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

15 thoughts on “True Freedom in Christ: Breaking the Bonds of Legalism

  1. Paul Walton

    “As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, American evangelicalism is clearly confused, fragmented, and frighteningly vulnerable to false teaching.

    “Evangelicals are too worldly-minded and untaught to be able to recognize all the deadly errors that have made themselves at home within the movement. Evangelical leaders are far too tentative and timid in denouncing those errors—up to and including the damnable ones.

    “Rank-and-file evangelicals won’t stand for it if their leaders do point out false doctrines, especially when the error is being peddled by a slick celebrity.

    “These problems are serious. What we commonly refer to as “the evangelical movement” is actually no movement at all anymore. It has morphed and melted down into a variegated, muddled, incoherent swamp—without any meaningful boundaries. And we are sending to the world a message that is as garbled and bewildering as this ersatz movement.”

    I believe some judgement is warranted otherwise as Phil points out the lines get very fuzzy. We need sound doctrine, some may call them rules, but Christ did say those who loved Him would follow His commands (His laws).

    The law of God is not the problem, God’s law is good, it’s our hearts that are the problem, the leaders of Jesus’ day would use the law to puff themselves up with pride.

    Wisdom needs love, and love needs wisdom. God is loving but He is also just.

    • Paul,

      One could argue that Johnson’s statement says more about the state of the Pyromaniac position than it does about genuine Christianity as a whole.

      What I mean by that is that we often confuse solid doctrine with differing emphasis. It is quite easy to say that people who don’t spend all their time arguing about doctrine and burning heretics at the stake are somehow not upholding solid doctrine. The Presbyterians don’t think the Lutherans spend enough time upholding the sanctity of the Word, while the Lutherans don’t think the Presbyterians spend enough time upholding the priesthood of all believers. Meanwhile, the Pentecostals think both of the others are off because they’ve so deemphasized the Holy Spirit.

      The question here would be: Is the Pyromaniac position the only true and genuine practice of the faith?

      Some people are looking for more out of the Christian life than going after heretics all the time. If Team Pyro wants to do that, I think there’s a place (albeit one more tactful and gracious) for them. But there’s also the tendency to go after anyone who is not Team Pyro, and I don’t buy that. The guy who waits to hear from the Lord as to what his next move is gets trashed as some mystic and his doctrine is questioned.

      I can’t apply such a narrow grid to people’s doctrine because it’s so easy to name heretics for their emphasis of some part of the faith we have overlooked. Sure, there are genuine heretics out there. But all too often I’ve seen us grind up people for emphasizing something we don’t. Team Pyro did that so often that I finally dropped their link from my blog.

      No doubt proper doctrinal instruction is suffering. But I would contend that other parts of the faith are suffering more and possibly need even more attention. It is one thing to have great doctrine, but if I pass by the poor man and fail to meet his need, am I better or worse than the man with wonky doctrine who manages to help that poor man? I think Jesus already pointed to the right answer in a certain parable about a doctrinally challenged Samaritan. Again, love God and love people.

      That said, this should not be an even/or question. Yes, we need solid doctrine. But if we love doctrine and do not love our neighbor, then we’re missing half the truth.

      • Paul Walton

        Hey Dan,
        I appreciate your stand, I agree that we need to love our neighbor, wisdom is of value but it’s not sufficient. That being said if we pass by a poor man and meet his immediate need of food, and don’t share the gospel are we really being loving? To share the good news with people properly, they need to know the bad news, without Christ they are going to be facing the wrath of God.

        I don’t truly know if Bell is an universalism believer (pyro post), but Christ was crucified because He said He was the only the way, the only truth, and the only true life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him.

        • Paul,

          One of my “favorite” (though I mean that only in that I can’t get the dichotomy out of my head) George Barna polls of a few years ago had something like 90% of pastors saying they did an excellent job of transmitting biblical truth to their congregations. When Barna polled those congregations, the amount of error on display in response to basic doctrinal questions was appalling.

          I know Rob Bell from college. We were both Class of ’92 at Wheaton. We talked from time to time. I liked him as a person. A very intense person, to say the least. He was like the Bono of Wheaton. Today, I think he’s reaching a portion of the population that many have ignored.

          Some of what Bell preaches doesn’t align with what I believe to be true. Other times he has interesting things to say. Whether he’s a universalist or not, I can’t comment.

          But here’s what I can comment on: He’s reaching people I’m not. So while I don’t have all the facts on all his positions (and he’s notoriously evasive on some), I know he’s doing better than I am at connecting with people.

          Itching ears? People wanting others to tell them what they want to hear? Maybe. All I know is that I have to do better.

          Why it almost never comes down to that bugs me. I can criticize others, but anymore, I keep going back to the truth that most of the “heretics” out there are more committed to what they believe, rightly or wrongly, than I am.

          And that should elicit one response from me: I need to spend my time and energy on getting myself right before I criticize someone else.

          The world will always be filled with heretics. But if the “nonheretics” are too distracted or off-message, then are they any better than the heretics?

          That question dogs me all the time.

          • Paul Walton


            Jesus said, strive to enter through the narrow gate, many will try, but few will enter. I think we need to think verses like that through, very thoroughly. We have to have correct theology and doctrine, otherwise we open ourselves up to all kinds of falsehoods. The bible tells us that God desires that all would be saved, and that none would perish. So if our theology only runs that deep we may believe that we can escape judgment, because God’s word says He wants everyone to be saved. That Jesus died for all men to escape judgment, and God’s wrath. I have a friend who thinks he is saved because he said the sinners prayer, and he believes Jesus is the Son of God. Only I’m very concerned for him because I don’t see him being conform into the image of Christ, he thinks he trusting Christ with his life, but there is no evidence of works, no friut of the Spirit.

            There’s a lot of bad teaching and false doctrine being preached that keeps people from really trusting and treasuring Christ above all. Their theology is an inch deep and miles wide. I think the best way to love our neighbor is share the whole truth of God’s word. At least then, they are making a truly informed decision about their salvation. I believe it’s harder to undo bad teaching with a person who thinks they are Christian, than to start fresh with an unbeliever.

            • Paul.

              You get no disagreements with me on this. I just think that the Christian sites on the Web overemphasize doctrine to the point of forgetting simple love. How some commenters are treated on those sites tells me all I need to know.

              We are not instilling good doctrine in people. I think we are doing and even worse job instilling love. We are still a society of “every man for himself,” and that is a lie from hell that dominates everything we do.

  2. Jennifer Smith

    Dan, I’ve been reading you for years and really appreciate your spiritual insights. I’m concerned, though, when you express your admiration of Rob Bell’s ability to reach people that you’re not reaching. I know you value sound doctrine, professing the essential or non-negotiable teachings of God’s Word, and yet you don’t seem willing to evaluate Rob Bell’s teaching by that grid. Yes, Phil Johnson and Team Pyro can be overly critical, but they are doing some of the hard work to warn the sheep that wolves are stealing in unaware. (At times their tone is hardly different than the Apostle Paul, who we can all agree is a valid mentor in this area.) There is more than enough information in Rob Bell’s books and spoken teachings to be justified in believing that he is perverting primary Christian beliefs and encouraging others to escape from coming under the authority of God’s Word. I’m confused as to why you don’t see that “getting yourself right” should INCLUDE contending for the faith and warning others about Satan’s schemes in the form of false teachers. Yes, it has to involve criticism and can sound unloving but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a loving service in the cause of Jesus Christ and His truth. I have spent many hours studying Rob Bell’s books and am grieved BECAUSE of all the young people he is reaching and turning aside from the truth. I also try to pray for Rob himself but I believe that doesn’t negate my responsibility to warn, even if it may sound critical. You admit that he may be reaching people because of their “itching ears” but say that all you know is that you have to do better. Itching ears in Scripture is connected to false teaching and you could hardly do better than to educate yourself about what he is really saying and than spend time warning and grieving for those who are falling into this Emergent trap. I know in the past you have called out others who have fallen into error, but I think you might be missing the forest for the trees here.

    • Jennifer,

      A few things:

      1. I don’t so much “admire” Rob Bell’s ability to attract people as I’m down on my own ability to.

      2. I don’t know enough about the breadth of Bell’s theology to comment wisely. If someone else wants to pick up that mantle, more power to ’em. It’s just not where my focus is.

      3. I honestly think the watchblog sites are ineffective, which is why I talk mostly to the Church about what the Church can do to be a better living witness. I think that outing heretics isn’t effective through the Web because it only preaches to the crowd of the already convinced, who are not the people who are going to be affected anyway. At least that has been my experience. YMMV. Honestly, by now, the vast majority of people still reading watchblogs are fans who live and die by the watchbloggers’ every word, plus those rare others who comment just to get their goat. I don’t see how that accomplishes anything.

      4. The primary purpose of Cerulean Sanctum in NOT to out heretics. Other people do that better than I do. My main goal is to get the Church to stop pointing fingers at everyone else and start fixing its own lacks. If we would only do that, SO many problems—including a lot of heretics—would go away on their own! (Case in point, if Bell is effective in reaching people with his message, in what ways did we drop the ball in ours? I firmly believe that people only go looking for answers outside the correct venues when the correct venues aren’t living up to their calling. The Emerging Church “issue” only exists because existing churches did a terrible job in some aspects of ministry and some people got sick of dealing with those inadequacies, especially when those churches resisted fixing the problems. Those churches then went after the Emerging Church’s problems instead of dealing with their own. That’s arrogant, and I’m just sick of arrogance among church people who should be more willing to correct their own problems before they go after someone else’s. Log and speck, right? We can do so much more and be so much better, but instead we’re obsessed with outing heretics. And we do even THAT in a tactless, graceless, and unwise way.)

      Does that explain my position?

  3. Jennifer Smith

    Dan: Yes, that does explain your position, but why are you so convinced that the Emergent Church issue ONLY exists because existing churches did a terrible job in some aspects of ministry? Doesn’t Scripture warn us that there will always be false teachers and many who follow them down the broad way? And what if the Emergent Church is a part of the great apostasy that Scripture tells us to expect before the return of Christ, the deception that could almost even deceive the elect? Just supposing this is true, what is our responsibility as informed Christians to others who we see falling under the spell of this deception? Are we really only supposed to focus on getting ourselves right or also warn day and night with tears, as the Apostle Paul did in Acts when he spoke of wolves stealing in to destroy the flock. I actually know of quite a few people who have had their eyes opened by reading some of the watchblog sites (myself included) and went on to greater commitment and love for others because of their influence. I don’t want to belabor the point but after personally spending many hours (literally hundreds) reading and studying the Emergent “issue”, I believe that there is more to this than you realize. I know that this isn’t your focus at Cerulean Sanctum, but I hope and pray that you will be motivated by a love of the Truth to really investigate more thoroughly at some point. Bereans can be loving as well as analytical! God bless you and your ministry to the Body of Christ.

    • Jennifer,

      I’ve actively engaged people in the emerging church “thing” over the years. I think I have a good handle on the movement. It’s a reform movement. It very clearly aims to provide better alternatives to critical issues long-ignored by “the institutional church.” That’s pretty indisputable. Like all reform movements, it pegged itself as something of a second Reformation.

      Fact is, the emerging church is uncannily accurate about the problems in the institutional church. In fact, I’ve written about many of those same problems here on Cerulean Sanctum.

      Where the emerging church goes off the rails (and frankly where most reform movements of any kind do) is in their solutions to fixing those problems. The emerging church does a great job at pointing out the problems, but most of their solutions to those problems are garbage. Sadly, they also fall into the same trap that institutional church does: They won’t acknowledge their own problems.

      I’m frankly sick and tired of those who want to clean someone else’s house but refuse to clean their own first.

      Evangelicalism is broken. It needs to gets its act together and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing.

      The emerging church is broken. It needs to get its act together and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing.

      The Church, big “C,” does not move forward by yelling how everyone needs to repent while ignoring its own sins.

      Actively teaching error (emerging church) and being lukewarm and smug (Evangelicalism) suffer the same fate: being spit out of Christ’s mouth.

      Anymore, I’ve kind of reached a point of frustration with most of American Christianity because we’re so off-base that even getting people to acknowledge the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is like trying to mate elephants. No matter who we are or where we are in the Church or outside of it, if we can’t actively practice something as simple as the Golden Rule, how in the heck are we going to correctly process any other doctrinal position?

      If I spend two years studying the depths of the Hebrew language as I attempt learn the fullness of the many names for Jehovah in the OT, but I can’t live by the Golden Rule, then all my study is a waste. I could memorize Wayne Grudem’s or Michael Horton’s systematic theology tome, but if my neighbor is in need and I look the other way, I have no love and God is not in me.

      And yet that is where we are. I’ve seen the most unloving, vicious, nasty, reprehensible treatment of people asking simple questions on this watchblog or that, and it becomes all too apparent that no matter how correct those watchbloggers are in their doctrine, they have no love. And the Bible is crystal clear about people who have no love, especially those people who identify themselves as Christians.

      I could spend the rest of my life attempting to correct the errors of the emerging church, or I can ask myself and the other Christians I know whose doctrine is fairly solid (as no one’s is perfect), “Hey folks, you know that guy whose wife just died? Can we make sure someone makes a dinner for him in Jesus’ name and shows up at his wife’s funeral?”

  4. Tami

    This was AMAZING! I am so glad i stumbled across this it literally changed my life and opened me up to a whole new way of looking at things. I have been brought up religously all my life, this article really liberated me.

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