Legalism versus License

In this category of posts, we have been laying a foundation for how followers of Christ should engage culture without becoming like culture.  As we engage people in our given culture we will encounter things and activities that can be received without modification, things and activities that can be redeemed from culture, or things and activities that must be rejected by us (see Tyler’s post). 

As you and I begin to engage with people in culture, and come into contact with things and activities that are part of our culture, we will need to make a determination about what can be received, what can be redeemed, and what must be rejected.  The question that will inevitably come up is…..

Who died and made you the moral police?”

Well, maybe it won’t be phrased exactly that way, but we will encounter the issue of how to make a determination on what we should and should not engage in as we take the Gospel into culture.  The place to start for those of us who call Christ “Lord” is Scripture.  Clearly, what the Bible clearly prohibits is off limits to us, and what the Bible allows is within limits for us.  We must stand firmly on this conviction, and never allow any level of evangelistic zeal to override the authority of God’s Word for our lives.

But what I’d like to discuss here are those things and activities that are not dealt with specifically in Scripture.  How do we handle those, and how do we make the “receive/redeem/reject” determination on issues that are not black and white, but “gray”?

Ever heard these sayings before?

            “Christians should never go see R-rated movies”

            “It’s always wrong to drink alcohol”


            “It’s all about grace, so I have freedom to drink a beer whenever I want to”

            “We’re not bound by the law, so sleeping with my boyfriend is no big deal”

There are two errors at stake here that are both equally dangerous to us and to our witness to a lost culture.  The first is called legalism, the other is called license.

Paul said to the Galatians:

3You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Gal 5:13-16)

3625As regenerated believers in Jesus Christ, we “were called to be free”.  This means that Christ has freed us from the law of sin and bondage so that we are no longer shackled to the sin that once held us in its death grip.  So Paul exhorts the Galatian Christians not to go back and be bound to a list of extra-biblical man-made rules and regulations, no matter how “spiritual” or “religious” they may sound.  If we do, that is simply putting a “yoke of slavery” back on ourselves or those around us (Gal 5:1).

Legalism is when we come up with a restriction or prohibition that is not explicitly covered in Scripture, and we set it up as either a requirement for salvation or as an image of the “ideal Christian”.

On the other side of the proverbial coin is the error of license.  License is when we over-emphasize our freedom in Christ to the point where we give ourselves the “license” to sin; when we use “grace” to give ourselves an excuse for doing whatever we want to do. 

Paul told the Romans:

 1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Rom 6:1-2)

Clearly, using grace as a license to sin is not allowed by God’s Word, but are there other situations that may require us to limit our freedom to engage in an activity?  There certainly are, and I dealt with these in a sermon I preached in the First Peter series back in August.  The verse in question was 1 Peter 2:16,

16Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.

(to listen to that sermon, go to the August 23rd audio file on our sermon audio page)

In that message, I provide 3 “filters” which we should go through in these kinds of “gray area” decisions:

1.      The Philippians 4:8 filter

This verse says,

 8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

When we’re trying to prayerfully discern whether or not to engage in a particular activity, this is a helpful guide.  Does this activity violate the things which God’s Word says we should be setting our mind on?

2.      The “Others” filter

How would engaging in this activity affect my witness to my unchurched friends?  How might this impact the spiritual walk of those who are less mature in the faith?  Paul discusses the “weaker brother principle” in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 & 10.

3.      The Glory filter

We’ve been talking on Sunday mornings about how our mission as created human beings is to glorify our Creator.  In anything we undertake, we must ask ourselves if this activity will “help or hinder” that mission.

There are other filters and other principles for helping us determine personal convictions, but at the end of the day, whatever personal convictions the Lord brings me to, are just that….personal convictions.  I cannot then extend those convictions to the people around me, or else I am being a modern-day Pharisee, and placing that “yoke of slavery” on their backs.

So, let’s start the discussion.  What are some “gray area” situations that we must navigate if we’re going to be “On Mission Christians” who live in a non-Christian culture?


4 thoughts on “Legalism versus License

  1. I heard Dr. Focks speak once and he defined grace in two ways: Wilderness grace which is the feeling that whatever we do will be forgiven so there is no real call to a holy life. The other is Promised land grace which he termed as this:
    The power to finally and at long last do what is right.

    I wrote this down when I heard it and have always carried it in my mind. It causes me to evaluate my motives. Am I desiring to give myself permission for wrong doing because I know grace exists or am I striving to honor the grace that has already been given to me?

    I have found the new area of struggle or a gray area in my life is my teenager’s music choices. The Bible doesn’t have a section on teenage choices with clothing, style and music 🙂

    I have chosen to oversee how their walks with God grow and how their choices are effected by this music in order to know if they are walking away from God’s will in their decisions or toward Him. And I pray!! So far, God has directed them to walk away from some things in His time with them and I have not had to address them. In other times I have drawn limits. Still feel like I am in the dark on most of this issue.

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