By John MacArthur and originally published at gty.org
Scripture is clear and understandable, but it’s not exhaustive. Throughout the history of the church, believers have faced countless issues that God’s Word is silent about. While the Old Testament law provided detailed instructions and restrictions for most areas of life, believers today are not bound by God’s covenant with Israel—we’ve been set free in Christ. But how do we know what to do with our freedom?
In my lifetime alone, the church has wrestled with a wide variety of practical questions about how Christians ought to live. Should believers dance? Should they smoke or drink? Should men and women go swimming together? Should women wear makeup? Should people work on Sundays? Should women work at all? Should Christians attend movies or concerts? Should they watch TV? Should they send their children to public schools, or even private schools? Should Christians gamble? And should they tattoo their bodies?
Regardless of the issue, believers must not mistake Scripture’s silence as God’s indifference. The Bible might not specifically mention movies, TV, beer, or many of the other issues facing us today. But it does give plenty of principles to help us make good, God-honoring choices when it comes to the gray areas of life.
Is It Necessary?
When faced with one of life’s many gray areas, one of the ways to determine what you should do is to ask yourself, Do I need this? Is this thing—whether it’s an object, hobby, activity, or entertainment—a benefit to me, or is it excess baggage?
Hebrews 12:1 gives believers clear instructions to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” The Greek word for encumbrance basically means bulk, and it can be anything that distracts your focus or your energy from the task at hand. As God’s people we are to run the race He’s set before us with excellence. We can’t do that if we’re weighed down with worldly pursuits and distractions.
Is It Profitable?
In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable.” Many believers have used the first half of Paul’s statement as license for the exercise of their liberty, but they miss his real point.
The question should never be What am I allowed to do?, but What is profitable for me to do? Whenever faced with a question of Christian liberty, every believer needs to ask himself if engaging in that activity is going to build him up to be a better servant of the Lord. Will it increase his effectiveness as a believer? If the answer isn’t yes, then why would you do it?
Is It Christlike?
A third principle helps us take a broad look at how to exercise our liberty. First John 2:6 says, “The one who says he abides in [Christ] ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” As believers, we know our lives are supposed to emulate Jesus—including how we live in life’s gray areas.
When it comes to making tough decisions about how to exercise your freedom, it’s always helpful to ask yourself,Is this what Christ would do? An honest examination of the issue from that perspective should push aside any personal desires and biases, and help you make God-honoring decisions that reflect the person and work of Christ in every facet of your life.
Is It a Good Testimony?
Another important question to ask yourself is How will this enhance my testimony? Colossians 4:5 says, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.” In other words, believers need to wisely consider how they behave, and how their behavior impacts their testimonies. How we live—particularly in the gray areas—shapes how the world evaluates us, our faith, and ultimately, our Savior. Is your behavior strengthening your testimony to the outside world? Does your lifestyle adorn the gospel, or is it a hindrance to it?
Is It Edifying?
And it’s not just a question of how the exercise of your liberty impacts others—you also need to consider what impact it will have on you. You need to regularly ask yourself, Will this build me up? In 1 Corinthians 10:23, Paul expands on his earlier exhortation with these words: “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.” Each of us needs to faithfully ask ourselves if each activity, entertainment, hobby, or diversion will have a positive or negative effect on our spiritual growth. An honest evaluation of what we might gain—as well as what we might lose—ought to accompany all of our gray-area decisions.
Is It Glorifying to God?
Finally, we need to regularly ask ourselves, Will doing this glorify Christ? In a way, the principle of exaltation encompasses all the others, drilling down to the most basic element of Christian life. Believers have been set aside to glorify God and worship Him forever. But those activities aren’t reserved just for our eternity in heaven—they ought to describe the pattern of our daily lives. This life isn’t “our time” to do whatever we like. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
That well-known verse comes from a landmark passage in 1 Corinthians—one that I want to examine with you in greater detail over the next few days. In it, Paul explains the limits of our liberty in Christ, and how it is to be used and governed for our sake, as well as others. His practical instructions are applicable and helpful for every believer, and timely for the church today.