1 Corinthians 6:12–20
"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be enslaved by anything. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food"—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two shall become one flesh." But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Friday morning I looked out the bedroom window as I was buttoning my shirt and saw a parable of modern American life. A middle-aged man in a three-piece green suit was walking westward toward our house on the north side of 18th Street. He had something yellow in his right hand, perhaps a banana peel or potato chip bag. I couldn't tell. As he walked along, he looked to his left across the street. Then he turned and looked behind him. And then he tossed the yellow thing over the fence by the freeway.
Two Marks of Secular American Life
In that little episode there are at least two marks of secular American life. One is practical atheism. And the other is physical hedonism.
1. Practical Atheism
The freeway fence was on his right concealing him with bushes. He could see to the front as he walked. The ground was underneath. And he covered himself to the left and behind with a glance. Why didn't he look up? Because at that moment he was a practical atheist. There might have been someone to the left or behind that mattered. But there was no one in heaven that mattered. American life is by and large atheistic when it comes to bananas and potato chips. What people say is not what shows their practical atheism. It's whether they look up when they think they are alone.
2. Physical Hedonism
The other mark of American life I saw was physical hedonism. Why did this fellow want to throw the yellow thing away instead of carrying it to a can? Because it was inconvenient to carry. It was annoying, unpleasant.
But why did he look over his shoulder before he tossed it? Because his conscience told him it was an action that is not good and that people would disapprove. So a minor skirmish went on in his soul. It lasted about five seconds. "Shall I opt for the pleasure of not carrying this thing? Or shall I opt for the pleasure of a clear conscience?" It clearly was not much of a battle. The physical pleasure won out. And that is another mark of our culture. Physical hedonism. If it feels good to your body, why deny yourself? The curse of our culture is that physical pleasures are desired more strongly than spiritual joy.
And of course the two things go together: practical atheism and physical hedonism. Once God is out of the picture, then my conscience has no ultimate significance as a part of God's image, and so, "Let us eat, drink, and litter the freeway, for tomorrow we die—and that's it." If you can just keep God out of the bananas and potato chips of your life, then you can proceed with your indulgences.
The Goal of This Message
The point of the story is simply to help you remember what I am about to unpack from this text—that we who are not atheists, but believers in Jesus Christ, will not be the slaves of physical pleasure. When the battle begins in our own soul, we will look up, and by the power of the Spirit of God, we will be free from the desires of the body. We will not be enslaved by anything.
The goal of this message is the fulfillment of 1 Corinthians 6:20 in your lives. "You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, "So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." We've said it a thousand times, but do we sit down to the table before our food and drink and do what the word says? Do we eat to the glory of God? Do we drink to the glory of God? How can we?
Reading the Text Backwards
Let's focus our attention on 1 Corinthians 6:12–14.
12. "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be enslaved by anything. 13. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food"—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.
To understand these verses we need to read them backward—take the last words first. At the end of verse 13 Paul says, "The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us."
The Body Is for the Lord
The body is for the Lord! Your body has been given to you for one reason: to be an instrument for glorifying Christ (6:20). The way you use your body and the way you take care of your body should communicate that the glory of Christ is all-satisfying.
The Lord Is for the Body
Then he says that not only is the body for the Lord, "the Lord is for the body." That is, Christ is not indifferent to the body. He cares about it. He puts a premium on how we make use of it. He makes the body his temple (6:19). He is "for the body"—not against it, and not indifferent to it.
God Will Raise Our Bodies
Finally Paul says (in verse 14), "God raised the Lord and he will raise us." In other words the body will never lose its importance. It may decay for a season in the grave. But it will be raised and restored. God gave Jesus a resurrection body and God will give us a resurrection body. The resurrection is God's final declaration that he is for the body.
"Food for the Stomach and the Stomach for Food"
What are we to make, then, of the first part of verse 13? "'Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food'—and God will destroy both one and the other." This sounds like a view that is exactly the opposite of the one we just described. It sounds like an argument that says: the body is just going to decay in the ground anyway; so it has no real moral significance; it's just here to process food for a while and then it's gone.
I think that is exactly what it did mean in the mouth of some of the Corinthians. It was probably a slogan: "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food!"—pass the potatoes. Probably they used this slogan for sex and drink as well. "Sex for the body and the body for sex!" That's probably why Paul switches from food to sexual immorality in the second part of verse 13 (where he says, "the body is not for immorality").
Some of the Corinthians had a view of the body that made what they did with it morally indifferent. In 1 Corinthians 5:2 they actually boasted about an act of incest in the church. In 11:21 some of them even got drunk at the Lord's Supper. They reasoned: the body and food and drink and sex are going to be destroyed in the end. There will only be free spirits. So the body does not matter. You can eat and drink and have sex any way you like because the body is morally irrelevant. It's what you know and think that really counts (8:1–3).
Paul opposed this view with all his might. He gave them a new and radically different slogan: "The body is for the Lord and the Lord is for the body." The body is not just going to be destroyed; it is going to be raised. The body is not morally indifferent. It is for the glory of God.
So what you have in verses 13 and 14 is a Corinthian slogan used to justify immorality and drunkenness and overeating, and then Paul's response to it.
"All Things Are Lawful for Me"
That is also what we have in verse 12: a slogan and Paul's responses to it.
"All things are lawful for me,"
but not all things are helpful.
"All things are lawful for me,"
but I will not be enslaved by anything.
It may well be that the words, "All things are lawful for me," come from Paul's own teaching, because he does not deny their truth. He does not say, "No, all things are NOT lawful for me." I think, in fact, that he agrees with the slogan. But he means something very different by it than the loose people in Corinth.
He means that when you cease to live by legal lists of dos and don'ts, you must start to live by Christian love and Christian liberty. Yes, the old law of the letter that coerces the flesh with threatenings should give way. We are no longer under law (Romans 6:14). We are under the sway of grace. Now what?
Two Guidelines for Living
Paul answers in verse 12 with two guidelines which I have called the law of love and the law of liberty.
1. The Law of Love
First, he says, "All right, all things are permitted in one sense, we should not live under external legal constraints; BUT NOT ALL THINGS ARE HELPFUL." In other words, don't ask, "What do I HAVE to do?" Instead ask, "What is HELPFUL to do?"
I call this the law of love because it's love that wants to be helpful to others. Paul makes the connection between helpfulness and love in a round about way. Notice in 1 Corinthians 10:23 that being helpful is explained as building others up: "All things are lawful, but not all things are HELPFUL. All things are lawful, but not all things BUILD UP." Helpful things are things that build others up in their faith.
But then notice in 1 Corinthians 8:1 how Paul relates the act of love to the act of building others up. "Knowledge puffs up, but LOVE BUILDS UP." So if love is what builds up and if building up is what Paul means by being helpful, then the point of 6:12 (when it says, "not all things are helpful") is that we should let our lives be guided by the law of love.
Surely this is the "law" Paul had in mind in Galatians 6:2 when he said, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." And in 1 Corinthians 9:21, when he said, "To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law." We are not under the law as a mere external constraint. We are under grace which provides an internal constraint to love, that is, to be helpful and build others up in faith.
2. The Law of Liberty
Second, Paul says in 6:12, "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything." In other words, not only let your actions be guided by the law of love, but also let them be guided by the law of liberty. Don't ask, "Am I permitted to do this as a Christian?" Instead ask, "Am I a slave to this act? Is this food or drink or sex or hobby or work becoming my master instead of my servant?"
What is the LAW OF LIBERTY? It is simply the control of the Holy Spirit from within. Paul says in Romans 8:2, "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death." In other words the working of the Spirit is a LAW OF LIBERTY. It frees from the power of sin and death. "For where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom!" (2 Corinthians 3:17; see James 1:25; 2:12).
So there are two laws that govern the behavior and habits of a Christian: the law of love ("Will this be helpful, will it upbuild?"), and the law of liberty ("Will this enslave me, will it addict me?").
How These Two Laws Relate to Each Other
If we ask how these two laws relate to each other, Galatians 5:13 gives an answer, "You were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another." Freedom is more foundational than love. Inner freedom is the spring; love is the water that flows out in "helpfulness" to others. The inner work of the Holy Spirit, freeing us from the enslavements of all but God, is the source of love.
So the most basic challenge 1 Corinthians 6:12–14 has to give is: preserve your freedom in Christ! Can you say with Paul, "I will not be enslaved by anything!"?
Two Biblical Motivations to Live in Freedom
I close with two biblical motivations for why you should strive to free yourself from all enslavements, whether to food or drink or lust or laziness or work. First, because slavery is so dangerous. And second, because freedom is so wonderful.
1. The Danger of Slavery
First, slavery is so dangerous. Here is what I mean. The persistent refusal to say no to an enslaving habit (like overeating) runs the risk of hardening your conscience so that you no longer feel guilty for that enslavement. And then others become more easy to justify and pretty soon it can happen that the whole biblical concept of spiritual warfare and vigilance and self-denial and self-control drops out of your life.
"Let him who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall!" Do you think you are beyond the possibility of making shipwreck of your faith? Where do you think backsliders and apostates come from? They come from people who, little by little, in things that are seemingly unimportant, ignored the voice of God in their own conscience. "Food for the body, the body for food—both will decay in the grave someday; its not important how I eat or drink."
Why does God record for us in Hebrews 12:16–17 the tragedy of Esau with these words: "Do not be . . . like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears"?
How did Hymenaeus and Alexander fall away from the Lord? 1 Timothy 1:19 tells us: "By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith, among them Hymenaeus and Alexander." What do you expect the spiritual consequences to be when day after day you reject the voice of conscience and yield to the enslavement of food or drink or lust?
What did Paul mean when he wrote to the Philippians, "I tell you now with tears that many live as enemies of the cross, whose end is destruction and whose god is their belly" (Philippians 3:18–19)?
Why did Paul command the Corinthians, "Run that you may obtain the prize. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:25–27)?
Why, in his first and perhaps only sermon to the governor Felix, did the apostle Paul choose for his sermon outline: "Justice, SELF-CONTROL, and future judgment" (Acts 24:25)? If you had one sermon to preach to a governor from prison, would your second point be self-control?
Why did Jesus say, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell"?
God has said all these things for our sake! They are written that we might realize that bringing the body under control is no minor matter! "All things are lawful for me, BUT I WILL NOT BE ENSLAVED BY ANYTHING!" Cast off the bondage of your body. You were not meant to be led like a dog on the leash of lust or hunger.
2. The Wonder of Freedom
The second reason we should strive to free ourselves from all enslavements is that freedom is so wonderful.
When that man in the three-piece suit chose the pleasure of an empty hand swinging at his side over the pleasure of a clear conscience, did he choose JOY?!!! "Happy is the man who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves," says the apostle Paul (Romans 14:22). Persistent yielding to the inordinate desires of the body against the voice of conscience is a life of misery!
But to turn and do the opposite: to avail yourself of the law of the Spirit of life within, and to feel yourself bearing the fruit of self-control, and to pommel the rebel body into submission until it is no longer a master but a servant—this is victory and this is joy!
Brothers and sisters, you were bought with a price. Your bodies count. They are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Glorify God in your bodies: receive his gifts of pleasure with gratitude, and deny yourselves all excesses by the liberating addiction of his majesty.