Some doubtful things are unimportant, but other doubtful items deserve more serious attention. Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of Jim Elliot, who was killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador, has written about one of these problems in a little book called The Liberty of Obedience. She had always had the idea, perhaps as the product of her Christian upbringing, that there was a certain type of clothing that was right for a Christian to wear. And, conversely, there was clothing that was wrong. But then she went to Ecuador, and she found herself in the midst of a tropical people who wore little or no clothing at all. What did her standards have to do with them? Should she dress new converts? Should their standards prevail? She said that the problem became even more complex when she realized in time that although the women in the tribe wore almost no clothing, they were nevertheless conscious of the proper and modest ways to walk, sit, and stand. The entire problem forced her to ask herself if there was anything inherently Christian or non-Christian in the way we dress in America.
Another problem with an uncertain answer, at least to many, is alcohol. Should a Christian drink? Does the level of society in which a Christian finds himself matter? I tend to think that something as obviously harmful as alcohol could be avoided by many in some instances, and I admire men, such as the chairman of the board of a large U.S. corporation that I know, who do not drink.
But what happens to this conviction when you go to France—as I did as a young boy—and see the leading deacon of an evangelical Protestant church going around a large ring of children at a Sunday school picnic pouring wine? Oh, I know that part of the reason he did it was to prevent their getting sick on the water in a rural area, but the main point was his attitude to alcohol. This was obviously quite different in France, even among people who believed all that the most conservative Christians in America believe about the Gospel.
Comparisons such as this defeat any approach to the problem through rules and regulations. And any such comparison turns us back once more to the principles of Scripture. I’d like to suggest three great principles that will help any Christian in at least 99% of his difficulties. These principles are found throughout Scripture, but they are summarized in three important verses: Romans 6:14, 1 Corinthians 6:12 (also 10:23, which repeats it), and Philippians 4:8. These verses tell you that you are to live (as you have been saved) by grace, and that you are to pursue the highest things. Now let’s look at these one at a time.
The first principle is that you are under grace, not under law, as we read in Romans 6:14: “For sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law but under grace.” In other words, whatever the answer may be to the problems of doubtful things, it will not come as a result of regulations. The answer will never be found by organizing a body of Christians to declare whether or not movies, alcohol, cards, or whatever it may be, are proper for Christians.
Now historically, this problem was fought to a decisive conclusion in the first generation of the Church. Because of the wide dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman world in the centuries before Christ, there was hardly a congregation of believers during the first century that did not consist of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, even in the most Gentile cities of the empire. Somehow, probably because of their own religious and social training, the Jewish Christians got the idea that the Gentile believers should submit to the ceremonial laws of Israel, and the result was a tremendous battle. At one point the Apostle Paul fought almost single-handedly against this idea. For a time, even Peter was carried away with the error, but Paul resisted him. Once Paul defended the case for Gentile (and Jewish) liberty before the other apostles in Jerusalem. On this occasion Peter sided with Paul and said, “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:10-11). In other words, in the early church the battle against legalism was won for pure grace.
It is also true, however, that the same verse that speaks against a solution by means of rules also speaks against yet another error that is also a wrong approach to the problem. This is the error of license, the teaching that, because you are no longer under the law but under grace, you can go on doing as you please. This error pretends to be logical, but it is not. It’s infernal. And Paul did not hesitate to say so. As he says in Romans 6:15: “What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law but under grace? God forbid.” And then he added in verse 22, “But now, being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.”
You see, Paul’s argument was that life by grace actually leads to holiness, and therefore you should not fear to abolish rules as an answer to the problems of Christian conduct. Now someone says, “That doesn’t make sense to me, how does it work?” The way this works may be illustrated by comparing two types of marriage. One type of marriage is founded on law. In this type of marriage, the wife says something like this to her husband: “I know that you are going off to that office party tonight, Bill, and I know that dozens of those young secretaries will be there, especially Mary and Sally. Don’t you dare look at them. Because if you do, and I hear about it, well I’ll really lay into you when you get home. And be back by 10:30.” Well, if the wife says that, the husband is likely to go off saying to himself, “So that’s what she wants, is it? Well, I’ll just stay out as long as I please and do what I want. And these girls certainly seem attractive compared to her.” And of course there’ll be no end to friction in the marriage. You see, legalism does not promote happiness or fidelity in marriage.
On the other hand there’s the type of marriage in which there is love rather than law. Each partner knows the faults of the other, no one’s ever perfect in marriage. And they both know that they love each other anyway, and have forgiven those faults in advance. Are they happy? Well certainly they’re happy. And they are faithful in the relationship. In a similar way, the grace of God never makes rebels; it makes men and women who love God and desire to please Him. If we rebel it’s because we don’t understand His grace enough. As we understand it, we serve Him better.