Tell me if you have had a conversation like this. You are sitting late one night and a buddy comes up and says “I think I’m gonna get a tattoo.” You begin to dialogue and the conversation sounds something like this, “Oh, you’re gonna get a tattoo, cool! What do your parents think about that?” You go back and forth for a couple of minutes and finally get to the point where somebody says “Well, does the scripture say something about tattoos?” Somebody in the room might bring up Leviticus 19 which says that we are not to mark our bodies. Then the dialogue goes something like this: “Ok, well are we bound to the scriptures in Leviticus? And if so why am I not supposed to tattoo my body but I am eating catfish when Leviticus tells us we don’t eat bottom dwelling fish?” Now we are picking and choosing the things in scripture that apply or don’t apply to us.
Tonight we are going to look at this topic in a different way than you would expect..
Although the question is “are tattoos glorifying to God?” the real question is “what do we do with Christian freedom?”
In the first five chapters of Romans all Paul is trying to do is get people lost. He is trying to expose their sinfulness and then he reveals the doctrine of salvation. In Romans chapters 3, 4, and 5 Paul makes it clear that you can do nothing to earn God’s love. When you have an accurate understanding of the Gospel you will be lead to the question that we are going to start with in Romans 6:1-4. Paul knew that the skeptics of that time would immediately ask this with an accurate understanding of the message that we are free to live as we want with the freedom that comes from Christ.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may increase?”
When we understand the Gospel, that Jesus paid everything on the cross, our next question is “Can I do whatever I want?” The answer is yes, and no. When we encounter salvation in our life we’re left with what I call morally neutral issues. Issues that the Bible doesn’t say “this is right” or “this is wrong, that the Bible is not explicit on, like tattoos.
As believers we often lend ourselves to one side of the highway or the other. We say,“I’m going to obey everything the Bible tells me to do, and that’s it. I won’t do anything outside what the scripture tells me to do.” And some people say “As long as the Bible doesn’t tell me to do it it’s ok.” Many people go to one extreme or the other.
Here are the two extremes we take when we understand the gospel: legalism and license.
We go to legalism because we desperately want God to say “Do this!” because, if we’re honest with our hearts, we appreciate the beauty of the gospel but we don’t like it because we would rather have our constrictions. It is safer for God to make every choice for us.
Some of us go to the other side of the highway and end up in license. We say “It’s about Christian freedom,” but we can get to a point where we pull out the Christian and it suddenly becomes about freedom alone; this idea of “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do.” Whether the idea is about Christian freedom, tattoos, or something else, it’s a lot more about principle than it’s about prescription. It is more about principles that God wants us to live out than it is about prescribed “do this and don’t do that.”
So how do we address the scriptures in areas that are morally neutral?
Leviticus tells us that we are not to cut our bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on ourselves. The conversation becomes about an Old Testament law and whether it applies to us as believers. Instead of guessing whether we should keep the Levitical law, or hygienic law, or the moral law that is outlined in scriptures, we are simply going to let scripture interpret scripture.
“But before faith came we were kept in custody under the law…”
The law was a tutor, a custodian. It helped us along before we understood grace.
“…being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed”
Revealed means revealed in the person Jesus Christ
“…Therefore the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come in the person of Jesus Christ and we are no longer under a tutor.”
So when the Bible says “don’t cut yourself” in Leviticus it is essential for us to keep the scriptures in context. The book of Leviticus written to the nation of Israel. The reason God caused the Israelites law is very specific. The Law is broken up into three categories:
Hygienic law: The Israelites were given a hygienic law because they were to be set apart as a nation to show people God. That was the goal of the law. God gave them these hygienic laws so that they would be so much healthier and better than every other nation.
Moral Law: We know the moral law most in our culture by the Ten Commandments, but he gave them lots of moral laws; the dos and don’ts of morality.
Levitical Law: Also known as the priestly law, the Levitical law tells how they were to give sacrifices.
There are 622 laws in your Old Testament, including moral, hygienic and Levitical. So what was the purpose? The Law was a tutor, trying to lead us to faith.
We are to read the Old Testament as the apostles did. The New Testament explains how the apostles viewed the Old Testament.
“For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone that believes.”
The word “end” here is specific to the greek and is used in several ways. Sometimes it is used as “end.” I think it is better used here for “fulfillment.”
“For Christ is the [fulfillment] of the Law for everyone that believes.”
Matthew says it this way:
“For He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.”
So Jesus came to fulfill the Law. What we need to understand is when we see in the Old Testament “don’t tattoo yourself,” God was setting the Israelites apart as a unique nation. God asked the Israelites not to put tattoos on their body because it was a worship; they were aligning themselves with idols. God was telling the Israelites that they would be a distinct nation.
We are going to look at the New Testament parallel to the passage in Leviticus 19. Basically what he is saying is, paraphrased, “I want you to be a unique nation. I want you to be a city on a hill, a beacon of light to the world, to show the world who God is.” Romans 10 is telling us in verse 4 that Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. Matthew 5 tells us that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law, not to get rid of it completely, but to fulfill it.
Everything in the Levitical law, when they set up sacrifice, had to fulfill. Jesus was our sacrifice. If he didn’t fulfill the Levitical Law, then he isn’t the Messiah. He had to keep all the hygienic law, just as a Jew would.
The most important and the most confusing for us as believers today is what we do with the moral law. Should I put the Ten Commandments in my house? The Moral Law was simply a list of laws that were going to tell us exactly who Jesus was going to be. The Law says don’t murder? Then Jesus can’t murder. The Law says don’t lie? Then Jesus can’t lie. If it says have red hair, then Jesus is gonna have red hair. Everything in the moral law Jesus had to fulfill or he ceases to be the Messiah. We are not bound to the law anymore when we are under Christ, but because Jesus fulfilled the moral law. Because I am a follower of Christ and I want to be like Him, then I pursue the moral law, not because I want to be in the moral law, but because I want to be like Christ. It’s not about keeping the Law, it’s about falling in love with Jesus and passionately pursuing him with your life so that you can be righteous and holy like him. It’s not because you want to keep a list of rules.
That is where we miss it in the church so often. We think “I’m just gonna do better and stop looking at the wrong things on the internet,” or “I’m just gonna stop having poor self image” and we continue to try and think we can self improve and make moral adaptations and God is saying “No, you must love Me, you pursue Me, you seek after My heart, and I will change you from the inside out.” That is the gospel.
We can be changed from the inside out! Some people welcome outsiders into church under the list of conditions, saying, “yeah you can come, just stop drinking, stop smoking, take your tattoos off.” That’s not the gospel. We often want to land on the side of legalism. We all land on one side or the other of this highway. We all get it out of whack. There are times I land more toward legalism and there’s times I lean more toward license.
On the other hand, people often say “In the New Testament Jesus never really talks about tattoos, so I can do it, right?” That argument falls apart, too, just like the Old Testament legalism argument. The Bible doesn’t say you can’t look at porn and yet I know a bunch of people in here that don’t want to be pursuing that in their lives because they want to pursue righteousness. To say simply because the New Testament omits the issue of tattoos doesn’t mean they are irrelevant. The mirror passage to Leviticus when it says “don’t cut yourselves” is Romans 12.
Romans 12:2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”
That is the New Testament equivalent of Leviticus 19. Be different. Be a city on a hill. Just like Israel was to be a beacon of light to the ships of the world, so are we as believers under Christ. Under the New Testament understanding of Jesus and salvation, we are to be a city on a hill that is set apart and looks different than the world. I don’t know where you are, but I know that all of us are trying to drive on this highway that Christ gave us and we are constantly veering towards legalism or towards license.
These are the four principles you need to think about whenever you think about a morally neutral issue:
This list is not exhaustive, but these are four principles that God wants us to make decisions that are not clearly defined in scripture.
“Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things are indeed clean but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything by which causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God.”
Gentile believers were coming to know Christ and didn’t know what to do because food sacrificed to idols was a big deal in their culture.
There is a link between our conviction and our faith. Verse 22 continues, “Happy him who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” You will be joyful if you don’t approve things that don’t cause others to stumble. “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats because his eating is not from faith; whatever is not from faith is sin” (23).
Whatever is not from faith or the conviction of your heart is sin. So if you are going to get a tattoo and you don’t have a conviction one way or the other, you need to be careful because you are going to be walking a fine line of not walking in faith when you are making decisions.
We use the word “conviction” a lot. Here are four things that conviction is not:
- Conviction is not guilt or shame. Everyone has guilt or shame. Pagans and people who don’t follow Christ have guilt or shame. Romans 1 says God revealed himself to all people through two things: Creation and Conscience. Guilt or shame is not a picture of conviction.
- Conviction is not fear. It’s not fear that God is going to smite me or come after me or whatever because I have a tattoo of a cross on my arm. 2 Timothy 1:7 says God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power, of love, and of discipline.
- Conviction is not simply knowledge of what is right and wrong. Often we think of 1 Timothy 6:20-21. “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge”— which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.”
- Conviction is not an emotion. If somebody comes up and says “I don’t feel conviction,” so what? The word conviction in the New Testament means “to convince someone of the truth.” So when you say you don’t feel conviction, that doesn’t necessarily mean one thing or another.
Conviction is that we are convinced by the truth. Conviction is a work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and it is a work of the Holy Spirit convincing us of the truth. If you don’t have a conviction in an area, then you probably should go looking at the truth, because conviction is being convinced of the truth. I say that because I think our generation is enamored with the idea that God is going to convict us through emotion. The scripture is clear. Our emotions are fleeting, and they betray us. If you don’t see that in your own life, you will. We must funnel our emotions through the truth of God’s word.
The question we need to ask ourselves is “What are the objects of our worship?”
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 “Do you not know that your body is a temple?”
In the Old Testament the Spirit of God used to show up in a temple. Now our bodies are a temple so we have to be careful with what we are doing with our temple.
Romans 1:23-25 says when we reject the knowledge of God, the conscience of creation, we get in exchange for the glory of an incorruptible God, the image of corruptible man. And verse 25, “For they exchanged the truth for a lie and served the creature instead of the Creator.
When making decisions about tattoos or piercings, are we worshipping God or are we worshipping our own bodies? We can quickly turn things that are fine, in our Christian freedom, into worshipping something that we maybe weren’t intended to worship. We all walk a fine line when looking at ourselves in a mirror. Make sure the object of your worship is our Heavenly Father the Creator.
Is my goal to give God glory? Are you going to get a tattoo to give God glory?
1 Corinthians 10:31 “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
1 Corinthians 6:12 says “Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.” Make sure that the glory of God is first.
Romans 14:13 “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”
The mature believer has the responsibility to set aside Christian freedom for the benefit of the immature believer. I need to sacrifice that which I’m okay doing and that God has given me the freedom to do, and because of the gospel I have freedom to go do, but if I’m in a situation where I have the freedom to do it but it could cause an immature brother to stumble or question something about the gospel, then I set aside my Christian freedom for their benefit.
This is not easy, because we would rather get to a place where God can say “Hey, don’t get tattoos,” or “Everybody get cross tattoos and you’ll be fine.” It is easy if God just prescribes everything. It is much more difficult for us when God says “Here are the principles that I want you to live by. I want you to do everything in your life with faith, with Me being the object of your worship, with My glory at the front of your mind, and live sacrificially for the immature and non-believers. If you do those things, then if you want to get a tattoo, great. If you don’t want to get a tattoo, great.”
Christian freedom operates best – I think, scripturally speaking – in these four areas, and as you encounter decisions in life that are morally neutral, or that the Bible does not specifically tell us about, and we follow through these four things, we come out and say, “Yes I can do it to the glory of God, and yes I’m about worshipping God, and yes I can do it in faith and that’s it; Yes I can do it and not cause my brother to stumble.” If you can do all those things with a clear conscience and conviction in your heart, then Amen and go do it because God has given you that freedom!
But if you haven’t and you have questions, then I would say just tap the brake, slow down, and ask God to convince you of the truth.
Chad Hampsch is the vice president of the Kanakuk Institute.