Sermon preached on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/11/2018 in Novato, CA.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
“Permissibility and Pot”
As of the first of the year, California state law has legalized recreational marijuana use. Of course, it is still illegal according to federal law, so it’s not accurate to say that it is now legal. That being said, this move by our state has renewed discussions over the permissibility of using “pot” for Christians. The question has been asked by Christians, “If the government fully legalizes the recreational use of marijuana, would I be free as a Christian to use it?” Similarly, some might want to ask if it like alcohol use; that if used moderately, would it be okay for the Christian?
I must admit that, as a pastor, working with this kind of a topic is a bit of a challenge. Not so much because some people have very strong opinions, but because this is a topic that the Bible does not explicitly deal with. In other words, there aren’t verses that specifically deal with the use of marijuana. The use of marijuana appears to not have even made it to the Middle East and Europe until somewhere around 500 AD roughly. So, it’s not something the Bible could have commented on. It’s like we wouldn’t expect the Bible to talk about excessive video game playing. So, it’s a challenge to preach an expository sermon when there is not a single proof text to go to. That being said, there are many topics not addressed explicitly in the Bible from which we can and should derive applications from the Bible. The use of recreational marijuana is certainly one such topic, and today’s passage is one that will help us to think about this subject. I would also note, that even if you are not too interested in this topic of marijuana, today’s passage has countless other applications, so I encourage you that as I work through the passage, that you consider other relevant applications to your life as well.
So then, I’ll especially be focusing on verse 12 and working through it. Let’s start with the phrase “all thing are lawful for me”. This clearly is a saying that both Paul and the Corinthians are familiar with. We don’t know the origin. It’s quoted twice here and also two more times in 1 Corinthians 10:23. It could have been a saying or proverb from Greek origin. It might have even been something that Paul had coined in his earlier teachings with them. But whatever the origin, two things to note right away. Paul does not condemn the statement. He doesn’t say it is wrong. But he does challenge how the Corinthians had apparently been using the statement. You could imagine how someone takes a proverbial statement and rips it from its proper context or right use. When that happens you pervert the truth of such a saying or motto. Paul here challenges their understanding of this saying, “all things are lawful.”
So, then, what does that statement “all things are lawful” refer to? What is its literal meaning and correct usage? One might initially think it could be a slogan affirming antinomianism (antinomianism being the false doctrine that a Christian has no law to keep at all any longer in the new covenant). However, if that were the case, it would contradict many other passages of Scripture that speak against antinomianism, such as Romans 6:1. But you don’t have to go that far. Right here in context, we see that it would be a wrong way to use this slogan “all things are lawful” to teach antinomianism. The verses right before our passage, specifically verse 9-10 lists many sins that’s are incompatible with the Christian life. Also, in our passage Paul mentions sin, and especially sexual immorality as an example. So, clearly, the slogan “all things are lawful” can’t promote the idea that a Christian no longer has any laws he needs to follow. God’s moral laws of righteousness are always an obligation for a Christian. That being said, the fact that Paul has to deal with the sin of sexual immorality in this passage certainly suggests some of the Corinthians had been using this saying in an antinomian sort of way. But that would not have been the right way to use it.
So, what possible way could the slogan “all things are lawful” be rightly used? To answer that, let me state that the Greek word translated “lawful” isn’t related to the Greek word for “law”. The Greek word for law is nomos like where the word antinomian comes from. But the Greek word here is exeime. It is more literally translated as “permissible” such as you find in the NIV translation; this might be one of the few times were the NIV is arguably more literal compared to the other major translations. Another good translation is what the Vulgate used to translate this into Latin, and I think it helps us understand this word. The Vulgate translated this word into the latin word licent. From that Latin word we get English words like “license” and “licentiousness”. It’s a word about liberty and freedom. If you have license to do something, you have the freedom, the permission to do something. In contrast, licentiousness is when people pervert such liberty and permission for sin. So, what’s my point? The slogan “all things are lawful” is not talking about the moral law of God in terms of what is right and wrong, good or evil. It’s rather talking about liberty and Christian freedom. As so since we’ve already said that we can’t use this slogan to say that the Christian is free to do sin, then it must deal with matters of indifference. And so, at the end of the day, this is a slogan that promotes Christian liberty. Christian liberty, not to sin, but in matters of indifference, a Christian has freedom. Given the literal language, and Paul’s usage of this, that must be how this was intended to be used. We reformed Christians have a different slogan that gets at the same thing. We speak against the “binding of conscience,” and we mean that Christians shouldn’t put demands upon other Christians that go beyond what the Bible demands. This concern today about not “binding consciences” is essentially what this slogan was supposed to be about. In matters indifferent, Christians have liberty. But you could imagine how the Corinthians could have lifted this slogan out of right context and use in order to apply it in wrong ways. Sadly, Christians today can make the same mistake with the idea of not binding the conscience. And so, Paul corrects such abuse of Christian liberty in this passage.
So, the interpretation in this first point is that “all things lawful” doesn’t mean sinful things are permissible for the Christian. In terms of our application concerning pot, I would argue from Scripture that recreational use of marijuana fails on this first test. You might remember on my sermon on 1 Timothy 3:2, I pointed to how Christians were to be sober; some translations state sober-minded, but the same point still follows. Obviously, in the Bible that language of sober makes you think of excessive alcohol use. I made the case in that passage that it was my understanding that unlike alcohol, there was not a sober or moderate use of marijuana. You are effectively high or not, and if you are high, then you are not sober in the best spirit of the word. God wants us to be in control of our minds and bodies, and from my understanding, recreational use of marijuana removes that control. The government website for drug abuse ran by the NIH says this, “All forms of marijuana are mind altering (psychoactive). In other words, they change how the brain works.” 1 Timothy 3:2 is one of a number of passages that command God’s people to be sober and not drunk, and it seems is a fitting application to biblically speak against the recreational use of marijuana.
As one further biblical application to speak against marijuana use are the several references to what is translated as sorcery in the New Testament. Galatians 5:20 and three references in Revelation speak against sorcery. But interestingly, the word in the Greek is actually pharmakeia, which could be literally translated as the dealing of drugs. Though that word had some historic usage about medicinal usage of drugs, by the time of the New Testament it seemed that the people who were thought of as the drug dealers at that time where the sorcerers and magicians in their evil craft, so the word pharmakeia became intimately connected with such people. But the emphasis on the word is less on the magic itself but on the dispensing of drugs. Such sorcerers obviously weren’t drug dealers in the sense of medical treatments. Seeing that the Bible forbids that kind of pharmakeia surely speaks against recreational marijuana use at least in some sense as well.
So, hopefully, those applications end the subject for you right there. Hopefully, you are convinced that recreational marijuana use is not a matter of indifference but actually something that is not in keeping with righteousness; a violation of God’s law. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that I didn’t convince you yet. Let’s assume you think it is a possible matter of Christian liberty. Well, I would submit that the other two points we’ll see from verse 12 also would speak against such use of marijuana. So, the next part of verse 12 to look at is the qualification of helpfulness. Verse 12, “all things are lawful, but all thing are not helpful.” The word “helpful” could also be translated as beneficial, profitable, or expedient. And so, in terms of Christian liberty, though you may have liberty in and of itself in a specific matter, there is still a question of prudence and wisdom. Would your engaging in some action actually be of some good value, to you or to others? The next verse gives us some context for at least some of what Paul had in mind for the Corinthians. He speaks of matters of food. In this book and in the New Testament we see a question came up about what food a Christian could or could not eat. They had in mind things like meat that had been previously sacrificed to idols. As becomes even more clear when you get to chapters 8 and 10 of this letter, Paul would affirm that eating food of any sort is, in itself, is a matter of indifference for the Christian. Even eating food that a pagan had offered to an idol, before you bought it, in and of itself is a matter of indifference, because we know that idols aren’t really anything; and our God is the one and only true God. If we buy that meat that a pagan had foolishly offered to his blind and deaf idol, what’s that to us? We can eat that meat and thank God for it. But Paul says if some weaker Christian brother hasn’t yet come to that understanding, and you cause them to stumble in how you eat such meat in front of them and maybe even get them to eat it, then you have sinned against your brother. In that situation, your Christian liberty sinned in that your act of liberty did not bring profit, but harm to your brother. Of course, I could extend the food analogy in more general terms of benefit. I may be free to eat chocolate bars, but if I eat so many that I rot my teeth and become morbidly obese, then my freedom did not find benefit in what it did. Such exercise of freedom is both unwise and wrong. Paul says that Christian freedom must be handled with prudence. Our actions should still be for some good, some use, some positive benefit, and not the opposite: some harm to ourselves or others.
Again, we can draw some applications here toward recreational use of marijuana. If for the sake or argument we said it was a matter of Christian indifference, then a question would become if it was helpful and beneficial to partake in? Or does it instead bring harm to ourselves or others? Again, I’m no expert on such things, so let me quote some of the experts. The NIH says studies show that recreational use of marijuana negatively affects the brain and can cause long term and permanent effects. The CDC says that it especially affects the “parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time.” The CDC also speaks of its negative affects on heart health, lung health, and mental health. They state that marijuana users have increased risk to develop schizophrenia and psychosis, aka a complete loss of reality where people have delusional thinking. The CDC also states that studies show a connection between its use and certain cancers. Those who smoke it, can also harm other through second hand smoke. Those who consume it via edibles expose themselves to a real risk of poisoning from it that would require immediate medical attention. So, I would ask, even if recreational marijuana use was a matter of indifference biblically, is it helpful, beneficial, or profitable? Would it be wise and prudent to use it? If not, I would submit to you that you would be wrong in such so-called liberty to partake of it.
At this point we could ask as an aside about medical marijuana? Is there an argument to be made for a helpful benefit in the medical area? Proverbs 31 suggests the possible use of strong drink for those who are perishing, while at the same time speaking against the wisdom of that for kings. Would medical marijuana be of the same sort? There certainly is debate and studies still going on in this area. But I would say two things. It would give greater credibility to its medical use if in California it were prescribed by your normal doctors in the same way any other prescription was prescribed. But it’s generally not, to my knowledge. And surely that’s related to the fact that the FDA has generally not approved its use for medical purposes, because it has not been convinced yet by the evidence for that use. It will be interesting to see what further becomes of that as legitimate science continues to study the matter.
So then, the third point and final concern from this verse is at the end when it talks about not being brought under the power of any. Again, Paul gives another qualification to matters of seeming indifference. What might seem to be a matter of Christian liberty, is not something we should do, if the result is that it brings us into some kind of slavery. That’s what the language of “power” refers to here. It’s about someone or something being a master over you. Again, the context is helpful here. At the end of the passage, Paul reminds us that we belong to God. He’s our master. We were bought at a price. That’s language of redemption. Redemption is a word means that you were a slave to someone, and the person redeems you from that slavery by purchasing you and setting you free. The point here and elsewhere in the Bible, is that God didn’t purchase you out of one kind of slavery so you could go and sell yourself into another kind of slavery.
Paul here makes applications to that with regard to sexual immorality. If we have been bought by God, he says then that our bodies are God’s temple. Thus, we shouldn’t sin against our body through things like sexual immorality. Again, as it says in verse 19, we are not our own. Next chapter he will make another application with this same point. In 7:23, he’ll say that we should not willingly become a slave to another human, because God has bought us. So, an example today might be credit cards. Christians have liberty to get a credit card, but yet it would be wrong to become enslaved to credit card debt that you racked up because you bought more than you could afford. If exercising your liberty leaves you enslaved, then you shouldn’t exercise that liberty.
Again, we can think of application to marijuana. The bottom line is that marijuana use runs a significant risk of becoming enslaved to it. Though not everyone likes to think of marijuana as either a gateway drug or addictive, the facts are the facts. The facts are that marijuana is addictive, at least according to government organizations like the CDC and the NIH, for starters. Not only is it addictive, but if you are addicted and try to stop, there are challenging withdrawal symptoms that can make it hard to stop. In terms of it being a gateway drug, the facts are that per the NIH, studies show that marijuana users are more likely to go on to abuse alcohol and other drugs, than other people. Studies also have shown that rats who had in the past been administered THC, the drug in marijuana, show heightened behavioral response to other drugs, compared to rats that had not been given THC in the past. Again, to clarify, this is not to say that recreational marijuana use always leaves people in either addiction or to go on to abuse other drugs too. But it shows there is significant risk and certainly comes to mind as a reasonable concern when you hear what Paul says at the end of verse 12. Paul says our attitude in matters of seeming liberty is that we should not be brought under the power of any. We should not become enslaved to any. God is to be our master, in matters of moral law, and even in matters of seeming Christian liberty.
Well, I’d like to end our sermon for today with some gospel application that also summarizes our message at the same time. I point us to verse 14. “And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” This is our reality as Christians. By our new life through faith in Christ, we have a hope for the age to come. That’s gospel and its grace. Sinners who used to be identified in our sin, have been washed clean by Jesus. Jesus has purchased us, redeemed us from sin and death. We now have the hope of resurrection life and eternity of glory with our Lord. Praise be to God! Be encouraged again today in the gospel of salvation.
And in context, Paul says that gospel hope should color how we think about our seeming liberties today. Our hope of glory in the age to come says something about how we should live in this age. In verse 13, he says that the food and stomach of this life are temporary; they are for this life; for this age. Thus, concerns of food have some merit for consideration in this life, but at best their value and benefit would only be for this age. But as Paul says elsewhere, godliness has value for both this present age and the age to come. In our liberty, it’s okay to look to the value we get in this life; but may we especially be forward thinking to eternity when we think of how to exercise our liberty. Let us think of how our liberty can be used in preparation for glory.
And in a similar but different vein, there in verse 13 he references sexual immorality. How could we pollute our body, in this age, participating in such evil when as it says in the next verse that our bodies are bound for heaven? Will we be engaging in such promiscuity in glory? Will we be smoking joints in glory and getting “high”? Surely not!
The point is that this gospel hope of our future glory has applications for how we live here and now. Even in matters of seeming Christian liberty. As I mentioned, he requotes this slogan “all things are lawful” again in chapter 10. Then he gets to his final point about this slogan, and it’s the right place for us to end here as well. 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” May whatever we do in the name of Christian liberty be done to God’s glory. That will surely constrain us from doing some things that we otherwise might have done in such liberty. But let us be pleased to have our consciences bound if indeed it is to the glory of God and in keeping with the kingdom of heaven which he has for our future. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.