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Why Christians Need to Avoid Legalism and License

Embracing what the Bible teaches about sex is necessary. But we all have the tendency to fall into a trap of legalism or license.

I was recently teaching on the topic of sexuality at a Christian college. As I fielded anonymous questions about premarital sex—how far is too far, homosexuality, and masturbation—I felt the tension. There were some young faces streamed with tears and nodding their heads. There were others scowling, arms crossed and eyes shooting daggers at me.

Whenever I encounter this hostility, I wonder just what I have said to be offensive. I’ve had women mad because I’m too conservative and others angry that I'm too liberal. I wonder, Are they angry because I said cohabitation is a bad idea or because I didn’t give the answer they wanted on masturbation?

Conversations about sexuality have the potential to tap into the most sensitive and well-defended aspects of humanity. They are rarely theological or philosophical debates but lead to implications about the most personal choices of our lives.

If you claim to be a Christ-follower, God’s Word has pretty clear teaching on many of the sexual questions we face. We may not like it, but we know from Scripture what God says about adultery, pornography, homosexuality, and sleeping together outside of marriage. We can also see that God celebrates the beautiful expression of sexual passion within marriage. On many issues that are not so clear, the Bible gives principles that help us make wise and God-honoring decisions. Embracing what the Bible teaches about sex is a different matter. Each of us will have the tendency to fall into one of two traps: legalism and license.

Legalism

As the term implies, legalism stems from clinging strongly to laws or moral standards. While respecting God’s commands is a very good thing, transforming them into legalism leads to bondage and judgment.

When we become legalistic, we create moral standards based on our opinions rather than upon God’s expressed truth. For example, there are some women who choose to never kiss a man until their wedding day. There is nothing wrong with this personal commitment, but it becomes legalistic when we make that a moral standard. The Bible doesn’t say anything about not kissing. While we are to abstain from sexual immorality and inflaming lust, the application of that teaching requires personal discernment. Who am I to say that sex toys are wrong for a married couple when God hasn’t said that? It’s up to each couple to wrestle through that issue with the goal of glorifying God and building love in their marriage.

Legalism is also expressed when we judge the sins and attitudes of others without looking at our own brokenness. The “good Christian wife” who has a horrible attitude toward sex considers herself morally superior to her friend who struggles with habitual masturbation. We are all in some manner sexually broken, in need of a Savior and Redeemer.

License

On the other end of the spectrum is taking license. We live in a culture that considers most sin as no big deal. We are under grace, after all. God’s love is enough to cover all sin! Because of Jesus, God will grade on a curve, right?

The apostle Paul reacted very strongly when he heard this type of thinking in the early church:

Should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. (Romans 6:1–4)

The most disrespectful response to the sacrifice of Christ’s death is to use it as an excuse to keep sinning. How egregious to proclaim God’s love as a justification sexually immoral choices!

Please don’t be coddled into believing that God will playfully wink when we look at porn, sleep with a man we are not married to, or embrace a sexually immoral lifestyle. Jesus died for you for the purpose of making you holy.

Getting Real

Even as I write and teach on this topic, I know my own heart. I am just as susceptible as anyone to err in both legalism and license. I’ve found myself doing both. I don’t pretend to be the Bible expert on how God feels about your sexuality. However, I love God and cling to his Word, believing that it proclaims truths that can set us free.

True freedom is only found on that narrow stretch of truth that straddles both legalism and license. The only way to consistently walk this narrow road is to pray as David did, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23–24).This humble prayer invites the Holy Spirit to teach, encourage, and convict.

Avoiding the extremes of legalism and license means asking God to search our hearts and extending grace to others. Did you know that there are some standards that God wants for some people but not for others? Paul addressed this in the early church. He encouraged the mature Christians not to use their freedom in Christ in a way that might violate the consciences of young Christians (see 1 Corinthians 8).

I have a dear Christian friend who has a much more lax view of what media she is okay with watching. Where God has convicted me that I’m not free to watch movies and sitcoms that have a lot of sexual references, my friend doesn’t hold this conviction. Instead of imposing my conviction on her, I have to trust the Holy Spirit to guide us each individually into his truth.

Our sexual choices should never be about pleasing others or even obeying the “law” of God, but about surrendering totally to his lordship in our lives. God has set clear standards for us, but he also wants us to be intimately dependent upon him for daily wisdom.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Juli Slattery

Juli Slattery is a TCW regular contributor and blogger. A widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional, she co-founded Authentic Intimacy and is the co-author of Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?

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