Two giant figures of the sixteenth century debated a subject quite germane to this pericope from Saint Paul: Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther on the question of human free will. Luther maintained none of us is free in the sense that we can choose God or reason intellectually to obtain saving faith in the Gospel. In other words, that we can decide to follow Jesus because of our contrary nature and inability to recognize the truth about God. To disagree with this, that is the position Luther defended, would be to disagree with Paul, who refers to the Christians in Colossae and Thessalonica as “chosen ones.” Paul also describes the Church of God as, “…a remnant, chosen by grace.” Paul’s witness to the truth finds corroboration with Saint Peter who speaks of the community of believers as, “…chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit.”
Above all, Jesus establishes the dominical teaching on who-chooses-who in the issue of redemption. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). The same Apostle John also writes:
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:9-13).
Luther, not Erasmus, it turns out was standing on the solid rock of God’s Word. The natural human will is captive to the fallen human nature until God brings faith and repentance through the Gospel. Mankind is limited to its nature, until God works supernaturally upon it.
The natural human will is captive to the fallen human nature until God brings faith and repentance through the Gospel.
Still, the matter of human free will and divine initiative in regeneration raises some big questions. For example, if we did not choose God but He found us, what of those who are not believers? Were they similarly selected by God to be excluded from His Kingdom by default, as it were, because they are not among those chosen for salvation? Luther said, “No,” God did not choose people for condemnation because Scripture does not teach what theologians call “double predestination.” 1 Timothy 2:4 speaks of God, “…who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Most famously, Jesus affirms, “God so loved the world,” not a few, or some, or most, “that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Then again, there is the question of whether we have any free will at all, if we are in bondage to sin and death from which we have no power to release ourselves. In this case, Luther spoke highly of our freedom in matters of responding to the grace of God. Here we are getting close to the text before us because this text affirms not only that Christians enjoy some freedom, but how only Christians have this particular type of freedom.
For only as a Christian can Paul say what he says at the beginning of this passage: “All things are lawful for me” (1 Corinthians 6:12). This is an absolutely staggering claim. No man, we are told, is above the Law. But Paul speaks in no uncertain terms about our freedom in Christ from the Law itself. “For freedom,” he wrote to the Galatians, “Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1).
Now, this is an interesting verse because, if you read on, Paul gives an example of the sort of thing he means when he warns against submitting again to a yoke of slavery. It is, in fact, a matter of falling again under the Law. And the particular law he cites as an example is the old law of circumcision, given by God to Abraham to mark out His chosen people. “Aha!” we might think, of course we are free from that sort of law. We sometimes call it the ceremonial law. Since Christ came, we do not have to follow laws of circumcision, or sacrificing bulls and lambs, or avoiding pork chops or ham sandwiches. Those things are ceremonial and now that Christ has come, they have had their day. These requirements belong to the Law, which, in the words of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, “…has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1), making the point that in Christ all the ceremonies and sacrifices and priesthood and temple and festivals and what have you in the Old Testament have now found their fulfillment in Christ. Yes, we may think, of course we are free from the ceremonial law, but the moral law is still binding upon us. All those old commandments have been replaced by what Jesus called “a new commandment,” namely to love one another (John 13:34), which he empowers us to do by giving us the Holy Spirit of God, and God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).
But that is not what Paul is getting at. “All things are lawful for me,” he says. This means his life is not under the governance of the Law, which is a scandalous assertion most people would reject. Yet, it is what the apostle is saying. What he is certainly not saying, but we might well be thinking, is he wants to be free from the will of God. Nothing could be further from his mind.
What he is certainly not saying, but we might well be thinking, is he wants to be free from the will of God. Nothing could be further from his mind.
No, the thing he wants to be free from, and the thing we in our deepest souls want to be free from, is sin. Jesus taught, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), and no one was more conscious of this than Paul. He saw in his own life an enslavement, so the good things he wanted to do he did not do and the bad things he did not want to do he ended up doing. “Wretched man that I am,” he concluded, “who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Immediately there is an answer: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
And this is the truth about all the baptized who abide in Christ. It is all there in this letter to the Romans. We were baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. “We know that our old self was crucified with Him so the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6), and “…sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
Just a minute, this is about being free from sin. What about being free from the Law? What does being free from sin, which is obviously a good thing, have to do with being free from the Law, which sounds dangerous? Sinlessness is good; lawlessness is bad.
Paul uses an expression similar to “it has teeth” when he speaks about sin. Actually, he starts by talking about death. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). Sin bites. It has teeth. It bites through the power of the Law and its bite is death, the wages of sin. But then, once again, the same conclusion: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Sin has had its teeth wrenched out. Since Christ was raised from death, that ugly monster has no power over us. So, whatever reasons we might have for doing good and noble things, it has nothing to do with any enslavement to God’s Law.
Sin has had its teeth wrenched out. Since Christ was raised from death, that ugly monster has no power over us.
Because of the extreme love God has lavished on us in His Son, love flows back the other way. It just happens. It happens in families and in relationships all the time. How do children come to love their parents? Is it because their mother and father demand their love with ever increasing threats of punishment if the children do not give it? No, you just love them. And by and large, they seem to love you back. Why should it be any different with God?
Therefore, two principles are set down in our text: First, everything is lawful, but second, not everything is helpful. Not every possible thing we could do can flow out of a heart set free by our all-loving, self-giving God. Neither, by the way, is this the first generation to think of the problem. In fact, it was this very question that gave rise to the chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans quoted earlier:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:1-3)
Of course, it did not take people long to realize the implications of their freedom. Does this mean, they must have asked, we can do whatever we like? And that is exactly right for those who are in Christ. But you see, if you are in Christ, what do you want to do?
Anything and everything are possible, even lawful, but not everything is helpful. Not everything is appropriate, is it? For example, our text asks if going with a prostitute is helpful? Is it appropriate? Is it possible for one in Christ? No, or to use the word in the text, “Never!” Why? Because you cannot be a member of Christ’s body and united with Him and be made one flesh with a prostitute. Rather, glorify God in your body. Such a conclusion does not undermine the freedom we have in Christ. It is the freedom we have in Christ. It is the freedom of a will released, to be faced with the option and to be able to say, “No.” Not because of fearing consequences and not because God may no longer love me, but because I am in Christ.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.