Freedom To Do What You Don’t Like

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
10th July 2009

Tagged: contextualisation culture freedom holiness law legalism missional

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Christian freedom is the freedom to be a servant of others.  (Galatians 5:13).  The freedom that is “Christian” is the freedom that enables me to do what I don’t like.

The freedom that allows me to do whatever I want is not Christian freedom - it is license and sometimes licentiousness.

True Christian freedom allows me to do things that are foreign and strange to me so that I may be able to love others and serve them with the Gospel.

When, in the name of Christian liberty, I am free to do what I wanted to do anyway, a deep suspicion enters my mind.  It is not that God wants to deny me any pleasure but that I know my motives are corrupted by sin.

It is similar to my suspicion of guidance by the Holy Spirit.  Many years ago I noticed that whenever the Holy Spirit gave career guidance to people it was always in the same upwardly mobile, well paid, high status direction as the pagan materialists.  A deep suspicion entered my mind about which spirit was giving this guidance.  It did not sound like Christ’s Holy Spirit.  Christ made himself nothing and took the form of a servant and humbled himself (Philippians 2:4-8).  For Christ’s Spirit to guide all his people towards upwardly mobile middle-class affluence seemed questionable at the least.

So when in the name of Christian freedom I wish to conform my life or reform the church to the culture of sinful Sydney, alarm bells ring.  It is supposed to be “cutting edge”, “contextualisation” and “missional”, but it sounds like the failed agenda of theological liberalism - always trying to be relevant but never being Christianly countercultural.

Our message to the world is repentance, not acceptance.  Our aim in church is holiness not conformity.  Repentance and holiness are the opposite of acceptance and conformity.  It is the holiness of God’s people that commends the gospel.  If we are no different to the world around us we have nothing to say to the world.

Yet, Christian freedom is essential to preserve the truth of the Gospel.

We are saved by the grace of God, not by keeping the law.  It is illusory to think that we will ever perfectly keep the law of God.  The law of God does not save us but condemns us.  We can only be saved by the gracious mercy of God found in the death of His Son.

Sadly, religious people not only seek to impose the law of God upon others but sometimes also make up additional rules and regulations.  Even those who know of the death of Jesus tend to add rules to the gospel.  Often these are added with the best possible motives of trying to help Christians to walk in holiness.  But unfortunately they so compromise the grace of God’s mercy that it is harder to join the earthly church than to be accepted into the heavenly assembly!

In reaction to this false emphasis on law some people turn our liberty into license.  They preach that all is grace and Christians are entirely free from any law.  The cry that “All things are lawful for me” is as old as the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6:12f), but he knew that he was not “outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21).  It is by God’s grace Christians receive the Spirit of God.  But the Holy Spirit writes God’s law on our hearts and moves us to obey it.  The gospel of grace does not contradict the law (1 Timothy 1:10-11, Galatians 5:4) for Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17ff).

However, evangelists are rightly keen not to compromise the gospel by adding rules to it.  The cross-cultural evangelist in particular needs the flexibility of freedom to be “all things to all people, that I may save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  Such missionaries must have a firm grasp on Christian freedom in order to be “as a Jew to the Jews” or “to become weak to win the weak”.  It is hard enough to persuade the man in the street that the Gospel is not about morality but pardon and regeneration - without reinforcing his false views of the gospel by Christian legalism.

The Church has a part to play in this also for we must not conduct the church in a way that fits all the false stereotypes about Christianity.  Rather, we want to welcome all manner of people without “quarrels over opinions” (Romans 14:1ff).  Whether our differences are over food or drink or holy days we must remember that: “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17).  A church in a developing multi-cultural society will not restrict its behaviour to yesterday’s mono-cultural mainstream.

However it is not the church but the individual, who must exercise freedom in the service of others.  The church seeks to build Christians in holiness, the evangelist to reach non-Christians for their salvation.  Being sensitive to seekers who attend church is not the same as running church for seekers.  The word of God, not the culture of the world, must set the agenda for church.

So when I think of constructing a contextualised church culture I want to ask: “where is the holiness of a Christian culture being developed here?”  And when I do something on the basis of Christian freedom, I want to ask: “Is my freedom one that enables me to do something that I wanted to do anyway, or is it a freedom that is enabling me to serve other people by doing things that are unnatural for me or that I do not really like?

I like to do as I please but sometimes, Christian freedom means wearing an uncomfortable suit and other times enduring some unpalatable modern music.