The scene, or at least the notion behind it, is probably familiar: One Christian, swinging his bent arm in celebration while holding a mug of beer, glories to another, “Don’t you know, Luther himself wrote a book on Christian liberty?” His companion looks on, either in shared revelry or mild disgust.

Reformed Christians will likely have heard these words many times, perhaps from their own lips: “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (Westminster Confession of Faith: XX.ii). Yet in practice, many believers have an all-or-nothing relationship with the concept of Christian liberty. Some revel in it, while others shy away, worried that liberty too easily turns to license. There is a struggle on both ends to find common ground, and that raises a pair of critical questions: How should Christians regard their own liberty and that of others? And what, exactly, is the freedom that Christians are given?

The Two Sides Of Freedom

Since God is Lord of the conscience, Christians must begin by asking: How does He exercise His lordship?

The New Testament affirms that Christians are set free in Christ — free from the bondage to sin and Satan, free from the slavery to the law that binds in ways that deny God’s grace. Christians are free, also, to new life in Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes our liberty, saying that no believer is bound to the convictions of other men insofar as they might “bind consciences” against something. John Owen, the Puritan theologian, wrote, “Only what God has commanded in His word should be regarded as binding; in all else there may be liberty of actions.” These distinctions serve as a framework for understanding Christian liberty and are frequently appealed to by those who wish to exercise their freedom (rightly or wrongly).

There are further scriptural elements to this framework, however. Freedom from sin is simultaneous bondage to Christ; so while Christians are no longer enslaved to the law, they are set free in slavery to Christ to serve Him and, consequently, to serve others. While this includes delighting in the good gifts of God (and thereby enjoying much of what is often proclaimed to be held dear according to our liberty), it also includes a freedom to deny oneself of what may rightfully be owned in service to the kingdom. When sinners are set free in Christ, they are freed to serve others.

Freedom From …

In Christ, believers are set loose from the Old Testament laws that once defined the holiness expected of God’s people. Christ’s fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5:17) doesn’t leave these laws without meaning; they continue to point to what fallen humanity lacks and what Christ provides. Nevertheless, believers are freed from the demands of circumcision and food restrictions and for how to deal with defiling molds (Leviticus 13). These are no longer required in order to have right standing before the Father.

Quite often, however, Christians aren’t actually concerned with the freedom Christ gives from Old Testament laws. More often, they’re troubled by matters that are sometimes called adiaphora — that is, things about which Scripture is ambiguous or even indifferent. So many ethical puzzles fall into this category — where there is no clear biblical command or any normative practice that we can appeal to with certainty. With adiaphora, there must be freedom.

How is that freedom to be exercised? Two guiding principles prevail: In keeping with a good testimony and in consideration for fellow believers, Christians must take into account how those outside the church will perceive their actions and how those within the church will receive them. God has not told His people explicitly how they should act in these cases, but He has given unequivocal commands to attend to these two factors.

Two common examples:

Alcohol — Scripture does not forbid drinking alcohol; it couldn’t, because wine and other fermented drinks were among the only ones available. It does forbid drunkenness and addiction, so both of these must be guarded against. But for Pete to tell Joe that Joe cannot drink at all is to err in a pharisaical way. It adds to God’s Word perhaps with good intention, but graven results. Likewise, Joe must be attentive to Pete’s concerns and discerning about what is beneath them. If Pete is acting the Pharisee because of immaturity or spiritual weakness, Joe is compelled biblically to accommodate him — not, perhaps, by abstaining altogether, but at least from flaunting it in front of Pete.

Language — While the Bible offers some guidance regarding our speech (especially about blasphemy and “unwholesome talk”), words used for their intended purpose, however strong, are neither forbidden nor are they out of place. Meanwhile, when believers mince words they are as guilty of the same blasphemies and unwholesome talk, because the spirit and intention of the words are the same. Thus, Bill ought to recognize that saying “oh my gosh!” in conversation is no different than invoking the Lord’s name. Meanwhile, Sue may be careful to realize that, however accurately she meant it, her neighbor might perceive her use of certain words as “unwholesome.” To avoid that, Sue might simply choose her words more wisely.

And on it goes. Many Christians forbid what the Lord permits, thereby sinning against their brothers and sisters. Other Christians (in the name of liberty) excuse that which the Bible prohibits, and also sin in doing so. Christian liberty requires that we give the benefit of doubt to fellow believers, while closely checking ourselves against biblical standards. Here’s where self-denial comes in. Walter Chantry, a former pastor and longtime editor of The Banner of Truth magazine, identified this aptly. “Self-denial corrects two evil tendencies ever attacking Christian ethics,” he said. “There is a tendency to give more attention to outward standards than to the inward state of the heart. And there is a tendency to be strict with others and lenient with oneself. These two dragons are slain by the sword of self-denial when their heads appear in the land of Christian liberty.”

God has given His children great gifts, and it is wrong to neglect them, take them lightly, or forbid others from delighting in them. It is also wrong to abuse those gifts or to love the gift rather than the Gift-Giver. There is care and balance to be found in our exercise of liberty.

Freedom To …

Christians often overlook the fact that Christian liberty grants us the freedom to serve Christ and others. Luther, in his acclaimed booklet “On the Freedom of a Christian,” commented on 1 Corinthians 9:19, saying, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”

Often this service looks similar to the balanced treatment of practices (and the attitudes with which they are carried out) described above. Thus, Fred may be free to enjoy his cigar but may choose not to do so because he knows the smoke will bother others or that a fellow Christian will be bothered in other ways. But true service goes beyond merely being considerate.

Genuine Christian liberty gives us purpose, not license. It frees us not only from something but to something. Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson guides us here: “Freedom is not only the principle in the Christian life. Freedom is for something. God has set us free for holiness. He has set us free from the guilt and bondage of sin — but not in order that we might become enslaved to the very sins for which Christ died to redeem us! … No action which is contrary to the plain Word of God can ever be legitimate for the Christian. No appeal to spiritual freedom or to providential circumstances can ever make what is ethically wrong anything else but sinful. For the Christian is free only to love and obey the law of God. Therein lies his true freedom.”

Thus, when exercising liberty the Christian is seeking to explore freedom unto Christ’s service and for His glory — and, consequently, the good of fellow believers. Again, Chantry helps us: “It is not enough to ask yourself, ‘Does God’s Word permit me to use these good things of the world?’ You must also inquire, ‘Will it serve the glory of God?’ and, ‘Will it edify my fellow Christians?’”

Liberty and the Abundant Life

Jesus said that He came so that Christians “may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And He said that anyone who would follow Him must “deny himself and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24). He neither qualified one statement with the other, nor did He suggest that He was speaking of different ends. Fullness of life, Jesus taught, was found in the service rendered to God and to others.

This should lead the people of God to take great delight in His gifts, and these include both the good things we may enjoy and the good service we may render.