Note: This article is also published by The Gospel Coalition.
Below are 15 actions that some people see as sinful and others do not. Count how many of the following you deem as sinful.
- Making out with your boyfriend/girlfriend. (Y/N)
- Watching rated R movies. (Y/N)
- Listening to non-Christian music. (Y/N)
- Drinking alcohol. (Y/N)
- Swearing. (Y/N)
- Getting a tattoo. (Y/N)
- Attending a Halloween Party. (Y/N)
- Using social media. (Y/N)
- Binging on Netflix. (Y/N)
- Driving five MPH over the speed limit. (Y/N)
- Skipping church one Sunday to attend a big sporting event. (Y/N)
- Sending your kids to public school. (Y/N)
- Betting on sporting events. (Y/N)
- Spending money on luxury items (designer clothes, sports cars, etc.). (Y/N)
- Playing video games that contain violence. (Y/N)
- [BONUS]: Allowing your kids to do any of the above. (Y/N)
Interpreting Your Score
So … How many “Y’s” did you circle?
If you scored 10 or more, you are a legalist!
If you scored 5 or less, you are an antinomian!
If you had trouble answering these—and you found yourself answering “it depends” for many of them—that might not be a bad thing.
Many Christians would label at least some of these issues as “gray areas” (i.e., not black or white). For the purposes of this article, we can define a gray area as an action that Scripture does not clearly identify as “sinful” or “non-sinful” for all people in all places at all times.
To say that another way, a gray area (biblically speaking) is any matter which is not clearly commanded, prohibited, or permitted in Scripture to God’s people.
Gray areas have always existed for believers (e.g., Romans 14:1-23). New technology and modern social issues certainly provide unique manifestations of gray areas, but gray areas themselves are nothing novel—Christians have always needed to exercise wisdom and discernment in myriads of life situations.
As Charles Spurgeon helpfully notes, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”
My goal in this article is not to give you my opinion on the morality of the aforementioned potential “gray areas,” but to give you several questions that will help you engage with any moral decision in your own life in a biblical and God-honoring way.
We can see these questions not as foolproof solutions to every moral dilemma we will face, but as trustworthy tools for Christian discernment.
To Act or Not to Act?
Whenever you aren’t sure if a particular action is sinful, ask yourself these questions before proceeding:
- Is this action causing me to be disobedient to someone who God has put in authority over me? (See Ephesians 6:1; Hebrews 13:17)
If you answered “yes” to one or more of the above questions, it is likely that this behavior is sinful or at the very least unwise.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of all that the Bible says about gray areas—and there are many caveats that we could add here (e.g., how to tell the difference between Spirit-led conviction and legalistic guilt-tripping, how to respond to abusive authority, etc.)—but this list serves as a helpful starting point.
How Will God Judge Me in Gray Areas?
In order to answer this question, we need to do a little bit of theology.
It is incomplete to say (as some have) that God’s will of decree is the aspect of God’s will that will certainly come to pass, whereas his will of command is left up to human choice. God will accomplish all that he has purposed (Isaiah 46:8-11); nothing is left up to chance. (Readers may refer to John Piper’s work on Providence for more information on this topic.)
Yet, there is a real sense in which God has kept some of his will hidden from us (e.g., whether to marry Christian A or Christian B, whether to live in Greenville or Dallas, etc.), whereas he has clearly revealed other aspects of his will to us (e.g., you should love your neighbor, you should repent of your sin, etc.).
So which aspect of God’s will are we going to be held accountable for obeying?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A #39 is helpful here:
Q. What is the duty which God requires of man?
A. The duty which God requires of man is obedience to his revealed will.
Obedience to God’s Revealed Will
The last two words of this statement are key: God requires obedience to his revealed will.
Deuteronomy 29:29 provides both the language and the justification for the Westminster Divines’ assertion: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but what he has revealed is for us and for our children forever, that we may keep all the words of this law.”
God is not playing games with you, seeing if you can “guess which hat” the sin is under, and if you guess wrong, you lose. He isn’t secretly wanting you to buy the red car—without telling you—and then punishing you for buying the blue car. This is not the kind of Father that God is.
God wants us to obey his commands in the black and white areas, and to seek his wisdom in the gray areas. He knows that we don’t know his hidden will (Psalm 103:14), and he doesn’t condemn us for that.
Applying These Truths
It is worth noting that it is possible for us to sin unintentionally—for example, if we break a revealed law of God that we were oblivious to.
The good news is that God’s grace covers both our intentional sins and our unintentional sins (see Psalm 19:12).
So let’s be diligent to repent of both our intentional sins and our unintentional sins. Let’s be committed to trusting God’s grace. And let’s be faithful to pursue obedience to God’s will in all areas—not because we are legalists, but because obedience to God’s will is best for us and honoring to him.
Have a question or further thought on this topic? I’d love to hear from you — leave a comment below!
Read “Overcoming Fear of the Future” here.