Free to Do What?
1 Corinthians 10:23-11:16
This week’s lessons teach us that we do not have unrestricted freedom to do as we please.
In yesterday’s lesson we looked at Roger Nicole’s definition of freedom and two examples of how “freedom” is misinterpreted. His point was that as creatures made in the image of God, we will not find freedom in doing whatever we may like to do, particularly in our sinful state. When we do that, we produce in ourselves something that is similar to the derailment of the locomotive or the death of the fish. Our freedom is to be found in fulfilling the destiny for which God has created us, which is the answer to the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism – “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
I give that illustration to the passage to which we come now because here in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he picks up this matter of doubtful things once again. It is interesting that in this portion of the letter, Paul returns to the subjects he dealt with earlier in chapter 8. That is, I suppose, because so many of the problems we have as Christians are found in this area. There are matters in which the Word of God is explicit, where Scripture speaks clearly. The question is not what we should do, but whether we are going to do it. We can never approach Christianity as if we are free to do absolutely anything at all just because we have been set free in Christ. Whatever is contrary to the revealed, moral law of God is intolerable in Christianity and in the sight of God. We cannot live in sin openly and willfully and call ourselves Christians. Yet, there are areas where we are legitimately confused.
When Paul begins to talk about these situations, he first makes it very clear that in these areas we are not dealing with the revealed, moral law of God. We cannot go back to the Ten Commandments and say, “Here is a law that pertains to my particular situation. Regardless of how I feel about it and regardless of the circumstances, a law stands written in the Word of God that answers my problem and I must obey it.” When we deal in these doubtful areas, says Paul, we must not begin by setting down a list of moral standards that are required by Christians concerning the conduct of other Christians in all places. That is what he means when he says in verse 23, “Everything is permissible.” If the action does not violate the moral law of God, the conscience of the individual must not be bound in this area. We saw this principle when he talked about food. He said eating food offered to idols is a matter of indifference because it is not what you eat that defiles you, but what comes out of the heart of man. You can choose to eat, or you can choose not to eat. It just does not matter. This is also what the Lord Jesus Christ taught.
He goes on to develop the second principle, which begins to narrow this matter down. Paul says, “Everything is permissible,” that is, everything that is not explicit in the law of God. “But,” he says, “not everything is beneficial.” He is thinking primarily about the individual. “Oh, there are many things you can do,” Paul says, “and nothing in the Word of God says you can’t. But that doesn’t mean that everything you can do is going to help you either physically or intellectually or in your spiritual life.” I do not know anything in the Word of God that sets a limit on how much you can eat at dinner. But you know perfectly well that if you eat and eat, and if you keep that up for very long, pretty soon you will destroy your health. The same thing is true in other areas. So, Paul says, “While it is true – as long as we’re dealing in this area–that all things are permissible, let’s remember that not everything will benefit you.” So, if you have that in mind, there is a point at which some options that you may legally have the right to do become off-limits because they can prove harmful to you.
What are we to do in situations where the law of God is explicit?
What does Paul mean when he says, “Everything is permissible”?
Think of specific examples of things that may be permissible, but not beneficial.