“Jesus has set me free. Therefore, I don’t have to worry about getting everything right,” said one Christian. “Yes,” another chimed in. “Trying to follow every command in the Bible would make you a legalist, when Jesus specifically freed you from the Law.”
Is this what the Bible teaches? After all, Jesus said:
You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32)
And Paul said:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1)
So can Christians do whatever they want? Is it “legalism” (a commonly abused word) to worry about following all of God’s Law? What does Christian freedom mean?
Freedom in Christ doesn’t mean total autonomy
Many so-called Christians have been duped into thinking they can do whatever they want. This is the lie Eve believed when Satan told her that by eating the forbidden fruit she could become like God (Gen. 3:1ff).
Believe me, you don’t want to be totally free. Yes, God made us to be free moral creatures, but it was this illusion of absolute freedom that got us into the mess of sin. Paul reminds us, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10).
Absolute freedom to make our own rules is self-destructive. In fact, absolute freedom is just slavery to a delusion. We can never be free from God’s authority.
Freedom in Christ doesn’t mean it’s okay to disobey Him
Some think that Christians aren’t obligated to follow any laws in the Bible. They claim that since we are justified by faith, it doesn’t matter what we do. To this, Paul bluntly replies:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom. 6:1-2)
I know most would say this kind of “freedom” is wrong. “Of course we have to obey Christ!” they would say. Jesus was not crucified so we could have license; He died so we could serve Him.
But this so-called “freedom” is found in a more common, insidious form: the idea that we don’t have to sweat the “little” things so long as we get the “big” things right – things such as love, grace, and justice.
Countless Christians believe this lie. They wouldn’t think of missing the Lord’s Supper on Sunday morning, but don’t care if they neglect the other assembly times of the church. They are generous with their money – eager to support worthy causes – but don’t think twice about watching an R-rated movie. They love going on short-term mission trips, but don’t turn around and go back to the grocery store when they realize they forgot to pay for a few items in their bag.
“Why should I worry about such little things?” these Christians tell themselves. “I don’t want to be a legalist or anything. After all, Jesus has set me free.”
Let’s be really clear on this: Christians are not free from rules, no matter how small. Traffic laws, tax laws, copyright laws, God’s laws regarding holiness – Christians obey all laws. Don’t call it legalism; call it obedience! It isn’t “legalism” to obey every “jot & tittle” of God’s law – it’s only wrong if you think keeping the minutia of God’s Law will somehow make you worthy of heaven (when in reality only God’s grace can save us).
Yes, Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for “neglecting the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). But Jesus didn’t say we only needed to worry about the “big” stuff; Christians must follow both the “big” and “small” laws of God. “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23).
So what does it mean to be free in Christ?
Christians are free from condemnation
Anyone who is guilty of violating the Law of God deserves eternal damnation in hell. Every responsible human being is guilty of sin (Rom. 3:23) and thus deserving of condemnation.
But Jesus accepted the condemnation on our behalf. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). Now, whoever is in Christ has been spared destruction. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). What great freedom!
Christians are free from having to be “good enough” for heaven
God has always had a Law for mankind, and has always intended for mankind to keep His Law. Yet this Law exists (be it the Old Testament or the New Testament) in part so that we would be conscious of sin and how imperfect we really are (cf. Rom. 3:20).
God’s Law teaches us that we will never be good enough – we can never “earn” our way into heaven. The Bible exposes our faults, weaknesses, and imperfections – even when we are at our best.
Yet, in Christ, we are free from keeping the Law for the exclusive purpose of meriting our way into heaven. “For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).
Christians have no less obligation to follow the Law (and indeed we cannot be saved without obeying God’s Law). But it is God’s grace that saves us through our obedience – not our obedience in and of itself.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
Christians are free from fear
Christians shouldn’t obey God just because they fear eternal damnation (though we should all fear hell!). We obey God because we are grateful for His great love for us. We follow God’s Law primarily because of our love for Him (1 John 4:19).
Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Christian’s obedience to God can be described as a “labor of love” (1 Thess. 1:3). Thus, as John wrote:
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. (1 John 5:2-3)
Being free in Christ – real freedom – means seeing things clearly. It means knowing who you are and what God has done for you in Christ. It means loving and obeying Him with the full assurance that God will make good on His promise and you will spend eternity with Him. This kind of freedom doesn’t come by living however you want or “picking and choosing” what laws to follow; true freedom comes from believing and obeying the gospel.
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