License is a big problem in the church these days. License is the flip-side of legalism. They’re just different sides of the same sin coin.
License people often say: Don’t put rules on me. If the Bible doesn't say it’s wrong, then it's OK. So I can do what I want. When license people influence the church, they lead others to a spiritually sloppy, flabby lifestyle marked by self-indulgence and compromised personal holiness. And they weaken and sometimes divide the church.
Legalists have lists of do this and don’t do that, such as no movies, no dancing, no long hair, no short hair, no facial hair, skirts only, no alcohol. Some Christians are pleased that they're not legalistic. They might want to think about whether they have a problem with license.
There’s a scene in the movie Gods and Generals that illustrates the point. In the scene, General Stonewall Jackson asks another officer, Do you use tobacco? The officer’s response, Not in any form. Jackson replies, Neither do I. I’m afraid I might like it too much.
The Christian who thinks primarily of satisfying personal pleasures loses sight of the need to first please the deeply personal Lord (Isaiah 66:12-13), who bought him with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), who demands first place in the heart and soul and mind (Matthew 22:37).
It seems a lot of Christians think very little about whether the Lord is pleased with the worldly entertainments they bring into their minds, the seemingly innocuous physical pleasures they enjoy, or the many words that come out of their mouths. The second half of 1 Timothy 6:17 tells us that God richly provides us with everything to enjoy. But the deeper purpose of that enjoyment is to do good for others, to be generous and share blessings with others. It’s not a free pass to shallow living. I should be concerned about any freedom that diminishes my devotion to the Lord. I am in bondage to things—or people—when they consistently overwhelm my freedom of body, mind, heart or soul. God gave us all things to be richly enjoyed, but they must not displace my closeness to Him.
Paul had it right when he discussed Christian freedom in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 1 Corinthians 10:23. It's simply not wise to indulge every available freedom because not every freedom is good or best. A truly free Christian is guided by what is edifying and whatever builds up. My freedom must not make me a slave to my pleasures. Am I a slave to my freedom? I'm a slave to anything that I absolutely must have. Maybe it's a TV show, a hobby or a sport, or a specific food or drink . . . perhaps coffee or some other pleasure. If I can’t be contented without it, if my body, my mind or my heart absolutely demands it, then maybe it’s time that I learned to be contented without it . . . because I should live free in Christ, not enslaved to my fleshly appetites.
The standard of the Christian life is not about what is allowed, it’s about what is good and what is best. It's best to enjoy freedom like Paul who, in the midst of his vast freedom in Christ, also was tightly disciplined. His freedom was used to first bless his Lord and others, not himself. He had a goal and a job to do, as he describes in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27. He was disciplined to his goal to bring glory and honor to his Lord rather than to himself. He enjoyed his freedom in Christ, but was tightly disciplined in self-sacrifice and devotion. Paul was a great man of God. His greatness is attainable to anyone who wants to be great in God’s eyes. That includes even you and me.