Christian Liberty: No Excuse for Immorality - Part One
Speaking to the sexual revolution, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. cites author Theodore Dalrymple, a British doctor serving in an inner-city hospital. Dalrymple noted, "Revolutions are seldom a spontaneous mass upheaval of the downtrodden, provoked beyond endurance by their miserable condition, and the sexual revolution was certainly no exception in this respect. The revolution had its intellectual progenitors, as shallow, personally twisted, and dishonest a parade of people as one could ever wish to encounter. They were all utopians, lacking understanding of the realities of human nature; they all thought that sexual relations could be brought to the pitch of perfection either by divorcing them of moral judgment that traditionally attached to them; all believed that human unhappiness was solely the product of laws, customs, and taboos."
The problem with this utopian view is that man's sinful appetite is never satisfied. Dalrymple went on to say, "...just as appetites often grow with the feeding, so the demand of the revolutionaries escalated whenever the last demand was met. When the expected happiness failed to emerge, the analysis of the problem and the proposed solution were always the same: more license, less self-control."
Sadly, many so-called Christians have fallen into the godless philosophy under girding the sexual revolution, if only in a practical sense. These individuals are not unlike self-proclaimed Christians who are practical atheists. They say they believe in God while failing to acknowledge him in their lifestyles. Sadder still, some appeal to Scripture for their license by quoting Paul: "All things are lawful for me (1 Cor. 6:12a)." Of course, Paul did not have in mind a first century Christian sexual revolution.
In this little phrase cited above, Paul is picking up on a theme he mentioned earlier, namely, that of sexual immorality (5:1f). Remember that Paul rebuked the so-called brother for his immorality, and, at the same time, he rebuked the church for their arrogance in not dealing with sin in the camp. It seems that some in the Corinthian church felt that the grace of God gave them license to engage in whatever activity they desired, including blatant sin. Paul constantly spoke of the Christian's liberty and/or freedom in Christ. He said, "...why is my freedom judged by another's conscience (1 Cor. 10:29b)?" Again, in referring to the bondage of the law he said, "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)." But he admonished, "For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another (Gal. 5:13)."
In the text before us, Paul returns to that theme and deals specifically with an attitude that goes far beyond Christian liberty, that of libertinism. Christian liberty refers to the fact that we are not saved by the law but by grace. It refers to the fact that under grace, we are set free from the penalty of the law. In addition, it refers to the fact that we are free to engage in activities that God does not prohibit as long as we can do so for His glory and as long as we do not cause a brother to stumble with our liberty. For example, some Christians believe it is a sin to eat at a restaurant on Sunday while other Christians feel the liberty to do so. The Scripture has no specific prohibition in this regard. Those who believe it to be sin to eat out on Sunday generally refer to principles of Sabbath observance in a Christian context. Those who appeal to liberty usually do so on the basis of the New Covenant and the Sabbath rest we have in Christ. The point is that the Scriptures do not specifically prohibit Christians from eating out on Sunday. Therefore, in the New Covenant context, we are free to do so as long as we do not cause our Sabbatarian brethren to stumble.
Now, libertinism is quite another matter. Libertinism is the notion that because we are under grace, we can do anything we desire to do. The libertine attempts to justify his sin by appealing to the fact that he is under grace. The libertine sees nothing wrong with fornication or anything else the Scripture clearly refers to as sin. Paul is writing here to combat an attitude of libertinism that had crept into the Corinthian church. Thus, Paul writes in v. 12, "all things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything." What does he mean?
Some would assert that Paul is actually saying that because Christians are under grace, indeed all things are lawful. That is, the Christian actually has the right to do anything he desires. The only thing that would prohibit a Christian from engaging in sin would be personal, pragmatic concerns. That is, if an act is not deemed profitable, he would not indulge even though that act may be permissible.
Others would say that what Paul means is that all things are lawful in the sense that if a Christian does sin, he does not suffer the penalty of the law. He is under grace and cannot be lost. It is lawful for him to sin in that he will not be punished for that sin.
While this dynamic is true, we do not believe Paul to be saying such here. Moreover, in light of the fact that the New Testament refers to many dynamics as sin, in light of the fact that the New Testament teaches that Christians do not continue in sin (1 John), and in light of the fact that we are told to confess our sin that we might be forgiven and cleansed (1 Jn. 1:9), we do not take Paul to be saying that Christians are free to sin because they are under grace.
Paul's reference here is no doubt to a slogan the Corinthians had taken for themselves: "all things are lawful for me." The origin of the slogan is unknown. It may have been a phrase from Paul himself that the Corinthians had twisted for their own purposes. It may have been something they coined themselves. We do not know. The point is that Paul takes their slogan and corrects it. The evidence for this fact is at least two-fold. First, as noted, the New Testament does not teach that all things are lawful for the Christian. Second, the fact that Paul repeats the phrase is an indication that he is quoting the Corinthians. He quotes another slogan in v. 13: "food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food."
Paul actually combats the slogan "all things are lawful" by saying "but not all things are profitable." By repeating the phrase, Paul does not give agreement. Rather, he gives correction. The sense of what he is saying may be rendered, "you say that all things are lawful. That is not true. Not all things are profitable. You say that all things are lawful. That is not true. We should not allow ourselves to be mastered by anything." In other words, Paul gives two reasons why not all things are lawful for the Christian.
First, the Christian cannot engage in any activity that is not profitable for God's glory, the kingdom's advance, the individual's good, or his brother's welfare. In other words, we must do all that we do for the glory of God. If God cannot be glorified in a particular activity, we must not indulge. Moreover, our goal should be kingdom advance, not personal pleasure in the mundane things of this life. Additionally, many activities actually bring us harm and/or cause our brothers to stumble. Thus, these activities are not profitable and therefore not lawful for the Christian.
Second, Paul makes a play on words here that is more evident in Greek than in English. The issue of being lawful has to do with authority. Thus, Paul’s sense is as follows: "I have authority to do all things, but I will not allow anything to have authority over me." The Corinthians felt that they had authority to do all things by virtue of grace. Paul's point is that when the Christian engages in sin, he in reality gives up any authority he might have and becomes subject to the sin and its damaging affects. The authority the sinning individual so adamantly claims actually gives way to slavery. If we engage in sin, it actually has authority over us, that is, it becomes our master and we lose our freedom. We lose our freedom to glorify God and find ultimate pleasure in Him (Gen. 4:7; Rom. 6:6). We are given over to more sin and spiral downward into sin (Rom. 1:18f). Sadly, an attempt to grasp at the wrong kind of freedom, the kind of freedom the philosophical utopians desire, only leads to slavery.
[Part Two Tomorrow]