The doctrine of Christian liberty flows out of the doctrine of Christian freedom. Freedom in Christ includes not only freedom from the law as a covenant, freedom from the domination of sin and Satan, but also freedom from the domination of men over the conscience of the Christian. The Pharisees were masters of domination over the conscience of others, adding rules and laws to the Sinai laws to bind the consciences of men. Jesus confronted them many times on this (Matt 15:1ff., 23:1ff). Paul’s teaching on Christian liberty is detailed in 1 Cor 8-10, Rom 14, and the entire book of Galatians.
Modern-day issues concerning Christian liberty include alcohol drinking, women’s dress, education of children, insurance, women’s head-coverings, contraception, use of TV, internet and electronics, music choices, Sunday School, youth camps, political views, etc. There is no question that Scripture must be the final determiner of these choices for the believer, but the problem of liberty arises when man-made rules and opinions beyond Scripture take on the role of law for church membership, church discipline, and church unity. The doctrine of Christian liberty is necessary to make the “strong” patient and sacrificial toward the “weak” and the “weak” charitable and respectful toward the “strong.” The Law and the Gospel gives both direction to building unity in the church on the doctrine of Christian liberty: “Unity in things essential, liberty in things non-essential, charity in all things.”
Every church has a doctrine and practice of Christian liberty. The fundamentalist movement of the last 150 years has brought confusion about this doctrine to the church, often creating division over strongly held opinions, or else dominating the consciences of Christians with false guilt. Pride often has been an outworking of this movement simply because emphasis upon outward behavior has created a watchful eye, a critical spirit and much self-righteousness for holding to certain behaviors. Each church must be willing to have its practice of Christian liberty examined in the light of the Law and the Gospel in order to establish true unity and love, as well as to teach each believer what is liberty and what it not.
The most common problem for Christian liberty in the New Testament churches was the clash between Jews and Gentiles uniting in the same church, including the clash between Hellenistic Jews and native Hebrews. The Jews had a background rooted in the Mosaic laws of clean and unclean, the ceremonial laws. The Gentiles had a background in the pagan religions as well as the culture of Rome and Greece. The Jews tended to practice the customs of the Mosaic Law in the church, often requiring the Gentiles to conform as well. The Gentiles often refused because of their understanding of the New Covenant and the Apostolic teachings. The Jews had often been oppressed and persecuted by the Gentiles while the Gentiles often had been treated by the Jews as unclean. Each became critical and unloving and unforgiving toward the other in society. The church was made up of such Christians. It takes little study to see the problems of Christian liberty in the epistles to Rome, Corinth, Colossae, and Galatia, each church having its own distinct problems concerning Christian liberty and church unity. How were these issues to be resolved?
It is instructive concerning the theology of Law and Gospel to see how Paul dealt with issues of Christian liberty in each church setting. In all of them, Paul used the foundation of the Law as the filter to judge a behavior as righteous or not, and the Gospel to teach the gracious balance to be held in granting liberty to all.
A. In Galatians
The issue of Christian liberty had morphed into a false gospel which threatened the true salvation of some professing Christians. Christian freedom was threatened by Christian liberty. Judaizers had come down from Jerusalem, claiming that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised according to the Mosaic Covenant in order to be saved. They were teaching a “Christ plus works” salvation which corrupted the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
The reason I have included this discussion under Christian liberty is because Paul had circumcised Timothy in order to make him more acceptable to the Jews as a witness to the gospel (Acts 16). Paul knew that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision meant anything in regard to salvation (Gal 6); so, for Paul to make such an issue about circumcision for the Gentile Galatians seems contradictory on the surface. However, the reason for Paul’s opposition is not that the Galatians were to be circumcised for the opportunity to evangelize the Jews, but it was because they were tempted to be circumcised for salvation.
So how does Paul deal with the Galatian problem? By the correct teaching of the Law and the gospel! He establishes the magnitude of the issue as a corruption of the gospel. He narrates his rebuke of Peter for eating with the Jews instead of Gentiles because of holding to the laws of clean and unclean. Then, he explains very clearly that the Sinai Covenant and its laws have ended in the coming of the Seed to whom the promises were made. No longer is it necessary for Christians, Jew or Gentile, to abide by its covenant statutes to Israel as a nation. To teach that one must be circumcised to be saved, or to eat certain foods to be accepted by God, is to place oneself under the Law-works covenant again for righteousness before God.
In this explanation, Paul uses the conditional elements of the Sinai Covenant as an example of the original Adamic “works of the law” covenant to frame his objection. The Jews wrongly interpreted these conditional elements for salvation. So Paul, as it were, throws that error into the face of the Judaizer’s requirements to refute the necessity of circumcision for salvation:
“For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE” in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal 3:10-14).
Of course, there was grace and faith under the Sinai Covenant’s addition to the Abrahamic Covenant. Yet the demands for obedience for cursing and blessing in the land of promise were conditional upon obedience to the entire Law. So, Paul uses the conditional element of the Sinai Covenant, which also was wrongly interpreted as works-salvation by the Jews, to condemn the teaching of the Judaizers as a false gospel and a return to self-righteousness before God. The issue was not Christian liberty to circumcise or not (as in Timothy’s case), but Christian freedom – freedom from the covenant of Law-works “under law” for condemnation versus the freedom of justification by faith alone.
So, Paul teaches the correct view of the Law and the Gospel in order to correct the erroneous view of Christian freedom and liberty imposed by the Judaizers upon the Galatians:
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:1-6).
Only a right understanding of the Law and the Gospel can prevent Christian liberty from destroying Christian freedom.
B. In Corinth
The opposite issue from Galatia arose. The Galatian issue was the Judaizers influencing Gentiles to be circumcised for justification, clearly a heresy and false gospel. The Corinthian issue was Christians being influenced to eat Gentile meats sacrificed to idols. Again, Paul uses the Law and the Gospel to correct the problem.
Paul affirms that the strong know there is only one God and that idols really do not mean anything. Therefore, to eat meat which has been sacrificed to idols is not wrong in itself. However, the weak brother who thinks it is wrong must not be tempted to eat against his conscience by the example of the strong. Therefore, the strong must be willing to forego their liberty for the sake of the weaker brother (1 Cor 8:1-13).
In 1 Cor 9, Paul uses himself as an example of self-denial for the spiritual good of others. He has a right to be supported as an Apostle to preach to others, even the Law so teaches; but he foregoes that liberty that none may accuse him of selfish motives. Moreover, when he is with Jews, he follows their food laws and customs so that these lesser things will not hinder his preaching of the Gospel to them. He does the same with Gentiles and eats what they eat. The point of it all is that Paul knows that God has made all things clean by the Law for the Christian; but for the sake of the spiritual welfare of others, he is willing to deny himself lawful liberties to gain the freedom to preach the Gospel. The Gospel enables him to accommodate his behavior sacrificially because the New Covenant has sifted the Sinai statutes for the Christian as to what is essential, what is non-essential, and how charity acts with all.
Thus, the Law under the Gospel guides Paul with what is sinful and what is not, while the Gospel impels him to deny himself for the sake of others. He knows that all things are lawful to eat, but not all things are profitable to do for the sake of preaching the gospel to others (1 Cor 10:23); the Gospel preaches self-denial for the good of others. So, Paul’s working principle of the Law and Gospel is summarized at the end of 1 Cor 10:
“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:31-33).
The Law guides Paul in what is lawful under the Gospel and what is not. This is how he makes his ethical decisions as a Christian “under grace.” But the gospel guides him in self-denial for the sake of love to God and man. Therefore, Christian liberty must be guided by the Law and the gospel together.
C. In Rome
The issue in Rome is much like the problem of Christian liberty in Corinth but with one exception. Paul exhorts both the strong and the weak in Rome to allow liberty for each other (Rom 14:3, 19-23). The strong must deny themselves for the sake of the conscience of the weak in eating meat or drinking wine or anything else that would tempt the weak to sin against their “wrong” conscience. But the weak must not condemn the strong for their liberty on non-essential issues as defined by Scripture. Both are called to deny themselves for the sake of each other, living in gospel unity and liberty. Both must understand that whatever is not of faith is sin and grant the same kind of patience toward each other that Christ Himself grants to both of them. For each lives and dies to the Lord (Rom 14:3-9, 14-15).
If a church is ever to come to one unity and mission, it must practice Christian liberty under Christian freedom. The church must be taught what is lawful and what is not for the Christian. It is God’s will that the strong and weak ultimately come to the same opinion about what is in conformity to God’s Law. This removes the stumbling blocks of unfounded opinions which destroy conscience and unity. It also removes the stumbling block of past offenses between Jew and Gentile for Christian unity. But the church also must be taught the Gospel and how it causes the strong and the weak to live together till they come to the same opinion. We must allow the work of God in other’s hearts to proceed at His rate, not ours. For that reason, the gospel provides the patience and grace we need to build the church in unity and mission. The Law and the Gospel, rightly understood, is the key to Christian unity, church unity and the church’s mission.