In our experience, some things are lawful and others illegal. In that regard, 1 Corinthians 6 has a very odd juxtaposition of ideas.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. 1 Corinthians 6: 9-12 (NASB 1995)
If all things are lawful, what about the unrighteous who will not inherit the kingdom of God? Is Paul saying that fornication, idolatry, adultery, and the rest are lawful?
Yes. As far as Christians are concerned, that is exactly what he means! Christians are not under law. That is, Christians do not have a long list of dos and don’ts to live up to. We’re under grace. Paul goes on to say, “not all things are profitable.”
All things are lawful. Nonetheless, sin is still sin. Sin is not profitable. It pays out in death. It destroys and fouls everything it touches.
Paul considers the point so important that he immediately restates it. The verse continues, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.”
Under the new covenant, it’s not because of law that we refrain from sin. God, in his grace, has freed us from bondage to it. We don’t sin because we are free not to.
False teachings in the church
For nearly two millennia now, the church has lurched between pairs of errors.
Scaring the faithful with hell
Hardly anyone will be saved, says one kind of false teacher. Nearly everyone will go to hell. This bunch has preached to what they regard as a room full of sinners in the hope that maybe one or two will pay attention.
These people cheapen holiness by reducing it to a bunch of rules, as if we were still under law. They cheapen grace by reducing it to some notion of God’s inscrutable favoritism to people who somehow manage to get “religion.”
This kind of false teaching used to be much more common than it is now, but it hasn’t gone away.
Everyone will be saved, says another crowd of false teachers. And it doesn’t really matter what you do so long as you’re sincere and acting in “love.”
Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal priest, published a book called Situation Ethics: The New Morality in 1968. The new morality was nothing but the old immorality dressed up for church. Fletcher and likeminded preachers cheapen grace by using it as an excuse to sin.
Times have changed, they say. (But God and his standards haven’t.)
A loving God would never condemn anyone to everlasting punishment; there is no hell. (Jesus explicitly says otherwise, both before and after his resurrection.)
And so the church itself has been infected with the disease of denying Christ for the sake of condoning sin. Ordained clergy have taken leadership in condoning what the Bible condemns.
Just look at the acts once considered abominations within living memory that apostles of cheap grace now want the church to celebrate:
- Unmarried couples living together
- Abortion on demand
- Unmarried women having children
- Gay marriage
Tolerance of each of these progressively weakens families. It makes it progressively less likely that children will ever hear any accurate teaching about Jesus and what the Bible means by love. Or that congregations will hear anything meaningful from the pulpit about adultery.
And now, the world wants us to accept that people can identify as whatever sex they want and insist that everyone else address them with their preferred pronouns. Alas, some professing Christians are happy to go along.
What’s next on the list of outrages that some in the church will celebrate? Polygamy? Infanticide? Child molestation?
Don’t forget that acceptance of gay marriage seemed inconceivable in the late 20th century.
What is real grace?
All people are born sinners and deserve for God to reject them. But God, being rich in mercy, became a man, lived the perfect life no one else can, suffered judicial murder, took our sin upon him, rose from death, and ascended to heaven.
In other words, we can do nothing to stop being sinners. Jesus lived the life we can’t and died the death we deserve.
Real grace, then, acknowledges that God is Lord and we are not, and that God did a work on our behalf we can’t do on our own. As Scripture says,
. . . if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. Romans 10:9-10 (NASB)
Cheap grace simply assumes that whatever we do is okay with God. Real grace acknowledges that we have offended against him.
And truly accepting grace means that we no longer want to continue to offend. We repent. We reverse course and, with the power of God dwelling within us, we more closely live the life God intends than we ever could on our own.
But as Paul warns, cheap grace wants to lure us back into sin.
See to it that there is no one who takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. Colossians 2:8
While Jesus’ time on earth was still a living memory, Jude pointed out that cheap grace had already invaded the church.
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once and for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe. Jude 3-5
God made a people for himself out of slaves and delivered them with a powerful hand. Most refused to believe that he could fulfill all of his promises. All of their corpses had to fall in the wilderness before God could fulfill his promises for the sake of their children.
Thousands of years later, God made a church for himself largely from social outcasts based on the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. And while people were still alive who remembered it, unbelievers came out of the woodwork to lead many astray.
They are still at work among us to this day, with the same deadly result.
And in pointing that out, I’m not threatening anyone with hell. I’m not the judge, but the judge has inspired Scripture. I can point to what is written.
Who is your master?
Turning grace in to licentiousness denies our Master. If Jesus isn’t our Master, something else will be. Despite our pretentions to the contrary, humans cannot be masters of their own destiny.
Look back at those bullet points of what I called abominations. Every one of them is lawful. Not a one of them is profitable. Every one of them is still sin—falling short of the glory that God promises to his people.
And for all the people who, reading this far, are outraged by my “intolerance,” yes. I serve an intolerant God. Serving him requires being intolerant of everything he will not tolerate.
That passage in 1 Corinthians 6 lists plenty of other abominations besides sexual sin. So do other passages where Paul denounces sexual sins. They are equally abominable. No more, no less.
They’ll all bring nothing but ruin if you let them master you. And master you they will if you don’t seek and experience true grace; power to turn away from them and let God transform you by renewing your mind.