Legalism vs. Freedom in Christ

I had an interesting experience a couple of weeks ago, one that really got me thinking. A friend of mine was excited about his new tattoos and decided to post some photos of them on Facebook. Within a few minutes, a mutual friend commented on the photos saying, “The Bible says that your body is a temple and that you shouldn’t put tattoos on it.” Never mind that these tattoos were words from the Bible, or that my tattooed friend, along with the pictures, posted how happy he was to be using his body as a tool of evangelism to proclaim Christ to the world. There was more than one critical comment made about his decision to mark his body, as well as about how God supposedly felt about that decision.

I don’t know about you, but I have been an observer of, and a participant in, more than a few debates like this. When it comes to tattoos, piercings, secular music, alcohol consumption, tobacco products, movie or television choices or any other traditionally debatable issue among Christians, opinions can vary widely and, unfortunately, judgment is typically the rule rather than the exception. I recently heard a sermon by Pastor Mark Driscoll in which he defined legalism as “taking our personal preferences and elevating them to the level of the Bible.” Taking a stance of judging others’ actions against our own preferences or opinions puts us in grave danger of becoming judgmental moralists who miss the point altogether.

Baby-Backs and Poly-Cotton Slacks
The Old Testament contains 613 laws. This Old Testament code of law contains all sorts of specific mandates pertaining to work, worship, diet, health and even types of haircuts and clothing that were forbidden. Here are a few laws found in the Old Testament that may surprise you. Leviticus 11:7-8 forbids touching pigs and eating pork. Leviticus 11:10 forbids consuming shellfish. Leviticus 19:19 forbids wearing any blended fabrics. And Leviticus 19:27 forbids trimming of the hair of the beard or temples. While most of us are both aware of and in full agreement with some of the more well-known Old Testament laws (the Ten Commandments for example), how do we handle laws such as the above that seem to bear no relevance to us today? After all, it is entirely possible that someone reading this article could have trimmed their beard this morning, worn a pair of poly-cotton slacks to work, eaten a slab of pork ribs for lunch and enjoyed a crab cake for dinner! So what’s a Christian to do?

The Law is Our Tutor
In order to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) here, we must understand some vital principles. First, we must consider that the laws found in the Old Testament were given to a specific people (the Hebrew nation) at a specific time period in history (several thousands of years ago). As such, certain laws (“you must not murder,” Ex. 20:13) certainly carry over to the cultural context of the modern day, while others (lobster, anyone?) do not. Additionally, many Old Testament laws were coupled with severe penalties such as stoning, removal of body parts, etc., that would surely land someone in prison if they were carried out in today’s modern society. In Old Testament times, God laid out a specific code of rules and regulations for His people to follow for their protection, blessing and benefit. Many of these laws were only applicable within the specific cultural context of those ancient Bible times. Secondly, we must understand that, despite any cultural irrelevancies, the law in its entirety is absolutely vital to a proper understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Galatians 3:24 tells us, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” We can’t see how good God has been to us through Jesus without first seeing how bad we are according to God’s law. Understanding our complete inability to perfectly keep God’s law is the very thing which opens our spiritual eyes to our sinful condition and need for salvation.
Freedom in Christ

Galatians 5:1 tells us plainly, “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” Paul speaks very directly throughout all of the New Testament about walking in the radical freedom that Christ purchased for us on the cross. As Colossians 2:14 (NIV) says, “[Jesus] canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” Paul warns us sternly and repeatedly throughout his letters to guard against Christian legalism, because he knew full-well (having been a Pharisee himself), that a life focused on the law leads to judgment, hypocrisy and spiritual death for many a well-meaning Christian.

So, what about my friend’s tattoos? After all, the Bible does say in Leviticus 19:28 (the verse immediately following the “no beard-trimming” verse) to “not cut your bodies for the dead, and…not mark your skin with tattoos.” This is the verse frequently referenced by those who are anti-tattoo. Well, besides the fact that my friend has a relationship with Jesus and, as such, is free under the radical grace of God, Jesus Himself said, “It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you [ink, for example]; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:15). I don’t have any tattoos, nor do I intend to get any; that’s my preference. But I love my friend’s passion for God and, according to the Bible, I can neither judge nor condemn His choice to get inked based on my own personal opinion.

I thank God that, by His grace, you and I are under the new covenant of the boundless love of Christ. I leave you with the following verses from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. Here, the writer is prophesying of the future time in which you and I now have the opportunity to live: “This is the brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them-write it on their hearts!-and be their God. And they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I’ll forget they ever sinned!” (Jeremiah 31:33-34, The Message). Let’s take heed of these words. Let’s walk, not in a spirit of legalism and judgment of others that comes from focusing on the law, but in the freedom we have in the new covenant – freedom that Jesus paid for with His own precious blood!

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