Are All Things Lawful for Believers
1 Corinthians 6:12
by Bob Wilkin
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. (1 Cor. 6:12)
Some people charge those of us who hold to the Free Grace position with antinomianism. That is, some say we promote sin and tell people that they can do whatever they want and God won’t care since they are in Christ. We don’t teach that; but the charge is made nonetheless.
On the other hand, others charge us with legalism. They say that since we call believers to obey God’s commands we are legalists. These are those who do say that since we are in Christ there are no laws or rules for us anymore.
Recently while tracking down verses that show that NT believers are under law (e.g., Rom. 8:7; James 1:25), I ran across 1 Corinthians 6:12. What on earth did Paul mean when he said that “All things are lawful for me”?
Whatever he meant, he clearly did not mean that it was acceptable for Christians to defile the marriage bed, lie, cheat, murder, get drunk, covet, etc. Notice the three verses which precede verse 12. There Paul warns that the unrighteous-adulterers, homosexuals, thieves. covetous, drunkards, revilers and the like-will not inherit (i.e., possess, have a position of rulership in) the kingdom of God. Likewise, in the subsequent verses Paul commands them to flee immorality (v 18) and to glorify God in their bodies (v 20).
In several of his letters Paul gave lists of sins, things which were unlawful for Christians. See, for example, Ephesians 5:3-5, Galatians 5:19-21, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11–the verses immediately preceding the verse in question. In Romans 8:7ff Paul refers to the believer’s obligation to obey “the law of God.” Yes, Paul taught that believers are no longer under the Law of Moses (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:25; 4:9-12, 21-31). However, he did not teach that we are under no law of any kind. We are under the commands of the New Testament. (By the way, nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament.)
The expression “All things are lawful for me” was evidently a slogan that the Corinthian Christians had adopted and used to rationalize their sinful behavior. Paul’s use of their slogan certainly got their attention.
When Paul refers to “all things” he, unlike the Corinthians who coined the slogan, means all things not specifically forbidden in Scripture. This is crystal clear in the immediate (6:1-20) and broader (8:1-11:1). Paul is referring to our liberty in unspecified areas. There is much freedom in our walk with Christ. We can choose any car, any apartment or house, any clothes, any food, any sport, etc., yet with two prominent restrictions.
Paul’s first restriction to our liberty in unspecified things concerns its effect on others in the body: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful.” If our choice of clothes or food or the like will cause fellow believers to stumble, we are to restrict our freedom (1 Cor. 8-10).
Some modern fashions for women clearly violate this principle. For Christian women to wear seductive clothing anywhere but in the privacy of their own homes is to put a stumbling block in the path of others. That is not helpful behavior and hence it is to be avoided even though no verse may specifically forbid that particular fashion.
Paul’s second restriction to our liberty in unspecified matters concerns addictions: “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” To be addicted to anything, even things which are not forbidden in Scripture, is wrong.
How many believers today are under the power of television? Studies show that the average American watches forty plus hours of TV a week! Believers are not immune to this problem. Even if we are watching wholesome shows and Christian broadcasts, we are to restrict our freedom here so as not to squander our talents and abilities.
Golf, softball, fishing, hunting, bridge, running, biking, hiking, yardwork, reading, and even our jobs all are morally neutral, and yet can become harmful addictions if we are not careful. Husbands may neglect their wives and children to pursue one or more these things and may rationalize their behavior by saying, “What’s wrong with fishing, golf, or whatever? It isn’t forbidden in Scripture.”
If I may tackle a major moral malady today, the consumption of wine and alcohol in my opinion falls in this category. The Scriptures do not forbid drinking altogether. However, in light of the high percentage of alcohol and drug addiction in our world today, would not a wise steward choose to abstain altogether? This would be wise both from the standpoint of not causing your brother to stumble and not opening yourself up to a very addicting substance. For example, if a pastor, elder, or deacon is seen drinking, would this not send the message to the youth and adults in the church that drinking is OK? Might this not contribute to the downfall of many? Indeed, I think it would and does. This is not only true of those in positions of leadership, but of all in the body.
Paul’s point is that we have liberty in areas not specifically forbidden in Scripture with two restrictions. We are to restrict our liberty when to exercise it would injure a fellow believer. And, we are to restrict our liberty when we find that we are becoming or could become addicted to something.