The Word of God is a sharp, two-edged sword and, if you are not careful, you will cut yourself with it.
If we were to play the small-group game of biblical interpretation with the phrase, “All things are lawful unto me,” the blood would pool on the floor. You do know the game I am talking about, right? I guess such group leaders don’t call it a game. Ironically, they take it seriously. I am talking about where we all sit intimately, someone reads something from the Scripture, and then we take turns sharing what we feel about what was read. We pass the metaphorical talking stick around and everyone, with thoughtful furrowing of the brow, has the opportunity to say, “What this means to me . . .”
Much could and should be said about the folly and danger of that practice, but we must get back to the point. If we took a census on “All things are lawful unto me,” somebody, and probably many somebodies, would say something to this general effect:
“What this means to me is that we are not under the law. We don’t have to live by all kinds of rules and stuff. We can do whatever we want and anybody that says we can or can’t do something is a legalist.”
There are numerous ways to make that statement which sound intellectually sophisticated and enlightened. It’s the kind of stuff that goes over well at refined and polite dinner parties. Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings though, is that what the text means? Does this text mean there are no rules, boundaries, or limits for Christians? Does it mean that everything is open and accessible for Christians and we are just supposed to use common sense so that no one gets hurt?
What are the options?
Three primary ways of interpreting this text must be considered. I start here because of the word all in the statement. It is the important hinge pin in the statement. We must understand what all means if we are to make any sense of what is written. Anytime you have all in a statement, there are three primary possibilities—universal, rhetorical, or categorical. Let us consider each of these in relation to Paul’s statement, “All things are lawful unto me.”
The Universal All
The universal all makes a statement apply equally to all without any exceptions to what or whom is included. The well-known model syllogism begins with a major premise that illustrates the universal all.
- All men are mortal.
Aristotle is a man.
Therefore, Aristotle is mortal.
In this example, all men refers to all mankind without any exceptions. It means all human beings, male and female, are mortal. It applies universally to all subjects of the statement without any exceptions or distinctions. Is Paul using the universal absolute in his letter to the Corinthians?
In our hypothetical small-group above, the assertion that “all things are lawful unto me” means we don’t have any laws, rules, or restrictions as Christians, is reading the statement as a universal absolute. That would mean that Paul is teaching that absolutely everything, without any exceptions, is lawful, or permissible, for a Christian to do. Universal absolutes are convenient to refute when necessary because we only have to find at least one case where it does not apply. Let’s go back to small-group to ask the asserter some questions.
“So everything is permissible?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So it’s okay to kill somebody?”
“Well . . . no.”
“But you said everything is permissible.”
“Not murder, of course.”
“Oh, so everything is permissible except murder?”
“So then it’s okay to take a gun and make you give me your wallet and car keys?”
“Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous!”
“But you said everything is permissible.”
“Come on. You know what I mean. Murder and theft and things like that are not right.”
Logically speaking, this man argued from a flawed premise and then tried to course correct by arbitrarily applying the premise and reject the conclusions he didn’t like. He made a statement that sounds good but doesn’t hold up to examination (Proverbs 18:17). He is being arbitrary and, in scriptural terms, double minded (James 1:8). This is actually the way many people reason whether they are believers or unbelievers, but I must eschew the temptation to explore that more fully just now.
We come back to Paul’s statement and ask if there are reasons in the text to not take this as a universal absolute statement. There are several textual reasons that show us it is not a universal statement. I will mention a few.
- Paul condemns both the actions of the immoral man in Corinth and the lack of disciplinary action by the church to exclude him (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). Clearly, his fornication was not permissible and neither was the toleration of it by the church.
- In the same chapter, Paul’s denouncement was not limited to only fornication, but extended to covetousness, idolatry, railing, drunkenness, and extortion (1 Corinthians 5:11). These also were not permissible.
- In the sixth chapter, he states that church members suing one another in court is not permissible (1 Corinthians 6:7-8).
- In the same chapter, he gives a list of unlawful actions (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), making it plain that those who live in those things will not go to Heaven. They are clearly not permissible.
So either Paul is being arbitrary or he is not making a universal absolute statement. Clearly, he is not making a universal absolute statement, but that does not mean that the statement is without meaning. It must be interpreted properly and we have two other possibilities to consider.
The Rhetorical All
The rhetorical all is used for effect. It is a rhetorical device known as hyperbole, or exaggeration. Hyperbole is much overused in common conversation today. We talk of things as awesome, amazing, and totally, when they are not. Consequently, when we need words to describe truly big things, we find we have overdrawn the balance and the account is empty. So people end up talking about a mediocre coffee, a sunset, a sale at the mall, and the attributes of God in the same descriptive terms. As you would guess, the coffee gets a boost but the thoughts of God are reduced in men’s hearts and minds.
Our communication needs to be sanctified and we should be much more careful about how we talk. Jesus taught this clearly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:37). I must also eschew the strong temptation to explore this more fully just now. We need to return to the consideration of hyperbole.
Hyperbole has a legitimate place and use in verbal and written communication. The most helpful use is in the realm of abstract and effect. Hyperbole is not helpful in conveying concrete facts. Let’s consider a common example of rhetorical exaggeration. Let’s say I went to the store on Saturday morning and returned that afternoon. You then ask me, “How was your shopping trip?” To which I reply, “Hectic. Everybody in town was at the store today.”
This common hyperbole has an effect but doesn’t convey anything very useful for information. The statement conveys the store was crowded, but compared to what? Obviously, everybody in town was not in the store, but how many people were there? In this instance, nothing more is needed to be communicated, so the hyperbole is fine. But what about Paul’s statement, “All things are lawful unto me?”
If Paul is exaggerating for effect, then he is really making a non-statement. He then would not mean everything but what things are lawful would be unclear. We are back to arbitrariness if this is hyperbole. It is clear that this not just rhetoric, rather Paul means to communicate something meaningful to the readers. That brings us to the third case.
The Categorical All
The categorical all makes a statement apply equally to everything within a set or category. The statement is equally true for each member or entity in the set. If I were to say something about all poodles, I would be talking about a set or category of dogs. I would not be talking about all dogs, only the set of dogs known as poodles and, given that my statement was true, it would be true of all poodles, but not necessarily true of all dogs.
We have already seen that Paul’s statement is not a universal absolute, nor rhetorical, so it must be categorical. “All things” must refer to everything within a particular category. We can rule out unlawful things, or forbidden things, i.e. murder, theft, adultery, etc. Paul has clearly condemned such in the same letter. We can also rule out things we are positively commanded to do. If we are commanded to do something, then we are required to do it by God. We can rule this out for at least two good reasons.
- “All things are lawful unto me” is a nonsensical statement if Paul means things commanded. He would be saying that everything we are required to do is permissible to do.
- Contextually, here and in 1 Corinthians 10:23 Paul is referring to something optional. He is talking about things that may be done or not done at our own discretion.
“All things are lawful unto me” then refers to things that are not inherently sinful, or things indifferent. He is not talking about unlawful things, nor things we are commanded to do. He is talking about things that of themselves are neither good nor bad. All indifferent things are permissible.
This is obviously Paul’s meaning given the verses that immediately follow our text verse. Paul uses meats as an example (1 Corinthians 6:13). When he addresses the issue of eating meat that had been part of a sacrifice to an idol, he points out that the meat itself is not inherently defiled or polluted because “an idol is nothing in the world” (1 Corinthians 8:4). When touch similarly on the subject to the Roman Christians, Paul stated, “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).
There are objects and activities that are not inherently sinful and a Christian is free to choose them or refuse them. While something may be indifferent, that doesn’t mean that we cannot sin in the using of it. Meat is not inherently sinful, but we can certainly sin by eating meat in gluttony (Luke 21:34; Romans 13:13).
Paul’s meaning in the use of all things is further seen in the complementing statement that immediately follows in verse twelve, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Expedient means profitable or useful. Unlawful things are never profitable spiritually. Commanded things are always profitable. Indifferent things may be profitable or may be unprofitable. This is the point Paul is urging while pushing the Corinthians toward maturity and discernment in the edifying use of their liberty.
Do we have any use for the law of God today?
Many professing Christians express disdain for God’s law. They do this by ignoring and neglecting the Old Testament. They do this by relegating the Old Testament to nothing but interesting history and fodder for Sunday School stories. They do this by viewing the New Testament as a replacement for the Old Testament.
The expressions we hear about God’s law differ drastically from the statements of the Scripture writers. They loved God’s law and esteemed it very highly.
Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.
- Job 23:12
But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
- Psalm 1:2
I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word.
- Psalm 119:16
The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.
- Psalm 119:72
O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.
- Psalm 119:97
Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
- Romans 7:12
Lawful Use of the Law
Paul wrote, “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8), indicating there is a good and right use of the law. The law can be used wrongly, but that doesn’t negate the right use. A wrong use of the law, for example, would be to merit justification before God. The law wasn’t given for that purpose and has no power to that end. “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20).
The Bible teaches us at least six good uses for the law:
- Restrain wickedness (1 Timothy 1:8-10)
- Convict of sin (Romans 3:20; Romans 7:7)
- Expression of God’s holy righteousness (Leviticus 20:7-8)
- Pointer to Christ (Galatians 3:24)
- Protection of the weak and preservation of justice (Isaiah 1:17)
- Teaches how to love (Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 22:36-40)
What could be better than piles of cash and the stuff piles of cash can buy?
Young men are prone to many things that Solomon would call folly. One is the if syndrome.
- If I just had that toy
If I just had that tool
If I just had that car
If I just had some money
Young men are convinced of how much more glamorous their life would be if only they had this or that. Their wishing frequently revolves around money and/or the cool stuff that money can buy. The delusion is so complete that it is not only a better life they envision, but a better self.
Of course, this insidious syndrome is not limited to the young nor to men. The lives of many are driven by the desire to get rich and in Christians justified by the thought of how much more I could give to the church, missions, and the needy if only I had a lot more myself. Paul gave a sober warning to all such pursuers of wealth:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
- 1 Timothy 6:6-10
What on earth is better than riches?
That is a good question to ask and consider. The Bible gives us several things that are better than riches here and now.
- Salvation, deliverance from God’s wrath is far better and more important than money. “Riches profit not in the day of wrath: but righteousness delivereth from death” (Proverbs 11:4). In fact, Jesus taught that it is better to be blind and without hands and feet in this life and to go to Heaven than to have all those in this life and then die and go to Hell (Matthew 18:8-9).
- Integrity is better. “Better is the poor that walketh in his uprightness, than he that is perverse in his ways, though he be rich” (Proverbs 28:6). It is far better to maintain honesty and uprightness than to gain wealth through the discarding of these virtues. It is more conducive to peaceful sleep as well.
- A good and sensible wife is far better than money. “House and riches are the inheritance of fathers and a prudent wife is from the LORD” (Proverbs 19:14). The man who has such a wife is among the richest on earth, for her value exceeds money and treasure (Proverbs 31:10).
- A good reputation is much better than coins and green paper. “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold” (Proverbs 22:1). It is much preferred to have a track record of honesty and integrity than to drive a car that runs halfway to six figures or to wear jeans that cost you three.
- It is better to have little with love and the fear of God. “Better is little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble therewith. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith” (Proverbs 15:16-17).
(The above list is adapted from Future Men by Douglas Wilson.)
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
~ John 3:7
The need for regeneration lies in man’s total depravity. Every member of Adam’s race is a fallen creature, and every part of his complex being has been corrupted by sin.
- Man’s heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9).
- His mind is blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4) and darkened by sin (Eph. 4:18), so that his thoughts are only evil continually (Gen. 6:5).
- His affections are prostituted, so that he loves what God hates, and hates what God loves. His will is enslaved from good (Rom. 6:20) and opposed to God (Rom. 8:7).
- He is without righteousness (Rom. 3:10), under the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10) and is the captive of the Devil.
- His condition is truly deplorable, and his case desperate. He cannot better himself, for he is “without strength” (Rom. 5:6).
- He cannot work out his salvation, for there dwelleth no good thing in him (Rom. 7:18).
He needs, then, to be born of God, “for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). Man is a fallen creature. It is not that a few leaves have faded, but that the entire tree has become rotten, root and branch. There is in every one that which is radically wrong. The word “radical” comes from a Latin one which means “the root,” so that when we say a man is radically wrong, we mean that there is in him, in the very foundation and fiber of his being, that which is intrinsically corrupt and essentially evil. Sins are merely the fruit, there must of necessity be a root from which they spring. It follows, then, as an inevitable consequence that man needs the aid of a Higher Power to effect a radical change in him. There is only One who can effect that change: God created man, and God alone can re- create him. Hence the imperative demand, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7). Man is spiritually dead and naught but all-mighty power can make him alive.
Quoted from Regeneration by Arthur W. Pink