Free in Christ – Chapter 7, The Exercise of Christian Liberty

by Cecil Hook


“For freedom Christ has set us free: stand therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). In Christ men have liberty befitting sons of God. Such was not true of those bound by the Mosaic “handle not, nor touch, nor taste.” Under the Law, a person could be defiled by things which have no moral quality. Guilt was incurred by the touching of a dead animal or a piece of holy furniture or by tasting pork.

I. Can Amoral Things and Actions Be Sinful?

Our purity or defilement is not determined by what we see, hear, taste, our touch, but by our motive for seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching. Jesus explained that man is defiled by his thoughts rather than by what he eats (Matt. 15:1-20). Defilement is not in certain actions and things, but in improper use of and attitude toward those actions and things. Actions and things, generally speaking, are amoral. They have no inherent moral value. Is not this the point that Paul would impress upon us? “I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean.…for the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:14-17). Our purity of thought or defilement of purpose determines whether a thing is moral or immoral. Sin is not in things, but in people — in the heart. This is what Paul expressed when he wrote, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15). Shakespeare only expressed this truth when he said, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

To show the amoral nature of actions and things, some examples are listed. These all show that the thought or motive determines whether it is right or wrong.

1. The taking of life is judged by the purity or defilement of heart. The person who kills accidentally or defensively, having no impure heart in it, remains pure in the act. It is not so with the man who kills with hatred or anger although he performs the identical act of the first man.
2. One person may use narcotics for medical purposes and be justified while the person with defiled purpose takes them for their thrilling effects or in an effort to escape reality.
3. Alcoholic beverage, when taken for curative purposes or in moderation, does not defile as it does when taken for intoxication. The act is the same; the difference is in the heart.
4. A person, desiring to know more about religious doctrines, may in purity go to a service where error is being taught or may subscribe to such a periodical or buy such a book. He is not judged like the person who gives mental consent to the destructive error while performing the same acts.
5. Two men may look upon a woman with strong desire toward her, one being pure, the other guilty of sin. One desires to have her as his wife; the other desires to satisfy his lusts.
6. Two persons may take part in a competitive game or attend a sporting activity with different prospects. One wishes to enjoy the activity while the other feeds his gambling addiction.
7. One preacher may preach to save souls while the other tries to build himself up in honor by preaching. Though the sermons may be identical, the motive makes one right and the other wrong.

All of these examples show that the act itself is amoral. Its merit or demerit is determined by the heart. “To the pure all things are pure, but to them that are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure.”

II. Principles Governing Liberty in Amoral Things

When a new kind of case is tried in the courts, it becomes a test case. The decision rendered toward it is used to judge all other cases which involve a like principle. There are two test cases in the Scriptures regarding Christian liberty. These both involve amoral things — the eating of food and circumcision. The verdict in regard to the eating of meats demands (1) that a Christian surrender his liberties if they put a fellow disciple in jeopardy, and (2) that his liberty be exercised with self-control. In regard to circumcision, the verdict forbids us to bind our scruples on others so as to limit their Christian liberty. These verdicts can be applied to everything which is of like principle today. (Read 1 Cor. 6, 8, 10; Rom. 14; all of Galatians; Acts 15).

III. Our Liberty Is Limited by Self-Control

Man must never be brought under the control of amoral things. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’ and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Cor. 6:12-13). Paul is saying, “God has created the body with its appetites, cravings, and desires, and at the same time God created good things to satisfy the desires; let the desires be fulfilled in moderation and self-control, not slavishly being ruled by the desires.” Both the appetite and the meat to satisfy are amoral. They have no special significance before God. “But food will not commend us to God; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse; nor, if we eat, are we the better” (1 Cor. 8:8). Applying this principle to all instincts, desires, drives, or cravings given by God, we see that none are evil within themselves. Consider these.

1. The instinct of self-preservation. It is right to preserve ourselves, to seek for our own well-being, unless we let the desire control causing us to become fraudulent, deceptive, greedy, injurious to others, or disrespectful of the rights of others.
2. Desire for food. This is a pure thing unless we lose control of the desire and become gluttonous or steal food to eat. Because it is abused by some does not make it sinful to desire, obtain, and eat food.
3. Desire for approval. It is natural and right for us to want others to think well of us. This makes us good neighbors. If this desire controls us, we may become hypocritical, deceitful, or extravagant in order to gain approval.
4. Desire to possess. This is the instinct God gave us to cause us to provide for our needs. If one is “brought under the power of” the desire, he may become a thief, covetous, stingy, or an extortioner, or he may destroy his health in order to possess. The flagrant abuse by some does not make the proper exercise of the instinct unholy in others. The pure heart will permit only the proper exercise of the desire.
5. Mating instinct. The desire for sexual fulfillment is given by God for the establishment of the home and the propagation of the race through marriage. If, through lack of self-control, one is brought under the power of his instinct so as to become lustful or immoral, he has abused God’s arrangement.
6. Reaching out for God. It is a natural desire in man to worship a higher power. Misdirected and out of control, this natural drive has led most of mankind away from the true God. The desire in man is not condemned because it is abused by the majority.

In all these things man has free exercise of liberty so long as his heart is kept pure and self-control is maintained. For this cause Paul emphasized the necessity of the mind’s mastery over the flesh. This brings the war in our members: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would” (Gal. 5:16-17). So he says, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13).

Is everything that could lead to sin evil? The affirmative answer to this has led many people to censor many amoral activities while inconsistently sanctioning other practices of the same nature. Any amoral activity could lead to sin.

1. The preparation and enjoyment of wholesome meals could, and often does, lead to over-eating. Must one refuse to eat? To prepare a fine meal for guests may lead them to over-eat. Should one ration the meal of his guests?
2. Working at a job and earning a good salary might lead a person to love money.
3. Even though some have had wine prescribed for them by a doctor, they refused it on the ground that it could lead to sin. The contention is true, but does that justify the surrender of the liberty for any use of wine?
4. All kinds of competitive games are used as instruments for gambling. Any game could lead to addictive gambling. Who can say which game would tempt a person to compulsive gambling more than others? Must one refrain from all games and sporting events?
5. Many have fallen into immorality and adultery while selecting a companion. Dating can, and often does, lead to sin. Should the young person let his parents choose his companion for him so as to avoid this possibility?
6. In times past the Roman Catholic Church declared that the study of the Bible leads to sin by misunderstanding it through private interpretation. The pitfall is there. More people who read it misunderstand it than understand it. But does that make reading the Bible sinful?

We cannot destroy the desires, drives, and instincts discussed earlier. In exercising them, we should “watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” We must strengthen ourselves to live as Christians worthy of the honor Christ bestowed on us as free sons, not as servants under a yoke of bondage. Here we see the necessity of purity of mind and purpose, of mental discipline and self-control. “For God gave us not a spirit of fearfulness; but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). Disciples must be taught to respect the high calling and liberty that God has extended to them. Purity of heart will maintain an enlivened conscience toward all things. Pinocchio let Jiminy Cricket be his conscience. A disciple should not let the preacher, or anyone else, be his conscience. He must have one of his own. Until this is developed in a congregation, it is futile to try to herd it by the preacher’s conscience.

IV. Liberty Is Limited by Charitable Regard for Others

Love would constrain a disciple to surrender his liberty in amoral things if they prove to be destructive to a brother. “All things are lawful for me; but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble” (Rom. 14:20-21). Urging that we be above blame in exercising our liberties, Paul exhorts, “So do not let what is good to you be spoken of as evil” (Rom. 14:16). “Happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves” (Rom. 14:22). Freedom must not destroy others.

The test case to illustrate this is the eating of meats which had been sacrificed to idols. Realizing that meat could not contaminate him spiritually, the disciple could eat such meat with no regard to the idol. But a weak brother who has just escaped from idolatry, seeing his brother eat the meat, thinks that he is eating with regard to the idol. Being thus misinformed, he may be led to eat with respect to the idol. Thus he has been encouraged to sin by his unsuspecting brother. If the man is aware of the weak brother’s conviction, he should not eat. This does not forever ban the man from eating meat, however. After he instructs the weak brother properly, he can continue to exercise that liberty.

“Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my bother to fall” (1 Cor. 8:13). Did Paul become a vegetarian? Or did he not use discretion in his eating and continue to teach the truth about Christian liberty? Continuing his discussion into Chapter 9, he declared his right to eat and drink.

Out of regard for our brother, practices which put undue strain on his weakness must be avoided. Even our laws hold us liable for creating attractive hazards such as leaving a ladder up where a child might climb and fall. Although teasing a person is an amoral thing, it would be wrong to tease a temperamental person until he becomes angry and loses his temper. This class of activity is practiced without evil motive, but it shows lack of regard for others and is not expedient because it may cause the death of a brother.

V. Liberty of Others Must Be Respected

We have not the right to limit the liberty of others by binding our scruples on them. The Jewish disciples had a doctrinal conviction that circumcision should be bound (Acts 15:1). Others realized that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail” (Gal. 5:6). Circumcision in itself is amoral, neither helping nor hindering. But the binding of this scruple was about to split the whole church. These Judaizers “slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage…” (Gal. 2:4-9). Did Paul say, “Oh, well, since circumcision really does not make any difference, we had better surrender our liberty and accept this yoke lest the church be split through the offense of these brethren”? He did not! “…To them we did not yield submission even for a moment,” Paul declared.

Almost alone the great Paul waged this battle for our freedom in Christ. Even Peter had about surrendered (Gal. 2:11-13). Because he so protested this yoke of bondage, Paul’s apostleship was being questioned by some. This Judaism had invaded Antioch. From there it would envelop all of Paul’s work among the Gentiles. What should he do? A battle had to be fought to keep us free. God sent him to the fight (Gal. 2:2; Acts 15). He won a victory for us today.

If they could bind circumcision, others can bring us into bondage to their scruples in demanding that our liberties be limited in studying in classes, using individual cups for communion, helping the fatherless, cooperating in evangelism, building up a large congregation, having food in fellowship in the building, and what else might be your local scruple. Although the abuse of any amoral exercise — and these are all amoral — can lead to sin, we are not condemned by a sensible exercise of it.

Now that the battle is won, what attitude will Paul demonstrate? Rather than further driving the wedge to split the church, he made concessions to promote healing by love. After proving that circumcision could not be bound on Titus, he took Timothy “and circumcised him because of the Jews” (Acts 16:3).

Then later, Paul took a collection from these Gentiles and took it back to the very ones who were excluding them from the kingdom of God. He must have had more motive in this than charity toward the poor. On bearing this gift to Jerusalem, he agreed to purify himself in the temple as a concession to make peace (Acts 21:26). All of this was done after he had won his case. Charitable concessions can be made without the surrender of liberty. These are necessary to preserve the unity of believers.

Principles cannot be applied with legalism. They are applied through personal judgment. “Circumstances alter cases.” So Paul exhorts, “… be united in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Cor. 1:10). “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God…” (Rom. 14:22). Also, “As for the man that is weak in the faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions” (Rom 14:1).

If we were to be bound by the scruples of everyone, we could not use a modern translation of the Bible, allow a quartet to sing in the assembly, eat in a church building, let the Boy Scouts meet in our building, drink a serving of wine, put a cross on the building, lift up hands in prayer, clap hands in praise, use modern hairstyles, give money to the Red Cross, and so on without end. But few of these restrictions would be due to the scruples of the weak brother. They would come from preachers, elders, and other staunch individuals who would limit our liberty by binding their convictions on us.

VI. Evil Displayed with the Good

Must a thing be shunned because evil is displayed with the good? Again, purity of purpose determines the case. Only the good will be sought by the pure in heart. But evil is everywhere. In one form or another it is presented in the newspaper, on the radio, on television, in movies, in fiction, in history, in the Bible, in the school, in places of business, on the job, at the game, in the church, and in the home.

In all of these things our purpose is to accept the good while holding misgivings toward the evils incidental to the good. The desirable rose has thorns incidental to it. Although the thorns are detested, we do not let them prohibit enjoyment of the rose. In enjoying the rose, we learn to avoid the prick of the thorn. So the presence of that which is undesirable does not eliminate our liberty to enjoy that which is good.

VII. Conclusion

“For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In exercising our liberty in Christ, we must not come into bondage to:

1. Impure motives
2. Amoral things
3. A selfish desire to be free to act without regard for others
4. Those who would bind their scruples on us.

(First published in Firm Foundation, Feb. 7, 1961)

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