That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world;
We can be easily influenced by the evil of this world without even recognising it. Yet we are to shine as lights, being “blameless and harmless.” How do we cut through those evil influences to know how a “shining light” should behave? How to decide, “Should I do this, or shouldn’t I?” The following questions, based on a sermon I preached several years ago, can help us to a God-honouring answer.
1. What Does the Bible Say?
A. Does the Bible Expressly say “Yes” or “No”?
He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.
If we love the Lord, we will keep His commandments. If the Bible answers our question directly, that settles it — no more questions are needed. But this question does require us to know His Word so that we know what He has forbidden.
Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.
B. Does the Bible Make it Clear?
I Thessalonians 5:21
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.
We are told to love the Lord our God — with all our mind. We are to examine things, and hold only to those which are good. If the Bible makes it clear, even if it doesn’t specifically mention this particular thing, that settles it.
C. Does it Fit with the “Tone” of the Bible?
But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
A renewed mind equips us to recognise what is consistent with the will of God. We need to have our senses trained to discern both good and evil. The clear statements of Scripture are the means by which our minds are renewed and trained. As we bring our own attitudes and thought processes into line with what Scripture clearly teaches, we better understand the attitudes, the tone, of Scripture.
While some questions are not clearly addressed by Scripture, it often indirectly sheds light on them. If we ask, “Does Scripture forbid this?” we might say, “No, it doesn’t really.” But it is better to ask, “What fits best with the way Scripture talks about this subject?”
For example, the few verses that might be used against birth control don’t really address birth control within a marriage. Does the Bible directly prohibit a husband and wife using birth control? Not really. But when we see how Scripture describes the blessing of children within a marriage, a decision for a healthy married couple to not have any children just doesn’t fit very well with what I’ll call the “tone” of Scripture.
Sometimes the right question is not, “What does Scripture forbid or command,” but rather, “If we start with Scripture and base our decisions on the attitudes it portrays and endorses, what would we decide?” The more our minds are renewed, the more our attitudes reflect those of Scripture, the more we will be in tune with Scripture’s “tone.”
If the Scriptures guide you directly, through command, clear principles, or by the general tone of statements related to the question, you don’t have to ask any more questions. Follow Scripture.
2. Can I Not Do This, Though Others May?
A. Am I Vulnerable?
But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.
Not every believer is vulnerable to the same temptations in the same ways. We need to know our own weaknesses, and not give our sinful fleshly nature an opportunity.
A retired pastor once refused to play a particular game with our kids. He said he loved it too much, and it became a trap for him. He said the game was fine, and he didn’t mind our kids playing it, but for him to play was to give an opportunity to his flesh, it was a temptation to him that it wasn’t to many other people.
That which is “OK” may be dangerous to you. If so, you do well to avoid it.
B. Am I Not Fully Persuaded?
Romans 14:5, 14, 23
5 One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
14 I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
23 And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
There are differing views on Romans 14, but there are certain principles that are not in dispute. If you do something, doubting whether or not you should do it, it is not of faith, and is sin. If you are not fully persuaded that this is something you can and should do, you should not do it.
In short, if it is doubtful, don’t. Others may do it, but if you are not persuaded that an action is acceptable for you to do, don’t do it.
C. Does Authority Prevent Me from Doing it?
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
These three verses from Ephesians give three authority relationships, each within different spheres of life. Other authorities in their own area include governmental authority (Romans 13) and pastoral authority (Hebrews 13).
There may be things that are entirely legitimate and appropriate to do otherwise, but which we cannot do because we are under an authority that forbids us to do it.
Sometimes we are not free to do things others can do because of our own weakness or doubts, or because an authority in our life says we can’t. If so, we shouldn’t do it.
3. Can I Do This Sometimes, But Not Now?
A. Will I Tempt a Fellow-Believer to Sin?
It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.
This is the other side of 2.B above. Even if you are fully persuaded, if another believer is not fully persuaded that he can do what you are doing, you should not do anything to tempt him to go ahead and do it. That may mean that you cannot do things in his presence that you could freely do at other times.
I am fully persuaded that I do not have to keep the sabbath. The Scripture is clear. But if a fellow-believer struggled with this and so did no work on Saturdays, it would be wrong to drop by his house Saturday morning in my work clothes, and invite him to come help me paint my fence. The solution to such doubts is not to override them, but to teach.
I would love every Christian in our alcohol-saturated society to read Why I Gave Up Alcohol. The author, who believes Scripture permits alcohol, gives the reasons why she and her husband do not drink. “Since so many were caught in the cycle of stumbling and picking themselves up again, it became good for me to not drink, as a way to stand with the brothers and sisters I was learning to love.” Of the frequent advocacy of alcohol by evangelicals on social media, “And with every picture, tweet, and event that centers on alcohol, I wonder: Isn’t anyone friends with alcoholics?” I’d not agree with all of it, but the basic principle is sound — if the Scriptures DO give liberty in a matter, we must never use liberty in a way that tempts others to sin.
B. Will it be Unkind?
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
Suppose someone’s family suffered grievous harm at the hands of a motorcycle gang, and painful memories were easily stirred. That person’s friends might decide to never wear leather jackets when he might be around, to avoid bringing back those painful feelings.
There is nothing wrong with a leather jacket. It wouldn’t necessarily be tempting anyone to sin to wear one, but in the case I described, it might be unkind. In such a case, it can be Christ-honouring to temporarily set our freedom aside and bind ourselves by love.
C. Will I Damage my Testimony?
Sometimes, when Christians talk of protecting their “testimony” it seems to mean another word which doesn’t sound so spiritual — their “reputation.” If we want to protect our reputation, to try to prevent others thinking badly of us, then we’ll struggle, because the world will often say and think bad things of us simply if we do what is right.
Protecting our testimony is quite another matter. “Testimony” is a witness statement. We are witnesses for the Lord, and our words and deeds are a message to the world about who He is and what He has done. We must avoid sending the wrong message about who the Lord Jesus is, how He saves, from what He saves us, and to what He saves us.
“Protect my reputation” is about me and my pride. “Protecting my testimony” is to be careful to carry a true message about my Lord to those around me. The first can be sinful motivation, but the second is Biblical.
I Corinthians 10:27-29
27 If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.
28 But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof:
29 Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?
In this interesting passage, Paul makes it clear (verse 27) that the history of the meat doesn’t matter. There’s no need to ask, you can just eat it.
Yet, in verse 28, he says that if someone says to you, “This meat has a history of being used in idolatry,” you shouldn’t eat it. Note from verse 27 that this is a feast of unbelievers, so this is an unsaved person telling you this. But there was no real reason to tell a Christian about it — unless the unbeliever thought it was incompatible with Christianity. So in this case, Paul describes an unbeliever with a view of what a Christian should do, and Paul says you shouldn’t disappoint that person.
The unbeliever doesn’t understand the Christian faith. We know that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof,” meat is simply meat, and an idol is nothing. We need no qualms of conscience and could confidently eat that meant, and we know our liberty is not subject to someone else’s conscience. In this case, the believer could freely eat, but Paul says he should not. Why? For the sake of the person who tells the believer of the idolatry.
Paul doesn’t say to educate the unbeliever. He just says, “Don’t eat for that person’s sake. Your liberty isn’t judged by his conscience, but the way you exercise your liberty should be gracious to him and his conscience anyway.” It has nothing to do with your liberty in general, but in that particular time and place, it is better to abstain. You are protecting “your testimony,” your message to that person.
Even if something is fine for us to do, if it will send the wrong message about our Lord and our salvation to those around us, we should decide this is not the time and place to use our freedom.
Christian discernment does not consist of an ok/not ok list, where things that are ok are always ok. Christian discernment has to be charitable to those around us, whether believers or unbelievers. Christian love takes precedent over a legalistic attitude of “this is legal so of course I can do it now.” There is more than one kind of legalism. Some people throw over a legalism of “don’t” for the legalism of “do” — “if something is ok, then it is ok, and how dare anyone say otherwise?” Christian love refutes that.
IV. Even If It Is “OK”, Should I?
The three verses below all come near the end of a discussion of one of those questions that, for believers in Corinth, fell squarely in the “should I or shouldn’t I?” category. In a sense, when all else has been considered, we have to stop and look at the big picture.
A. Is This Beneficial to Me Spiritually?
I Corinthians 10:23
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.
Something may be lawful for me, it may be ok, but is it really strengthening me spiritually? Is it really helping me to run the race that has been set before me, or might it even be hindering me a little bit? Is it adding any real spiritual value?
B. Does This Really Glorify God?
I Corinthians 10:31
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.
Even if I’m convinced something is ok for me to do, under all of the above principles, is it really something I am doing to the glory of God? In what way does this really glorify Him? Even if it can glorify God, is that the reason I’m doing it, or am I doing it for selfish reasons?
C. Does This Really Make Me More Like Christ?
I Corinthians 11:1
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.
Paul said that he was following Christ, and encouraged the believers in Corinth to follow that example. Coming at the end of this discussion on the eating of meat, the message was clear — our overriding purpose is to be like Christ, to follow in His footsteps. So the question we must ask is whether the thing we are considering helps in that?
Not everything that is OK is necessarily a positive or helpful thing for us. We must keep our eye on the goal, on what our life is really about. We might ask, “Is it ok for me to do X, Y, and Z?” But the real question we should be asking is, “Which of X, Y, or Z will help me further the real goals of the Christian life?”