It seems, in Southern California at least, that many Christians mature in the same way. We start out being legalistic and antinomian (against the a law), that is we live for the law we create for ourselves, while we think we have thrown off the shackles of any external law that seeks to oppress us (this is usually our pre-Christ days). In this stage we live how we want. We do what we want. We believe what we want. Because in the end, its all about us. We are our own gods. The next stage of maturity happens when we first become Christians (note there are many stages and none of us will achieve perfection on earth, I only talk about 4 stages to make a point on how I have seen myself and other Christians grow, these aren’t biblical stages just observations I have made). The Spirit of God so works in us to love Him, and hate evil, that we then respond to our former lives the total opposite way: we become legalistic and rule bound. If we used to drink alcohol without restraint, we now fence it in with stringent rules about not even touching it! It is apparent to us how sinful we are, and we hate that sin, so we attempt get rid of it all through our own wisdom, cunning, and devices.
Christians in this second state are easily picked out of a crowd. They dress modestly (often apparently so), they don’t drink alcohol, they don’t gamble, they don’t watch certain types of movies, and don’t do many other things that are completely acceptable to our culture and to many other Christians. They fear sinning against God so much that they put a fence around his law so they cannot even get close to sinning. The problem is this fence (like do not drink alcohol – Scripture never says do not drink, only do not get drunk) becomes the new law. People in the first state of maturity and Christians in the second state both are legalistic (trying to please god or God through their own means and on their own terms), and although the latter claim Christ as their savior, they also have added their own performance and rule keeping to the mix.
The third state of maturity is what I call liberty. Usually after many years in the Church, and failing to keep all the fences around the law (and even the law itself), the Christian realizes that God doesn’t have as many laws as they thought He did. They realize things like: alcohol isn’t evil, its how it is used, therefor God is ok with one drinking it under the right circumstances and with the right heart. Jesus drank, the Apostles drank, and we can drink too. They also realize things like gambling and smoking too are not forbidden if done responsibly and for the glory of God and not as an idol. So they jump into this liberty with both feet and often go overboard. Now, they are more mature in that they better understand Scripture and God’s will for them, and they realize how much more joy they have then before because they now trust Christ more completely for their salvation and not their own works. They realize that their good works flow from joy and love because of what Christ has done, not out of fear of failure or hope of reward, or any attempt to please God apart from Christ. They have been freed from the merry-go-round of trying to please God with their works, fearing God wont love them as much if they don’t perform, and they never want to go back to those chains, so they fight for their liberty at the cost of their neighbor. Any attempt of the level 2 Christians or even the level 4 Christians to talk to them about liberty is usually met with a death grip: they are not going back to bondage again. So they mock those who are bound by fences, and taunt them in their hamster wheel of performance driven Christianity. They mock anything they think is legalism, and shiver to think that it would touch them again.
We now come to the fourth stage of growth or maturity for Christians that I have observed. I call this the liberty with love stage. In this stage the Christian trust Christ even more than the stage before. The Gospel is even clearer to them than before. And they no longer fear legalism for they know it will never enslave them again because of Christ and His sufficiency. Therefore they are able to be around it again, and interact with those still bound by its power. For they do not seek first to free their brothers through power or even logic, but through love. They rightly understand that we are all at different stages and what matters is how we love each other. They will willingly give up their liberty for a time if it means they can love a brother more. However, they are not sissies and will defend their liberty against those who seek to take it, but with love while trying to win their opponent in love. Like Paul the Apostle, they will both refrain from their liberty in Christ to keep from offending a brother, and then defend their liberty against the brothers who seek to take it by force. They follow Paul’s prescription: if you are weak in conscience do not burden those who are not, and if you are strong, do not stumble those who are weak, but rather each of you live unto God and do not worry about your brother for they stand or fall before God and not you, you are not their judge nor your own, only Christ is judge.
Let me give you an example of how these stages work in the real world. Let us use the example of a Christian University who has decided that while attending their University their students will agree not to drink alcohol. A stage 1 person will mock the university as being to legalistic and big fat meany heads for taking the fun out of college for these kids. The stage 2 person will love it and praise their decision for seeking the purity of their student and the glory of God in spite of the culture’s wishes. Our stage 3 person will mock and laugh at the School and even slander it because they fear the legalism they see in the rules as enslaving the students to a works righteousness type of religion, and not one based on Christ alone. Lastly the stage 4 person will accept and praise the college for making a hard decision that is counter cultural, seeing that the college does it more out of need than out of a work’s righteousness motive. But they will also make sure that in love they encourage the college and students not to think such prohibitions merit them anything before God, and know that often those who follow such fences are of weaker faith than their own. Therefore they seek to preach Christ and the Gospel to them in love so that they may over time and through the Spirit’s working mature. They do not mock the decisions or consciences of their fellow believers, but love them and encourage them to seek Christ first.
Therefore let us realize that Christ gives us everything we need to be loved by God and to love God. We do not bring anything to the table but our sin. If you do not drink, you sin in that for you do not do it out of 100% pure motives. You are not drinking purely to glorify God and honor Him, but out of sinful motives and understanding in Scripture. Likewise the one who drinks in liberty sins as well, for he does not drink with 100% pure motives for the full glory of God, but for selfish and idolatrous motives. This means both he who drinks and he who doesn’t sin against God. We all sin against God even in our righteous acts. We both need Christ to pay for our righteous deeds as well. Therefore let us love each other bearing with each other in love, seeking Christ alone for our standing before God and our motive for love and good works!