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. 1 Corinthians 6:12 NASB
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:14 NASB
I came across a novel (to me) interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:12 the other day, which caused me to want to write a new post. It seems to be quite common among the reformed crowd – here’s an example:
“All things are lawful for me”
In most translations, this statement is surrounded by quotation marks. Paul is certainly not saying that “everything is lawful, so go ahead and indulge.” NO. He is quoting a common Corinthian slogan, and is answering that argument.
Paul teaches: Even if all things were lawful, (1) not all things help you, and (2) we must guard against being enslaved or addicted. This kind of apologetic works like this. You state the wrong argument. You respond by saying – Even if that argument was sound, there are other valid considerations! The absurdity of the argument is seen by assuming it is true and attaching the connected assumptions.
So – Even if everything was lawful, there would still be at least two other considerations: Is it helpful and will you become enslaved!
Suppose it is argued (and it certainly is in our time) – that all sexual activity, of whatever kind, is lawful; is all right. Even should that be so – there are at least two other considerations to bring into view: Is unlimited sexual activity helpful? Doesn’t this raise the strong possibility of addiction or being enslaved?
Do you see that in Corinth, people had these common sayings or slogans they used, to encourage a permissive lifestyle. Paul quotes them and brings up some (not all) of the fallacies.
“All things are lawful” is not a slogan. It does tremendous damage to a normal reading of the text to say so. It is a ridiculous interpretive convenience with no warrant. When I read this I feel like I am watching some Blockbuster Hollywood movie full of outrageous plot conveniences. Here is the exegetical method: “I don’t understand this, it seems to go against my pet doctrine, so – it must be a SLOGAN!” Paul goes on to defend the idea of “All things are lawful” whether it is a slogan or not when he says “not all things are profitable” and “I will not be mastered by anything”, which I might point out nobody thinks of as slogans, and are in the same sentence as the supposed slogan. It is only because this saying flies against the face of the flawed “third use of the law” ideas so directly that interpreters jump to such ridiculous conclusions. We can see in the quote above that as soon as he has said that “All things are lawful” is a slogan, he begins to square that with the rest of the context and ends up refuting himself anyway. If Paul wants to quote a slogan, we have instances where this he does this, such as
12 One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith
Besides being one of the funniest passages in the epistles, it also shows us how Paul writes when he quotes a slogan. He specifically says that this is a quote, and responds to it as such. We have no such construct in 1 Corinthians 6:12.
If “All things are lawful” is a slogan, why does Paul go on as if he defends it and qualifies it? Is “not all things are profitable” also a slogan? Is “I will not be mastered by anything” a slogan? After all, the quotes which are inserted in the ESV are not in the original Greek. They were inserted there as an interpretation by the reformed people who were in charge of the translation efforts to defend the fleshly and harmful “third use” of the law.
If “All things are lawful” is a slogan which he is quoting as a refutation or mockery, does that mean “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14) is also a slogan? Perhaps John 3:16 is a slogan as well. Anything which we in our flesh happen to think is difficult to square with our pet doctrines which denigrate the gospel and in none-to-subtle ways put us back under the law are all slogans. I think maybe the whole book of Galatians is a slogan. And Ephesians. Probably the entire book of Romans is a slogan, except maybe chapter 13.
What a catchy idea! Anything we find difficult or challenging or jarring, instead of trying to figure it out, we’ll just call it a slogan! “Christ and Him crucified” – we don’t want to burden our congregation with weird theology. It is probably just a slogan! Everything I don’t like or that doesn’t fit my pet theology is probably a slogan.
Don’t we have more honor for the text of Scripture than this? Yet I am the amateur, the poor exegete. Balderdash.
So, what does Paul mean by this? I’ve written extensively about this. Here are a few posts (by no means exhaustive) for your consideration:
However, let me say this. Our sloganish expositor says, “Paul is certainly not saying that ‘everything is lawful, so go ahead and indulge.'” He then goes on to say that the only solution is to assume that “All things are lawful” must be a slogan, because the only way to stop us from sinful indulgence is to be bound to the law. This assumption is the beating central heart and soul of what is wrong with this whole “third use” approach to spirituality! If the threat of punishment is the only thing that can coerce us to obedience, there is no real holiness there. There must be freedom from coercion for there to be a holiness born of love:
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 1 John 4:18-19
The gospel does not motivate from fear, because the sting of the punishment for the demands of justice has been poured out in full on Christ Jesus. This is why it is called “justification”. Paul’s answer to the charge of the gospel’s antinomianism in Romans 6 isn’t to say that the gospel was a slogan, and that we’re still really bound to the law! It is to say that we have died to the law, and have been raised up with Christ. We are no longer in fear, but in love. And love is a far more powerful motivator than fear. Lawful threats of punishment have no power over sinful indulgence, as Paul says:
20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
Ah, but you say, we are not talking about the random commands of men! Paul is specific. The laws of God are still in operation over us. But Paul elsewhere (including the book of Colossians) has been very clear that we are no longer under the law but under grace. For instance, in the very next section in Colossians, the direct following context, he makes it clear that he is talking to real Christians who are truly raised up with Christ and seated with Him in the heavenly places. He goes on to give them clear instructions to live as mindful of that as a motivation against all kinds of lawless sins including sexual sin. This is spoken specifically to REAL CHRISTIANS, and the motivation and power he gives as a shield and weapon against such indulgence is our identity in Christ, which is not apparently under threat. Because the security of our identity, the lack of the threat of punishment, and the birth of the genuine freedom and mindfulness of profitability of righteousness, is of far more value against fleshly indulgence than the threat of the law. This is the right and careful understanding of the full context of this passage in Colossians.
Also, don’t let anyone tell you that I’m coming around to saying the same thing as the actual documents of the book of Concord or the Council of Dort or the Westminster Confession or whatever are saying about the third use. We all know what happens when you take Christians and start playing around with saying we are still bound by the law even though we’re saved. It all becomes about the law again. It preaches like being under the law. It smells like being under the law. It feels like punishment and coercion all over again. “You’ll know them by their fruits.” It’s the Galatian problem all over again. We are not under the law. All things ARE lawful. We are free men. The Holy Spirit has written the law upon our hearts – we love it. The Holy Spirit really does have true supernatural influence over us as believers. The New Testament imperatives are now telling us things that resonate with us with a joy – not beat us down with punishment. They are not threats, but helpful wisdom along the way of a beautiful freedom that cannot be removed from us. God has forged a genuine salvation for us in Christ and He does not mean for our salvation to be cleaved from our daily experience in the name of a false and lawful “sanctification.”
So I don’t care if an angel from heaven, or a big-name preacher, or some calvinist council in 1600 tries to steal my freedom, I won’t stand for it. It was purchased with the precious blood of Christ, and it is my only doorway to a holiness that is born of love and freedom. God would surely prefer the smallest genuine holiness to a whole world of fake holiness born of threat and punishment and fear. We are no longer under the law. It is not a slogan, it is a profound gospel truth. We are free men and women.
Free at last, free at last,
Thank God Almighty we are free at last!
Martin Luther King Jr.