come. Paul was saved by grace through faith plus nothing and received eternal life. The Holy Spirit began to dwell in him and empower him mightily so that he could proclaim the gospel of maximum freedom with absolute fearlessness.
Paul had an iron will to do the will of God. Directed by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, even though there were repeated warnings that bonds and afflictions awaited him there, Paul traveled there without fear and with great resolve to suffer and even to die, if needs be, for the sake of Jesus Christ, as we read in Acts 21:17.
When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, he met with James and the other leaders of the large Jewish church there, who told him of some rumors they had heard about him. "There are all kinds of reports about you in the Jewish church," James told Paul. "We know they are false, but the Jewish church of Jerusalem has been unsettled by them. We have even heard that you are teaching the Jewish Christians of the Diaspora that they should no longer express their Jewish culture in practical ways. People are saying that you said Jewish boys should not be circumcised and that Jewish Christians should abandon all kinds of ceremonial laws and restrictions regarding diet, holy days, and festivals. We know that these things are not true, but thousands of Jewish Christians are believing them nonetheless."
Paul had just come from the Gentile world and was ceremonially unclean according to Jewish law. Thus, James and the elders counseled him to go to the temple and purify himself to show that he was not against the law. Additionally, these leaders asked Paul to pay for the expenses involved in the sacrifices of four poor Jewish Christians relating to vows they had taken as Nazarites.
In Numbers 6 we read about Nazarite vows, which were voluntary vows that people would take for a time--say, for thirty days--in thanksgiving to God for all the blessings they had received from him or for the mercies they anticipated in the future. During the period of their vows, these people would not drink wine or touch anything unclean, and they would let their hair grow. At the end of the allotted time, those who took the vows would come to the temple, shave their heads, and burn that hair, together with certain sacrifices, as an offering. This was still part of the Jewish cultural life during Paul's time.
So the leaders of the Jerusalem church told Paul, in essence, "We have four poor Jewish Christians who are ending the period of their vows. It takes a lot of money for the sacrifices they need to offer, and they don't have enough. You have just returned from the Gentile countries, so why don't you go ahead and purify yourself now. You can also take these people with you to the temple, meet with the priests, and tell them that you will pay for their sacrifices, which will be a pious act. Let everyone know when the sacrifices are going to be offered. Then the Jewish church will know that, contrary to reports, you are not going against Jewish culture."
This counsel, designed to deal with the false reports about Paul, was also aimed at maintaining the unity of the church by causing the Jewish church in Jerusalem to be at peace with Paul. Paul agreed to this counsel and went to the temple to participate in the temple ceremonies.
Was Paul Compromising the Gospel?
As we said before, there are interpreters, theologians, and preachers who would say that Paul should not have gone to Jerusalem in the first place. They say that Paul disobeyed the Holy Spirit by going, and that this agreement to purify himself and pay for the sacrifices of these four poor Jewish Christians was a further compromise on Paul's part of the central truth of the gospel, which is the sufficiency of Christ for our complete and full salvation. I say such a view is totally false in view of the maximum freedom we have and which Paul clearly enjoyed in Jesus Christ.
Paul's understanding of the gospel and his own experience of the glorious liberty of the children of God was in no way contradicted by his actions in Jerusalem. Throughout his life after his conversion Paul always preached that salvation, meaning justification before God, was by grace through faith plus nothing. We read this in his epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, especially, as well as in his other letters.
Paul taught this truth wherever he went; yet, when he was ministering to the Jews, he conformed to the Old Testament ceremonial regulations. He did so, even though he knew these matters--diet and dates and festivals and washings and ablutions--were not essential to salvation.
Paul was free from ceremonial law, yet he did not consider it a sin to observe it, provided it was not done to acquire righteousness. Paul worked in two distinct cultures--Jewish and Gentile--and, in order to speak to people of both cultures, he adapted himself both to the Jews, who were under the law, and to the Gentiles, who were not under the law of Moses. When he was among the Jews, he lived as a Jew and conformed to the cultural expressions of Judaism. When he was among the Gentiles, he lived as a Gentile.
Was Paul, then, a chameleon, a compromiser? Was he unstable as an apostle? Was he a person who lacked conviction and resolve? Not at all! Paul understood his total freedom in Christ and enjoyed this freedom to the maximum. But he had a task to do, given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Paul was commissioned to preach the gospel of God's grace to the Jews and also to the Gentiles. To fulfill this task, as well as to preserve the unity of God's church, Paul determined to live among the Jews as a Jew and among the Gentiles as a Gentile, all the time remaining under the law of Christ.
You have probably heard this saying: In essentials, unity; in things indifferent, liberty; in all things, charity. There are things that are indifferent--the word is adiaphora--which don't matter in regard to salvation and things that are essential. When we examine the principles by which Paul lived, we will see that what he did in Jerusalem was not a contradiction of the gospel.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-20 Paul writes, "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law." Paul understood what God had done in Jesus Christ and that salvation does not come by keeping the law as a system of salvation. In verse 21 he writes, "To those not having the law," meaning the Gentiles, who did not have the law of Moses, "I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law." Paul's purpose was to win Jews and Gentiles for Christ through the preaching of the gospel, and he employed all means to that end.
Paul continues, "To the weak I became weak. . . ." Weak people were those who thought that Christians should only eat vegetables. They were those whose consciences bothered them when they ate meat that was offered to the idols. What did Paul do about these people? He became like them. He said he would eat what they ate because, in God's eyes, these matters of food and drink are adiaphora--things that do not matter at all in the plan of salvation. So Paul said, "To the weak I became weak to win the weak."
Then he concluded, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." The gospel is God's grace that salvation is by grace through faith plus nothing, and Paul did not want to let anything stand in the way of his preaching of it.
Did this position make Paul a chameleon, a compromiser, unstable in all his ways? No! As a man of total conviction, Paul understood the gospel and wanted to proclaim it to whomever he could.
In 1 Corinthians 7:17-19 Paul gives us further information about his position: "Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him." In other words, if you are called as a Gentile, don't try to be a Jew; and if you are called as a Jew, don't try to be a Gentile. He continues, "This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised." Now, this is the principle Paul was teaching: "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts." We can do that only after God has done his work of making us new creations in Christ.
After he became a Christian, Paul himself continued to participate in the Jewish festivals, as we will discover later in this study. Every time he went to Jerusalem he purified himself, and he even took certain Nazarite vows at times. But in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 we see that Paul had a profound understanding of the entire Jewish sacrificial system. Paul instructs his readers, "Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast--as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth."
Paul clearly understood that Christ our Passover lamb had been sacrificed and there was no need for any further sacrifices. To the true believers of the Old Testament, the sacrificial system pointed forward to the Messiah. They knew that the blood of bulls and goats would not save them, but rather pointed to the Messiah. As for Paul, as long as the Jewish sacrificial system survived in Jerusalem, he would go to the festivals and and worship at the temple. But when he looked upon these sacrifices, he was looking backward to Jesus Christ. He understood that Christ's blood satisfied the requirements of the law. He understood that Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification, and thus there remains no more sacrifice for sin. This is the key to understanding Paul's actions in Jerusalem.
A Jew Among the Jews
We find several examples of Paul's "becoming like a Jew" when he was among the Jews in the book of Acts. In Acts 18:18 we read that "Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken."
While Paul was staying in Corinth, he apparently had taken a Nazarite vow for the blessings he received from God. Having completed the period of the vow, he shaved his hair and began to go to Jerusalem. When he was there, I am sure he planned to offer a sacrifice and burn this hair in dedication of his life to God.
In Acts 20:6 we read, "But we sailed from Philippi after the Feast of Unleavened Bread," meaning the Passover. Paul was not in Jerusalem for Passover, but I am sure he celebrated it, with the emphasis that Christ was the final Passover Lamb who had been crucified. He was not trusting in the festival of Passover but in Jesus Christ alone.
In Acts 20:16 we read, "Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem if possible, by the day of Pentecost." Paul's desire was to go to Jerusalem in time to celebrate the Festival of Pentecost, but, again, his focus was not on the festival but on Jesus Christ, who was crucified in his behalf.
When James and the elders suggested Paul go to the temple and participate in the ceremonies there, as we read in Acts 21:23-24, what was Paul's reaction? I am sure he said it was all right. Why? Paul knew he could go to the temple and perform all the ceremonies without denying the gospel, because his faith was in Jesus Christ, not in the ceremonial law.
In Acts 24:18 Paul made this statement in his defense before Felix: "I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this." In other words, he had purified himself in accordance with Jewish custom. Such ceremonial purification was no problem to Paul, but he did not believe such actions brought about purification of his conscience. Paul clearly understood that his conscience could be purified only by the shed blood of Jesus Christ, as he preached many times. But he conformed to these adiaphoral matters for the sake of preaching the gospel.
Finally, in Acts 27:9 Luke makes this note, "Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast." The Fast was the festival of Yom Kippur, another festival which Paul would have observed.
My point is this: Yes, Paul behaved as a Jewish person and expressed his cultural heritage when he was among the Jews, but he did so without ever denying that salvation is by grace through faith plus nothing.
Paul's Defense of the Gospel
When we read the Pauline epistles, we notice how ferociously Paul attacked the Pharisees' idea that salvation is achieved by keeping the law. "Oh, no," Paul would say. "It is absolutely impossible to achieve salvation by keeping the law because by observing the law no one can be justified. The purpose of law is not to impart life but to make us aware of our sin so that we might repent and trust in Jesus Christ." This thought was intrinsic to Paul's preaching.
In the book of Galatians we find Paul's attack on the Judaizers, who were Jewish Christians who believed that salvation is by grace through faith plus something else. They were telling the Galatians, who were Gentile converts, that they had to be circumcised in order to be saved.
What was Paul's response to this? In Galatians 5:2 he told the Galatians in no uncertain terms what he thought: "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all." Paul opposed this type of Pharisaism vehemently. He boldly stood against the Judaizers' idea that salvation is by grace through faith plus circumcision.
Yet in Acts 16 we find Paul circumcising Timothy, a disciple from Lystra whose father was a Gentile but whose mother was a Jewess. Was Paul contradicting his words to the Galatians? No. When he decided to take Timothy along with him on his travels, Paul circumcised Timothy, not so that Timothy might be saved, but to conform to Jewish custom so that Timothy, whose Jewish heritage was not hidden, could preach the gospel with him wherever he went. In other words, Paul had Timothy circumcised so that he would be more readily accepted by the Jews when they went to preach the gospel in the synagogues. But Paul did not place any value in circumcision as a necessary part of salvation. In fact, in Galatians 2:3 we discover that when Paul took Titus the Gentile to Jerusalem, he did not allow Titus to be circumcised, even though there may have been pressure on Paul to do it. Why? As a Gentile convert, Titus did not need to be circumcised to be saved, and Paul knew that.
To Paul cultural expression of ceremonial laws of diet and festival days belonged to the category of adiaphora, as did eating of meat offered to idols. As we said before, adiaphora are actions which God neither commands nor prohibits, the performance or omission of which is accordingly left as a matter of indifference--in other words, things that are non-essential and don't make any difference in one's salvation.
Paul did not go to the temple, purify himself, and offer sacrifices so that he could be saved. To him such things were indifferent, but they had value in evangelizing the Jewish people and maintaining the unity of the church. And regarding the vital question of justification of Jews and Gentiles, Paul preached the truth. We read about this in Romans 3:20-26, that justification is apart from keeping the law. In verses 21-22 Paul wrote, "But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known. . . . This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ," and then he said, "to all who believe"--to the Jew and also to the Greek.
Paul taught that no one would ever be declared righteous by observing the law. The law was not given to impart life, but to give us knowledge of our rottenness, of our sin, that we may repent and run to Christ for justification.
Opposition to Christian Liberty: Legalism
There are two philosophies in the Christian church that oppose this maximum freedom gospel. The first is legalism, which is a form of Pharisaism.
Do you know what legalism is? It is the religion of formalism and externalism. It is the religion of washing hands, feet, and bodies. It is the religion of mechanically keeping rules, maintaining that evil is found outside the body--in food, in coffee, in meat, and so on.
Jesus Christ addressed this philosophy and opposed it. "No," he would say. "You have it all wrong. The problem is not in the coffee you drink or the meat you eat. The problem is inside you. Don't you know that in God's eyes your heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked? Sin comes out of your depraved heart in your words and actions."
In Matthew 23 we find a list of woes pronounced on the Pharisees, and when you read that list, you cannot help noticing that these people majored in minors. In Matthew 19 we meet the rich young ruler, who was also a Pharisee and legalist. "What must I do to be saved?" he asked Jesus Christ, and the answer was given: "Keep the law." "I have kept it all," the man said. Then Jesus told him, "All right, then. Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor and come and follow me," and all of a sudden his god was revealed. This man was a worshiper of money.
Pharisees fail to acknowledge that evil comes from our hearts, not from external factors. I was brought up in a church that is now steeped in legalism and external formalism. I was brought up with these rules: "Don't play. Don't participate in any sports. Don't take medicine. Don't go to medical college. Don't go into business to make a profit. Don't celebrate birthdays or festivals. Don't wear a wedding ring. Don't drink any wine or smoke. Don't wear any jewelry or cosmetics. Why? There is evil in all of these things. You must abstain from all these things in order to be considered righteous."
People in such churches think that others are not as holy as they are. For example, they will tell me, "I don't drink coffee." Oh, they feel so proud about it: "I don't even drink coffee." As I said, I was brought up in such legalism, but when I studied the Bible, I rejected all those things. I finally spent fifteen dollars on a wedding ring, which I wear when I am here. But when I go to minister in those churches, like Paul I will take the ring off--for their consciences' sake, not mine.
Legalism is a distortion of the gospel. It is a religion of rules which says that as long as we don't do certain things, we are all right. (PGM) It has nothing to do with making our old, hard, cold hearts alive to God. It is a religion of formalism, externalism, and negativity. Externally, we may look good, but the heart is the same. There is no warmth toward God and others at all.
How to Deal with Legalism
We find a discussion of legalism in Romans 14. In verse 1 we read, "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters." This is speaking about adiaphora.
The first thing we must realize is that this problem was found within a church--the church of Rome. Within that church there was a minority of people who were called those weak in the faith. If we read on in this chapter, we discover that these people said real spirituality meant eating only vegetables. This became their religion, and they thought that they were more pious than others in the church who ate meat.
This legalism was beginning to cause a problem in the Roman church. So Paul was telling the church, "Go ahead and accept those who are weak in faith without criticizing them about disputable matters." But we must understand one thing about these people. The text says they were weak in the faith, meaning they were weak in their understanding of the gospel. They had not grown in the knowledge of the gospel, and that was causing problems in the church.
Were these people Christians? Yes. But Paul says they were weak, not strong, in the faith. Paul puts himself among the strong in the faith, among those who understood the gospel, grew up and matured in the Lord. He put himself with those who understood that Christian freedom comes to us through Jesus Christ, and so Christians can eat anything they want.
In verse 14 Paul wrote, "As one who is in the Lord Jesus," speaking of his relationship with Jesus Christ, "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself." The weak people thought that evil was in food, specifically meat. In other words, Paul was saying that all food is clean. This was not a new idea. Paul knew that since the coming of Jesus Christ the ceremonial and dietary laws were all abrogated. Jesus himself taught this in Mark 7, and Peter received a reinforcement of this idea in the vision God gave him in Acts 10.
Weak and Strong
The idea that all food is clean was given by revelation of Jesus Christ and recorded in the Scriptures. However, if you think something is unclean, it is unclean for you, and you shouldn't eat it. The strong shouldn't force you to eat it, because if you do something that is not of faith, it is sin. You should never violate your conscience.
What should those who are strong in the church do? Show consideration for the weak. You should educate them with patience that they may not be weak and remain weak in the gospel. Bring them up through education so that their consciences may be adjusted by the Scriptures. Teach them that our consciences must obey the word of God, not the word of man.
The strong should show consideration for the weak. At the same time, those who are weak should not legislate rules for the strong, as the late Professor John Murray said. Yes, if you are weak with reference to the gospel, we will counsel you, put up with you, and eat vegetables with you. We will not eat meat with you until you are built up in the most holy faith through the understanding of the gospel. But you must also study the Scriptures and seek to grow in the Lord on your own.
In Romans 15:1 Paul writes, "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves." Paul included himself in the company of those who are strong in the faith. "Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up."
The Bible does not glory in the weakness of people's faith. Paul was strong, but he would not put up with legalists who pretended that eating vegetables is the way of greater spirituality. So in Romans 14 as well as 1 Corinthians 8, 9 and 10, Paul makes it clear that nothing is unclean of itself.
The weak should not legislate the standard of morality for the rest of the people and the strong must exercise all due forbearance toward the weak. However, if we are strong, we must understand that others are weak, and we cannot force our freedom upon them. We have to bear with them, build them up, and teach them until their consciences adjust themselves to the gospel.
In Paul's day the rule was, "I don't eat meat offered to idols." In today's church we find rules like "I don't drink wine," or "I don't smoke." One of my seminary professors was John Murray, one of the finest theologians of the Reformed faith. Professor Murray smoked cigars; his teeth were yellow and his clothing smelled of smoke. Professor Murray also prayed every time before he taught a class, and, let me tell you, he would take us from earth and place us before the triune God in his prayers. You cannot say that Professor John Murray did not understand the gospel. The truth is, he was a strong Christian who enjoyed the maximum freedom the gospel provides.
This Pharisaism, this negative religion, this rule-keeping has nothing to do with the gospel. May God help us to forsake legalism! May he touch us in our hearts, that they may glow with warmth and love for Jesus Christ. And may we enjoy his gifts, knowing that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights. May we eat and drink with thanksgiving to the glory of God, knowing that nothing is unclean of itself.
Opposition to Christian Liberty: Antinomianism
The other philosophy in the Christian church that opposes the gospel of maximum freedom is called antinomianism. Pharisaism is legalism--overly zealous keeping of the law--but antinomianism means to go against the law. It is also called libertinism or autonomy.
Antinomianism is the most prevalent philosophy in today's evangelical world, especially in this country. We will discuss several of the ways in which it manifests itself in the church.
Dualistic antinomianism. What is dualism? Here it means the theory that human beings are made of two elements, matter and spirit. Matter is considered to be evil while spirit is considered to be good. Dualistic antinomianism teaches that salvation is for the soul only and bodily behavior is irrelevant. In other words, sin all you want! It doesn't make any difference what you do with your body--salvation is only for your soul. This is Greek dualistic philosophy working in the church, and we read about it in the letter of Jude and in 2 Peter 2.
Certainly, we have seen manifestations of this philosophy in this country. This wonderful doctrine says that I can sin all I want yet call myself a Christian because my soul is all that matters.
There is only one problem with this view: The Bible does not teach matter is evil and spirit alone is good. This type of dualism is found both in Greek and Hindu literature, but it has nothing to do with the Scripture. God created the universe and called it good, and what we do with our bodies matters for eternity.
Charismatic antinomianism. The second kind of antinomianism is the kind which says, "I am led only by the Spirit of God," meaning "I am led by my own subjectivity, not by the word of God." I call this charismatic antinomianism. This type of thinking has nothing to do with the Spirit of the living God. Such people will say,"I feel goose bumps. I feel warmth. I am led by the Spirit's guidance," and they trust in this type of guidance rather than in scriptural principles. Such people may even go so far as to say, "I rely on the guidance of the Spirit, not on what the Bible says. Don't you think the Spirit's guidance of today is superior to the Scriptures, which were written down so long ago?"
To such people, the idea of freedom from the law as a system of salvation also means freedom from the law as a guide to conduct. But this results in sin. In my own experience I have seen people who advocate this type of thinking. They despise the word of God, refusing to study it, exegete it, and obey it. They will only use the Bible atomistically to promote their own ideas, and the essence of their teaching is, "Go ahead and sin."
Christocentric antinomianism. This type of antinomianism says that God sees no sin in us because we are in Christ, who kept the law perfectly for us. That sounds theologically sound, doesn't it? But what such people are really saying is that because we are in Christ, who kept the law perfectly for us, God sees no sin in us and it does not matter what we do, as long as we believe in Jesus Christ. This is just another attempt to give license to sin.
Dispensational antinomianism. This type of antinomianism states that keeping the moral law at any stage is not necessary for Christians. What is the moral law? The Ten Commandments. In Reformed theology, moral law is called the third use of the law. The first use of the law is to reveal who God is and who man is, especially that man is a sinner and needs to repent. The second use of the law is for civil purposes, to restrain our sin through punishment as we live in society. The third use of the law is for moral purposes, to act as a guide to our conduct.
Dispensational antinomianism, therefore, means that keeping the moral law at any stage is not necessary for Christians. What is the slogan of those who adhere to this view? "We are not under law, but under grace."
There are many scriptures which refute this view, but I will just list a few. In Romans 3:31 we read, "Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law." In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, we read, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." And in 1 Corinthians 9:21 Paul writes, "To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so as to win those not having the law."
Dispensational antinomianism is false. It is total nonsense, yet it is the most popular teaching in the evangelical circles today. Haven't you heard it said that you can accept Jesus as Savior but not necessarily as Lord, and that the only thing you must do is believe? I would remind those who say such things that James tells us even the devil believes and trembles. We must surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Dialectical antinomianism. This type of antinomianism is of a more liberal variety. Liberalism practices dialectical antinomianism. It denies the authority of the Bible and, therefore, it denies the authority of moral law. Again, it gives license to sin.
Situationist antinomianism. This type of antinomianism was made popular by Joseph Fletcher and others in the twentieth century. Situationist antinomianism says that all God requires of us when deciding on a course of action is that our motive and intention is "love." In other words, as long as our motive and intention is "love," we can disregard any rules. We can commit adultery or anything else we want, as long as we are motivated by "love."
Free to Serve God
All of these are distortions of the true gospel. If we are saved by the true gospel, we enjoy maximum freedom, but that freedom is not given to us so that we can sin. We are saved from sin, from Satan, from the wrath of God, and from hell for a purpose--to love and obey God.
"If you love me, keep my commandments," Jesus told us. When we have been transformed on the inside, we will naturally love God and want to keep his law. When God makes us into new creations and gives us new hearts upon which his law is written, keeping the law of the Lord will be a delight, not a burden. This is true of anyone. Parents, if your children are not obeying God out of love, pray that they would be born of God and given new hearts--hearts of flesh that will be responsive to God.
Now we are free to serve God. We are saved by Christ alone through faith alone from slavery to sin, Satan, law and death. But we are saved to a new slavery. Our eleutheria, our freedom, comes from a douleia, a slavery--slavery to God.
Through this new slavery to God we glorify him and enjoy him forever. We are freed by Christ to a new obedience--the obedience of love. Christian obedience is never meant to achieve salvation, but lives lived in conformity with God's law become the evidence that we are God's people. We read about this in Galatians 5:13 where Paul says our freedom in Christ is not a license to sin--antinomianism--or legalism, but a license to serve God. It is a new obedience birthed in freedom. Our freedom is expressed in keeping the moral law of God out of love for God.
Additionally, those who are justified are being sanctified. We must obey God. We can never divorce justification from sanctification. What is the first commandment? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. What is the second commandment? To love your neighbor as yourself. Upon these two hang the whole moral law.
Now we have a new motivation, a new nature, and we are finally doing what God wants us to do, which is to demonstrate our love to him by obeying his commands. We are new creations, created, Paul tells us, for a purpose--unto good works, which is obedience to God's law. In 1 Timothy 6 we read that we must be rich in good works. In Titus 2 we read that we must be zealous, eager, burning for good works.
That is the nature of a child of God, of one who is born of God and indwelt by the Spirit of God. He glories in God, abides in his word, and ever seeks the will of God, not to achieve salvation but to express his love for God.
Whose Slave Are You?
Every person is a slave. The question is, whose slave are you? You can be a slave of sin and Satan, or you can be a slave of Christ. If you are a slave of Christ, you will enjoy the maximum freedom offered to you by Jesus Christ. You will have real freedom--posse non peccare--freedom not to sin but to obey God.
May God help us to understand the gospel so that we can enjoy our freedom by delighting in the law of the Lord. May our children also experience this freedom. When your child comes to you and asks, "Dad, is there something else you want me to do?" and you see on his face that there is no burden, no anguish, but rather a real desire to serve--oh, you will be thrilled. You will say what God said about Jesus Christ, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased."
If we are experiencing maximum Christian freedom, we have a perfect standard given to us by God, which is God's law; we have a perfect motivation, which is love; and we have a perfect purpose, to please God in our whole life and obey his commands. If we are experiencing maximum Christian freedom, pleasing God will not be a burden; not watching pornography will not be a burden; not committing adultery will not be a burden; and not being envious and greedy will not be a burden. We will enjoy the glorious freedom given to us by Jesus Christ to serve God, not to sin.
If God has set you free and made you a slave of Jesus Christ, you will rejoice in it. Never ever envy the condition of the other slaves. They are slaves of sin, slaves of Satan, slaves of death, slaves of hell, slaves of misery, slaves of hopelessness. We have been set free to worship and love God.
May God help us not to believe in the distortions of the true gospel. May he deliver us from Pharisaism, legalism, rule-keeping, externalism, formalism, antinomianism, libertinism, and autonomy. May the Holy Spirit, through the Holy Scriptures, guide us in the way of Christ and his moral law. This is true freedom. This is kingdom of God--righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Copyright © 1999, P. G. Mathew
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The "NIV" and "New International Version" are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™