When the angel Gabriel instructed Joseph to name the child that Mary would bring forth as “Jesus,” he explained: “for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). The name “Jesus” comes from the Hebrew “Joshua,” which means “Saviour.” Jesus is our Saviour because He saves us or rescues us from the bondage and guilt of sin. In other words, Christians are those who have been set at liberty from the curse of the Law and from bondage to Satan. A Christian is not only imputed with the righteousness of Christ, but is liberated from slavery to sin (cf. Jn 8:34, 36) and given a new freedom of access to God (cf. WCF 20.1). This, in a nutshell, is what Christian Liberty is primarily about. This is straightforward as it stands, and admits to no difficulty or controversy among believers. But there are three major implications pertaining to the practice of Christian liberty which need some explication.

Liberty of Conscience

Firstly, Christian liberty, also, involves a principle of liberty of conscience in which a Christian must not subject himself or someone else to the bondage of decisions, laws and regulations that are contrary to Scripture (cf. Gal 5:1), for “God alone is the Lord of the conscience” (WCF 20.2). Thus, when Peter and John were charged by the Sanhedrin not to preach in the name of Jesus, they replied, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye” (Acts 4:19; cf. 5:29). The Apostle Paul expands this principle to one of seeking to please God rather than man in his ministry: “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10). What this means for us is that we must not submit, yea, have a duty to disobey, when we are instructed to do something contrary to the Word of God. If you are asked by your boss to tell a lie to support a statement that he made to the tax department, it is your duty as a Christian to disobey,—even if it means the closure of the company. If you are a soldier undergoing training in a foreign land, and you are instructed by your officer to break into an orchard to steal some melons, it is your duty to disobey,—even if it means that you will be ‘marked’ by your officer from then on. This principle also means that an elder or deacon in a church must not support something that is said or decided upon by the pastor if he cannot with a clear conscience believe the decision to be in conformity with the will of God. No church, moreover, has the right to impose upon her members any practice or doctrine which she cannot demonstrates within reasonable bounds of confidence to be the teaching of the Word of God.

The Perfect Law of Liberty

Secondly, Christian liberty, does not mean freedom from the Moral Law of God as a rule and standard of life. In fact, our liberty from the bondage of sin is applied to our souls individually by an act of regeneration in which the soul is given a new desire and will to obey the Law of God. This is why both Ezekiel and Jeremiah emphasise a new ability and will to obey the Law when they spoke about regeneration as a benefit of the New Covenant (Ezk 36:27; Jer 31:33). This is why James calls the Moral Law, the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas 1:25). Since sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4; “transgression” = Grk. anomia = “lawlessness”), true liberty from sin must involve an ability to obey the Law. Moreover, when the Ten Commandments, which summarises the Moral Law of God, was delivered by the LORD on Mount Sinai, He prefaced it with the words: “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex 20:1–2). In other words, Israel was being enjoined to obey the Law on the basis of their deliverance from Egypt. The New Testament teaches us that this deliverance from Egypt was a type of our deliverance from the bondage of sin and Satan (cf. Lk 1:72–75; Gen 15:8–21; Heb 6:13–20; Rom 4:13; Gal 3:16ff.). Thus the preface of the Ten Commandments has a very important spiritual bearing for us, for it teaches us that “because God is the LORD, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments” (WSC 44). A Christian is not only granted the ability and desire to obey the Law of God, but is obliged to obey it. But the Christian does not find obedience to the Law to be grievous (1 Jn 5:3). Indeed, he finds his liberty in obedience to the Law. His liberty is like that of a fish in water,—swimming freely, rather than that of a fish out of water,—free from constraints but dying. In other words, a Christian may not plead liberty to practise any known sin. To do so is to plead for licentiousness and to use his liberty “for an occasion to the flesh” (Gal 5:13). A married Christian man, for example, may not plead liberty to live with a woman who is not his wife. To do so would be to sin against God.

Matters of Indifference

Thirdly, Christian liberty also involves the principles of practice in matters of indifference, i.e., things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Scriptures. How a man should dress in church is a matter of indifference, seeing there is no direct instruction on it. Or take the more controversial case of patronising a Muslim restaurant. Is it not still a matter of indifference? Or take the even more controversial issue of whether a Christian should drink alcohol. While some may dispute our conclusion, I believe that it is a matter of indifference, seeing that there is no clear scriptural injunction against it though there are clear injunctions against drunkenness. But having said so, let me hasten to add that this does not mean that we are therefore free to do what we like in these matters. True, the church may not legislate on these matters without falling into legalism, but there are clear scriptural principles by which individual believers must abide so as to exercise his liberty unto the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Let us consider three guidelines, all given by the Apostle Paul.

Firstly, there is the principle of 
expediency. Paul says, “All things are lawful [permissible] for me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Cor 10:23a; cf. 1 Cor 6:12a). Paul was referring to eating as a matter of indifference in contrast to sexual behaviour, which is not. The word translated “expedient” simply means profitable (e.g., Mt 5:29; Acts 20:20). By this principle, a Christian ought not to engage in what is not profitable to his soul or his body. Thus, hard liquor, which is harmful, rather than being profitable to the body, should be avoided. Similarly, music which evokes lustful thoughts is harmful for the soul, and therefore should be shunned.

Secondly, there is the principle of 
enslavement. Paul says “all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor 6:12b). Thus even in a matter that we may consider to be lawful, such as eating, we may not over-indulge so as to become a slave to it. Similarly, much restraint must be exercised should a Christian chooses to engage in addictive activities, which may appear harmless and even arguably profitable,—such as the more innocuous reflex-training computer games.

Thirdly, there is the principle of 
edification: “all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (1 Cor 10:23b). The word “edify” simply means “build up” (as in Mt 7:24, 26; 16:18; etc.). By this principle, the Christian should always choose to do things that will build up rather than tear down or stumble fellow believers. Thus Paul exhorts the Corinthian believers to “take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak” (1 Cor 8:9). But how can a matter of indifference become an occasion of stumbling? It can become an occasion of stumbling if it is done in the presence of a brother-in-Christ, who does not view the matter as indifferent, but is embolden to participate in it because of your example. That action, which for you may not be sinful, may be sinful for the brother because his conscience is defiled (1 Cor 8:7; cf. Rom 14:23). In the early transitional period of the church, for example, there were those who had scruples against eating meat, although there is “nothing unclean of itself” (Rom 14:14). But for the sake of these weaker brothers, Paul wrote to those who were more mature: “For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak” (Rom 14:20–21).

Several months ago, my family and I were staying with Pastor Ron Hanko in Northern Ireland. One afternoon, Ps Hanko turned to me and said, “This evening we’ll be having dinner at home and we shall be serving some table wine which is of very low alcoholic content. Do you mind?” I replied that I did not mind, since I believed that it is a matter of indifference, but I added that I normally do not drink wine. Ps Hanko did not query my statement. But that evening we had no wine! I believe Ps Hanko was exercising this third principle relating to matters of indifference, thinking that I had scruples against wine drinking per se. I do not. I believe that the Lord did use wine in His earthly sojourn (see Luke 7:33–34; John 2:1ff.). To say that drinking wine is sin is to impute sin on our Lord. But I do believe that the wine in those days were of very low alcoholic content because the technology of distillation was still very primitive then, whereas much of what is available today are of much higher alcoholic content. This, the fact that wine drinking is associated with wordliness by Christians and non-Christians alike, and the fact that many conservative Christians in Singapore today believe, perhaps legalistically, that drinking any form of alcohol is sin, were the basis of my avoiding alcoholic drinks altogether. Thus, while I would have no problem having a small glass in Ps Hanko’s home, I would not do so here lest I stumble any. This is the exercise of the third principle.

The exercise of Christian liberty is really an exercise of walking in the narrow path between antinomianism or lawlessness on one side and legalism on the other side. To fall into either side is to fall into sin. May the Lord grant us much help to maintain this balance as we seek to glorify Him and to serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life.

J.J. Lim