Two common mistakes Christians make are living in legalism or license. Legalism, on the one hand, is the idea that morality = godliness. That is, if I just keep the right rules then I am right with God. I think back to my youth group days. If someone didn’t drink alcohol then they often thought that they were right with God even if in every other area of their life they were as rotten as they could be (for example, mean spirited, judgmental, etc.). Obviously, the keeping of certain rules doesn’t necessarily make us more like God. A point Jesus often made to the Pharisees (see Matthew 23:23-24).
Now, the opposite mistake is to think that living in grace means our morality no longer matters - that I can do whatever I want to do and God doesn’t care. The fancy word for this is antinomianism. I like to call it living in license. The scriptures clearly speak against this type of living. Galatians, one of the books that champions grace, warns “Do not be deceived: God will not be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:7-10).
Freedom does not mean doing whatever I want to do. Freedom means being free to be who God wants me to be. Think about Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods is much freer when it comes to hitting a golf ball than I am. He can do things with a golf ball that I only dream about. It’s not because he does whatever he wants to do in life. It’s because he submits himself to the rigors of practice and training. I don’t. So I am enslaved to my bad golf habits. In much the same way, I’m much freer in my marriage than Tiger Woods is in his. That is, my marriage is much freer to be all it was meant to be because Alyson and I have continued to submit ourselves to the keeping of our promises to one another. Tiger Woods’ doing whatever he wanted to do sexually has enslaved his marriage to misery. All around us this truth holds. Think of an airplane. Airplanes designers can’t do whatever they want and still have their airplane fly. No, for the freedom of flight to happen, they have to submit their design to the rules of aerodynamics.
In the same way, true freedom in Christ isn’t about doing whatever I want, but about doing whatever God wants me to do. Now, I can only start down that road (and continue on that road) by the power of God’s grace. I don’t deserve to be on that journey. But God in his grace does this work in me. Some preacher I have long forgotten put it this way, “God loves us just like we are, but he also loves us enough not to leave us that way.” He is making us new, making us more like him everyday – a work that starts when we put our faith in him and continues until the day he takes us home to be with him (or returns himself!). Legalism thinks that you can achieve Christlikeness on your own or reduces holiness to a handful of rules that are important only to a select group of people. License thinks Christlikeness is unimportant. Both are errors we all make at one time or another. The truth is that most of us struggle with some forms of legalism and some forms of license all at the same time. We have certain rules we equate with godliness and then excuse ourselves on all sorts of other issues that Christ calls our attention to in Scripture. We replace the difficult task of following Christ with a reduced checklist of things we think make us godly (like not drinking alcohol, adhering to certain musical styles, following certain speakers, ideologies, etc.) ignoring Christ’s more difficult commands (loving our enemies, giving generously to the poor, turning the other cheek).
Legalism and license occur because they’re both easier than walking daily with Jesus. But make no mistake, they lead to a counterfeit freedom, one that actually enslaves. It takes daily dependence upon God's grace and a commitment to following Christ’s Spirit to avoid these pitfalls and stay on the narrow path that leads to life.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge in the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:13-14.