Friday, February 8, 2008

Free at Last, Free at Last

"There's no problem so awful that you can't add some guilt to it and make it even worse." - Calvin (and Hobbes).

Hi, my name is 4theLuv, and I am a recovering Baptist.

Like many in our church, I come from the largest Protestant denomination in the South. It is through that tradition that the Gospel of Christ was first presented to me, and in which I began to understand who I am in Christ. It was that tradition that I learned to trust the Scriptures, read the Scriptures, and follow the Scriptures. If you have read anything in the many posts, it is that I cherish the journey of my life that Christ has put me on.

Coming out of that background, I maintain many dear and good friends who are still within that tradition. Pastors, deacons, evangelists, lay persons, coworkers, the list goes on an on. They are, for sure, strong Christian friends - trusted friends. Friends who, to this day, I could call and talk to about most anything, and whose spiritual insights are always welcome. Many of my Baptist friends even read these posts.

Now I mean no slight to my Baptist brethren, and those who know me know my heart in that regard. I would never seek to intentionally hurt nor attack my friends. I could easily be speaking of a number of Protestant denominations, including some in the PCA. But Baptist is the background I come out of, and the one I am most familiar with.

For me, guilt and fear seemed to be the main motivating factors for living the Christian life while I was a Baptist. The constant message was that the Christian life should be lived because Christ died for you (guilt) and you owe it to Him, or because we would have to give an account for our actions (fear). There was a list of sins (real and contrived) that Christians don't do if they are really committed to Christ - (drinking and smoking come to mind immediately), and a list of things you must do - Sunday night and Wednesday night worship, visitation, Sunday School. The measure of my Christian life was summed up in lists of things I did and did not do. Far from helping me grow in my relationship with Him, it actually hindered my growth in Christ. I was never sure if I was good enough, or faithful enough, or spiritual enough to prevent backsliding. Legalism, quite simply, left me empty.

Legalism is a means of instilling guilt and fear. And guilt and fear are, at best, short term motivators. They make us want to be something, do something, want to change ourselves into the image of Christ. But once the guilt is gone and the fear is soothed, there is a void of the enthusiasm we once knew.

Further, it took me a long time to realize that legalism leads us to put on false facades. Fake fronts, put on for our Christian brethren so that, because we can't convince ourselves of our worth before God, we can at least convince others we are worthy. Yet at the end of the day, there is an emptiness to it. It is a hollow feeling stemming from an uncertainty that I have done enough to make God happy.

It took me a while to learn that there is nothing wrong with these legalistic "to dos", but there is nothing right with them either. For each thing on the list is completely possible to do without knowing Christ at all. And if they can be done without knowing Christ, then they are meaningless in bringing about a relationship with Christ. The concept of Grace was not a part of my spiritual life.

C. H. Spurgeon, a great 19th century Baptist preacher from London, when attacked on his enjoyment of cigars responded, "There is growing up in society a Pharisaic system which adds to the commands of God the precepts of men; to that system I will not yield for an hour. The preservation of my liberty may bring upon me the upbraiding of many good men, and the sneers of the self-righteous; but I shall endure both with serenity so long as I feel clear in my conscience before God. "

It has taken me years to unlearn some of the legalism. Most importantly, it has taken me years to realize that God's love for me in Christ is unconditional - it has no strings attached. It is not because I am so good that He respects me. I'm not. It is not because I have rooted out all the real (and imagined) sin from my life. I haven't. It is not because I work so hard on my relationship with Him. I don't. It is simply that He loves me, and sent His Son to die for me. There is nothing to add to that. There is nothing *I* can add to that.

It took me a while to learn the truth that the God who saved me back when, did so fully knowing every sin I would commit in my life - and He did it anyway. Nothing I can do will take him by surprise. I had to learn the truth that we are simultaneously far more sinful than we ever dared imagine, yet far more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope for. And therein was the freedom.

Paul said, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery... You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope." (Gal. 5:1, 4-5)

But that is not the end of the story, and if I ended it here, I would do a great disservice. Christ did not come to give us life *and* the ability to have a beer without guilt. That trivializes the Gospel and the sacrifice of Christ to the point of meaninglessness. Rather, God taught me that freedom, even freedom in Christ, comes with a duty to exercise it responsibly.

That point was driven home to me recently in what I considered a surprising way.

I was having a conversation with a dear Christian friend. We were discussing grace, and freedom in Christ. In the course of the conversation the topic of alcohol use came up, and this dear Christian friend commented that she would not tolerate alcohol to enter her home. I thought it odd that a person who conveys such a deep understanding of the grace of Christ, and the freedom in Christ, to be so set against alcohol. So I asked her about it. She explained that, many years ago, alcohol had nearly destroyed her marriage. I know her husband, and he is a man I deeply respect as well, whose own graciousness and spiritual maturity is immediately evidenced by those who know him. But alcohol was, for him, an area where he battled in his own life an abuse of it. It was not that alcohol was wrong, in itself. It was that alcohol in her home was wrong because of his temptations and struggles.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. (1 Cor. 8:9-13)

I have long wondered what Paul was talking about when he called us to restraint in the exercise of our freedom. And I think the answer to that is at least partially in our relationships. We are called to be in relationship with each other, as brothers, as friends, as fellow believers. The limits of our freedom in Christ are spelled out by our relationships with each other. And in those relationships we are charged with knowing each other's weakness.

It is not our duty to keep from drinking alcohol. That is legalism. It is our duty not to tempt our brothers with anything, alcohol included, that we know is a weakness and struggle for them. I have a duty as a Christian brother not to put before him, or any other person I know struggles with some thing, any thing that he has proven will enslave him. But it also means I need to be in such relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ that I know their weaknesses, and thus my responsibility to them.

Lord, help me to exercise my freedom in light of the relationships You have given me. May my freedom in Christ never lead me, or another, to sin against You.

My name is 4theluv, and I am recovering Baptist.



Kim said...

I love your posts! This one especially because it hits so close to home. Thanks, you offer great insight and now I'm going to have a cocktail.

Burt said...

i may not be a recovering baptist, but i am definitely a recovering pharisee who's addicted to my own righteousness

Scott H said...

Very convicting! Sometimes we wear our freedom on our sleeves, not caring who might be stumbling because of it.
Me, a recovering Baptist and Phaisee!