Liberty, Love, and Life With Christ Part One

Have you ever wondered why genuine Christians differ in their opinions on the morality of certain conduct? Some sincere Christians believe engaging in certain behavior is right, while others who are just as sincere are convinced the same conduct is wrong.

Frequently, believers who disapprove of Christians participating in various practices criticize their brethren, judging them as unspiritual.

On the other hand, those who feel something is morally acceptable for them become bitter toward their brethren who feel it is wrong. They shun them, considering them straitlaced, narrow, legalistic, immature, or pious hypocrites. Such disagreement leads to friction and division between members of the body of Christ.

This conflict over questionable conduct is not peculiar to our generation. It has plagued every generation of believers since the church began.

The church first dealt with this issue at the Council of Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15. In the second and third centuries, church leaders Tertullian and Cyprian also addressed the issue.

Tertullian wrote a treatise titled Spectacles and two treatises titled On the Apparel of Women. Spectacles indicted the performances in the circus, theater, stadium, and amphitheater. Tertullian judged such forms of entertainment to be absolutely incompatible with the faith and moral discipline expected of Christians. He used equally strong language in his two books On the Apparel of Women.1

Cyprian, a contemporary of Tertullian, also wrote concerning the dress of Christian women in his work The Dress of Virgins.2

A detailed survey of subsequent Christian literature no doubt would reveal that Christians have struggled with the issue of questionable matters in every century of the church’s history.

Two factors explain why: (1) Every person has a conscience (a moral sense of right and wrong), and (2) the surrounding culture and subcultures influence one’s conscience. So although everyone has a sense of right and wrong, the cultural and subcultural mores affect how people apply their moral senses to specific practices. Thus Christians from different cultures and/or subcultures may differ in their opinions on the morality of certain practices.

Different families, neighborhoods, churches, schools, and areas all influence and educate the conscience. Therefore, Christians will inevitably disagree over whether some things are right or wrong.

What Must Be Done?
Because of these differences and disagreements, it is essential that all Christians have guidelines for conduct. But it would be disastrous for one Christian to try to enforce his or her personal code on others. That is where the Bible comes in. It provides objective, authoritative guidelines from a higher authority.

True Christians recognize the Scriptures as divinely inspired and intended to guide believers in faith and practice. Within the Scriptures, God reveals unchanging moral standards for Christian conduct, despite transient societal mores.

If only one person inhabited the universe, standards for conduct would be unnecessary. It would be impossible for a lone individual to offend others. Any action that person chose would seem pleasing and right.

However, many people live in this world. No one can act without affecting someone else. Even if someone chose to become a hermit in a cave—entirely cut off  from the rest of humanity—that individual still would be unable to act or think without affecting God, who is omnipresent.

Since everything we do and say affects others, Christians need guidelines for their conduct. So here is the first of four biblical guidelines that you can apply in your walk with Christ.

Guideline Number 1: Do Not Offend the Holy Nature of God.
Since God observes the actions and thoughts of Christians (Heb. 4:13), our thoughts and actions should glorify Him and not offend His holiness.

In the Scriptures, God expresses His holy nature in the form of clear, absolute moral standards. Because His holy nature never changes, His moral absolutes never change. They remain binding on all people, in all places, at all times.

No one has ever had the liberty of choosing to accept or deny the responsibility to live according to God’s moral absolutes. Although some people may doubt, question, deny, debate, and attempt to change them, these absolutes still remain valid. The only way they could be altered or abolished would be if God Himself changed or ceased to exist.

God’s moral absolutes reveal the following actions are wrong:

  • Engaging in any form of sexual immorality—fornication, adultery, or homosexuality (1 Cor. 6:9).
  • Stealing (v. 10; Eph. 4:28).
  • Lying (Eph. 4:25).
  • Murdering (Rev. 21:8; 22:15).
  • Participating in spiritism (21:8).
  • Committing idolatry (1 Cor. 6:9).
  • Coveting (v. 10).
  • Rebelling against God-ordained authority (Rom. 13:1–7; Eph. 6:1).
  • Abusing the body or soul and allowing either to be controlled by anything (alcohol, narcotics, food) or anyone except God (1 Cor. 6:10, 19–20; Eph. 5:18).
  • Using offensive speech (Eph. 4:29).

Christians must understand the extent to which God applies His absolutes. They pertain not only to outward actions, but also to inward thoughts and attitudes.

In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Christ taught that people who get angry with others without a cause have committed murder in their hearts, and a man who lusts for a woman who is not his wife has committed adultery in his heart (Mt. 5:21–28). Therefore, even sinful thoughts and wrong attitudes break God’s moral law.

Thus Christians must not only control their actions but also guard their thoughts by controlling what they look at, read, and listen to (Phil. 4:8). The patriarch Job said he made a covenant with his eyes not to look at a young woman, for he knew the heart walks after the eyes (Job 31:1, 7).

The apostle John warned about “the lust of the eyes” (1 Jn. 2:16), meaning “the lust which the eye begets by seeing.”3 Christians should not look at, read, or listen to immoral, suggestive things. In fact, they should not even talk about the immoral practices of the pagan society around them (Eph. 5:12). Instead, God’s Word instructs believers to set their minds on things above, not on things of Earth (Col. 3:2).

Contemporary Culture and Christians
Clearly, a genuine conflict exists between God’s moral absolutes and our culture’s moral standards. However, Christians should not be surprised by this conflict because Satan, God’s enemy, dominates the culture of this age (2 Cor. 4:4).

After Adam and Eve sinned, Satan introduced elements into the culture that completely contradict God’s absolutes. Thus all people grow up in a Satan-dominated society that educates and conditions the conscience to accept as right things God says are wrong. The conscience, then, becomes a false guide to determine right from wrong.

When people become Christians, their consciences do not automatically change to conform to God’s absolutes. They must reeducate their consciences to conform to God’s standards, which can be a painful process. But if people are to live in a way that is fitting for members of God’s Kingdom, they must reeducate their consciences to conform to His standards.

In Ephesians 4:17––5:17, the apostle Paul told believers not to continue walking “as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened” and being ignorant of God’s ways (4:17–18). Instead, Christians should “be renewed in the spirit of  [their] mind[s]” (v. 23).

Similarly, in Romans 12:2 he instructed dedicated Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” People in Paul’s day used the word translated “conformed” to refer to one’s dress or attitude or to a figure of speech (the “dress” in which an idea is clothed). It signifies that which is opposed to reality and truth; that which is changeable, fleeting, and insubstantial; and that which may change every minute.4

Sometimes, people used the word to refer to “the fictitious illusory transformation whereby evil assumes the mask of good.”5

The word translated “world” means “age.” Paul contrasted the spirit, pursuits, and domination of Satan’s present evil age with those of God’s coming age of righteousness (Jn. 14:30; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 2:2):6

  • The spirit of this age is selfishness; the spirit of God’s Kingdom is love.
  • The pursuit of this age is pleasing self; the pursuit in God’s Kingdom is pleasing God.
  • Satan dominates this age; Christ rules in the age to come.7

Therefore, renewing one’s mind involves gradually conforming oneself to the characteristics of God’s coming age of righteousness. Christians must actively pursue this transformation of restoring the moral aspect of God’s image in humanity.8

Paul told Christians to avoid succumbing to our culture’s fleeting fads, fashions, and movements. Such things appear real and good but are actually illusory and evil. Instead of adopting this present age’s behavior, Christians should adopt the godly behavior characteristic of the coming divine age.

ENDNOTES
  1. Roy Joseph Deferrari, ed., Tertullian: The Fathers of the Church, (New York, NY: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959), 40:8.
  2. Roy Joseph Deferrari, ed., Cyprian: The Fathers of the Church, (New York, NY: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959), 36:25–54.
  3. Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (London, Rivington, 1875), 444.
  4. J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1953), 4:127.
  5. Ibid., 130.
  6. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 2:113.
  7. James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1897), 218.
  8. Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, new ed., revised (London: Macmillan, 1865), 63.

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