Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ . . . (Romans 16:25, NIV)
Ever since I’ve been a Christian, I’ve observed that most believers can be divided up into two camps: the libertines and the legalists.
In my experience, libertines are those who go to church, own a Bible, and profess to believe in Jesus. However, they appear to have no vital relationship with the Lord. And they hold to the same values as do non-Christians.
If you were to examine their lifestyle, you would discover that libertines behave scantly different from non-Christians. Their attitude is that God only wants us to be nice to others and try our best to be good. Beyond that, the Almighty doesn’t particularly care how we live. So long as a person mentally assents that God exists and Jesus is Savior, they are worthy to bear the name “Christian.”
The libertine is a product of a certain kind of gospel. Note that I am using the word “gospel” in a very specific sense to describe one’s message about Christ and the Christian life (Rom. 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8). I am not using it in the more general sense to describe the gospel story as it is presented in the New Testament (Mark 1:1).
The gospel of libertinism can be described as follows: Believing in Jesus is intellectual assent to certain faith propositions. God has little interest in the way people live their lives. He simply expects us to do the best we can. Believing in Jesus has little impact on a person’s lifestyle or values. It’s more a privatized intellectual belief system. Here are some statements a libertine may say:
“We are all sinners, and we all sin. God understands my sin.”
“The Bible isn’t completely relevant for us today. We can’t expect to hold to the same values as the people did in Biblical times. We live in a different world with different values.”
“I live the way I want. God loves me, and I am saved, so I can do anything I please.”
“Yes, I’m a Christian. But regarding my sin, that’s just the way I was made. I don’t want to change, I can’t change, and I won’t change.”
The gospel of libertinism is aimed primarily at the flesh. Its message gives the fallen nature free reign to do as it pleases. At the same time, this gospel suppresses the voice of one’s conscience.
Standing contrary to the libertine is the legalist. Like the libertines, legalists are the product of a certain kind of gospel. Legalists have a desire to please God. Their conversion to Christ has produced a change of values and lifestyle. They take God seriously, they take His Word seriously, and they try to honor Him in their conduct.
However, they have added a bundle of man-made rules to the Scriptures and they tend to be judgmental toward those who fail to keep those rules. They also believe that they can fulfill the Christian standard, and they do their best in trying to keep it.
The gospel of legalism can be described as follows: God is holy, and He has made clear demands on the human race. We must warn, exhort, rebuke, and admonish ourselves and others to fulfill those demands. What follows is the language of the legalist.
“You must . . .”
“You need to . . .”
“You have to . . .”
“You had better . . .”
“If you do . . . then God will be happy with you.”
“If you don’t . . . then God will be angry with you.”
The implication of such vocabulary is that if we fail to obey God’s laws, then He will be angry with us. Embedded in the gospel of legalism is the tacit threat that the Lord’s love and acceptance of His children is tied to their conduct. This is rarely stated explicitly, but it comes through loud and clear.
The gospel of legalism is aimed directly at the will. It gives human volition the illusion that it can keep the standards of God. At the same time, it weakens the conscience, causing it to believe that certain practices are sinful when they are not (1 Corinthians 8; 1 Corinthians 10; Romans 14-15.) Theologian Alister McGrath rightly calls legalism “the dark side of evangelicalism.”
There are degrees of legalism, from mild to extreme. And there are degrees of libertinism as well. But the overwhelming majority of Christians can be put into one of these two camps.
Thankfully, there is a third gospel. Unfortunately, however, it’s rarely preached today. This gospel is the one we find dominating the letters of Paul. It is the gospel of the new creation, if you will. It is neither libertine nor legalistic.
Instead of focusing on the demands of God, Paul’s gospel focuses on the spiritual reality of what actually happens to those who have trusted in Christ when He died and rose again. It takes its view—not from the earth, but from the heavenlies—behind the eyes of God.
Paul’s gospel confidently proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is the earth’s true Lord. It declares the glories of Jesus and unflinchingly proclaims what God has done for all who submit to His Lordship.
In Paul’s gospel, the standards of God are neither ignored nor rationalized into irrelevant oblivion (as in the gospel of the libertine). On the other hand, the standards of God are never presented as demands by which our acceptance by God is tied (as in the gospel of the legalist).
Contrary to the gospel of libertinism, Paul’s gospel doesn’t reduce faith to intellectual assent. (If you affirm the right propositions, you have “faith.”)
Contrary to the gospel of legalism, Paul’s gospel doesn’t reduce good works to legalistic compliance. (If you perform these prescribed actions, you have “good works.”)
Instead, Paul’s gospel is rooted in the unconditional acceptance, security, and wealth that those who have trusted in Christ as Lord and Savior enjoy. For this reason, whenever Paul presents a standard of God, he always presents it from this vantage point: It is the conduct that those who are in Christ naturally exhibit.
In his epistles, Paul never teaches the standards of God as universal rules or laws to be obeyed. Rather, he only mentions the Christian standard when he is addressing a highly specific problem wherein God’s people are not living according to who they are in Christ.
Paul’s gospel is aimed directly at the renewed spirit of humans. Its message strengthens the spirit to take charge of the mind, the will, and the emotions. At the same time, it strengthens the conscience, causing it to be responsive to the Holy Spirit.
A crucial, but little accepted fact is that the New Testament is not a book of rules to regulate human behavior. Instead, the New Testament is a spiritual narrative made up of the following: history books that narrate the life of Jesus and the life of His church (the Gospels and Acts); personal letters to churches and individuals that are in crisis (the Epistles); and a majestic vision of Jesus Christ’s triumphant victory over the world (Revelation).
Virtually all of Paul’s letters were written in response to a particular crisis that God’s people were experiencing. Remarkably, Paul’s custom was to address the crisis in this order:
First, he reminds God’s people of their true identity in Christ. He also reminds them of the all-sufficiency of Christ who has come to dwell inside of them.
Second, he describes the behavior of those who are new creatures in Christ.
Third, he exhorts the believers to live according to their true identity rather than according to their false identity. That is, he exhorts them to walk in line with who they are in Christ rather than who they used to be.
Paul takes this approach in virtually all of his epistles. It’s his custom for addressing problems in the Christian communities within his care. The following statement out of Ephesians is a perfect example of how Paul exhorts God’s people to walk in a way that matches their high and holy calling:
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. (Ephesians 5:8, NIV)
In other words, you are light in Christ. Now live that way.
The gospel of libertinism, the gospel of legalism, and Paul’s gospel represent three very different postures when it comes to matters of sin and morality. For the sake of illustration, let’s take the issue of lying, which the New Testament condemns. (Feel free to insert any other sin that the Scriptures clearly address.)
Concerning the practice of lying, the libertine gospel essentially says, “This issue is irrelevant. We live in a different world than the people of the Bible did. Our values are different and more advanced. God loves us all and understands our needs. We all sin. Everybody lies. God loves everyone, so you are judging others if you tell them that they are wrong or immoral for lying.”
The legalistic gospel says, “God will judge those who violate His commandments. Christians must not lie or else God will punish them.”
In contrast, Paul’s gospel exhorts, “Let me remind you that you are part of a new creation. Jesus Christ lives in you, and you are in Christ. As such, your old fallen nature is dead. Christ exterminated it by His cross. Therefore, put off the old lifestyle of lying. Such is the conduct of a fallen creation. It’s not your conduct. Live according to who you really are and by the higher life that dwells within you. Jesus Christ is truth and honesty. Live out of what the Lord says you are . . . for that alone is truth and reality.”
Paul’s gospel is built on the understanding that the key to spiritual transformation is not found in trying to improve oneself. It’s found in believing who we Christians are in Christ and who Christ is in us.
For Paul, the Christian life is becoming what you are. Consequently, the common approach he takes in his letters is to remind God’s people of who they have become as new creatures in Christ. All of his exhortations flow out of that reminder.
The church of Jesus Christ is called to embody and proclaim the gospel that Paul preached—which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That gospel is the good news that God is becoming ruler of the world He created, and that Jesus, who God the Father raised from the dead, is the world’s true Lord. Jesus Christ has defeated the powers of evil, sin, and death and has brought forth a new creation of which we are now a part. And one day, that new creation will fill the whole earth.
This is the full gospel, if you please. Paul’s gospel is one of liberty and Lordship—the Lordship of Christ and the liberty of the Spirit. It provides freedom from the fruitless attempt to keep a moral standard. It also provides freedom from the mastering power of the fallen nature.
The Christian life is rooted in liberty . . . the liberty that is in Christ Jesus (Gal. 5:1). This is a liberty that sets us free from trying to be good. It is also a liberty that sets us free from practicing evil. It is a liberty that brings us into a living knowledge of the One who indwells us . . . who happens to be the greatest liberator in the universe as well as the Savior and Lord of the world.
So the next time you hear someone preach, ask yourself, “What gospel am I hearing? Am I being exhorted to feel comfortable in my sin and justify it (libertinism)? Am I being exhorted to try harder and be a better Christian (legalism)? Or am I being presented with Jesus Christ and reminded of the high place that He has caused me to stand in Him (the gospel)?”
Embracing the gospel of libertinism or the gospel of legalism will put you in the flesh. The fruit of libertinism is the defiling acts of the flesh. The fruit of legalism is the self righteousness of the flesh.
Both gospels produce carnal activity and generate death rather than life. As a result, both clash with the new creation.
Only Paul’s gospel . . . the glorious gospel of grace . . . the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . has the capacity to bring you and me into the full liberty that is ours in Christ. And the end of that gospel is the ageless purpose for which our Lord burns.
THE PATTERN IN GALATIANS
The facts . . .
He has rescued you from this present evil age (1:4).
You have been justified by faith apart from the works of the Law (2:16).
You have died to the Law so that you may live to God. You have been crucified with Christ. You no longer live, but Christ lives in you. He loved you and gave Himself for you (2:19-20).
You received the Holy Spirit by believing (3:2).
You are children of Abraham (3:7).
Christ redeemed you from the curse of the Law (3:13).
Since faith has come, you are no longer under the supervision of the Law (3:25).
You are sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. You were baptized in Christ and you are clothed with Christ. You belong to Christ and you are heirs to God’s promise (3:26-29).
You are sons of God, and you have the full rights of sonship. Because you are sons, God has given you His Spirit. And that Spirit testifies that God is your Father. You are not slaves, but sons and heirs of God (4:4-7).
The heavenly Jerusalem is your mother (4:26).
You are children of promise (4:28).
You are called to be free (5:13).
You belong to Jesus Christ and you have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires (5:24).
What counts is a new creation, of which you are a part (6:15).
Because of these facts . . .
Stand fast in the liberty that Christ has given you and don’t be burdened by the yoke of slavery to the Law (5:1).
Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, but rather, serve one another in love (5:13).
Live by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the sinful nature (5:16).
Since you live by the Spirit, keep in step with the Spirit. Do not be conceited, provoking and envying one another (5:25-26).
Carry one another’s burdens (6:2).
Do not become weary in well doing. Do good to all people, especially your fellow brethren in Christ (6:9-10).
THE PATTERN IN 1 CORINTHIANS
The facts . . .
You are holy in Christ and you are called “holy ones” (1:2).
God’s grace has been given to you in Christ. In Him, you have been enriched in every way. You do not lack any spiritual gift. He will keep you strong until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of Jesus Christ (1:4-8).
Because of God, you are in Christ Jesus who has become your wisdom, your righteousness, your holiness, and your redemption (1:30).
You have received the Spirit of God, not the spirit of the world, that you might know what God has freely given you (2:12).
You are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you (3:16).
Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you. You are not your own. You were bought with a price (6:19-20).
Because of these facts . . .
Be of the same mind and have no divisions among you (1:10).
Since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like “natural men,” contrary to who you really are? (3:3-4).
Do not deceive yourselves (3:18).
Judge nothing before the appointed time (4:5).
I urge you to imitate me (4:16).
Get rid of the old yeast among you . . . expel the wicked man from among you (5:7, 12).
Flee from sexual immorality . . . honor God with your body (6:18, 20).
THE PATTERN IN COLOSSIANS
The facts . . .
You are holy and faithful in Christ (1:2).
The Father has qualified you to share in His inheritance. He has rescued you from the dominion of darkness. He has transferred you into the Kingdom of Christ. In Christ, you have redemption and the forgiveness of sins (1:12-14).
He is the Head of His Body, the church, of which you are a part (1:18).
Once you were enemies alienated from God. Now He has reconciled you by Christ’s death to present you holy and blameless in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation (1:21-22).
Christ is in you, the hope of glory (1:27).
You have received Christ Jesus as your Lord (2:6).
You have been given fullness in Christ. In Him, you were spiritually circumcised and have put off the sinful nature. You were buried with Christ by baptism and have been raised with Him through faith in the power of God who raised Him from the dead (2:10-12).
God made you alive with Christ. He forgave you of your sins. He canceled the written code that was against you and opposed you. He nailed that code to His cross (2:13-14).
You have died with Christ to the basic elements of this world (2:20).
You have been raised with Christ (3:1).
You died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Christ is your life. When He appears, you will appear with Him (3:3-4).
You used to walk in the sinful nature. You have taken off the old self with its practices and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of your Creator (3:7-10).
You are God’s chosen people, holy, and dearly loved (3:12).
You are members of one Body and are called to peace (3:15).
Because of these facts . . .
Continue to walk in Christ, just as you received Him (2:6).
See to it that no one takes you captive by deceptive philosophy that is not according to Christ (2:8).
Do not let anyone judge you in what you eat or drink, or in regard to keeping a religious festival, a new moon celebration, or a Sabbath day (2:16).
Set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (3:1-2).
Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature (3:5).
Rid yourselves of such things as anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language. Do not lie to each other (3:8-9).
Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Put on love. Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart. Be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God (3:12-17).
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful (4:2).
Let your conversation be always full of grace (4:6).
THE PATTERN IN EPHESIANS
The facts . . .
God has blessed you with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. He chose you in Christ before the creation of the world so that you would be holy and blameless in His sight. In love, He predestined you to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ. He has freely given you His grace and you are accepted in His Beloved Son. In Him you have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. He has lavished the riches of His grace upon you with all wisdom and understanding (1:3-8).
In Christ, you were chosen and predestined according to His eternal plan. You have been given an inheritance in Him (1:11).
You were included in Christ. You were marked in Him with a seal of the promised Holy Spirit. The Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing your inheritance. You are God’s possession (1:13-14).
You used to be dead in your trespasses and sins. You used to follow the way of the world and the ruler of the kingdom of darkness (2:1-2).
God who has a great love for you and who is rich in mercy, made you alive in Christ, even when you were dead in transgressions. You have been saved by grace. God raised you up with Christ and seated you with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to you in Christ Jesus. You have been saved by grace, through faith. It is not of yourselves, but it is the gift of God. Not by works, lest any person should boast. You are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for you to do (2:4-10).
You are now in Christ Jesus. You were once far away, but you have been brought near by the blood of Christ (2:13).
He Himself is your peace (2:14).
Through Christ you have access to the Father by one Spirit (2:18).
You are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household (2:19).
You are being built together to become a dwelling place in which God lives by His Spirit (2:20).
You are members of one Body (4:25).
You are dearly loved children (5:1).
Christ loved you and gave Himself up for you as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (5:2).
You are God’s holy people (5:3).
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord (5:8).
Because of these facts . . .
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (4:1-3).
You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking . . . you didn’t come to learn Christ that way. You were taught to put away your old self . . . to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor. In your anger do not sin. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work. Do not let any unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for the building up of others according to their needs. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ has forgiven you (4:17, 20-32).
Be imitators of God and live a life of love (5:1-2).
There must not be sexual immorality, impurity, greed, obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse jesting among you which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving (5:3-4).
Do not be partners with those who practice these things (5:7).
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them (5:11).
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord. Always giving thanks to God. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (5:17-21).