As we’ve seen in the previous chapter, beloved, many beautiful people have embarked upon this pilgrimage with the noblest of intentions—seeking an authentic life in Christ—only to succumb to the treacherous pitfalls of prideful party-spirit and denominational dogma. Eventually, they begin to take their identity not from an intimate relationship with Christ, but from their association with a particular denomination, church, or religious organization. Sadly, they allow the blinders to be placed over their eyes; and they can no longer see and appreciate the mighty working of our omnipotent God beyond the limits of their paltry party lines. Nor can they behold the beauty and splendor of a glorious movement among humanity that simply cannot be contained within, or constrained by, anyone’s narrow views of religion.
Those of us who see the value in pursuing authentic Christianity, free from the denominational doctrines of men, need to understand the treacherous turf and slippery slope that denominational dogma represents. We do not want to one day wake up and find ourselves among those who have fallen victim to its subtle seductions. But how to deal with human traditions and matters of opinion—whether we deem them conservative or liberal—and keep them in proper perspective when it comes to matters of the Christian faith, has always been a challenge for the children of God.
In dealing with matters along these lines, the Apostle Paul wrote to the ekklesia in Corinth, saying, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (I Corinthians 6:12, NASB). Later, in the same letter, he again told them, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (I Corinthians 10:23, NASB).
In stating that “all things are lawful,” Paul is not endorsing or permitting those things that are specifically and explicitly condemned in scripture, such as:
…immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
(Ephesians 5:19-21, NASB)
Nor is the Apostle Paul giving people license to set aside and not practice those things specifically and explicitly taught in scripture, such as: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12, NASB), or “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38, NASB), or be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3, NASB).
Far from permitting what is explicitly condemned, or setting aside what has been specifically commanded, when the Apostle Paul says, “All things are lawful,” he is referring to that vast area of human endeavor that falls within the scope of human judgment. He is speaking with regard to the ekklesia determining what is relevant and expedient as we seek to live our lives to God’s glory day-by-day and carry out the work, the mission, and the ministry to which Christ has called us. This fact can be clearly seen in Paul’s statement to the ekklesia living in Rome, when he said:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
(Romans 14:1-4, NASB)
The Apostle Paul also shared this concept with the ekklesia living in Corinth as he described for them how he conducted his own daily life and ministry in various cultural settings, saying:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.
(I Corinthians 9:19-22, NASB)
Paul did not sit up on his “high horse” judging and condemning people because they did not look, act, or think like him. He did not insist that everybody come around to his personal way of thinking before he could have fellowship with them. Instead, because he knew that “all things are lawful,” Paul exercised his freedom in Christ to get out of himself and his own world and into the hearts and lives of others. To the greatest extent possible, without violating his allegiance to Christ, he became like those people he sought to reach and teach. He utilized “all means” available to him in his effort to “save some.”
These Biblical concepts encompass the very epitome of the freedom of the new covenant. While some people take the position that “whatever is not specifically commanded in the New Testament is strictly forbidden”—often erring in the area of binding where God, through His inspired word, has not bound—others take the position that “whatever is not specifically forbidden in the New Testament is permitted”—often erring in the area of loosing where God, through His inspired word, has not loosed. Both of these positions originate in the mind of man, are fraught with inconsistency, and fall short of what the scriptures actually teach.
The main reason these types of philosophies fail us is because both positions are entirely legalistic—they move the discussion out of the realm of faith and into the arena of law. In other words, both positions stem from the mindset of looking at the New Testament as though it were a book of law—much the way the Old Testament children of Israel might look at the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Many people don’t seem to comprehend the fact that, unlike the Ten Commandments—which were engraved on tablets of stone—and all the rest of the Law of Moses—contained in the written scrolls of antiquity—the terms of the new covenant are written on our hearts and in our minds. Remember, God said, concerning the new covenant in Christ, “I will put My laws upon their heart, and on their mind I will write them” (Hebrews 10:16, NASB).
God’s holy and inspired written word—the Bible and, in particular, the books of the New Testament—is certainly essential to that process. In fact, we are told, “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (I Peter 2:2, NASB). However, the gospels, the histories, the letters, and the prophecies that comprise our New Testament in no way read like a book of law; and to treat them that way leads only to what Jesus warned His disciples about when He said, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6, NASB). Like the people of Jesus’ day who were spiritually enslaved to the Pharisees, treating the New Testament as though it were a book of law places us in the precarious position of being controlled by the would be scholars and alleged theologians of our day; many of whom far too gleefully and voraciously adhere to that role.
Taking a rather legalistic view of God’s written word and Christianity in general, the modern-day Pharisees—religious leaders—love to argue and debate over what they believe is authorized in scripture. By “authorized,” they mean things for which they can find book, chapter, and verse that in some way—by command, example, or inference—allows for the practice. But this kind of legalism reduces the teachings of the New Testament to “the letter of the law,” rather than elevating them to “matters of the heart.” It takes love for God and for others completely out of the equation when it comes to making decisions about how we will chose to live our lives and practice our faith.
Do the new covenant children of God, and the ekklesia of which we are a part, really need a “thus sayeth the Lord”—with book, chapter, and verse—to authorize absolutely everything we say and do; and, if there is no specific command, example, or at least an inference, are we then prohibited from doing it? If so, then a lot of churches are in really big trouble because they have incorporated themselves, established business accounts, purchased property, built church buildings—complete with kitchens, nurseries, and, if you can believe it, even gymnasiums—incorporated mechanical instruments of music in worship, appointed worship directors, song leaders, church secretaries, and a host of other ministerial staff unheard of in Bible days. Furthermore, they have established disaster relief agencies, orphanages, maternity homes, hospitals, colleges, universities, seminaries, and even publishing houses and mass media production companies. All of this, and more, while engaging in a plethora of so-called “ministry” activities that were unheard of in Bible days.
By the same token, do the new covenant children of God really need a specific prohibition spelled out in the “letter of the law” to know that something is not pleasing to God and that they shouldn’t engage in some possibly destructive activity? Because there is no specific command prohibiting some activity, does that mean one should feel free to participate in it even if, by doing so, we take advantage of others or hurt them, or even ourselves, in some way? We can all probably think of many examples wherein these kinds of legalistic “rules” appear absurd.
Is not my heart, and yours, when surrendered to the will of God, sufficient to convict me with regard to these and all other spiritual matters? God thinks that it is, for the Bible says that THAT is precisely where He writes His law: “I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10, NASB). The Apostle Paul confirms this, as well, when He says to the ekklesia at Rome:
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
(Romans 2:14-16, NASB)
I can only imagine how this concept may stir up the legalists among us who love to harp on how untrustworthy our human hearts really are; often resorting to the Old Testament passage that states, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). For this reason, I find it even more ironic that it is precisely upon our hearts that God chooses to write His law. God is amazing that way!
But, to some extent, I find myself agreeing with the skeptics insofar as realizing that, when it comes to matters of the heart, we must be very, very careful. After all, it is our heart that God is after. And while our hearts can sometimes fool us, God is never fooled—He knows our hearts.
With that thought in mind, I must remember that the scriptures makes it clear that, even if something does, indeed, fall under the category of “all things are lawful”—belonging to the realm of human opinion—if I believe in my heart that it is sinful then, for me, it is sinful. The Apostle Paul says:
I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean … It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.
(Romans 14:14 & 21-23, NASB)
The concept that “whatever is not from faith is sin” is an incredible truth. On the one hand, if I consider something to be a sin, or even if I simply doubt that it has God’s approval, and yet I choose to engage in the activity anyway, what does that say about the condition of my heart? On the other hand, if there is something that I believe I should and could be doing because, in my mind, it is the right thing to do and I know it would please God, but I deliberately choose not to engage in that activity, what does that say about the condition of my heart? Am I not, in either case, internally if not outwardly, walking in rebellion against my God? James says, “to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17, NASB). From this viewpoint, it doesn’t really matter whether or not a particular issue is specifically addressed in the written word of God—the Bible—because God writes His laws upon my heart, it is my heart that convicts me, and it is my heart with which my Lord is most concerned.
While men may argue about various points of doctrine and debate what religious practices are and are not authorized in scripture, it is crucial to our quest for authentic Christianity to remember that God is after our hearts and minds. Furthermore, central to understanding the true nature of the new covenant is the realization that it is upon our hearts and in our minds that God intends to write His law using precept and promise; not on parchment or scrolls using pen and ink. Reducing the teachings of the New Testament to “the letter of the law” circumvents the process whereby we open our hearts and minds to “being led by the Spirit of God” (Romans 8:14, NASB); thereby allowing the “law of Christ” (I Corinthians 9:21, NASB) to be written in our hearts and minds.
In fact, and this is a haunting truth, turning the New Testament into a book of law by which people seek to be justified, if they can somehow manage to get it all just right and practice it sufficiently, is a sure fire way to condemn oneself. Why? Because doing so takes our eyes off of Jesus and His perfect sacrifice and redirects our hearts toward ourselves and our own performance. This is precisely what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he admonished the ekklesia in Galatia, saying:
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
(Galatians 1:1-3, NASB)
Here were people who had begun their walk with the Lord having hearts full of faith in Christ and in what He had accomplished for them. Their identity as children of God was all wrapped up in their relationship with Him and in His love for them. But, somewhere along the way, they had fallen prey to legalistic thinking. Christianity had, somehow, become all about satisfying the expectations of men, following the rules of self-made religion, and attaining to some outward, physical manifestation of righteousness. They had “begun by the Spirit,” but now they were trying to be “perfected by the flesh.”
Beloved child of God, we simply cannot let that happen to us. We take our identity from our relationship with Jesus; and not from our adherence to the denominational doctrines of men. We are on a quest for authentic life in Christ; and must never settle for Satan’s substitutes. Either we are putting our faith entirely in Christ Jesus—trusting our salvation to His atoning sacrifice—or we are putting our faith in ourselves and attempting to work our way to heaven. The Lord gives us that choice, but we can’t have it both ways. This is why Paul goes on to severely warn those same people, saying, “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4, NASB).
Contrary to the thinking of many, Jesus did not come to this earth to add more law on top of already existing law. He did not even come to change the Law of Moses, or to extend the Law, or to supplant one legalistic system of justification with another. While Jesus did, indeed, proclaim “repentance for forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47, NASB), and we must pursue “the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14, NASB), every authentic child of God understands that the new covenant in Christ Jesus is a system of salvation “by grace,” “through faith,” “and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB).
This does not mean that we are free to selfishly indulge the flesh, or to neglect the needs of people around us. With great freedom comes great responsibility. James tells us, “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25, NASB). The perfect “law of liberty” that James speaks of is the “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” which has “set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2, NASB). It is the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain” (I Corinthians 15:1-2, NASB).
While the Gospel sets us free from both “the law of sin and death” and from having to make any legalistic appeal to law—the Law of Moses or any other religious law—for our salvation, it also takes hold of our hearts, guiding and directing us into a life of love and good works. Remember that, right after saying, “for by grace you have been saved through faith,” the Apostle Paul goes on to say:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
(Ephesians 2:10, NASB)
So, rather than taking a premature, artificial, and inevitably inconsistent and legalistic stand—and one that abuses the silence of the scriptures—by saying, “anything not specifically commanded in the New Testament is strictly forbidden,” or the seemingly opposite, but equally legalistic and inconsistent position that, “whatever is not specifically forbidden in the New Testament is permitted,” we would do well to go to God in prayer, and ask Him for that wisdom which He “gives to all generously and without reproach,” (James 1:5, NASB). Then, with sincerity of heart and humility of mind, simply surrender ourselves to the will of God. Allowing ourselves to be “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18, NASB) and “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14, NASB), we must follow Paul’s admonition to be “diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB); and in so doing God will make His desire for our lives abundantly clear to us.
As new covenant children of God, you and I have reason to celebrate every day the fact that our relationship with our heavenly Father is the result of His grace poured out for us through the sacrificial death of His Son, our Lord Jesus; and that His grace is made accessible to us through our faith in Christ, and not through some legalistic system of justification. Paul reminds us:
For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
(Romans 4:16, NASB)
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.
(Romans 5:1-2, NASB)
As these verses indicate, our saving relationship with God has to be based on our faith in order that it may “be in accordance with grace.” If it were by works, then God would not be able to extend His grace to us; He could only give us what we deserve in accordance with law. If it were by works, then we would always be worrying about whether or not we have been good enough, or done enough, to deserve forgiveness; and we would have no peace. While a living faith works, and without works faith is dead (James 2:26), still, we dare not put our faith in our works. Our faith must be only in what Jesus has done for us. And because our relationship with God is a matter faith, He can look into our hearts and, based on what He sees there, extend His grace to us, even though our performance often falls short; and we can have peace and hope.
I love the fact that my eternal life with God is not about adhering to all the right religious traditions; nor does it depend upon my living up to any man’s, or group of men’s, expectations of me. I have been set from that kind of legalistic thinking. Rather, my life with God depends only upon a living faith in Him and His amazing love for me!
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
(Galatians 5:13-14, NASB)
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