Monday, 22 June 2015

Obedience under the Freedom of the Gospel

After preaching last Sunday, I was challenged about the approach and style of my sermon and was told that I came across legalistic and dogmatic about my position on a particular secondary doctrinal question that is quite debated. I was grateful that not only was it someone whom I respected, but also that they were very respectful and constructive with their feedback, and I could see the validity of their complaint. The conversation taught me that I should be more explicit to declare: “this is my conclusion based on these series of interpretations” when preaching on ‘controversial topics’. Indeed, I am happy to disagree on secondary issues based on interpretive grounds. And this challenge provoked my thinking on the boundaries between freedom and lawlessness and so I thought I should tackle this question of: what does obedience under the freedom of the Gospel look like? 
God's Unchanging Character                                                                                          
At the heart of the topic is the importance of keeping three key attributes of God’s character in balance: Grace, holiness, and love. These qualities were expressed by God to Moses when he revealed what is known as ‘the thirteen attributes’ of mercy in Ex 34:6-7:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

This unchanging God is the same Lord over the New Covenant as the Old Covenant. In both He loves, redeems, and saves according to His grace (Deut 7:6-8, Eph 2:8-10) and has an expectation of how He wants His people to live in response to who He is and what He has done (Ex 20:2, Rom 12:1-2). So, this reality raises the question of what is the difference between seeking holiness and obedience and living under legalism and dogmatic practice. The boundaries of these two lines can be difficult to measure and define as they can often look similar. I think this is an important question because there are without a doubt ways that God does want us to live, and ways that God does not want us to live. There are specific things that He asks us to do, and specific things He asks us to avoid, if not flee from. 

Legalism and Hyper-Grace

But what constitutes as legalism?  I think two related terms can help us to define this better. One you have most likely heard of is orthodoxy, which means correct (lit. straight: orthos) doctrine, or belief. The other is orthopraxy which means correct conduct, practice, or living. Biblically, both are meant to be in balance as the ‘doxy’ informs and shapes the ‘praxy’, e.g. “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44).  The Romans were all about orthopraxy and orthodoxy was optional. This is why they couldn't understand why the Christians wouldn't acknowledge Caesar as Lord, or burn the incense in his name. And as the Gospel spread into a world with this mindset, orthodoxy had to be reinforced. This is why Paul spent 11 chapters on doctrine in his letter to the Romans before spending 4 chapters on behaviour. As Christianity and morality begin to decline in society around, the church responded by putting a strong emphasis on orthopraxy as it sought to improve the culture around them. Unfortunately, they put such a strong emphasis on it that Christianity often turned into moralism and legalism. They cared more about upholding and enforcing the moral behaviour of people than whether or not someone is actually right with God. It was about behave to belong, and believe was much less important. “They might not have trusted in Jesus, but at least they turn up for church on Sunday and they don’t go to the movies.” And as people have reacted against this, sometimes the pendulum swung too far the other way when it became about ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, just as long as you believe’, and this is known as cheap, or hyper-grace. And so the key to this question comes down to the balance of the doctrine of the grace of the Gospel and living under the Lordship of Christ.

Freedom under the Lordship of Christ

In one sermon, Timothy Keller said that our submission to the Lordship of Christ should be unconditional, regardless of what we think or feel about it. This reflects to what Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). And we follow Him unconditionally because He loves us; He is the only one/thing that can command us without crushing us. We follow Him unconditionally because He deserves it because of His wisdom, the greatness of His sacrifice, and His position as our creator and King. But we make our service to Christ conditional when we add ‘if’ clauses to our obedience. And as Keller points out in that same sermon, everything after the ‘if’ is what we really want. So for example when someone says, ‘I’ll help out, if I get paid for it’, they don’t really want to help, they’re more interested in money. When it comes to Jesus, our ‘if statements’ might not be verbalised, and we may not even be aware of them, but they are can be revealed when we say things like: “what’s the point of following Jesus when it doesn't work for me.” Some if statements might be, ‘I will make Jesus Lord: if He blesses me, if He heals me, if people acknowledge it, and if I can do it my way.’  And this last one is quite prevalent in a hyper-grace church culture. And don’t get me wrong, there is a significant degree of freedom on how we do things under His Lordship. For example, in the Bible we are told to remember Jesus by observing communion. But apart from doing this in love for God and others, the Bible doesn’t really tell us how to do it. He didn’t say we had to use a specific kind of bread or liturgical formula. And so within these markers, we have freedom on how to do this. Yet those conditioned by “modernity and its obsession with autonomy, our first reaction is: "How is that freedom?" To us, freedom with limitations is not freedom at all” (Olson). But just as a child within the boundaries of a backyard is free to enjoy the fullness of play and safety, we as children of God within the boundaries of God's commands are free to enjoy the fullness of life and worship.

This kind of freedom was also expressed in the Garden: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat" (Gen. 2:16-17). And it also existed in the Old Covenant. When it came to the Passover meal, all God said was: on the 14th of the first month (Nisan) you are to, in a state of ritual cleanliness, remember how God rescued the people from Egypt by eating lamb (leaving none in the morning) with bitter herbs and unleavened bread after removing all the leaven from their house. A significant portion of the Passover meal as it is celebrated today with its liturgy and extra elements have been added over the millennia through tradition. And God gave them the freedom to do this, provided it met the original requirements in a God honouring way. So in both the Old and New covenants, God provides a significant amount of freedom in how His people are to worship Him.

Freedom... to what?

Because of the superior nature of the New Covenant, we have a greater degree of freedom in Christ. Moreover, because we have Holy Spirit living within us, leading and guiding us, we have a greater degree of freedom from the letter of the law. As Paul wrote: 
“…ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2Cor 3:6). But I don’t believe that this means we ignore the details ("letter") and only keep the general principle ("spirit") of God’s instructions. It means we are obedient primarily to the Spirit’s leading which corresponds to the letters on the page in God’s word. Thus obedience is organic and natural, rather than a check-list. As Jeremiah prophesied: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). This corresponds with Romans 2:29: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”

The primary freedom we have in Christ is freedom from slavery to Satan, sin and death. It is freedom from condemnation and wrath. It is not freedom to do whatever we want. In fact, Sin is the violation of God’s law (1Jn 3:4), and so when we disobey God, we are living as though we are still under the slavery of sin (Rom 6:16-18). As Peter wrote: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Therefore our obedience must be out of gratitude for the grace of God that set us free. Martin Luther wrote about this freedom in his 1520 treatise On Christian Liberty: "A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone." This means, according to Roger Olson:
“…because of what Christ has done for her and because of her faith in Christ, the Christian is absolutely free from the bondage of the law. She doesn't have to do anything. On the other hand, out of gratitude for what Christ has done for her and in her, the Christian is bound in servitude to God and other people. She gets to serve them freely and joyfully. A person who doesn't "get" the "get to" part simply doesn't know the joy of salvation.”
 So the secondary way we are free is that because of our primary freedom and Holy Spirt within us, we are free to be and live as God originally created us to serve and obey Him from a place of love and joy. And so obedience under the Gospel is voluntary out of a posture of love and gratitude. But if that’s not present, does that mean obedience becomes optional? Keller uses the example, and an extreme one at that, of anger like this:

“If… you want to pick up a rock and hit somebody in the head, and actually your heart isn’t right, I still think you should not do it. Just because you might go to jail. Just because your family is going to be so unhappy with you. Just because God says no.In the long run, you should always do the right thing out of love for God out of joy for God. But in the short run, very often you should use any means possible to do the right thing.”

To live in the freedom in Christ, therefore, is to live in the fullness of the space within the boundaries He has set as our creator and saviour.

Defining Legalism

And so legalism, therefore, is when boundaries are imposed according to human reasoning and tradition rather than scripture. Dan Doriani helpfully describes 4 levels of legalism. 
Although different, each is an expression of legalism. 
 1. Class one legalists believe that they can do something to earn God's favor and even obtain salvation. The rich young man who asked Jesus what he could do to inherit eternal life fits this category (Matt. 19:16-22, Lk 18:18-23). Many of the world's religions are legalistic in roughly this sense.
2. Class two legalists require believers to submit to man-made commandments, as if they were God's law. Think of the Pharisees who attacked Jesus when he didn't follow their rules for the Sabbath, for washing hands, and for avoiding sinners (Matt. 12:1-14, 15:1-2, Lk 15:1-2).
3. Class three legalists obey God and do good in order to retain God's favour. Here we think of disciples who believe God's daily favour depends on their daily performance. When something goes wrong, they are prone to ask, “What did I do to deserve this? Is God punishing me for something?”

Dorani also warns against labelling someone who seeks to understand and obey God’s law as a legalist. As Jesus said: If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15) (see also Gen. 26:5, Ex. 20:6, Ps 119, Jn 15:10).

Dorani also describes a fourth kind of legalist, and this is a very borderline case and one that I know I need to be aware of in myself as I can be prone to it. This kind of legalist avoids extreme forms of legalism, but because of a focus on obedience, other areas of the Christian life, like “the love of others, the nurture of character, the pursuit of noble but optional projects, and more” fade out. And thus they become a “Nike Christian”: God said it, so just do it. To avoid this, we need to remember the main reason we obey God. God’s Law are more than commands, they are reflections of God’s own character. More than that, they are invitations to freedom and the fullness of life.

It is out of Grace, that God offers freedom. Freedom to life and fullness of joy. Freedom from sin. Freedom to be all He created us to be. And freedom of creativity within the boundaries He has set in his Word. It is because of Grace that we obey not to be loved, but because we are loved. But when we go outside those boundaries as we either use our freedom as an excuse to sin, or impose man made rules on others: we are insulting the grace of God made available through the Gospel, the freedom this gives us, and the blood of Christ that paid for it. And therefore it is important as Berean Baptists to study and know the instructions of God so that we can test whether our personal preferences and adopted traditions fall within those boundaries. Indeed, many do and God honours them greatly. And we should continue to pursue this freedom not with a spirit of lawlessness or legalism, but from a posture of love and delight.


Timothy Keller, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ”, May 14, 2004.

Dan Doriani, “LEGALIST!”, May 2, 2014

Roger Olson, “The Bonds of Freedom”,, Oct 5, 2012

Trevin Wax, “Tim Keller on ‘Beauty and Duty’ in Obeying God”, Mar 16, 2011

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