Real Love and Real Liberty, Part 2 by Phil Johnson

Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14

This month, we will look at the end of 1 Corinthians 10 where Paul lays out three principles which correct our self-serving tendencies.


First, he urges the Corinthians to use their liberty in an unselfish manner.

When the gospel was under attack at the hands of Judaizing legalists in Galatia, Paul urged believers to stand fast in defense of their liberty (Galatians 5:1). When false teachers are undermining fundamental truths of the gospel, no concessions are to be made.

When he writes to the Corinthians, however, Paul says there is a time when the right thing to do is to forgo the exercise of one’s personal liberties for the good of our own brothers and sisters.

Paul was concerned with those who had weak consciences, people recently saved out of paganism who were fearful of eating foods that had been offered to the very idols they formerly worshiped. Even though it was lawful for them to eat any food that could be purchased in Corinth, they did not fully understand their liberty. Their consciences were uneasy. They feared potential defilement if they ate anything that had been used in idol worship. Therefore, since they could not eat with a pure conscience, it would indeed be a sin for them to eat such food. As Paul wrote in Romans 14:23, “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” It’s a sin to go against one’s own conscience, even when the conscience is misinformed.

It is likewise a sin, and a gross breach of Christian charity, to influence someone with a weak conscience to go against his conscience. Christian liberty is never to be flaunted in a way that injures the weaker brother. The apostle Paul was keenly aware of that danger, and he strongly cautioned the Corinthians about it.

If anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (1 Corinthians 8:10-13).

As believers we have absolute liberty to do anything we like, as long as it does not conflict with the eternal moral principles of God. If a thing is not either explicitly or implicitly condemned in Scripture we are free to do it.

But we are not supposed to use our freedom in a way that harms others. Lots of things that are legal are nonetheless not edifying. When Paul makes that statement in 1 Corinthians 10:23, he has in mind primarily what edifies others. If a thing hurts my brother rather than building him up, I must forgo my freedom. “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

Paul is not suggesting it’s OK to nurture a weak conscience. He’s not to forbidding mature Christians to instruct those with weak consciences about what is lawful and what is not. In fact, the goal of the exercise is to “build up” the weaker brother (v. 23). But Paul is saying in that fleeting moment when you are confronted with a choice, it is right to defer to the weaker brother’s scruples. In the course of your subsequent ministry to that brother, it may be helpful to instruct him in the truth of Scripture so that the Word of God can strengthen his conscience. But when he is struggling with the choice, your duty is to help guard his tender conscience, even if that means you must temporarily relinquish your personal liberty.

If his conscience is emboldened by seeing you eat the food he thinks is sinful to eat, so that he eats without understanding the biblical reasons why what he thought was sinful is not, then you have hurt him. You have caused him to defile his own conscience. You have wounded your brother for the sake of your own liberty. That is an abuse, not a legitimate expression, of Christian liberty.

Later, however, after he is instructed from Scripture, and he sees from the Word of God why eating that food is no sin at all—once his conscience is thus strengthened and enlightened by the truth of God’s Word and he is fully persuaded in his own mind—then if he eats the food, you have not caused him to sin in doing so.

The point is to do what edifies. In the moment of making a choice, that often means surrendering your own freedom. Over the long haul, that means instructing the weaker brother about the truth of Christian liberty.

In fact, Paul himself underscores once more his original answer to the Corinthians’ question: there is no sin in eating food offered to idols. He writes, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof'” (vv. 25- 26). A believer should not have a troubled conscience about such things. It is no mark of piety to abstain unnecessarily or to question every tiny thing for conscience’ sake. “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15). “God . . . richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).

Nevertheless, Paul says, a mature Christian should defer to the weakness of a young believer’s conscience, because one primary way for us to make the most of our liberty is by seeking the good of others.

Pulpit Magazine – Jul 2013

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