Institutional rules, regulations, guidelines, and policies can serve a purpose. We all have them as a functioning part of life—whether home, church, or institution. Rules have the ability to protect, structure, and control behavior but they cannot produce spiritual life, real growth, or lasting fruit. Authentic Christianity can only be realized through Christ, by means of His Spirit and His Word, as faith is exercised. There is nothing to add. If you do, you have another gospel. Having rules and standards does not make a person a legalist, but making rule keeping as a means or a measure of spirituality does. That is the point.
There is another danger that should be discussed. Some, in their fear of driving into a legalistic ditch, can easily swerve off course and into another ditch. It is called license. Satan is out to destroy our lives and if one thing won’t work, he’ll attempt another. We can be snared and enslaved by legalism or license. Both of these are attractive to our sinful flesh and we are so easily seduced.
We, however, are called to live free! Paul says in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Some Galatian believers, who had been saved by grace through faith, were now turning back to their “works of the law” as a means of growth (Galatians 3:1-6), and others Paul had to warn about a return to the “acts of the flesh”(Galatians 5:19-21). When we say that these problems are in all of our churches it is because these tendencies are in all of our hearts! Only by keeping our eyes fixed on Christ can we stay true to a life radically centered in Christ and avoid the ditches.
So, what does “living free” look like?
- “Living free” does NOT look like this: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).
- “Living free” DOES look like this: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23a).
That is what it looks like. It is the “means” that I am most concerned about. It is possible to end up in “self righteous legalism” or “self indulgent license” and both are results of giving into the flesh and not living by the means of the Spirit. Neither will ever lead to a life that pleases God. Pleasing God can only be accomplished through Christ, by means of His Spirit and His Word, as faith is exercised.
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). Few times in history has there been a greater need or opportunity for a new generation to rise up and “live free.”
Recommended reading: Tim Keller’s book Prodigal God. It is simply outstanding!