All Things Are Lawful?
Robert Wurtz II
“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 Corinthians 6:12 NKJV)
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.”
(1 Corinthians 10:23 NKJV)
In our first passage, Paul is not suggesting that literally all things are lawful for him. He has already described behaviors that we might call mortal sins. What he is referring to are things that God has allowed for us to do legally, but we are at risk of abusing. In 1 Cor. 6:12 we have sexual relations and eating in view. Both of these stem from good and natural desires. However, Paul was determined not to be a slave to anything that is good in itself. Eating is good and food is for the body. However, there is more to life than eating. A person’s belly (stomach) can become their god if they are not careful (Phil. 3:19). The same holds true for seeking fulfillment in sexual relations. Things that are lawful are apt to become awful if we don’t keep them in check.
Paul was warning about the negative effects of abusing that which in itself is good. He says plainly, I will not be brought under the power of any. In other words, he was not going to allow a good and natural desire to control him. Satan tried to use the need for food to get Jesus off track when he tested Him in the wilderness. Our Lord’s answer? Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that is proceeding from the mouth of God. Man should find fulfillment not in the exercise of his/her natural physical desires, but in doing God’s will. Jesus added to this when He stated, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.” (John 4:34b NKJV)
The common concern between both 1 Cor. 6:12 and 10:23 is that not all things are helpful. This is a Greek word that means “what is best for you.” We could translate the sentence, All things are lawful for me, but not all things are what’s best for me. In other words, it may be lawful to do but it is not in your best interest. You would be better off not doing _____. This is often difficult to persuade people of because they think in terms of immediate gratification. They simply can’t see how their behavior now is simply not what is best for them or the people they hope to influence. Being sensitive to God and having a willingness to listen to those who care most will help us discover whether something in our life is helpful or not.
Paul then expands on this proverb, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful…” by shifting the focus from the negative to the positive. He states, “…all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” This is Paul’s main concern for Christians; does what you are doing edify you? Does what you are doing edify the Body of Christ? The word edify is the Greek oikodomio and it means to build. Usually the context involves a structures like the Temple, tombs, barns, cities, houses, or towers. Sometimes it involves building an entity like the Church. “…all things are lawful for me, but not all things build.”
Taken together these passages offered the carnal Corinthians an opportunity to evaluate their priorities as Christians. If an athlete wants to be successful, he/she will not do things that impede their progress. For example, it may be legal to indulge in sweets and unhealthy foods, but an athlete will discipline themselves to do only what “builds them up.” They are unwilling to sacrifice their overall health by indulging in something that may compromise their performance. Moreover, if they intend to be a role model in their field they will not do things that give the impression that others can do it too. Likewise, as Christians, we have to be careful what we allow or do not allow into our lives.
Some will say, “I have liberty and I can do ____ if I wish to.” This may be true. However, is it what is best for you? Does it build you or the Body of Christ? Paul answered this question best perhaps in Romans 14:22 when he simply asked, “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.”
(Romans 14:22 NKJV)