Christian Freedom, Legalism, and the Book of Hebrews

From passages like Galatians 4:21-5:1, we get the doctrine of “Christian Freedom”. The Reformers observed this as they looked to the authority of Scripture. A good definition for Christian freedom is as follows: “The Christian is free from any and all obligations that are not taught in the Scriptures or discerned through good and necessary inference.”

This does not mean that we have no responsibilities as followers of Christ. I hope no one gets that impression when thinking of Christian freedom! Simply put, if the Bible commands something, then the Christian is obligated to obey it. So, for instance, the second commandment says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Exodus 20:4). Thus, we have no visual depictions of God. Psalm 33:2 says, “Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!” While I’ve never seen a ten-stringed harp at my church, nor do I even know what a lyre is, I think you get the point: we use whatever instruments we have to sing and give thanks to our God. Or another example: in Matthew 5:42 Jesus says, “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” And so we have it from the Lord himself to be generous with our worldly goods. Such commandments are the will of God. We know that because they are in his Word.

But that also means that whatever is not taught in the Scriptures cannot become an obligation that we put on ourselves or others. I remember the church in which I was converted had a statement in their covenant that prohibited dancing. Well, when my sister—a very pious Christian—became a professional ballerina I’m glad they reconsidered how unbiblical that prohibition is. Alas, my sister was not excommunicated because they realized she was (and is) free to dance because the Bible nowhere forbids it. (In fact, a case could be made that someone has to dance if the universal church is to obey Psalm 150:4 in any way.) So too we, just like the Galatians, should revel in the good instruction the Lord gives us so that we do not make excuses to live in the flesh (see for example Galatians 5:13–26). But on matters where the Lord has not spoken, let us give thanks for our freedom, being confined only by wisdom and love (see Romans 14 where the point is exactly that we should be ready to lay our freedom down where it would be loving to do so for another).

This was a precious doctrine to the Reformers because they were disputing a medieval Roman Catholicism that sought to add all kinds of regulations to churches and individual Christians which have no basis in Scripture. Thus, a commitment to Sola Scriptura (a doctrine that elevates the “Scriptures only” above all traditions and opinions) necessarily resulted in a commitment to Christian Freedom. For it is through the Bible that Christ rules the world. It is through the Bible that the Good Shepherd leads his flock. It is through the Bible that the voice of the risen Messiah is heard among his people. Thus, the Reformers understood Christian Freedom to preserve the exclusive Lordship of Christ. To add to the Scriptures or take away from them is to subvert his right to reign. Paul wouldn’t allow the “Judaizers” to do it in Galatia; the Reformers wouldn’t allow the Pope to do it in Europe; and we shouldn’t allow anything to do it here.

Now to be sure, this is not the opposite of “legalism.” Legalism is the idea that it is through some work of our own that we are saved. Indeed, we should reject all legalism. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone (i.e., not anything we contribute). We are not talking about conversion, but how to live the Christian life. And certainly there are expectations the Lord has for Christians. But we don’t walk with obedient hearts because we think that will save us or atone for our sins. Rather, we obey the commands of the Master because we love him, want to glorify him, and point others to him—all under the wonderful leading of the Holy Spirit (again, see Galatians 5:16, 24–25). In other words, let’s keep our apples here and oranges there in our attempts to be precise in our beliefs.

Finally, I cannot resist commenting on Hebrews 12:14 which says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Interesting; if we don’t achieve holiness we will not see the Lord! That is pretty clear. There is a holiness that is not only expected but required for salvation. Does that actually sneak some kind of works-righteousness in the backdoor? We are, it says, to strive for this holiness. I think we should view it like this: when we become Christians (by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), the Holy Spirit will inevitably achieve his goals in leading us to grow in holiness. One of the means to that end is such a command as Hebrews 12:14 and others like it. This progress in holiness does not save us, but is part and parcel of the salvation that has already begun in us and bears fruit throughout our lives. In other words, our obedience to Christ becomes an ever-increasing reality in the life of the true Christian.

Some might object to such theological hairsplitting (though not you because you’ve persevered to the end of this article). But I would object to their objection! Life is complicated and—praise the Lord—he has furnished us with holy Scripture that meets such complications head on. Would that we had one answer for every situation, but sometimes we have questions about our freedom, sometimes about perceived legalism, sometimes about growth in holiness, and so on. Part of a life in pursuing that holiness is continually transforming and renewing our minds (Romans 12:2), thereby becoming less conformed to this world and its potentially binding and enslaving patterns, with the result that we’ll be able to discern the will of God, what is good acceptable and perfect. Christ has set us free to do just that!

This post was written by Dr. Nicholas Piotrowski. He is the Director of Biblical and Theological Studies at Crossroads Bible College in Indianapolis and serves as Associate Pastor of Theological Development with Northside Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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