When Your Christian Liberty Becomes a Sin

When it comes to questions of love and wisdom, it can be difficult to know what to do. What should we do when it comes to the issues that many people disagree about? Actions or habits that are not explicitly condemned or condoned in Scripture are difficult to think through (e.g. drinking, smoking, or who to vote for). This topic is what Christians have categorized as Christian liberty.

How can we know if we've crossed "the line"? Can drinking alcohol or eating meat become wrong before God? Scripture provides a way through such difficult issues with one overarching purpose—love for God and each other. Love is the most basic expression of the Christian’s faith. At the end of the day, if what a person is doing is not in line with love and the God who is love, then it is a sin. We are called to let love drive our decisions with a specific goal in mind.

After discussing our Christian liberty and the freedom we have in Christ, Paul writes the great “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1–3)

Even with questions of wisdom, there is still a governing principle or goal: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim. 1:5). This principle has to guide everything, even when it comes to Christian liberty.

Humans are primarily loving beings.

First, Christians need to realize that all humans are primarily loving beings. Christ himself states that the greatest commandments that summarize God’s will for our lives are the commands to love God, our neighbor, and self (Matt. 22). This is our identity. This is what it means to be human.

Second, we act and treat things according to what we love the most. If we love God, our faculties (our minds and affections) should follow that love wherever it is aimed. The same is true of our neighbors and ourselves.

In our day, it is easy for us to see everything in terms of personal rights and how we feel about ourselves. We import modern individualism into the category of Christian liberty.

When we look at issues of wisdom and Christian liberty, we often consider the practice in terms of the thinking “Is this good for me?” or “Is this thing going to help promote my image in the eyes of others?” We often look at personal rights as things we cannot live without. If it is convenient, we abstain.

If it is about how good something makes us feel, we wrongly believe there is no harm in acting in certain ways. After all, God wants us to just be happy, right? Our happiness, in reality, is tied to God and the flourishing of others.

Third, we must understand that we shape our lives according to what we believe to be our highest good. Keeping the order of God, others, and self straight in our minds makes all the difference. If we place ourselves at the center, we will abuse God’s good gifts regardless of whether or not we hurt others.

Freedom is for others.

Freedom, according to Paul, is not an end in itself. Rather, the building up of those around us is the true goal of human existence. The love of God and others must be at the center of wisdom and liberty to pass Paul’s test (1 Cor. 8: 11–13). Love affects everything. Love directs our whole existence. The question, then, is towards whom is our love directed.

As Ashley Null once wrote, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” The question is not whether we will let love guide us. We are always choosing what we love the most. The question is towards what end will our love and liberty be pointed. Will we point our love and freedom towards ourselves or towards others? Our actions and minds follow whatever the heart is aimed at. We must aim our hearts, minds, and actions at the good of others, their flourishing before God.

As John Calvin reminds us, we must use our freedom responsibly and lovingly:

Nothing is plainer than this rule: that we should use our freedom if it results in the edification of our neighbor, but if it does not help our neighbor, then we should forgo it (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.19.12).

Therefore, we need to ask what is the aim or goal of our actions. To whom are we primarily directing them? What purpose, function, or vision of life is being expressed when we do something? Does this action promote the good of others and their betterment to the glory of God? If we find ourselves at the center of the above order, it’s a good bet that the action is not loving, and therefore not wise. When we fail to consider God and others, even something like Christian liberty can easily fall into sin. Freedom, at the end of the day, is a freedom to once more love God and others rightly.