Four times in two verses in 1 Corinthians Paul quotes what was apparently a motto used by some Christians to justify improper use of Christian liberty: all things are lawful for me (6:12; 10:23). Paul’s use of the phrase in chapter six suggests that the Corinthians invoked Christian liberty to justify the gratification of illicit desires (see vv. 9–10; 13–20). His use of the phrase in chapter 10 pairs liberty and love for one’s neighbor (see vv. 24–33). Paul quotes the motto to let his readers know that he is aware of their thinking but that it isn’t entirely correct.
Yes, one of God’s most important gifts in salvation is freedom. Jesus came “To proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18; cf. Is. 61:1). He summarized the gospel this way: “Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin…if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36). Paul too, charges believers to live freely. “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty” (Gal. 5:13). “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (v. 1). Christian freedom was so important to Paul that the Corinthians might have adapted the motto—all things are lawful for me—from Paul’s own ministry (see Acts 18:13). Christians truly have much freedom in Christ. Those who are inheriting the earth (Matt. 5:5; cf. 1 Cor. 10:26, 28; Ps. 24:1) must start with the principle of freedom, not restriction.
So Paul qualifies rather than cancels the Corinthian motto. He simply charges Christians to use freedom wisely, suggesting three tests Christian liberty will pass if it is genuine.
1 Is My Use of Liberty Legal?
Paul first quotes the Corinthian motto (1 Cor. 6:12) after having warned them against the consequences of radical depravity (vv. 9–10). Is he anticipating the Corinthian rebuttal that all things, even sexual sin, are lawful for those who have washed, sanctified, and justified? (v. 11).
The Corinthians were well aware of the freedom Christ gives believers in the New Covenant. Jesus boldly cancelled dietary restrictions: “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man” (Mark 7:15). If Christians can eat food that was formerly unclean, might they not also engage in sexual activities that were formerly unclean? After all, we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14) and God’s mercy is greater than our sin (Rom. 5:20).
But Paul actually rejects the permissibility of immoral actions by invoking Christian freedom. “You were bought at a price,” Christ has freed you from slavery to sin by offering his precious blood on the altar of God’s justice, “therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:20; cf. 1 Peter 1:17–19). Do not use your liberty as an opportunity for the flesh (Gal. 5:13). The gift of gracious justification gives us freedom from sin, not freedom to sin.
2. Is My Use of Liberty Edifying?
Not all morally neutral actions are helpful (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23) or build up others (v. 23). Our freedom to act in morally neutral ways is qualified by the fact that we live in community. Christians should refuse to allow their consciences to be enslaved by the opinions of others (v. 29). Still, Christians honor the fact that we don’t live to ourselves (Rom. 14:7).
The context of Paul’s second reference to the Corinthian motto concerns meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 10:25–30). Eat such meet freely unless your eating troubles the conscience of another. Love motivates us to be sensitive to others’ concerns, to care about how our actions affect others. Our freedom with regard to things indifferent is important, but less important than the cause of the gospel and the peace of the church. This is why Paul often freely relinquished his rights. He didn’t seek his own profit but the profit of many (1 Cor. 10:33). In this, he says, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
3. Is My Use of Liberty Liberating?
Otherwise innocent desires and actions can be enslaving: “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). Those who say “I could quit anytime”—but don’t—might be deceiving themselves. Is there anything that rules you? Social media? Food? Alcohol? Chemical addictions? Money? Fitness? Work? We identify idols by the feelings that arise at the prospect of giving them up. Even God-given pleasures can become idols, competing masters, when we need them for comfort. We should use our liberty to make ourselves and others more, not less, free in Christ.
All moral considerations bring us back to Jesus. Christian liberty is a testimony to Christ. He freed us from bondage to sin, paying for our freedom with his own blood. He has delivered us from hell and cleansed our consciences from the fear of hell. His Spirit tunes our wills to God’s so that we can freely serve him with integrity. We honor Christ by living as free people.
Our salvation is a testimony to God’s care for those who had forfeited all rights to his love. God had the liberty not to save sinners (Rom. 3:19, 23; 6:23). But God practiced the principle the Spirit now teaches us: “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being” (1 Cor. 10:24; cf. Phil. 2:4). God’s eternal Son might have exercised his freedom to retain all the benefits of deity, but Christ didn’t prize his rights; he didn’t overvalue his comfort. We honor Christ by freely denying our rights when appropriate. Christians have great liberty in Christ. Use that liberty so that “whatever you do,” you “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:3).