By Larry H. Fain
The apostle Paul, in writing to the church at Corinth and also to the saints in Rome, had, as his motive, the same thing as he did in writing to Timothy. 1 Timothy 4:16: “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (NKJV). The issue at hand is the salvation of souls. The question we must ask is a simple one. “How shall I conduct myself so as to (1) save my own soul, and (2) save others as well?” If we ever lose sight of the fact that salvation is the end of all our discussions, we shall never truly understand any passage of Scripture regardless of its degree of difficulty. 1 Corinthians 10:33: “Just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (NKJV). In this manner, Paul concludes his discussion of “liberty” by emphasizing the most important aspect of this or any other discussion, the salvation of souls.
Both in 1 Corinthians 8:9 and 10:29, Paul uses the word “liberty” and applies it to the individual. What is an individual liberty? Inherent in the words from which liberty is translated is the authority or freedom to act. Can liberty ever be sinful, or is it always some approved activity? 1 John 3:4: “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (NKJV). The Greek, anomia (lawlessness), simply means “without law.” Sin is action without the approval of law. Law commands or prohibits and sometimes allows. The freeway speed limit law prohibits excessive speed as well as inhibits speed which is also dangerous. Within these two extremes is a course of action which is allowed by the law. By setting an upper and a lower limit, the law allows liberty of action within the parameters of the law.
What, then, is the rule, if any rule exists, for the establishment of a liberty in the Scripture? We know such liberty exists. We have already cited Paul’s references to it. One key passage needed to answer our question is 1 Corinthians 10:23: “All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify” (ASV). Whatever is discerned concerning liberty, primarily, we must comprehend that any activity first must meet the approval of law. “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23b, NKJV). “The baptism of John where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (Matt. 21:25a). We may insert any activity in the place of the baptism of John divorce for any cause, collections into the treasury of the local church on a day other than the first day of the week, fellowship halls, abortion, instrumental music in the worship of the church, baptism by sprinkling for the remission of sins. What is the origin of the authority for these activities?
Does the authority originate with God or with men? This is a primary exercise for the man who seeks to please God.
Expedients may be helpful and profitable. By definition, they must be. Many things, lawful and unlawful, may work to build a house, which is the word edify. Unless, however, these edifying expedients are first and foremost lawful, they are disallowed by God’s word. Sin is activity without law. Sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). There-fore, no sin, no action without the approval of the law of God, can be classified as a liberty. We are never at liberty to commit sin. Any interpretation of any passage of Scripture so as to allow sin is an erroneous interpretation. God hates sin.
Law commands. Acts 2:38 records a command. 1 Corinthians 6:18a, 1 Peter 2:11, and 1 Corinthians 11:24b all do the same thing. There are no options here. By law, repentance and baptism for the remission of sins are both required for salvation. By law, all who would be righteous must flee from sexual immorality and abstain from fleshly lusts. By law, Christians must observe the Lord’s death in the Supper “in remembrance of me.” There is no liberty here in the things specified. We are bound by the law to do just as God has said. As there may be liberty, under generic authority, to observe the Lord’s supper at any predetermined time on the first day of the week, or baptize in a lake, stream, or baptistry, these are expedients under the law. Liberties are not debatable. Law must first be surely established before we can act.
In our assigned texts, Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, mention is made of meats. In Romans, the discussion concerns meats in general. In the Corinthian correspondence, meat sacrificed to idols is considered. There Paul makes basically one point. Liberty is to be shunned for the salvation of a weak brother. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13, NKJV). Was it allow-able, under God’s law, for Paul to eat the meat? Certainly it was allowable. It meets the law test. “But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (1 Cor. 8:8, NKJV). As far as God is concerned, whether we eat meat or shun meat is no business of his. He leaves the choice to us. Eating meat, including the meat offered by a heathen to a dumb idol, is of absolutely no consequence to God. It is lawful. It is expedient. It is allowed by God to be done.
However, when we inject the conscience of the weak brother into our deliberations, we have another variable in the equation which must be considered. Then, for the sake of the salvation of a soul, eating meat becomes a sin. Read verses 9-11. It does not matter how right the thing is, or how much we may know about how right it is, if we hinder the righteous behavior of a weak brother, we are said to sin against, not only the brother, but Paul says we sin against Christ, who gave his life for the weak brother. 1 Corinthians 8:12: “But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (NKJV). The first example of a “doubtful thing” (Rom. 14:1) is the matter of meat eating (Rom. 14:2). One man eats meat. The other eats only vegetables. So what? Does God care what a man has for supper? Does his law legislate in this area? Only verse 6, that we eat to the Lord and give him thanks. To bind anything else as a matter of law is to go beyond the revealed authority. The child of God, strong or weak, has the option. Strong or weak, we are to receive each other and love each other in the Lord. Concerning the observance of days, Paul says in Romans 14:5b: “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (NKJV). Concerning what sort of question can that statement be made? Can we say that about baptism? Is each man allowed by the Law of God to make up his own mind about that? Can we say that about instrumental music? Can we say that about the fellowship hall? Can we say that about divorce for any cause? Can we say that about immorality? “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col. 3:17, NKJV).
In an area where we function within generic authority, God has given us liberty to act. No sinful practice is ever allowed in the arena of liberty. When we are commanded to go preach the gospel, we are not at liberty concerning what we must preach, but we are at liberty to decide what is the expedient way to get there. In the area of fellowship, a local church has no option when it comes to the divisive man or the adulterer. “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17, NKJV). “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5, NKJV). There is no liberty here. There are no options. When, however, brethren disagree about a matter where there is liberty, the command is just as clear. Romans 14:3: “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him” (NKJV). That last phrase is vital. If God has received a man, by faith and obedience to his law, we cannot judge him as he is God’s servant. We must not dispute over matters of liberty. However, when sin is present, we must act in order to save souls from the wages of sin, death (Rom. 6:23).
No doubt there are some serious issues between brethren where liberty and law must be discerned, but let that be done in a spirit of deference for each other and supreme respect for the will of God. “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” (Rom. 14:22-23, NKJV). If we ever stray from the principle of respect for the law of God, we will stray from God altogether. We can study diligently God’s word daily to decide our course of action in our life of service to him. Sin or the approval or the allowance thereof is never an option for God’s servant. “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, NKJV). If we stay in the light of God, he will receive us, and we must receive all those who do the same. May God help us by his grace and through his word to, as Ezra of old, “… prepare our hearts to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10, NKJV).
Guardian of Truth XL: 4 p. 8-9
February 15, 1996