By John MacArthur
A gun-toting, beer-drinking, foul-mouthed “pastor” recently made headlines when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. In an emotional apology to the church, he confessed he had been abusing alcohol for years.
While the extent of his drinking had been kept relatively private until then, he had built both his reputation and his church on the extreme exercise of his Christian liberties. In an article published just days before his arrest, he made no attempt to hide his drinking, his filthy mouth, or any of the other worldly aspects of his life and ministry—on the contrary, he celebrated them. His moral collapse is a powerful example of the danger of overconfidence and failing to biblically limit one’s liberty.
The biblical boundaries of our liberty in Christ are detailed in the book of 1 Corinthians. In response to the Corinthians’ questions about the limits of their Christian liberty, the apostle Paul stressed two important factors they needed to consider. The first was that they must be willing to sacrifice their freedom out of love for other believers with weaker consciences. He wanted them to consider the impact of the exercise of their freedom on other Christians.
His second warning about the limits of their liberty was to remind them of the danger of overconfidence. Paul instructed the Corinthians to learn from the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. While Israel benefited from the daily presence and provision of the Lord, they took it for granted, chased after idols, and rebelled against God and His chosen leaders.
An Apostolic Warning
In 1 Corinthians 10:11-12, Paul ties up the threads of his Old Testament illustration and issues a warning to his readers.
“Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”
The punishments that came upon the disobedient Israelites not only were an example to their fellow Hebrews, but also to believers in every age since. More than that, they were given for our instruction, for the benefit of Christians, those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The word instruction refers to more than ordinary teaching—it means admonition and carries the connotation of warning. It is counsel given to persuade a person to change behavior in light of judgment.
Self-Confidence and Self-Destruction
We live in a greatly different age from that of the Hebrews in the wilderness under Moses, but we can learn a valuable lesson from their experience. Like them we can forfeit our blessing, reward, and effectiveness in the Lord’s service if, in overconfidence and presumption, we take our liberties too far and fall into disobedience and sin. We will not lose our salvation, but we can easily lose our virtue and usefulness, and become disqualified.
Every believer, especially when he becomes self-confident in his Christian liberty and spiritual maturity, should “take heed lest he fall.” Paul expresses a timeless principle, articulated in Proverbs as “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Proverbs 16:18). It is easy to substitute confidence in ourselves for confidence in the Lord—accepting His guidance and blessing and then taking credit for the work He does through us. It is also easy to become so enamored of our freedom in Christ that we forget we are His, bought with a price and called to obedience to His Word and to His service.
Overconfidence on Display
The Bible is filled with examples of the dangers of overconfidence. The book of Esther centers around the plan of a proud and overconfident man who saw his plan backfire. King Ahasuerus of Persia promoted Haman to be his second in command, with instructions for the people to bow before Haman as they would the king. Mordecai, however, would not bow to him, and when the proud and arrogant Haman was told that Mordecai was a Jew, he persuaded Ahasuerus to declare an edict that would give him revenge on all the Jews in the land by having them killed. Through the intercession of Queen Esther, also a Jew and the niece of Mordecai, the king issued a far different edict, which allowed and even encouraged the Jews to defend themselves—which they did with great success. Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, who was given all of Haman’s possessions and the royal honor Haman had expected for himself.
Sennacherib, king of Assyria, taunted Israel with the boast that her God could no more save her than the gods of the other lands had saved them. A short time later, “the angel of the Lord went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, all of these were dead.” A few days after the defeated king returned to Assyria, he was assassinated by two of his own sons and succeeded on the throne by a third (Isaiah 37:36-38).
Peter discovered that where he thought he was strongest and most dependable he actually was the weakest. He assured Jesus, “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!” But, as Jesus then predicted, before dawn Peter three times denied even knowing Jesus (Luke 32:23-34, 54-62).
The believers in the church at Sardis were proud of their reputation for being spiritually alive, but the Lord warned them that they were really dead and needed to repent (Revelation 3:1-2). If they did not, He would come upon them like a thief (v. 3)—just as one night enemy soldiers under Cyrus had sneaked into the seemingly impregnable acropolis at Sardis by way of an unguarded footpath. A handful of soldiers crept up the path and opened the gates to the rest of the army. Overconfidence led to carelessness, and carelessness led to defeat.
The self-confident believers at Laodicea thought they were “wealthy” and in “need of nothing,” but were told by the Lord that they were really “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
Limiting Our Liberty
Christians who become self-confident become less dependent on God’s Word and God’s Spirit, and become careless in their living. As carelessness increases, openness to temptation increases and resistance to sin decreases. When we feel most secure in ourselves—when we think our spiritual life is the strongest, our doctrine the soundest, and our morals the purest—we should be most on our guard and most dependent on the Lord.
For our sake as well as the sake of others, we need to faithfully limit our liberty according to Paul’s instructions. Love for the brethren ought to dictate the outward expressions of our freedom, and inwardly we need to vigilantly guard against the spiritual carelessness that comes from overconfidence.
In the end, our liberty is not meant for our own amusement or satisfaction. It’s a gift from God to be used for His glory and the edification of His people. Any other exercise of our freedom is an abuse.
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians.)