The Limits of Liberty
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1
23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience-- 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
31 So, whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
If you have not been with us recently on Sunday morning,this probably seems like a strange and unusual text. That is because these verses actually form the conclusion to a lengthy discussion which the Apostle Paul began back in chapter 8. He had been asked to respond to a question that had been put to him by the members of the church in Corinth about “food (that had been) offered to idols” (1 Corinthians 8:1), namely, should a believer eat it or not.
In crafting his answer, Paul expanded the question to include everything that might be considered “questionable” for Christian behavior. As we earlier noted, there are two extremes with which Christianity has unfortunately become identified. At one end of the spectrum we find those who propose that, because Christ has set them “free...from the law of sin and death” (cf. Romans 8:2), they may live any way they please. At the other end are those who are the “legalists,” those who insist on a strict code of behavior and that others conform to their narrow interpretation of the Scriptures. Everyone who knows Christ can be found somewhere within those two extremes. The biblical position is in between those two poles, in an area we might call “liberty.” As Christians, we have been granted freedom in Christ, but our “liberty” must be exercised responsibly.
Even today, the Bible does not provide “value-judgments” on many of the so-called “gray areas” of life with which we are daily confronted. We sometimes wish that the Lord would have given us a clear list of “can do-can’t do” items, but one can only imagine how thick and heavy a volume that would have comprised, given all the complexities of life. What the Scriptures do provide for us in this regard are principles which, if approached with a sincere and honest heart before the Lord, will serve as boundaries to our freedom in Christ and limits to the “liberty” that we as Christians have been given.
As we consider the Paul’s concluding words on the subject of “Christian liberty” this morning, I want to begin with a premise and then proceed to support it. The premise—or, if you prefer, the central idea—of this passage is that the followers of Jesus Christ have the liberty to set aside the use of things that the Lord has approved.
What limits our liberty is, in a word, “love.” The subject of “Christian love” has surfaced earlier in this epistle in chapter 8(:1-2), and we will see it again in chapter 13. When speaking of love, the apostle has in mind the kind of love that gives of itself on behalf of another. The translators of the King James Version understood this in 1611 when they preferred to use the word “charity” in 1 Corinthians 13. The Greek word is “αγαπη,” and it carries the idea of “affection, goodwill, and benevolence.” It is more than mere feeling, and is considered the highest expression of “love.” It is that “love” which is sourced in God Himself. It is what prompted Him to give His beloved Son as the sacrifice for unlovely sinners like us. To put it another way, it is “love” governed by the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
The Lord calls upon His people to “love one another” as He has loved us (cf. John 13:34, 1 John 4:11). One of the most demonstrative ways that we are to do that is by limiting our liberty for the benefit of others. I would like to read for you a paragraph from a sermon preached by C.S. Lewis seventy years ago, entitled The Weight of Glory, and in which he explains that biblical “love” is much more than we are generally ready to recognize and admit. Here is what Lewis said:
If you were to ask the modern person what is the highest of all virtue, that person would say “unselfishness” or “selflessness”...The ancients of old would not have responded with “unselfishness” but they would have responded with...“love”...The negative ideal of “unselfishness” carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves as in so far their absences and not their happiness is the important point.
What Lewis is suggesting is that it is quite possible to think of “love” in a negative or self-referential sense—our doing without, if you will—and not truly having in mind the positive well-being of the other person. If that is our motive, then we have missed the point that Paul strives to make in the passage before us today.
There are four things that we need to consider from this text as the writer brings to a conclusion his discussion of how a Christian is to handle those “gray areas” in which the Bible does not provide a clearly stated command. In these closing verses, we first find the premise, then we see two principles, and finally we arrive at the purpose.
We’ll begin with the premise, found in verses 23 and 24, which is that we are to...
Seek the benefit of others (verses 23-24).
Paul begins by once again quoting what some writers have called “the Corinthian slogan.” We first encountered it in chapter 6 and verse 12, where the “All things are lawful for me” appears twice. As we noted when we were in that chapter, it seems to have been a saying that had caught on with the believers in Corinth in response to their newfound freedom in Christ. They may have thought that, since the death of Christ had provided complete forgiveness for their sins, they were free to live their lives however they chose. But Paul had to tighten the reins a bit and say, “Hold on a minute! Not so fast!”
Freedom always brings with it responsibility. Take, for example, the teenager who is handed the keys to the family car. Having recently obtained his or her driver’s permit, there is a newfound “freedom” getting behind wheel for the first time without Mom or Dad or the driving instructor on the front seat beside them. But in no way is the responsibility to obey traffic signs and to drive within the speed limit removed. In fact, there is even now a greater sense of responsibility that wasn’t in place before the permit to drive was granted.
In a similar way, for the Christian, permission and privilege bring with them responsibility, as well as accountability. Here in verse 23, “the Corinthian slogan” again appears twice. “All things are lawful for me,” Paul begins, “but not all things are helpful.” And what’s more, “not all things build up.” The apostle is saying that some things may be fine in and of themselves, but before exercising your freedom, stop and consider a couple of things: “Will this be good for me?” and “Will this be something that builds rather than destroys?”
But Paul does not leave it there. As verse 24 points out, the one about whom I should primarily be asking those questions is not myself but someone else...namely my “neighbor.” If you are tracking with Paul, your mind probably flashes back to one of Jesus’ most memorable parables, that of “the Good Samaritan” in Luke, chapter 10(:25-37). You recall that the entire story that Jesus told was in response to a specific question that had been put to Him by a lawyer: “Who is my neighbor?” In telling the parable, Jesus flips the question inside-out, so that the real issue becomes, “Am I being a neighbor?”
You see, the “neighbor” of every Christian is whoever the Lord brings across your path and for whom you may do good. Here in 1 Corinthians 10, that becomes the guiding principle that places “parameters” around the phrase, “All things are lawful for me.” In the exercise of my freedom in Christ, am I seeking the benefit of others? In other words, am I putting into practice the C.S. Lewis—as well as the biblical—definition of “love”? Am I striving to promote the positive well-being of the other person? Thus, the premise of this entire passage is established. Specifically, it is the recognition that my liberty in Christ is limited by love.
The apostle has more to say. In verses 25 through 30, he lays down two basic principles that, unless understood, have the potential to send our liberty in Christ off in tangents, leading either toward “legalism” or “license”...neither of which is biblical. The first appeal he makes is stated in the form of a principle:
Recognize your freedom (verses 25-27).
“Legalists” struggle to apprehend this truth. They may affirm it in word, but they resist putting it into practice. Although testifying that the death of Jesus paid the full price for their sin, the classic “legalist” maintains a “standard of righteousness” that clings to “the letter of the law.” Often this is observed in the style of worship, type of music, and version of the Bible that are characteristic of their church services. Without meaning to question their motives or intent, they remain “bound” in many ways to “religious structures” that tend to be more “traditionally preferred” than “biblically prescribed.”
Referring back to the question that initially prompted Paul’s instruction—the matter of “food offered to idols”—Paul explains in verses 25 through 27 that it is perfectly permissible to eat whatever is set before you, “without raising any question on the ground of conscience”...a phrase he states twice. Food is not the issue, “conscience” is...and this is precisely what the “legalist” struggles with mightily.
Psalm 24:1 is cited in verse 26 as a reminder that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” In other words, the world belongs to God exclusively, and not to any other so-called deity. As we saw in 1 Corinthians 8:4, “There is no God but one.” It is He alone who has created all things, and it is He alone who uses His creation for His own intended purposes. As long as they are not abused or are a clear violation of Scripture, the good things of life are given by the Lord for us to enjoy (cf. 1 Timothy 6:17).
Paul provides a case study for us beginning in verse 27, in which he says, “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” Notice here that the apostle assumes that a Christian may well receive an invitation to dine in the home of an “unbeliever.” If that were to happen, and the believer was inclined to go, then he should go, enjoy the dinner, and build a bridge into that person’s life. If meat was served at the meal, the believer should feel to partake without asking where it came from. It would have been quite likely that it had been a portion of a sacrifice offered to a pagan god, but there was no need to make that a matter of discussion (as we shall see in verse 28) unless the host mentioned it.
And that takes us to the second part of Paul’s appeal. In addition to recognizing our freedom, be willing to...
Restrain your freedom (verses 28-30).
Just as “legalists” struggle to recognize their freedom in Christ, so those who are “licentious” in their Christian freedom are prone to balk at this principle. These are the ones who tend to be “non-conformists” to a fault. Historic and traditional matters of faith and worship are often considered “out of date” and “not with the times,” and therefore set aside. This ought to wave a “red flag” for us. It is a dangerous thing to separate ourselves too far from our spiritual predecessors, those who fought for the biblical truths that you and I hold dear. Doing so potentially opens the door to “liberalism,” which is another step in the direction of “license” and a departure from the historic Christian faith.
In verses 28 through 30, Paul continues the test case he introduced in verse 27. Here he adds a wrinkle: “But if someone (that is, the unbeliever who may have invited you to be his dinner guest) says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice’ (that is, to an idol), then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?”
There is no observable difference in the setting that was described in verse 27. The lone distinction is that this time the unbelieving host informs the believing guest that the meat on the table had been sacrificed in worship to a pagan “god” on a pagan altar. And while the meat would have been the same in terms of simply being meat to be eaten, what makes the difference is the information that has been shared.
So what is going on here is that the response of the believer to that new information, and in choosing to partake or to abstain from the meat, serves as a testimony to the unbeliever. Once again, the meat is not the issue...conscience is...and not the conscience of the believer, but that of the unbeliever.
In order to understand this more clearly, let’s consider a contemporary example...one with which you may or may not agree, but one in which I believe illustrates the point Paul is making.
Let’s suppose that an unbeliever in the neighborhood around our church—someone we have talked with and shared the Gospel with on a number of occasions, and one who has admitted to us his gambling problem—stops past the church one afternoon, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of one-hundred dollar bills and hands me several, saying, “I had a big night at the casino over at National Harbor recently and wanted to give some of my winnings to the church.” What should be my response and why?
Let me say, first of all, that has never happened. But if it ever did, I hope I would not accept it. And the reason I would not accept it, based upon 1 Corinthians 10:28 and 29, is for that person’s sake. Knowing that gambling has its root in “the love of money” (cf. 1 Timothy 6:10) and easily morphs into addictive behavior, were I to accept the person’s gift on behalf of the church, it might appear as an endorsement of his risky, if not sinful behavior and thus bring discredit to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From that day forward, that person would assume that the church approved of his gambling. Like the meat in Paul’s account, money is morally neutral. So, like the meat, the money the person would give to the church is not the issue. His conscience, namely His understanding and perspective of the Gospel, is what is at stake.
What Paul appears to be doing in the second part of verse 29 and verse 30 is hearkening back to verses 25 through 27. In light of the two foregoing principles, he seems to be saying that freedom and thankfulness are not—as some may think—the keys to making ethical judgments with regard to questionable matters. Whenever the consciences of others are led by our behavior to misunderstand the Gospel, then we must be willing to limit our liberty. Once again, love trumps liberty.
As this lengthy discussion has shown us already—especially in Paul’s rights to both receive and refuse to receive support in chapter 9—the apostle wants his readers to both recognize and learn when to restrain their freedom in Christ. But for what ultimate purpose? That takes us to verse 31 and what follows. What it all comes down to is this:
Live for God’s glory (verses 31-[11:]1).
This paragraph draws to a close the matter first raised in chapter 8. Paul had been asked by the Corinthians about “food offered to idols,” and he quickly expanded the topic to cover all matters that might be considered “questionable” in terms of Christian behavior. It was a very relevant topic then, and it is conceivably even more relevant in our day.
So what is the outcome? Verse 31 answers, “So, whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, (here it is) do all to the glory of God.” Regarding this last phrase, Gordon Fee adds, “What is not, or cannot be, for God’s glory probably should be excluded from ‘whatever you do.’” In other words, one’s whole life must be lived for God’s glory.
The first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism states that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” The German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, used to sign his works, “S.D.G.” from the Latin phrase, “Soli Deo Gloria”...“to God alone be glory.” Would that such could be truly said of each of us in everything we set our hearts and hands to do.
God’s glory is served by the progress of the Gospel. Paul expresses it this way in verses 32 and 33: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God (in other words to unbelievers, as well as to believers), just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
How great is your concern for those who are without Christ? Is your priority the exercising of your freedom or reaching the lost? Christians are called by God to adapt and even modify how we live in order to avoid confusing unbelievers about what it means to follow Jesus.
Paul’s life and ministry were authentic examples of this. As he earlier had said in chapter 9, verse 22, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” The lost of the world were his mission field, and he spared no expense or effort to make sure as many as possible were exposed to the message of the Gospel. So when he writes in the 1st verse of chapter 11, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” it was no empty boast. Not only did Paul limit his liberty for the sake of the Gospel, but he gave his life by remaining faithful to his dying breath to reach as many as he could.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs dates back to the 16th-century and tells of the death of Paul in this way:
Paul, the apostle, who before was called Saul, after his great travail and unspeakable labors in promoting the Gospel of Christ, suffered also in this first persecution under Nero. Abdias, declareth that under his execution Nero sent two of his esquires, Ferega and Parthemius, to bring him word of his death. They, coming to Paul instructing the people, desired him to pray for them, that they might believe; who told them that shortly after they should believe and be baptized at his sepulcher. This done, the soldiers came and led him out of the city to the place of execution, where he, after his prayers made, gave his neck to the sword.
Spiritual maturityis not God’s plan for only a few...it is His goal for every Christian. Mature believers are those who, having been set free through the death of Christ, are willing to restrict the exercise of that freedom for a greater good. They are willing—not by coercion, but out of devotion—to limit their liberty by love...love for the lost, love for their fellow members of the body of Christ, and ultimately love for God. The right exercise of Christian liberty is governed by these considerations.
Mature Christians are aware of their freedom in Christ, but they are also aware that freedom comes with responsibility. “All things are lawful,” but the one who is serious about following after Christ will evaluate those “gray areas” of life by asking at least five questions before pursuing a course of action impulsively, or even instinctively. Each question is presented in the form of a contrast:
- • First, will doing this lead to freedom or slavery? Back in 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul wrote, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” Christians have one Master and Lord, and that is Christ Jesus.
- • Second, will doing this make me a stumbling block or a steeping stone? In 1 Corinthians 8:12, Paul was so concerned that he would not lead others away from the Lord that he resolved to “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”
- • Third, will doing this build me up or tear me down? As we have seen this morning in verse 23, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful.” It is quite easy for us to justify our daily behaviors because there may not be anything “inherently wrong” with them. Perhaps better questions to ask would be, “Are they doing me any good?” and “Am I making the best us of my time?” Minutes and hours that are mindlessly frittered away can never be recovered.
- • Fourth, will doing this only please me or will it glorify God? Paul has exhorted in verse 23, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” A moment’s pause to reflect upon that word of instruction could eliminate the regret and guilt that so often follows our actions. Life—all of it—is to be lived “to the glory of God,” and each of us will be held accountable for “every careless word” (cf. Matthew 12:36) and every “fruitless deed” we engage in and fail to expose (cf. Ephesians 4:11).
- • And finally, will doing this help to win the lost to Christ or turn them away? In verse 33, we learn that Paul’s stated purpose in being willing to limit his liberty was so that “many...may be saved.” Is your concern for the eternal fate of others so strong that you are willing to forego your rights and privileges in order that they may see the Gospel being lived out clearly through you?
How you answer these questions will go a long way toward gauging the progress of your relationship with Jesus Christ and the fellow-members of His Church.