Paul’s Summary of Christian Freedom: 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1

We’re moving on to the concluding section of Paul’s extended exhortations against idolatry. Specifically, if you will recall, Paul has been addressing the question that was raised in chapter 8 about whether Christians can eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Pagans would sacrifice meat and dedicate it to pagan gods during their celebrations in the temple in Corinth, and then they would sell the leftover meat in the Corinthians markets.

And so it is a simple question, “can Christians eat the meat?” However, the answer is not quite so simple, as we have seen. Some people, we might call them the Liberty party, answer the question in the clear affirmative.

Idols are nothing, and there is no real God but the God of the bible, so why wouldn’t we eat the meat?

But another party, we might call them the legal party, would answer the question in the negative. Their reasons for answering in the negative come from various places, and various levels of Christian maturity. Some, who wanted to stay away from the sins of their pagan past, concluded that of course it would be sin to eat the meat. Others, might have argued that eating the meat is participation with pagan worship, so of course it would be sinful.

So where does that leave us? Which is it, Paul? Is it liberty, or is it license? Is it freedom, or is it regulation?

Thankfully, Paul refuses to give to us a simplistic answer. He refuses to give, what many people have desired from me in this sermon series, and that is, a series of clear, categorical rules. You can do this, but not that. That’s what would be easiest for us, because we all like clear, black and white rules.

But what Paul does, is he leaves room for faith, and for the Christian conscience, and for love. He gives us principles to work from, rather than precepts to apply legally. And in doing so, he gives us a principled framework that allows us to apply his logic to all manner of issues, not merely to the ethical dilemma before us regarding meat sacrificed to idols.

He gives us principles from which we can reason through whatever gray areas we face. I say gray areas because this life is full of decisions that aren’t necessarily addressed in scripture. And in those cases, we must use our sanctified reason and Christian principles to make the proper choice.

That’s where we’re going tonight. We will survey Paul’s summary section. He’s like an attorney giving his closing arguments, before he moves on to the next case in chapter 11. Let’s begin by reading our text. 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1.

23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

I think it will be helpful for us, as we move through this text, to notice a series of principles that Paul gives us. These are the lines he gives us, the perimeter of the box we might say, within which we might operate in a godly way. Principles that keep us from going astray on either side of the narrow path. And we need the principles, lest we fall into a ditch on one side of the road or the other.

As we have mentioned, those ditches are either legalism on the one side, which sets up man-made rules and regulations, and which adds to God’s law. The legalist usually has good intentions, but what he ends up doing is setting up a different code, a stricter standard, and thereby binds the conscience and the genuine freedom that someone has in Christ.

Paul speaks against such conscience binding in many places, and affirms the genuine freedom that we have in Christ. Galatians 5:1, for example, says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Christ has set us free, so do submit to another yoke, another set of chains, another level of man-made bondage.

Perhaps some of you have experienced such a legalistic mindset in churches. Legalistic churches are usually cold, brittle, easily fractured. They are concerned about the rules, about their traditions, about obedience, and they are quick to point out to people when they have violated their church’s rules. That’s one ditch.

The other ditch, is when the believer or the church swings the pendulum on the other side. Satan isn’t troubled with which direction we go, so long as we are in one ditch or the other and not on the narrow path. The other ditch is license, or we might say lawlessness. This is the ditch that swings so far wide of Christian doctrine, that it bristles as any call for holiness. It emphasizes the freedom in Christ to the exclusion or neglect of any standard of morality or holiness.

This kind of believer or church makes the mistake that assuming the freedom of Christ is a license for sin. It refuses to speak of sin, unless of course they feel that you’re trying to hinder their free expression of liberty, thereby committing the one cardinal sin of being judgmental.

Legalism on one side, and license on the other.

So in light of what Paul has said in chapters 8-10, how are we to navigate this narrow road? Here is where he sums up his argumentation in our text. Let’s note the first principle in verse 23. First diagnostic question for us to consider: is my participation helpful? Is my participation helpful?Verse 23:

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

Paul cites probably the own argumentation of the Corinthians saying that All things are lawful. He affirms genuine freedom in Christ. Of course, he doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING is permissible. Clear sin is obviously ruled out. The things that the bible expressly forbids is clearly off limits. Otherwise his moral exhortations in chapters 5-7 make no sense at all. Of course the clear biblical prohibitions are off limits.

But outside of those, there is genuine freedom. But what our first principle highlights is the fact that the question for a believer is not merely “is it permissible? But Is it helpful?” Does it edify? That’s the word. Does it edify, or build up?

And that question goes for us individually, and corporately. Individually, we need to think through is it helpful for me.

  • Does my watching this movie build me up, spiritually?
  • Does my music incline my heart toward the love of God?
  • Does purchasing this new thing, or going to this place, or dating this person, make me more holy, more like Christ?

Of course, these things might be lawful, but that doesn’t make them necessarily helpful.

But we need to expand our questioning as well. That’s where Paul goes in the next verse: 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

We are social creatures, and we live in community, both with our neighbors, but also with our co-workers, and our families, and our brothers and sisters at church. Whatever I do myself, is going to necessarily impact other people. And so, we need to ask is my participation helpful?

  • How does my partaking in this hobby help my family?
  • Does my participation in this activity, or eating this or drinking that, or going to some place building up by brothers and sisters?
  • Is my exercise of my legitimate freedom going to edify my neighbor?

That’s a first question we need to ask of ourselves whenever we’re wrestling through some ethical gray area. Is my participation helpful? Does it edify?

Next principle: don’t be over-scrupulous. Don’t be over-scrupulous. Or we might say, don’t be unnecessarily nitpicky, fussy, fastidious. Don’t tie yourself up in knots. Verse 25:

25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.

Some people can get all wound up, and can bind themselves in unnecessary bondage over these areas of genuine Christian freedom. For example in Corinth, somebody may have looked at verse 21, which was a warning about participating with demons, and then tied themselves up in knots over whether or not eating meat sold in the market was demon worship.

The same can happen today too. I’ve had conversations recently of a similar vein. Such and such a company has this policy or has made that statement about homosexuality or abortion or whatever, does that mean that I need to stop eating at that restaurant, or stop shopping at their store? And the answer I give them is they are free to partake or not partake. The bible doesn’t speak to that issue, so don’t get all tied up in knots.

If your conscience will allow it, and it would be helpful, then you’re free. If your conscience won’t allow it, or if participating wouldn’t be helpful, then don’t partake. And what is the theological truth that underlies this principle? Verse 26:

 26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”

God is Lord over everything, he owns it all. Yes, that meat might have been sacrificed to a pagan god, but the meat still belongs to God, and so just because it was sold to you from the back of the temple doesn’t make it wicked, demonic meat. God owns it all.

Likewise, today, just because some pagan CEO made a foolish statement doesn’t mean you eating at his restaurant is necessarily sinful. God owns it all, whether it’s Christian chicken or liberal coffee, God is lord over it. Don’t let your scruples prevent you from enjoying genuine Christian freedom.

It’s similar to what Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” Don’t let the legalists bind your freedom, and don’t let yourself become so meticulous that you can only eat food made by a professing Christian, or only spend money at stores where everyone is sinless. You can’t live that way, and you don’t have to.

God made it all, and has declared it good, and you’re free to receive it as such, and receive it with thanksgiving. Don’t be overly-scrupulous.

Next principle: don’t forfeit Christian freedom quickly. Don’t forfeit Christian freedom quickly. Verse 27:

 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.

If you were a Corinthian believer, and somebody from your neighborhood invites you over for dinner, and they place a big plate of food in front of you, you don’t have to start asking, “now where did you get this meat? Was this used in the temple ceremonies?”

The point is, we don’t have to refrain from a genuine Christian freedom on the basis of somebody else’s legalistic list. Sometimes believers can feel pressure to ask these kinds of questions in order to seem holy, or in order to try and impress somebody else.

These questions are being asked with increasing frequency today: Are these hamburgers made from organic beef? Did you get your eggs from a free-range farm? Is your coffee from an ethically-sourced supplier?

This outward list of regulations can be a problem. That is, you’re free in Christ to partake or to not partake, but don’t be tossing out stumbling blocks in the form of outward, man-made regulations of holiness. If you’re going to partake or not partake, it ought to be done on the basis of an inward principle of love, not on the basis of an outward principle of a man-made precept.

Legalism doesn’t produce holiness. Rather, it produces slavery. And that’s a keep thing for us to keep in mind. Keep your finger here and turn to Colossians 2 for a second. In Colossians 2 Paul makes a relevant statement.

Colossians 2:20,

If with Christ you died to the [basic] spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Man-made regulations are no good at producing holiness. And what’s even more, they enslave us where we ought not be enslaved. They bind us where Christ has freed us. So for the good of ourselves and the good of others, let us not give up our genuine freedom in order to submit to a yoke of man-made invention.

Next principle: Be mindful of the weaker conscience. Be mindful of the weaker conscience. Verse 28:

28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—

Now it might sound as if Paul is talking out of both sides of his mouth. First he says don’t give up your freedom lightly, but now he says don’t eat the meat. Which is it Paul? Should I partake or not?

Paul just said not to relinquish your freedom unnecessarily by submitting to another person’s man-made list, but now in verse 28 he’s reminding us of our duty to love our weaker brother. We discussed this at length in previous sermons, so I won’t rehash it all here. But there are some people who, either because of their personal histories, or their past sin, or their ignorance of the bible, might have a weaker conscience in an area. And so Christian love would dictate that we be mindful of them, and out of love, not partake.

Well, you say, doesn’t that put me in the same place as the legalist? The legalist won’t participate because he has his man-made rules, and now Paul is telling me not to participate because of the conscience of my weaker brother. Won’t I end up like the legalist?

A ha, you see here is where we need to realize the crucial difference. The loving Christian brother and the legalist may both end up at the same conclusion, not to eat the meat, but one is driven by a Christ-like love and the other is driven by self-love. The legalist is concerned with his own self-righteousness, his own self-worship, his own little kingdom where he is the boss. He’s the Pharisee who is self-deceived into thinking he’s earned his way to God through his good works. I haven’t eaten any idol meat, and so I am holy and better than you, and because of my faithfulness I have earned God’s grace. And therein is the deception.

On the other hand, someone who willingly gives up his genuine Christian freedom out of love for his brother or sister, that person shows their true heart. They really get it. They understand how much Christ gave up for them, and likewise how little of a sacrifice it really is to abstain from eating meat for the sake of another brother or sister for whom Christ has died.

We’re to modify our practice for the sake of another brother’s conscience, rather than modifying our own conscience for the sake of satisfying another person’s legalistic list. Verse 29,

29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?

Our legitimate Christian freedom should not be judged by the conscience of another, nor should we exercise our legitimate freedoms in a way that would cause Christian liberty to be defamed in the eyes of another or offend a weaker brother.

Let me see if I can give us a practical example. If I’m invited to a wedding, and they serve wine with the meal, then my genuine Christian freedom allows me to partake. Nothing in scripture forbids me from drinking that wine. But if I see a brother or sister next to me who’s life has been really damaged through the abuse of alcohol, then I have a problem. I need to be mindful of my weaker brother. Will my partaking of this wine cause my brother to stumble, tempt them to violate their own conscience, or otherwise incline them to sin? If so, then I best not partake, out of love for that brother.

And notice the different motivation from the legalist. The legalist says, “Of course you don’t drink the wine because only drunkards need wine and being drunk is a sin, so drinking wine is sinful.” So he doesn’t drink. But the loving, mature brother, recognized his genuine freedom, and joyfully avoids casting stumbling blocks in front of the weaker brother, from a heart of love and gratitude for what Christ has done for him.

Both abstain from the wine, but their heart is totally different. It’s the heart of love. That’s the difference, and it makes all the difference in the world. Be mindful of the weaker conscience.

Next, we will move on to the closing statements of Paul in this section, which are positive statements, and which overlap. The next principle is this: be motivated by the glory of God. Be motivated by the glory of God. Verse 31:

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

Whether you eat the meat or not, be fueled by a desire to see God praised. Our selfish desires usually want to demand things. We demand our way, we demand our freedom, we demand our rights not be infringed, we demand that nobody dare tread on me.

But that’s not a Christian ethic. You can’t simultaneously be preoccupied with MY FREEDOM and the glory of God. The two are opposed, because they represent two different kingdoms. In my illusory kingdom, I am the king and everybody bows to me and my rights. But in God’s kingdom, we all exist for His glory, for his praise. For his fame.

This motivation of doing everything for God’s glory is transformative for us. It means that everything we do becomes the occasion for God to receive praise and honor. How we change a diaper, how we read our bible, how we change the oil in the car, how we buy groceries, how we balance a checkbook, whatever the activity, no matter how seemingly trivial or mundane, we have the opportunity to do it to the glory of God.

That means we align our motivations, with our efforts and our gifts and our abilities all oriented toward the end that God will be praised. The way we make up our beds, the way we dress, the way we speak, the way we serve, all of it is to be spent toward the goal of God receiving the honor, and not us.

Now, this call for the glory of God doesn’t mean that we add anything to God, or that he has some sort of deficit that we exist to fulfill. Theologians will distinguish between two different ways that scripture speaks of God’s glory.

The first is God’s intrinsic glory, or his inherent glory. That’s what he possesses in his very nature. It is absolute, complete, lacking nothing.

God does not possess some deficit that we need to fill. He’s inherently glory-full, glorious, and in need of nothing outside of himself.

AW Tozer recognizes this when he says, “Were every man on earth to become atheist—it could not affect God in any way. He is what He is in Himself, without regard to any other. To believe in Him, adds nothing to His perfections; to doubt Him, takes nothing away. Almighty God, just because He is almighty, needs no support from His creatures.” God needs nothing, nor does his glory shine any less brightly when we fail to bring him honor.

But a second way that scripture speaks of glory to God is a kind of reflective glory, or a responsive glory.  This giving glory to God refers to an appropriate response to God in the form of worship, exaltation, or exultation.

We see this kind of response throughout scripture. “Psalm 29:2 urges, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.” At Jesus’ birth, after God’s glory shines (Luke 2:9), the heavenly host resounds with “glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14), and the shepherds are “glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:20).”[1]

And this response is natural for any heart that has been touched by the grace of Christ. And it means that wherever we find ourselves, we know that God has placed us there, and that we have a duty to steward the situation in a way that brings praise to him.

We are to align our motives, with our actions, to the end of God receiving praise.

Next principle, see in verse 32: Don’t cause people to stumble. Don’t cause people to stumble.

32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God,

Now, some of you are thinking that we’ve already covered this, and that this pastor is just repeating himself. He must have been running out of material. But Paul repeated himself, and I’m imitating Paul, which is what he exhorts us to do, so take it up the repetitiveness with Paul.

Don’t cause people to stumble. Give no offense, Paul says. Provide no occasion for falling. And we do this for both Jews and Greeks, and for the church. For those outside of Christ, and those in Christ. For believers and unbelievers.

The principle is clear, but it is good for us to make it explicit, whenever we’re making decisions, don’t cast stumbling blocks.

If you eat the meat, eat it without parading around your freedom. If you abstain, don’t make your abstention a show.

If you eat or drink, don’t make yourself the center of attention. If you go to this place or that, don’t flaunt it in front of others who might not be blessed by it. If you participate in a genuine freedom, but it might not bless others, don’t post it online, and thereby cast stumbling blocks. If you have this or that opinion, which you’re free to do in Christ, it doesn’t mean that such opinion ought to be shouted from the rooftops of social media.

What we do will necessarily affect others, so don’t be guilty of being oblivious to the effects of our actions upon others, and thereby cast stumbling blocks in front of them. Instead, we need to be like Paul, who, rather than causing others to stumble, sought to please others.

Which is our next principle: Seek to please others. Seek to please others. Verse 33:

33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

Paul’s aim in life is exactly what he exhorts of all believers in Philippians 2: “in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Genuine humility will lead us to joyfully seek the best for others around us. We’ll seek to please them, rather than ourselves. We’ll seek their preferences, and consider them as more important than our own. It’s a proud person that always demands they get their way. The proud man is unconcerned with those around them, demanding his rights, demanding people submit to his wishes and act like he does.

But that’s not what we’re called to do, and that’s not what Paul did. He sought to please others, which doesn’t mean that just he sought to pacify and placate everyone around him, as the rest of this letter will attest. But what it did mean for Paul, was that he sought the good of everyone around him, and therefore lived a life like Christ did. Which is why he could close with this final principle:

Live worthy of Imitation. Live worthy of imitation. Chapter 11:1,

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

Paul could hold up his own behavior as a standard of imitation. He had sought to live these ethical principles out. He had sought to be Christ to these people.

And that’s what we’re called to do. To consider others as more important than ourselves. To willingly and joyfully give up our legitimate freedoms, if that’s what it takes to love someone else well. We’re willing to constrain our real liberty, so that others might experience the love of God.

That’s a high bar. And if I’m honest, I don’t often like to behave this way. I like my preferences, in fact, I prefer them. I like my logic. I like to do what I like to do, and I don’t like to give up any my genuine freedoms for the sake of another. I don’t want to constrain my liberty. And if I’m really honest, it’s because I like ME a lot more than I like others. It’s self-love, rather than real, sacrificial, Christ-like love.

We’ve all been guilty of this.

We’ve demanded that our siblings give us the toy we want to play with, and give it to me now.

We’ve demanded that our spouse treat us with love and respect, all the while not being willing to treat them with the same.

We’ve demanded that others submit to what we want to do, rather than joyfully submitting to the preferences of others.

We’ve all been selfish. We’ve all been proud. We’ve all been the weaker brother. We’ve all been the legalist, and all been guilty of license. We’re all guilty, one way or the other.

But that’s where we need the good news of this final verse. You see, we’re not merely called to imitate Paul, a Jewish man from two centuries ago. And we’re not merely called to imitate a man named Jesus. We’re called to imitate Christ. And what is Christ?

Christ is the name for the anointed one, the messiah, the one who came as a substitute to save his people from their sinfulness. He came to die for the sins of selfish people. He came to liberate prideful men and women.

That’s good news. If we’re trusting in Jesus, then we are forgiven of pride and arrogance. We’re liberated from sin and death. We’re liberated from faulty consciences, and we’re free from others who would seek to bind our own. We no longer have to demand to get our way, nor make our legalistic lists. We’re righteous in Christ. We’ve been given everything in Christ, and so there is nothing left for us to demand. The world can take away all our rights, but in Christ, we have all that we need.

Trust in this Christ, and you too can be free. And to be set free by the Son, is to be free indeed. Don’t turn to lists, don’t demands your rights. Trust in this Jesus, the God of the bible, and you too can be set free.

[1] Christopher Morgan, Glory of God, (accessed 5/11/22).


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