You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13)

A little boy teases a little girl on a playground. She doesn’t like it and tells the boy to stop, but he keeps it up. What can be done about this? Well, isn’t it obvious? Hire a lawyer, go to court, and get a restraining order. That’s exactly what happened in one case. The mother of a three-year-old girl sought a restraining order to keep a three-year-old boy away from her daughter. So listen up, you three-year-olds! Watch your manners in the sandbox, or the police will be after you! Behave yourself on the swings, or you might find yourself in court!

Is there any problem for which a lawyer isn’t the solution? Is there any dispute that a court isn’t expected to resolve? If you’re a little child, you don’t have to work through differences or try to get along with other kids–you can just go to court. If you’re a mom or dad, you don’t have to work things out with other parents–you can just go to court.

Ironically, though, even as some people rely on lawyers and judges to handle the tiniest matters, others want maximum freedom with minimum court interference. People value their rights and freedoms: the right to watch pornography and the freedom to commit adultery, the right to kill unborn babies and the freedom to fire assault weapons. And they’d like more rights and freedoms. Assisted suicide must be declared a constitutional right rather than a crime. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs must be legalized, and drug users have a right to free equipment to make their drug use cleaner and safer.

I remember watching a discussion in which legalizing drugs was offered as a great way to reduce the crime rate and make prisons less crowded. (Of course, if all crimes were redefined as legal, nothing would be a crime and nobody would be in prison.) Most people in the crowd seemed to want the government to use its resources not to fight the sale and possession of drugs but rather to pay for treatment whenever drug users decide they want to escape their addiction. In other words, give people the freedom to get hooked on drugs, then give them the right to demand taxpayer-funded clinics once they’re sick of drugs.

How do we find ourselves in a situation where some folks want the courts to clamp down on three-year-olds and make it a crime to be an obnoxious little brat, while others want the courts to be so loose that pornographers, drug dealers and addicts, gun merchants and doctors of death are treated as champions of rights and civil liberties? It’s a strange scenario, to say the least. Courts and politicians and citizens bounce back and forth from “regulate everything” to “anything goes,” and the results are often hilarious and horrifying at the same time.

One moment the question is, how can we get more freedom to do anything we please? The next moment the question is, how many laws and lawsuits and punishments are necessary to impose some kind of order and prevent total chaos? It’s law and order in competition with rights and civil liberties. In the meantime, voluntary virtue is hardly a part of the picture.

Voluntary Virtue

What do I mean by voluntary virtue? I mean believing what is true and doing what is right because you want to, not because the government says you have to.

Scholar David Wells speaks of three domains in society. On one side is law; on the other side is freedom; and between these two is a third domain, a territory for cultivating character and affirming truth. This area is what I’m calling voluntary virtue and what someone else calls “obedience to the unenforceable.” It is the area of honesty, decency, kindness, generosity–aspects of personal character that no government can regulate or impose. This area, says David Wells, “is where law and restraint are self imposed. The demands come from within, not from without.”

The government doesn’t regulate these things, and it doesn’t need to regulate them, because the people regulate themselves. They voluntarily seek the truth and virtue which enable a society to flourish. Or do they?

David Wells contends that this area where people voluntarily seek truth and virtue is shrinking. Why is that? Wells points to surveys which find that 67 percent of people do not believe in moral absolutes. They reject the notion of moral standards that apply to all people at all times in all places. 70 percent don’t believe in absolute truth. Instead they take the approach that one opinion is as good as any other. And what happens? When we don’t believe in absolute truth, we stop seeking God’s truth and hold to whatever opinion serves our own self-interest. When we don’t believe in moral absolutes, we see no reason to change our behavior, no matter what it is. The territory of “voluntary virtue” or “obedience to the unenforceable” shrinks to nothing, and the realm of government regulation competes with the realm of chaotic personal preference to fill the void.

People pursue their own desires as they please, and the only thing that can hold them back is more legislation, lawsuits and prison sentences. David Wells asks, “What is going to happen, then, if we keep stoking the fires of our rampant, amoral individualism and have to keep dousing those fires with greater and greater recourse to litigation and regulation? Should we expect greater chaos or greater control in the future?” These are sobering questions.

Some time ago one of Chicago’s top law enforcement officials returned from a trip to China and commented that Chicagoans could learn a lot about law enforcement from the Chinese government. This official had seen in Chicago so many results of unbridled freedom–unwed mothers, deadbeat dads, crack babies, kids shooting kids–that any semblance of order, even under a brutal, repressive government, appealed to him. If you see enough anarchy, tyranny can start to look appealing.

If our choices are either to let individuals do whatever they please, no matter how sinful or stupid, or else to subject every item, no matter how trivial, to government intervention, I’m not sure which side will win. I just know that if these are the only alternatives, we will all lose. Anarchy and tyranny are both horrible. I hope judges and legislators won’t fall into silly extremes, that they’ll have the sense not to regulate bratty three-year-olds and the sense to keep fighting against doctors of death and destructive drugs. But even more important than that, I hope that more and more people will live in the territory of voluntary virtue.

Free to Flourish

I’d like to think with you about true freedom, freedom not just to do wicked, crazy things that offend God and corrupt others and ruin ourselves, but freedom to flourish. This freedom to flourish could have a great impact on public life teetering between “regulate everything” and “anything goes.” But although this freedom has important implications for public life, it isn’t first of all political. It is spiritual freedom. It’s not a freedom that’s burdened with impossible regulations or a freedom that degenerates into a frenzy of self-indulgence; it’s freedom to flourish as children of God.

The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to live among us and died for us to set us free from slavery to sin and death. As Jesus himself put it, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:32,36).

We’ve seen that in much of our public life today there are two opposite tendencies at work. One is the tendency to make everything a matter of regulation and litigation, so that people sue over spilled coffee and seek court orders against three-year-olds. The other is the tendency to maximize individual freedom in such a way that people want to declare any personal preference, no matter how bad, to be a civil right, whether that means dumping a spouse, killing unborn babies, child pornography, mercy killing, or drug peddling.

In spiritual life, as in the political realm, temptations seem to come in pairs of opposites. On the one hand, there’s the temptation to be legalistic, to have rules and regulations and rituals for everything, to make these things the basis for our relationship to God, and to smother spiritual freedom. On the other hand, there’s the temptation to see spiritual freedom as a license to do anything we please, regardless of whether it pleases God. But God wants us to reject both legalism and license in favor of something far better: true freedom through his grace in Jesus.

The secret of the Christian life isn’t in trying to find some kind of balance between legalism and license. It’s not a matter of saying, “This item and that item are ones in which our relationship to God is based on his law, and these other items are ones where the law doesn’t apply and we have the license to do as we please.” God doesn’t want us to stand with one foot in the realm of legalism and the other foot in the realm of doing as we please. God wants to plant both our feet firmly in the realm of grace. He wants us to take our stand entirely on the basis of what Jesus has already done for us and to live entirely in the power of what Jesus is doing in us by his Holy Spirit.

In Galatians 5 the Bible speaks of spiritual freedom in Christ, and it states in no uncertain terms that there is no place in the Christian life for either legalism or license. Galatians 5:1 warns against legalism by saying, “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.” Then, right after warning against legalism, the Bible steers us clear of license by saying, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

Free from Legalism

Think of it this way. A slave wears the same old chains and does the same old backbreaking work for the same old demanding master year after year. But no matter how hard he works, there’s no way he can ever earn his freedom. Then one day a loving person comes along and pays an enormous price to buy the slave. He removes the slave’s chains and declares that from now on, the slave is no longer a slave but a free citizen. He even adopts him as his own son and makes him a partner in his business.

Now, suppose that after this former slave has lived for a while in this new freedom with his new father, his old master comes to him and says, “It’s me again! Here are your old chains. Put them back on. And here’s your work assignment–all the same labors I used to require of you. Now get going! Did you really think that the one who bought you paid such a huge price and adopted you and made you his partner for free? Did you think he did all this just because he’s kind and loving?”

“I won’t deny,” he adds, “that your new status depends partly on your adoptive father’s love and his willingness to pay for your freedom, but that’s not enough. Your status also depends on your willingness to wear these chains and slave away. You can be his child and partner, all right, but only if you’re a good slave to him. So if you want to be free, then clamp on these chains and do as I tell you.”

Wouldn’t that be crazy? How can you clamp on chains in order to be free? Freedom isn’t freedom at all if it involves the same old slavery. And yet, crazy as it sounds, that is exactly what legalism tries to do. It tells you that, yes, perhaps Jesus did something important for you, and yes, perhaps he came to make you God’s child–but you’ve still got to do your part and slave away and follow a whole list of religious requirements and go through a whole set of religious rituals in order for God really to accept you and make you a free citizen of his kingdom.

But the Bible won’t have any of that. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Scripture declares. Jesus doesn’t set us free so that we can be enslaved all over again. So don’t let anybody weigh you down with a load of rules, regulations and rituals that will supposedly put you on good terms with God.

Your relationship to God doesn’t depend on law. It depends on Jesus. Did Jesus die on the cross in order to make you a slave to the rules and regulations and penalties of divine law? No, Jesus paid that terrible price to set you free from the law and to adopt you as God’s child and give you a relationship with God that is based entirely on trust, not on your ability to meet divine regulations. As the apostle writes earlier in Galatians, “We have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (2:16).

I don’t want you to miss this point. There is no place in the gospel for even a tiny pinch of legalism. You can’t add one penny to the price Jesus paid for you, and you don’t have to. The Bible doesn’t said, “We have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ plus a little bit of law keeping.” Scripture says, “We have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law.” In fact, the Bible goes so far as to say that any attempt to base even part of our standing with God on laws and rituals will rob us of God’s grace. Scriptures says, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

See the point? Salvation isn’t based partly or even mostly on God’s grace; we are saved by grace alone. We don’t relate to God partly, or even mostly, on the basis of faith; we are justified through faith alone. Forgiveness and freedom aren’t based partly or even mostly on Christ; forgiveness and freedom are based on Christ alone. Christians are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That, and that alone, is the foundation for spiritual freedom. So don’t let any legalist come along to burden you and enslave you. Instead, put your faith entirely in Jesus and rejoice in the freedom he has purchased for you.

Free to Love

Once we’ve seen what we’re free from, however, we still need to see what we’re free for. Are we free simply to indulge ourselves and do as we please? No, says the Bible. The gospel allows no room for legalism, but neither does it give us a license to wallow in sin. Jesus makes us free to love.

Think again of a slave. Would someone purchase a slave’s freedom and adopt him and make him a partner just so that he could be a criminal? Of course not. And God didn’t rescue us from slavery to the law just so that we could be as wicked as we please. The Bible says in Galatians 5:13, “You… were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” In 1 Peter 2:16 the Bible says, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16).

Freedom in Christ is freedom to flourish in love: love for God and love for others. It’s not freedom to wallow in sin and sink deeper into destructive addictions. What kind of freedom is that? It’s just another brand of slavery. As Jesus put it, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). God doesn’t set us free from legal requirements just so that we can be enslaved to our own selfish urges. The freedom of the gospel is freedom from guilt and condemnation, and it’s also the freedom to live in the goodness and love of God’s Holy Spirit. It is the freedom to live in step with the Spirit of Jesus who lives in us and to bear the Spirit’s good fruit.

Earlier we saw that in public life, there are three realms: the realm enforced by law, the realm of individual rights, and the central realm of voluntary virtue and obedience to the unenforceable. Any nation or society where voluntary virtue is shrinking ends up with so much law and order that it verges on tyranny or with so much individual freedom that it verges on anarchy, or else with some crazy combination of tyranny and anarchy. This way of looking at things can help us to see that some of the problems and increasingly bizarre situations in our public life rise out of the fact that voluntary virtue is becoming so rare. But even if we see that, the fact remains that the government itself can’t do much about this very basic problem. Government can make laws or declare rights and liberties, but it can’t do much to increase the voluntary virtue that makes a society livable.

However, the gospel of Jesus Christ is an entirely different story. The gospel has far more power than the government. The gospel doesn’t offer a bit of legislation in some areas, plus a bit of license to do as we please in other areas, plus a third realm where, it is hoped, we’ll occasionally do the right thing on our own. No, the gospel takes us entirely out of the realm of legalism, entirely out of the realm of amoral license, and it plants us firmly and forever in the realm of grace.

In that realm, we don’t ask, “What do I have to do?” as we would in the realm of legalism. We don’t ask, “How far can I go and what can I get away with?” as we would in the realm of license. Instead, we ask, “How can I please the God who purchased me with the blood of his Son and adopted me into his family? What sort of person is he helping me to become? How can I flourish in love for him and in love for other people?” Not law, not license, but love is the heartbeat of Christian living. This life of gratitude and love, this life grounded in grace and lived in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, is the only real voluntary virtue.

Have you put your faith in Jesus and in him alone to make you right with God? Are you depending on the strength of God’s Spirit to flourish in love as a member of God’s family and as a citizen of his kingdom? If so, if you’re living in that marvelous realm of grace, then you do indeed know the truth, and the truth has set you free–for this life and for all eternity.

And if, by God’s grace, enough of us enter into this truth and this freedom, who knows? It may have the splendid side effect of restoring some sanity and health to our society. If enough of us trust in Christ and live by his Spirit, if enough of us don’t depend on the court as the solution to everything, if enough of us live in love regardless of what the government makes legal or illegal, if enough of us are set free to flourish, then there may yet be enough spiritual life to nurture a healthy society and a political freedom that won’t disintegrate into either government tyranny or moral anarchy.

Meanwhile, though, whatever becomes of a culture and its political freedoms, let a new birth of spiritual freedom begin with you. In the words of Scripture, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” That is true freedom.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.