True Freedom in Christ: Breaking the Bonds of Legalism


UnshackledIn my previous post in this two-part series, I claimed that while many Christian talk about freedom in Christ, few live that talk. As I get older, I increasingly see why this is.

One reason that few of us truly experience Christ’s freedom is our desperate fear that we will not be liked, that we’ll be rejected and tossed by the world into a class of people labeled losers. So we play the world’s restrictive and ensnaring game, and all reality of freedom goes out the window. The world pipes, and we dance. Only by dying to self and to the world do we experience genuine freedom.

The other reason for restrictions on freedom come from within the American Church, not without.  That solution, too, starts with dying to self, but in a more oblique way that not everyone sees.

Theologian Karl Barth, when asked to sum up his knowledge, was said to reply with the words of a simple song too often relegated to children, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

What I’m realizing is that my learning often gets in my way of being a simple Christian. I can get bogged down in Greek verb forms, or I can tussle with distinctions between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. I start thinking too much. I go off on tangents and wander in weird places.

Simplicity is not the ideal state in the minds of most people in the West. We love our complexity. Set a simple task before a half dozen business people, and the next thing you know, tasks forces arise, due diligence models erupt, and the original task, perhaps something as simple as “we need to refill this pitcher of water,” becomes a fiasco. The cartoon Dilbert is one of the most popular today because it deflates the pomposity and stifling adherence to rules that make so much of modern day business practice so ineffective.

The problem for the Church in America is that we are often worse than the hapless business world of Dilbert. We pile all sorts of junk onto the mission of Jesus, then we wonder why the mission goes awry and the people who are a part of it seem to reflect the opposite of “the joy of the Lord.”

Jesus summed up Isaiah:

“‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.'”
—Matthew 15:8-9

How often do we run the test to see if our everyday practice of the faith is nothing more than “rules made by men”?

We can build systematic theologies out of anything, but Jesus fought against that tendency. When a lover of complexity attempted to corner him on doctrine, here is how Jesus responded:

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
—Matthew 22:37-40

Do we get the profundity of that final sentence? Jesus says that everything that has been revealed by God on how we are to live comes down to loving Him and loving others! I see a lot of Christians who burden themselves and everyone else with their busybodyness. They use their own systematic theologies to gleefully point out everyone’s errors, but they forget that everything they supposedly know is meant to add up to loving God and loving one’s neighbor.

That tendency explains why so much of the Church is at war with itself and why church splits are the norm rather than the exception.

In the words of the great orator Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

No, Rodney, we can’t—as long as we are bound up in legalism and judgmentalism.

Anymore, the only rules I impose on myself in this walk of faith are

Am I loving the Lord?

Am I loving other people?

I’m letting everything else go.

The ability to ask those two questions has to start in dying to self—again. Because asking those two questions, finding the answer, and putting that answer into practice demands that I not live for myself. I cannot love if I am at the center of that love.

I quoted a lot of Scripture verses yesterday on the positives of dying. I left some to use for today:

For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
—Romans 7:5-6

(That’s one of the most neglected verses in the Bible, if you ask me. Too many of us remain prisoners of  the “old way of the written code” and seem to have no comprehension of what it means to “serve in the new way of the Spirit.”)

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
—Galatians 2:19-21

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—”Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
—Colossians 2:20-23

I look around at the state of Evangelicalism today and it seems to have descended into little more than mouthing “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” And we can complain about whether that’s truly the case or not, but sometimes it’s all about perceptions. If you ask an unbeliever enough questions in this regard, you’ll probably hear people sum up Christianity as a religion for folks who are against doing stuff.

Fact is, Christianity is not defined by the rules of what it is against, but by the truth of what (and whom)  it is for.

But Dan, you say, what is Christianity for? Here’s a simple theological answer: Love the Lord and love people. I can sum that up in a couple verses too:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
—Philippians 1:21

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
—Ephesians 2:10

No matter how poor our memories might be, I think each of us can memorize those two verses.

I’ve reached the age that I’m not so worried if I wear white socks with black shoes. I’ve stopped caring what other people think of me. I’ve died to all that. The only thing that matters is what the Lord thinks.

In fact, I’ve reached the point where I no longer care what the religious people think, which means I don’t care what many fellow Christians think. Too many religious people are busybodies who don’t understand Christianity at all because they’re mired in rules, laws, and trying to conform to a misplaced sense of righteousness. I feel sorry for them, actually.

When I read the Bible, this Christian life comes off so much simpler than what we have made it. This life is not about how long our quiet time is and when. It’s not about looking good before the religious people.

Freedom in Christ is letting everything else go, letting it die, so that we can live by the Spirit.

And when our physical bodies finally wear out, we won’t be judged by God for how much we know or for how well we applied “godly principles” and rules to life. As Jesus Himself said, it will all come down to whether we lived a life that showed we loved Him and loved other people.

That’s true freedom.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
—Galatians 5:13-18

How to Fix the American Christian – Unifying Faith and Praxis


A current theme erupting throughout the Godblogosphere concerns taking the Church back to the Gospel. I think that’s a noble effort.

As a flawed human among flawed humans, though, I worry that even such an essential “recovery” runs the risk of leading people into a form of sub-Christianity that in the end fails to reflect the entirety of the Kingdom of God and the reason Jesus came.

I was not planning to write on this issue in this “How to Fix the American Christian” series, but when a reader objected to the series due his belief that such a series merely supplants the Gospel with “behavior modification,” I felt compelled by God to write this. In fact, I believe God provided me an apt illustration that is already deepening how I think about this issue.

In the rush to strongly delineate the Law from the Gospel, I believe we have a tendency to fall into the error of lumping the Law with the natural outworking of the Gospel. In other words, because both involve doing, we fail to make a distinction between the Law and Gospel-based praxis.

One of the beauties of the Gospel is that being finds a central place among doing. Man cannot justify himself by the doing of the Law. Instead, he rests in the finished work of Jesus, abiding in Christ. What we Christians are by that abiding now defines our being.

But like so many aspects of the faith, mistaken notions lurk on the outskirts of that beauty. We are, after all, in the process of being made to be like Jesus; we are not complete yet.

The error of equating the Law with the natural outworkings of the Gospel are addressed by James in this well-known passage:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!
—James 2:14-19

What separates the Christian from the demon is not belief in Christ. It is faith expressed through Gospel praxis. It is doing those actions that naturally extend from having been confronted with the truth of the Gospel. It is not just saying, “I believe the Gospel and no longer attempt to justify myself by the Law.” No, it means that the entire way you and I live can and must be altered by that statement. And since that involves how we live life, it must necessarily involve what we do.

Herein lies the problem with the contemporary American Church: Our praxis does not reflect what we claim to believe—and the world knows it.Tree with fruit

The illustration that best reflects this issue mirrors the agricultural focus Jesus often took in His parables.

Imagine three trees.

The first “tree” is hardly recognizable as a tree at all because its entirety remains below ground. It is all roots. That tree believes itself to be the prefect reflection of a life in Christ. It is always talking about the Gospel, defending it and affirming the five solas of the Reformation with an undying allegiance. It cannot help but sink its roots deep in the nourishment that is God Himself, praying and reading the Scriptures with enviable devotion.

But in truth, such a tree is abnormal. Because it is all below the surface, it cannot provide shade, wood, or fruit to others. It exists solely for itself. It takes from the soil and water, yet gives nothing back to the world above ground. From time to time, it may send a meager shoot up through the soil, but rarely does this act provide anything meaningful to others. Such a tree may even proudly declare how it is impervious to the wind that would knock down other trees, but it fails to see how useless it actually is, a perversion of the kind of tree that God intends.

I have three such trees in my yard, all Bradford Pears. They started out looking beautiful, but their trunks and branches were not strong, despite being deeply rooted. They cracked and split, so I had to cut them down. The stumps remain and the roots still show some signs of life, occasionally sending up sprouts. But that won’t be the case forever. For all intents and purposes, those trees are dead, their roots slowly rotting in the life-giving soil.

I’ve met plenty of Christians like the all-root trees. They didn’t start off that way, but that is how they finished. They have an apologetic that would make Ravi Zacharias seem like Joel Osteen, but theirs is an insular world beneath the soil, one the outside world never sees. They tend to live in fortress-like churches and are always talking about defending the faith. Yet for all their talk of the Gospel, the world around them goes on as if they are not there at all.

Another tree has a trunk, branches, and green leaves. By all appearances, it seems like a normal tree. It does interact with the world, doing useful things for others like providing shelter from the sun and bearing fruit for eating. Such a tree prides itself on giving back to the world by what it does as a tree. It believes itself to be the perfect reflection of a life in Christ.

But below the surface of this tree one finds a curious lack: It has no roots. It didn’t start that way, but over time the tree became so concerned about appearing to be a tree by being doing what a tree is supposed to do that whatever focus it needed to give to its rootings withered away. Over time, such a tree tends to burn out and dry up. And all the things it once provided shrivel.

I’ve met plenty of Christians who spend all their time trying to maintain an appearance of being a Christian, but they have no Gospel roots. Such people are all about what they do and how they act. They have no means of simply being or dwelling, no rootedness to the source of nourishment and grounding.

A few years back, we hosted the big family Christmas and got a tree from our neighbor. We cut the tree fresh from their plantings, struck by its shape and beauty. The scent from that fresh evergreen filled our house. If it dropped any needles in our living room, I couldn’t find them. We enjoyed everything about that tree, but when it had served its purpose, I dumped it on our burn pile in mid-January.

The amazing thing about that rootless, cutoff tree is that it remained green until August. Finally, a typical August drought proved too much and it finally succumbed to brown.

I said that there are three trees, right?

The only tree that genuinely serves the purposes of God is the one with deep roots in the freedom and nourishment of the Gospel and a trunk and crown that provide a full expression to the world of that rootedness by providing beauty, shelter, comfort, and food to others. Such a tree fully expresses what it means to be a unified, living thing. The roots support the tree, anchor it, and provide nourishment to the trunk and crown. The trunk and crown not only make the tree useful to others, but they deliver life and growth back to the roots. In fact, without the trunk and crown, the tree dies a slow, lingering death.

For all us Christians to be healthy, we must not only have the Gospel, but we must also have Gospel praxis. That Gospel praxis reinforces our faith as much as anything. Doing the Gospel truly does lead to a reinforcement of the Gospel in our hearts. That natural outworking enlarges us as much as a tree’s leaves provide the photosynthesis to make it grow. I can only speak for myself, but I know the profound reality of how the outworkings of the Gospel through genuine practice serve to reinforce the Gospel in me. The doing strengthens the being.

When we Christians declare that we are no longer beholden to the Law, we must NEVER confuse the doing of the Law with the doing of the Gospel. Far too many Christians are making that mistake, though, because of their well-meaning intentions to distance the Church from works righteousness. However, in the course of such avoidance, Gospel praxis suffers. This all too often leads to insular churches that are smug in their preservation of the truth of the Gospel, while at the same time they give nothing of that Gospel truth back to a dying world. And so they inevitable harden and die along with the world they are so loathe to serve for fear of betraying sola fide and sola gratia.

Law Church, Gospel Church


Did we in our own strength confide
Our striving would be losing…
—Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”

One of the phenomena I continue to watch within some Evangelical and charismatic circles is an extreme dependence on the Old Testament, almost to the detriment of the New. I see people routinely going back to the OT to craft esoteric theologies made pointless by the death and resurrection of Christ. And I watch people fall into a weird, mystical legalism that seems superspiritual but in the end is nothing more than a negation of the work of Christ.

And this is everywhere around us.

It’s as if we don’t know what the Gospel is or what it says. Instead, like so many aspects of our obsession to redeem culture, we’re on a mission to take the OT Law and Christianize it.

While it’s a dangerous thing to try to sum up the entirety of the Gospel in a few verses, I will attempt it here (and may God’s Spirit lead me). My purpose is to show how simple the Gospel is and how much it covers:

And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
—Luke 4:16-21

Now I [Paul] would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
—1 Corinthians 15:1-5

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
—Romans 3:21-28

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
—Galatians 4:4-7

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
—Romans 8:1-2

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:17-18

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
—Colossians 3:3-4

Jesus came to meet the needs of the oppressed, sick, broken, and hopeless. We tried to obey God’s Law, but could not; no matter how hard we worked righteous works of the Law, our sin and guilt remained. But Jesus died as a perfect, sinless sacrifice in our place on the cross to pay for our sins with the blood demanded. Jesus rose again and conquered death. He puts His own Spirit into any who put their faith in Him. The Spirit in us is a sign and seal of our adoption into the household/Kingdom of God. Jesus’ Spirit in us frees us from bondage and condemnation and transforms us into who we were always meant to be, as our old self has died and is being replaced by the image of Jesus. And when Jesus returns, we will join Him in glory.

That’s the Gospel in a nutshell. A handful of Scriptures and one summary paragraph lay it all out.

You’ll have to agree, that’s pretty simple. Which is why I grow so disquieted when people start adding to that simple Gospel.

Anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows that God had a lot of rules handed down to the Hebrews through Moses. The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are packed with rules. And those same Hebrews found ways to add even more of their own takes on those laws, getting into minutia that would drive an ordinary man crazy if he attempted to keep them all perfectly.

Now the rules God gave were intended to keep the Hebrews in line. But that line was so strict and level that it only proved how far out of whack the Hebrews were in their practice of those laws. And that’s because mankind was bent out of shape by sin. In a way, it was a losing proposition, as no one was righteous enough—until Jesus came along to keep all the Law perfectly.

And this is why I’m troubled when I see Christians and churches going back to the very Law no one could keep perfectly, then trying to keep those laws perfectly by being their own substitute Jesus. Seems like a big waste of time if Jesus already kept them all perfectly and now we’re in Him.

One of the most stunning passages in all of Acts is so because of what is missing from it. Originally, the Church Jesus founded started within the Jewish community, the ones who had labored under the Law for centuries. But God never intended His Spirit to dwell inside converted Jews only. He wanted to pour out His Spirit on those who had no idea what the Jewish Law was. After God baptized with His Spirit those believers who were not Jews, the apostles understood the truth about their faith: It was for everyone, both Jew and non-Jew (Gentile). This is what they wrote to the Gentile believers concerning how they should live as Christians:

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.
—Acts 15:22-31

The major question here: Where is the Law? Well, it seems like a large chunk of the Old Testament never got transmitted to the Gentiles, including the Law. They didn’t get rules on circumcision, ceremonial cleansing after menstruation, who should marry widows, the proper disposition of agricultural increase (the tithe), the correct dimensions of artifacts used in the worship of God, or anything else found in the Law. Instead, what they got was the Spirit of Jesus living inside them and an encouragement that Jesus’ yoke was easy, His burden light, and that they had taken one very large step back toward the Garden of Eden.

You see, when mankind started off, God gave Adam and Eve a very limited set of laws to live by:

  • Be fruitful and multiply.
  • Take dominion over the earth and steward it.
  • Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

That ideal that God set forth back then applies still. Adam had God’s Spirit in him before the fall, and we now have that blessed gift restored. God is taking us back to the Garden in a way. He’s taking us back to a time when life was not a set of laws but was evidenced by Himself dwelling in and with man in perfect communion.

Today, we still live in world that reeks of Adam’s fall. We know physical death, too, something Adam never should have tasted. But God will take care of even physical death when Christ appears. The new heaven and new earth to come will be governed by two simple commands, the same commands that we Christians must always live by:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
—Mark 12:28-31

That’s what God is taking us back to. That’s the extent of the “Law” that we Christians must abide by. All the other minutia Christ fulfilled. In fact, He even loved God and our neighbor perfectly for us, so there’s grace even when we fail in those simple commands.

So why is it that so many Christians and churches fail to know the freedom that comes from the Gospel of Grace, choosing instead to pile up laws upon laws of things we should and should not do? Why are so many Christians buried under the guilt of failing to keep those improperly imposed laws when Jesus freed us from that burden?

We may say that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” but too many Christians don’t live that way.One closed, the other open... Instead they live broken lives, always striving, always attempting to do better, trying harder the next time, slaving to get it right—until it kills them.

But that’s not the Gospel.

Too many church leaders egg people on to do better. Often they impose man-made rules on people or attempt to resurrect the Law that Jesus fulfilled as if it were not completed by the Lord. How sad! People so burdened have no idea what freedom in Christ is. They never hear that Jesus came to proclaim freedom to those held captive by works of righteousness that were not righteous enough and never could be.

Last year, as part of the Bible reading plan I champion here at Cerulean Sanctum, I read through the entire book of Galatians each day for a month and truly meditated on what the Holy Spirit says in those pages. That month of reading so profoundly deepened my understanding of grace and the burden of the Law that I would have to say it was the best study I ever did in my life.

I recommend the same to you. If you’re in a church that spends too much time rehashing the Old Testament Law, I encourage you to read the entirety of Galatians every day for a month.

Christian, you are free. Don’t live under the Law. Live under the Gospel of Grace.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
—Galatians 3:10-14

Amen and amen!