Evangelical freedom is not the same as laxity. Here the doctrine of justification by faith is the key to knowledge.
The Gospel is not just anything. It is the truth that everyone who believes in Jesus shall receive the forgiveness of sins through his name. Evangelical freedom is thus not freedom to believe whatever one wants.
Neither does this true faith in Jesus arise in any manner whatsoever. It is created by God through the Word and sacraments. An evangelical Christian is a biblical Christian and a Lord’s Supper Christian. Evangelical freedom is not freedom to abandon one’s congregation and devotions, nor freedom from prayer and church attendance.
True faith in Jesus does not show itself in just any way either. It is active in love, and this love shows itself first and foremost in good and honest vocational work. Evangelical freedom is thus not freedom to run away from daily duties to occupy oneself with some pious or impious work that suits itself better to the old Adam.
The evangelical church asserts all this in a manner and through the means with which she has been entrusted, without forcing anyone, but compelling with the power that lies in the Word, itself compelled by the love of Christ. If a person holds fast to this then a person can leave everything in peace that shall be left in peace. If there is evangelical firmness in the essentials, then there is also a place for evangelical freedom in adiaphora. If the foundation is correct, then there are many ways to build on it.
Evangelical freedom is thus not freedom to believe whatever one wants.
This applies first and foremost to worship. Lutherans have always been wide-hearted in this matter. It has nothing against ceremonies if only they have evangelical content. They may not in any circumstance be made a basis of salvation. If they conflict with justification by faith or otherwise against holy Scripture, then no patina of age can save them. Yet if they have a clear evangelical meaning then they may be used freely. If they have come to us from the church of the old apostolic era, then we hold them in honor. It is the reformed with their legalistic view of worship and congregational order that have made a primary question concerning holy days, ornamentation, and altars.
In the Lutheran Church, we have gone a different way. We know that everything God has created is good when received with thanksgiving by those who believe. We know that God has created all colors, not just black. We can worship in spirit and truth in the ugliest of school halls, but when we have opportunity to adorn God’s house, then we do it and say with the psalmist: “Lord, I love the habitation of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). We could very well celebrate the Lord’s Supper around a wooden table, but when we have opportunity, we lay the table with all dignity and set a couple candles and a picture of the crucified Christ on it. We could very well receive gifts of the Lord’s servant in drab dress, but we would rather come in churchly dress and adornment. If a man wants to clumsily point fingers at others for all this, we answer with the Augsburg Confession that “customs should be maintained that can be maintained without sin and which promote peace and good order in the church.”
If the doctrine is right, then freedom can reign also in questions concerning the forms in which preaching clothes itself. Different tracts have different traditions. They may look at each other with brotherly tolerance. If Christ is rightly proclaimed and both law and gospel are spoken in the sermon that is orderly prepared, then it means nothing if the one has an outline and the other memorized while the third reads from the page. The pastor shall here follow the apostles’ certain counsel to go after that which creates peace and edification in the congregation, and the congregation shall remember that no external manners could determine our place with God.
Freedom shall also reign when it comes to external forms for everyday life. In questions of customs and traditions, food and drink, clothing, and company a Christian is free. He shall show responsibility for his work and consideration for his family. He shall seek his neighbor’s best interest like his own and try not to give a bad example for his weak brother. He shall live in prayerful association with God, hold fast to the means of grace, and test himself by the Word so that nothing may force its way between his heart and the Savior. When he settles all this, then he is free to form his life, his friends, his free time, his refreshment, his manner of dress, and his associations that he finds he can defend before God according to the Word. It is also just as bad with human statutes that make a law from that which God has left free, and which essentially say: You can’t taste that, and you shall not do that, or you should not dress that way. This even applies to things of which Scripture says are destined for use in this world to be received with thanksgiving, and then pass away. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).