What is lawful and what is beneficial?

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.”

(1 Corinthians 10:23 ESV)

What is helpful (beneficial in other translations)? And what is lawful? As Christians are we permitted to do whatever is not outlawed in Scripture? Certainly. But are those doings the most beneficial or helpful? Maybe. Maybe not. In specific situations Paul challenges Christians to be discerning about not just what is right or wrong to do, but what is profitable or unprofitable regarding others’ consciences. In context that is what Paul is clearly saying. Further applied, believers should be contemplating the effects upon their own conscience and worship.

First, we need to be considering others’ consciences. If we read the surrounding verses we find that there were cases where Christians might eat what had been offered to idols, without sin. But we must not merely consider what is lawful, but what is expedient, what is most edifying to others. We are by no means forbidden from the common offices of kindness. Nor are we allowed rude behavior to any, however they may differ from us in religious sentiments or practices. According to Paul’s advice, Christians should take care not to use their liberty to the others’ harm, or to their own reproach. Further down the page we find the principle for all such decisions or practices in life. In eating and drinking, and in all we do, we should aim at the glory of God, at pleasing and honoring him. This is the great end of our religion and directs us where we find no specific commands for our situation. A holy, peaceable, and benevolent spirit will disarm the greatest of enemies.

Concerning our own conscience and worship we have what many would call Christian liberties. And while it is true that through Christ’s victory over sin and death through his resurrection we have been made free, shouldn’t we try to stay away from what could potentially be vices as much as possible? So often proclaimed Christians will walk that fine line of those Christian liberties just because they can, teetering on the brink of sin. Imagine a circle, where everything inside represents what is lawful while everything outside represents what is not. As one gets closer and closer to the boundaries of the circle, one gets closer and closer to being outside of the law. But by staying near the center, we stay “safe”. Let me be clear. My point is not that we should confine ourselves only to activities that would be in the center of the circle and fearfully avoid all else. This can quickly turn into legalism and self righteousness, much like the Pharisees during the life of our Lord. But what I am advocating for is a purity of mind and discernment to go along with it. Why be tempted at all if it can be avoided? Why have to fight sin if we can quickly flee from it in the first place? The body is for the Lord; is to be an instrument of righteousness to holiness. Let us make it our business, to the latest day and hour of our lives, to glorify God with our bodies, and with our spirits which are his.

Certainly we have freedom in Christ and we are to stand on this freedom. In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul rebukes even the apostle Peter for backsliding on this freedom.

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'”

(Galatians 2:11-14 ESV)

Peter had apparently been in Antioch for some time, long enough for others to observe that his custom amongst Gentile Christians was to live like them (freedom in the Gospel), rather than that of a Jew (bondage under the law). In time, a party of Jews set of a sequence of events that led to Paul’s confrontation and rebuke of Peter for going back to living as if under bondage to the law. What follows in the book, is a description of the freedom we have in Christ as well as an entire allegory given over to define this freedom.

The understanding that many Christians have about the freedom Christ purchased for us through his death is all about doing whatever you want (with those stipulations mentioned earlier of course). But between the book of Galatians and the book of James where he talks about the law of liberty, we get a clearer picture of the Biblical definition of Christian freedom. This freedom we have seems to have no relation to the morals or the spiritual standards of God. Our freedom has nothing to do with God’s standards and everything to do with our motive. A Jew who lived his whole life under the code of Moses could be the same externally after he is saved. The law in the Old Testament did not change. The difference would be that at some point when he came to Christ his motive for keeping the law would change.

Under the fear of consequence, Old Testament Jews tried to keep the law but never could. As Christians who have the indwelling Christ we will. Our freedom is not to disobey, but freedom to do what’s right not through obligation but through genuine desire. Freedom is defined as the ability to be able to do what you want. People are free to steal, kill, get drunk, etc. But a mature Christian finds himself lacking any desire to do that.

So Christian, rejoice in your freedom. Know that Christ defeated sin and death and purchased our freedom. But let’s be discerning and wise about that freedom. For while the Bible says nothing about our styles of wit, our partaking of alcoholic beverages, or our association with worldly entertainment, it does commend sober-minded self control and maturity. Shouldn’t we want to have more in common with Jesus who is “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26 ESV) and not Lot who we cannot even mention without thinking also of Sodom and Gomorrah?

One need not be a Bible scholar to recognize that Scripture consistently celebrates virtues such as self-control, sober-mindedness, and restraint of that bodily appetite. These are what we ought to regard with the utmost, modeling them in our lives rather than trying our hardest to justify doing the the very things that hold so many unbelievers in bondage.