“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Romans 8:14).
The Apostle Paul is known for his strong stance on morality for Christians, even as he is known to wrestle against the legalism of the Jews (Gal 3). He taught that Believers are free from the Law of Moses (which he also called the Law of Sin and Death (Rom 8:2)), but emphasized that we are now slaves of Christ (to imitate Him in righteousness). He walked a thin line between GRACE and TRUTH, speaking much about our liberty and our chains (1 Cor 7:22).
There is a danger for anyone who walks this thin line of Grace and Truth to slip over to one side on an issue they feel strong about, and to the other on an issue they are weak about, so that they are more gracious to themselves and more judgmental of others. In the wake of liberty, error came into the Church by those who used their liberty as an occasion to the flesh (Gal 5:13). We see that Paul had to chastise the Corinthians strongly for sins of fornication. Perhaps they thought that since they were no longer bound to the Jewish Law, anything goes. Paul had to set them straight.
Some went to the other extreme of forbidding marriage and requiring abstinence from certain foods, and Paul saw and addressed their error also (1 Tim 4:3). Even though Paul was a strong advocate for singleness, and desired that all be like him, and remain unmarried, he knew that it would be wrong to forbid marriage. In Christ, singleness is better, as attested by Jesus Himself (Matt 19:10), but God does not force His will on us, and grants us grace to choose, within legitimacy. One of the legitimate conditions placed on marriage for Believers was that their spouse also be found in Christ (1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14).
However, having expressed his preference and given his counsel, Paul spoke much about sexual morality, which is applicable for the married and the unmarried. His consistent counsel was to flee from sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18), flee youthful lusts (2 Tim 2:22) and avoid all appearances of evil (1 Thes 5:22). He had reason to be so zealous on this issue, because as he taught, and as Jesus also told us, our bodies have become the abode of God (1 Cor 6:19-20; John 14:23). Therefore, we are to submit our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, and not do anything that would defile His Temple (Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 3:16-17).
If we are not renewed in our mind (Rom 1:2), and do not have the Spirit of Christ, we will miss Paul’s teachings, and we will twist them – whether to justify ourselves or to glory in our flesh (2 Pet 3:16). We need the Spirit of Grace and Truth to receive his teachings and apply them in a way that will bear fruit. But what many have done, as many did in his time, is return to a legalistic mindset about righteousness. They took GREAT counsel, and turned it into a series of do not, touch not, look not etc. laws (Col 2:21). But there is a great foolishness in this, though it often appears as wisdom (Eccl 7:16).
Those who are free are told that it is a sin for them to drink alcohol, to eat certain foods, to take certain drugs, to dress or dance in a certain way, to go to certain places, to have certain affiliations, to watch or listen to certain things, to read certain literature…and so on. All these doctrines have their root in legitimate godly counsel to avoid all appearances of evil, to have self control and to keep oneself holy and unpolluted by the world (Jam 1:27). But if the aim is to dictate or spell out righteousness, then we do not understand what makes for righteousness.
Holiness seems to be an evasive quality that one cannot attain to, unless you cut out everything that is of the world. And that is where you get people who isolate themselves, who start their own communities, who refuse to work for money, who exalt poverty, who constrain themselves and others to a life of celibacy, among other things…all in the name of being holy. They cannot appreciate that holiness is not in the amount of things you don’t do, but your ability to choose righteously between two options by knowing God intimately. Holiness is in day to day submission to God. It is found in relationship and not in commandments. Jesus died for this purpose!
What unfortunately happens for a lot of these people who are sincerely fleeing from all appearance of evil and shunning worldly associations, is that they lose touch with God. They are so fixated with the rules, that they become too holy for God and the people God wants them to influence and lead. And besides that, they often do not live up to the rules they put in place, which have a form of righteousness; so they are hypocritical. They teach others to abide by their standards while falling short themselves. If they do meet up, it only increases their self-righteousness.
I believe this is why Jesus warned His disciples to be weary of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (Matt 16:6; Luke 12:1). It is so subtle how it creeps in, and how we move from grace to truth to error, because we couldn’t navigate the thin line between grace and truth. These are far more concerned about avoiding all appearances of evil than showing love to all men. But love is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom 13:10, Gal 5:14). You can actually avoid the appearance of evil, and still do evil, like the Pharisees.
Though they might say do not drink alcohol, they may engage in secret drinking. And so, even though it isn’t a sin to drink alcohol, because they THINK that it is and the TEACH that it is, they are condemned for doing what others can do legitimately (Matt 7:2). The same applies for any of the other rules they may teach.
It is interesting to me that Jesus said “…practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt 23:3). The truth is their teachings may not be wrong at all. It is better not to drink alcohol. It is better not to smoke. It is better not to marry. It is better not to watch, read or listen to anything that will stimulate your mind to emotional or physical lust. But these things are not sinful in themselves. It is easy to judge by appearances, but we must be careful because that is how the Pharisees judged Jesus for enjoying food, drinking wine, hanging with prostitutes, being touched by women and so on (John 7:24; Matt 11:19).
The things that pertain to righteousness are intangible, e.g pride, greed, hate, envy, dishonesty etc. Righteousness is a quality of one’s heart, which will result in right doing. You cannot be righteous by doing right, while your heart is still not right with God (1 Cor 13:1-3). That is the kind of righteousness the Pharisees had, self-righteousness. But Jesus said that our righteousness much EXCEED that of the Pharisees, if we want to attain to Heaven (Matt 5:20). Our hearts also must be pure (Matt 5:8)!
If your heart is pure, then your deeds will be pure too…even if they look evil to others. So though Jesus’ drinking of wine was pure, He was accused of being a drunkard! Those who make unrighteous judgments never consider that their judging is wrong, but only that the things they are judging are evil, hence Jesus’ rebuke to first take the plank from your eye (Matt 7:5).
But those who are pure and right before God judge all things and are condemned of no one (1 Cor 2:15-16). They know that before sin manifests in the physical, it has already been established in one’s heart. Jesus spoke of true righteousness in His Sermon on the Mountain, saying, “you have heard it said, but I tell you…” He went to the heart of the matter, showing the righteousness of God’s judgments.
The most popular reference to the condition of our hearts is where Jesus said that “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). This is where the battle for sexual purity is fought and is won. It is not fought with a mind that is focused on what one cannot or shouldn’t do, for that is meditating on your desire to do, and is therefore counter-productive. With such a mind, you will find a way to justify yourself to do what you ought not to do…while you haven’t actually won the battle against lust in your heart! It is far better to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure…” (Phil 4:8).
The heart is where all spiritual battles are fought and won or lost. Jesus said that “a man is not defiled by what enters his mouth, but by what comes out of it” (Matt 15:11). He went on to explain to His disciples, saying “…don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them” (Matt 15:17-20).
Let’s be sincere with ourselves, and address the root of unrighteousness, rather than looking for the manifestation of evil. Righteousness is not found in do not, touch not doctrine, otherwise, the Law of Moses would still be in play (Gal 3:21). We have the benefit of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us, and Christ has promised that He will lead us into all truth (John 16:13). He is all gracious and all loving, so we won’t fall into self-righteousness or hypocrisy by following His lead. And we must entrust each other to His care, so that He will prune us all, as only He can do, so that we may bear fruit unto righteousness (John 15: 1-2).
“This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal 5:16).
God bless and keep you. Amen.
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