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The Rules Myth


In Acts chapter 15, there were some new Christians in the town of Antioch. There is an amazing account of how certain Jews were instructing the new Gentile Christians in Antioch to observe and keep the laws of Moses. The apostles caught wind of this and sent the new Christians in Antioch quite a different message. Here is what they said: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28-29).
Why did the apostles give the new believers at Antioch these particular instructions? Let’s look closer at this to see an amazing truth for our lives.  

During this time in Antioch, there were Jews and gentiles eating common meals together. It was these gentiles that had recently became Christians. The apostles did not want the new gentile believers in Antioch to unnecessarily antagonize their Jewish neighbors. Therefore, they instructed the new believers in Antioch in things that would not cause offense.

The instruction from the apostles for the new gentile believers to keep themselves from fornication was again, because of the close fellowship they were having with the Jewish people. Both Jews and gentiles recognized relations outside of marriage as wrong. The apostles were instructing them to observe the specific marriage regulations required by Leviticus Ch. 18, which prohibited marriages between most family relations. This was something that Jews would abhor, but most Gentiles at the time would think little of.

The second part of the message to the new Antioch believers was to not eat certain meats. To eat meat sacrificed to idols, things strangled, and things with blood would be most offensive to the Jews. Again, the point here is to not offend those who they were in fellowship with. The instruction to abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood was later lifted by Paul in a later letter (1 Cor. 10:25-28).

Why were the new converts in Antioch only given a couple of instructions?

When most people come to Christ they are told to read their Bible everyday, attend church, and to live a good life of morality by keeping the commandments of God. Instead, what we should tell a new believer is to continue in believing the good news, love God and your neighbor, and then do what ever you want!

New Testament Christianity has nothing to do with keeping a list of rules. But rather, through relationship with the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us and wills in us His desires for our conduct (Phil 2:13). If you give someone a rule, it will produce sin, rule breaking, and hypocrisy (Rom 7:7-8). However, if from freedom you allow the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts, it will produce Godliness, love, and true obedience from the heart.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1). We often read the New Testament with an Old Testament heart. Under the old covenant, people were required to keep a list of laws, rules and regulations. Things have now changed under the new covenant. In Christ, we are not to live under the law anymore. Jesus fulfilled the law for us by living a perfect life. As we are dependant on Christ from the heart, we are fulfilling the law. We are not to focus on keeping the commandments or “a list” of rules to keep. In fact, approaching Christianity by trying to keep a list of rules misses the whole point and actually hinders our faith.

The apostles knew this about the new converts at Antioch. They knew that because of the power and the dynamics of the New Covenant, brand new believers should not try to keep a set of rules. But rather, they should trust the Spirit of God to keep them.

There can be many different varieties of a “lists of rules”. You could also call this a “list of shoulds” or a “list of have to’s”. The list of shoulds will vary from person to person, generation to generation, and location to location. We are not to live by any list of rules or regulations. We are to live by the Spirit of God. Most people live by rules because they are scared to death not to. “We might offend people. We could wind up in jail. The sky could fall. We could all die”. Fear drives most people to live under laws, shoulds and regulations.


If We Don’t Live By Rules, Then How Are We To Live?

Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 6:12 “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable…” Let’s look at the first part of this sentence “all things are lawful”. This part of the sentence must stand alone in order for it to be true and in order for it to be understood properly. People always quote this verse by quickly saying the second part. This causes us to lose the full meaning of the first part of the verse. We should not be afraid to say, “all things are lawful”, and let it stand on it’s own.

When Paul says “all things are lawful”, he is saying that concerning our justification, we are made righteous apart from the law (Romans 3:28). Righteousness is now based on faith, not on what we do or don’t do. The Old Testament people of God lived under laws and followed rules in order to be righteous (which no one could ever do). But we are under a different covenant now. Under the New Covenant, we are to trust Jesus for our righteousness and follow the Spirit in all things. Again, God changed everything so that now righteousness is not based on anything we do; it is only based on trust and faith in the blood of Jesus. All things are lawful concerning our justification (Gal 2:16, 3:11, 1 Cor. 10:23, Rom 3:20, 28, 5:1, 9, 10:4).

Now, let’s look at the second part of the sentence in 1 Cor 6:12, “not all things are profitable.” There are certain practices in life that are profitable. It is profitable that we do some things and profitable that we abstain from other things.

Should you have a rule that you should save money for your children’s college education? Maybe so, maybe not, it will depend on a lot of factors. It will depend on your current finances, projected future finances, the aptitude and propensities of your children, but most importantly God’s leading. Should you have a rule that you are to never drink alcohol? In certain situations it would certainly be profitable to not drink alcohol. In some situations, it may actually be profitable to drink alcohol (Matt 15:11).

Everything in life depends. As we get free from our list of laws and “shoulds” and we are living by the Spirit of God, He will lead us and direct us in what is good for our lives, good for others, good for the day, and good for the moment.

If we are truly loving God and our neighbor, we are free to do as God puts things in our hearts. It must be said that there are certain things God consistently would not lead us to do because they are never profitable. Is it profitable to jump off of a building? No. God wouldn’t lead you to do that. Is it profitable to lie, to steal, or to commit murder? No. God will not lead us to harm ourselves or other people. But it is important that we approach these things from God’s leading and not from a list of rules to keep. Concerning our righteousness and justification – all things are lawful, but God will not lead us to break His commandments.

The purpose of living a life that is following the leading of the Holy Spirit is to live a life pleasing to our Father. It is not to see what we can get away with. Many use the “leading of God” as an opportunity for the flesh. God leads us to live righteous and holy lives.

The New Testament Economy

Remember that Romans 14:23 tells us…and whatever is not from faith is sin. Our concern is not whether or not we are keeping a list of rules, but whether or not we are according to the Spirit or according to the flesh. If we are according to the flesh, everything we do is not pleasing to God – whether we are outwardly committing a sin that is “on the list”, or if we are inwardly proud and unbelieving in our hearts. If we are walking according to the Spirit, we live out the fruit of the Spirit and are putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom 8:13). Refer to chapter 5 – Two Kings and One Throne”.

It Depends On Where Are You Coming From

It is critical that we first begin from faith and from the Spirit, not from a list of rules. If we are letting a list dictate our behavior, we will quench the Spirit of God in our lives, live with a hard heart, and we will be powerless. As we are according to the Spirit and living by the Spirit, we will find ourselves keeping God’s commandments, loving our neighbor, and living lives that are profitable and pleasing to God. We are to come from the Spirit first, then observe our behavior second. If our behavior is not matching scripture, then it is evidence that we are not walking according to the Spirit.

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