A few years ago I wrote a series of articles on God’s intentional tensions. Those seemingly contradictory verses which are campfires for division. Instead of staking a claim for which side is right I staked out the middle-ground and found God’s truth in both sides. In that series, I compared this middle-ground to a guitar string that only sings when held in tension between two points. In this article, I’m adding an additional tension to that series, the tension between freedom and holiness.
Getting this tension right has been an issue since the earliest days of the church. Consider Acts 15 and the Jerusalem council concerning what laws the Gentiles (non-Jews) should adhere to. Verse 7 begins by saying “after there had been much debate…” While the Jerusalem Council did arrive at a conclusion and sent Paul and Barnabas on their second missionary journey, the debate between freedom and holiness continues to this day.
What things are lawful? What things are sinful? What things are a matter of conscience? When does the pursuit of holiness become legalism? When does freedom become slavery again? How do my choices affect others? These are the questions this tension invites us to ask.
Part of the genome of following Jesus is a desire for purity and holiness. To do things which please God and to avoid the things which are revealed as sinful. In other words, to live out the new life that has been born inside. This upwards path towards holiness is part of the Holy Spirit’s work in us as we grow towards Christlikeness. As Paul said, “but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15, NASB95)
We must also recognize that throughout church history the holiness of one generation often becomes the legalism of the next. So, instead of holiness coming from the inside they unwittingly wash the outside of the cup to look like their parents. Unfortunately, holiness and the pursuit of purity is often tainted by those misguided and legalistic attempts.
Holiness often errs by putting things in black and white while ignoring the truth of the grey. It is often uncomfortable when something is a sin for one and allowed for another. Or for something to be a sin for only a season. (Sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us to put something down for a time to find freedom such as TV, foods, or leisure activities.) There is also the temptation to judge by external actions, words, and dress instead of looking at the heart where true holiness lives.
The call to holiness remains. Peter said, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14–16, NASB95) And Paul wrote, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1, NASB95) There should be an arc of change towards holiness in our walk with Jesus as sinful habits and attitudes are recognized, turned from, and forgiven.
To the legalistically bent church at Galatia Paul wrote, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1–3, NASB95) Ouch, those biting words must have stung when they first read them.
Later in his letter to the Galatians Paul concluded, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, NASB95) We do experience great freedom in Christ. He has set us free from slavery to sin and the Law. The old Law is no longer our master and the primary law is one of love towards God and each other.
But what are the limits of this freedom? The fun-loving and hedonistic church of Corinth struggled with this. Some, leaning towards legalism, declared that eating meat sacrificed to idols was wrong; others said that it wasn’t. In this discussion on foods Paul says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12, NASB95) And later he similarly says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.” (1 Corinthians 10:23, NASB95) So while all things are lawful there is much that is spiritually unprofitable, enslaving, and that does not build up our faith and love in Christ.
Freedom can err towards sloppy grace that condones, even encourages, a menagerie of things. The great error is when we become our own arbiter of sin instead of the Holy Spirit. How often do we give ourselves permission by saying – “I’m a good person” or “I deserve it” or “they owe me” or “they haven’t earned it” or “no one is going to know” or “it’s just the way I am”? This kind of freedom is like a thief writing the laws about robbery.
The risk, of course, is that some will take this freedom and turn holiness on its head. Basically, allowing anything that they want to do, removing all semblance of fences, rules, and obedience. Anything goes, and by “anything” they mean anything. This is the opposite of legalism and is equally wrong.
Yet, even with all those risks freedom in Christ remains.
God’s Intentional Tension
The pursuit of holiness and the joyous release of freedom seem at odds with each other. Especially when we consider the gray areas that are not specifically prohibited or allowed in the Bible.
Before we approach the right tension between freedom and holiness there is also a wrong tension to consider. The wrong tension is when we allow freedom for ourselves but judge others according to holiness. We give ourselves grace on our failings but hold others accountable for theirs. Sometimes it’s the exact same issue, but often something entirely different. The tension points are disastrously misapplied to us and them.
The real tension is when we hold both freedom and holiness in our own heart. We are free to do but only do according to the conviction and leading of the Holy Spirit. When these are in tension we will recognize the grey areas where one is convicted by the Holy Spirit and another hasn’t yet or may never be. We’ll allow for change, recognize seasons, and give room for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of others. Our focus, however, will be our own heart and we will refrain from condemning another’s freedom or conviction.
This tension changes our roles. We stop policing other’s behavior and become an encourager and builder of each other. As Paul concluded when discussing this issue in Romans, “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.”
The interesting thing is that when holiness and freedom are held in tension it creates both a greater holiness and a greater freedom. They don’t cancel out each other but magnify each other. I think the best way to approach this tension is found in Paul’s instruction to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13, NASB95)
We are free in Christ and called to be holy. Let’s firmly grasp both of these as we strive to follow Jesus.