With this post, we’ll finish up this series. I didn’t plan for the series to run quite this long anyway, but as we’ve seen this is a complex subject that brings in quite a bit of scripture. People really do it a disservice when they try to simplify it and make it a one-size-fits-all, black-or-white kind of thing. And, unfortunately, the material that I’ll offer in this last post is going to complicate things a bit more. In the previous post, I explained the term “Christian liberty.” I won’t rehash all that information here, but I do need to say a few more things on that whole subject. Think of this as me now giving you the flip side of the “Christian liberty” coin.
It’s certainly true that the Bible teaches that a Christian has a sizable amount of God-granted liberty when it comes to, shall we say, “debatable” matters. However, the same Bible also lays down three rules for the use of this liberty. Let’s take them one at a time.
Rule #1: A troubled conscience always cancels out Christian liberty. The interesting thing about your conscience is that it can’t tell the difference between a rule that can be supported by scripture and one that can’t. Really, your conscience is only as good as the information sent to it by your brain. So the problem is simple: a faulty understanding creates a misfiring conscience. Well, let’s say that a Christian is raised in a home, city, and culture in which everyone considers the drinking of even one beer a mortal sin. As we’ve seen in this series, that rule can’t be supported by scripture, but until that Christian learns this he or she is left to believe that drinking a beer is a sin. And what does that set-up do? It allows that Christian’s conscience to send out all kinds of warning bells if that Christian even looks at a beer. Yes, they will be misinformed bells, alarms sounded from faulty information, but they will be warning bells nonetheless. And so at that point the Christian’s conscience will keep him from being able to evoke Christian liberty to enjoy a beer. We can describe this as sinning against one’s conscience. 1 Corinthians 8:7 talks about this kind of thing in regard to the ancient Christians eating meat that had been offered to idols. It says:
However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak (we might say misinformed), is defiled.
Romans 14:23 applies here as well. It goes so far as to teach that even if an act isn’t a sin, it actually becomes a sin for you if you can’t do it with a completely clear conscience:
But he who doubts (doubts the scriptural legality of the act) is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.
Rule #2: The Christian commits sin if he exercises his liberty in a way that causes someone else to sin. Let’s say that a friend and I go out to eat at a restaurant that serves delicious ribs that just drip with sweet barbecue sauce. So we each order a plate of ribs. Then my friend listens in astonishment as I order a beer. Well, he was raised to believe that drinking a beer is a sin, but he thinks to himself, “Russell is a preacher, and so if he says that’s it alright to drink a beer, it must be.” So my friend then says to the waitress, “I’ll have a beer too.” But the problem is that as soon as those words fall from his lips his misinformed conscience starts gnawing at him. And by the time the beers come and he and I each take a sip, he is in full-blown sin. Now what happened there? I wrongly used my Christian liberty to lead my friend into sin. Listen to the words of 1 Corinthians 8:9,12:
But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak (misinformed)…But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.
And then there is also Romans 14:15-16, 20-21:
Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food (or for our topic, drink) you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food (drink) the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good (the fact that your conscience is operating off correct information) be spoken of as evil…Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food (drink). All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man (your friend with the misinformed conscience) who eats (drinks) with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.
Rule #3: Even though some acts might be allowable under Christian liberty, the Christian shouldn’t engage in them if they are not helpful to him. It’s hard to see how a Christian who is a recovering alcoholic or who has at least had several bouts of drunkenness in the past is going to be helped by drinking one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of liquor. If a dog has bitten you in the past and sent you to the emergency room, why keep trying to pet it? If your track record shows beyond a doubt that you have a natural bent toward becoming addicted to a certain thing, why go out of your way to place yourself in the path of temptation? This third rule isn’t about categorizing an act as “sin” or “not sin.” The act in question is clearly “not sin.” But the point is that the act simply isn’t helpful (spiritually constructive, edifying, and empowering) for that specific Christian. Particularly, this rule applies to acts that have the potential to lead to addiction, a list which can certainly include the drinking of alcoholic beverages. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, the apostle Paul puts it this way:
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.
Now, in closing, let me say that by abiding by these three rules the Christian can keep himself within the banks of using his Biblical liberty to engage in a “debatable” act such as drinking alcohol. Christian liberty must never be used as a license to sin, but when it is rightly understood and lived out it will be a wonderful source of blessing for the Christian. After all, “liberty” is a good word, right? It’s not something to shy away from or fear; it’s something to embrace and enjoy. Just be careful, Christian, that you don’t forget these three rules. God wants you to enjoy life, but He doesn’t want you to do it like a half crazed wild-man who has no scriptural moorings. Remember that liberty walks hand in hand with responsibility. You’re not a child. So don’t act like one.