The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 14:23, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” This indicates that there is more to Christian living than merely following rules. It is key for a Christian to understand the principles involved in God's laws, not just the letter-of-the-law wording.
Those in the world argue that the law is done away altogether, and believing this, they find numerous gray areas. To support this belief they will use I Corinthians 6:12. However, just a few verses earlier, he seems to say something totally different! Notice verses 9-10:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul does not intend for this list to encompass every sin possible, but he does cover a lot of ground. In addition, he begins verse 9 with “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom,” which casts a wide net. So if fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, the covetous, and drunkards will not enter the Kingdom of God, how then can all things be lawful?
Verse 12, we find, is a poor translation. Paul is paraphrasing what some people were saying—and still say today. Notice that he repeats “all things are lawful for me, but . . .,” following each phrase with an objection. The Contemporary English Version renders verse 12 as, “Some of you say, 'We can do anything we want to.' But I tell you that not everything is good for us. So I refuse to let anything have power over me.” The New International Version is similar: “'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything'—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Clearly, Paul is telling us what others have said and giving his response.
We are free-moral agents, in other words. We can make our own decisions. We can sin, if we wish to, but there are consequences. Paul says he refuses to let “anything have power over me.” He implies that he keeps a close watch on his thoughts and actions.
Notice verse 9, again from the Contemporary English Version:
Don't you know that evil people won't have a share in the blessings of God's kingdom? Don't fool yourselves! No one who is immoral or worships idols or is unfaithful in marriage or is a pervert or behaves like a homosexual . . . .
Are there gray areas here? Not to God, but our definition of “evil people” might be different. Certainly “immoral” is open to wide interpretation these days in the world. To “worship idols” can be looked at in different ways. Is “unfaithful in marriage” just an affair or is it more? Each of us knows exactly what these things mean to us, and that is as it should be. We do not need an exhaustive list, or we should not, of all the possibilities of each category. We should know the principle involved.
This is one reason we do not see many lawyers as members of the church. Lawyers are taught to see everything as a gray area. “It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is,” as the lawyer Bill Clinton famously said. It seems that, as we grow in the faith, gray areas disappear, and the line becomes clearer. Satan and his world, on the other hand, are busy blurring the lines, trying to make us feel guilty or prudish if we judge something to be sin and choose not to participate.
I have known ministers who thought they were the town sheriff and had to be in on all decisions in our lives. Others, though, taught the principles involved and left it to church members to make decisions for themselves. Once our teachers have taught us God's way, the burden is on us, not them, to know right from wrong. We must know where the lines are.
Do We See the Line?
How can Paul give a long list of conduct forbidden by God, and then say, "All things are lawful for me"? Does he have a special dispensation to commit sin? Can any Christian have the same privileges Paul seems to enjoy? What does he mean, "All things are lawful for me"?
First, it is helpful to understand that the phrase is better translated as, "I have permission to do anything," "I am free to do anything," or "I may do anything." This removes the strict sense of law and legality that the word "lawful" suggests. Paul is referring to our God-given free-moral agency. This liberty to sin appears in Deuteronomy 30:15-20, where God says we are free to choose either death or life, but He commands us to choose life, clearly implying that we are also free to choose death! History reveals that mankind, under the power of Satan, human nature, and this world, has overwhelmingly chosen death, becoming slaves to wrong choices.
When God calls us, He opens our minds to our nature, the serious purpose of life, the certainty of death, and the sacrifice of Christ for us. We may freely choose to take advantage of God's offer, enter into a covenant with Him, and receive His Spirit, and He frees us from our slavery to Satan, human nature, sin, and death. This begins the process of becoming permanently free from our slavery to wrong choices. Once in this position, we can see why Paul says, in paraphrase, "As a son of God, I still have permission to do anything, but not everything is helpful, or expedient, to fulfilling God's purpose for me if I desire to fulfill the covenant and enter God's Kingdom."
He then makes the strong statement, paraphrasing verse 12, "I will not allow myself to be mastered by human nature's lustful desires. I will control myself because, otherwise, I'd just be serving myself, not God or my fellow men." I Corinthians 9:27 confirms Paul's strong desire and efforts to guard himself against sin: "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified."
He writes in Romans 14:22-23: "Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin." Happy—blessed—is the person who overcomes lust, which in reality is idolatry, because it affects the way he worships God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Second Commandment