The Law of Liberty

1 Corinthians 8 (ESV)

1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For 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? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

… knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

The Law of Liberty

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;

Colossians 2:14

Writing a letter to the believers, the Apostle James spoke of a perfect law of liberty, a freedom we have been called to and given by Jesus Christ. Liberty, or freedom, is a topic frequently spoken of by Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament. 

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, the law of ordinances was also nailed to the cross with him. (Colossians 2:14) Jesus thus fulfilled the law of the Old Testament, setting us free from the requirement to keep it. (Romans 8:3-4, Galatians 3:24-25)

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

Galatians 3:24-25

Within Christianity, there are varying views on the liberty we have been given by Jesus. At one extreme, some groups still follow large parts of the law of Old Testament or have created their own codes of ordinances which they believe is required for holiness and righteousness.  At the other extreme are groups who believe in antinomianism, a belief that they are free from keeping any sort of moral law and have license to live in any manner they chose. While many are tempted to go to one extreme or the other, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In this lesson, we will explore how the Apostle Paul showed the Corinthians Church the totality of their liberty and the constraint God has placed on it.

The Situation in Corinth

The Corinthian Church was a troubled group of people. The list of problems facing their church fills two whole books of the bible. One of the many problems which gripped their group was the manner in which they exercised the freedom and liberty given them by Jesus Christ.

The Corinthian people had converted to Christianity from paganism. The lifestyle they lived before conversion was marked by drunkenness, sexual immorality, and orgies held at their temple in honor of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and fertility. The site of their pagan rituals, the temple to Aphrodite, still stands in the ancient city of Corinth today.

Elements of that lifestyle remained a serious temptation to some members of the Corinthian church. Though they had committed their lives to Christ and sat under the ministry of Paul, many were still troubled by the seductive temptation to join in the activities occurring in the pagan temple.

While some members of the church were weak to the temptations, others felt no weakness at all. When festivals were held in the city, the stronger members were able to partake of the food and festivities of the day without being seduced into the sinful debauchery that was occurring in the pagan temple. The weaker members, however, found the temptation of the festivities too much to resist, and when they participated in the festival they ended up falling into sin.

A dispute then arose among the people. Some insisted on a total separation from festivities, including the food from the feasts, but others refused to give up their participation because of their liberty in Christ. This was the situation in Corinth when Paul’s letter arrived.

All Things Are Lawful To Me

All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

1 Corinthians 6:12

As Paul begins to deal with the Corinthian’s excise of their freedoms, he begins by acknowledging that the freedom given to him as a Christian does not prevent him from partaking from any of the good things God has created. Paul also qualified the extent of his freedom by explaining that although he had a right to partake of many things, he recognized that it was not wise for him to partake of things which could take power over him.

The principle conveyed by Paul is still applicable to us today. There are many things which we have a freedom to partake of, but when those things put us at risk of addiction, dependency, or a loss of self-control, it becomes unwise for us to partake of them. We are well advised to consider Paul’s counsel before involving ourselves with things which have the potential to take power over us.

The Corinthians were free to eat the food at the festivities. But if doing so led them to lose self-control and fall into sin, then they were wise to abstain from the festitival.

Knowledge Puffs Up But Love Edifies

Now as concerning things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.

1 Corinthians 8:9 NIV

While confirming to the Corinthians that it was lawful to partake of the food at the pagan festivals, if it did not lead to sin, he cautioned them that there is another constraint on their liberty: love for their Christian neighbors.

Beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.

1 Corinthians 8:9 NIV

While some people felt no temptation to sin by eating food at the festival, not of all their Christian neighbors were so strong. Like all things in our Christian walk, Paul explained that our liberty must be tempered and guided by love. To have knowledge that we cannot be defiled by the food we eat is a good thing, but knowledge only serves to puff us up with pride if we do not let love guide the way we use that knowledge.

Paul helped the Corinthian church to understand that showing consideration for the weaknesses of others in their church was an important act of love. While it was not a sin for them to eat the food at the pagan festivals, it was a sin for them to put a stumblingblock before their weak brothers and sisters, that could cause them to be tempted to back into a lifestyle of sin.

Respecting Our Brothers and Sisters

Because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

1 Corinthians 8:11-13 NIV

The principle explained by Paul to the Corinthians was not just for them, but it was for the whole church. Paul also explained the same principle to the Roman church, the Colossian church, and the Galatian church. (Romans 14, Galatians 5, Colossians 2-3) The principle is still good for our day, and as we read in the other epistles, it does not apply simply to the food we eat. The principle applies to everything Jesus Christ has given us liberty to partake in.

Our liberty must be constrained by love and respect for our Christian neighbors. If eating a certain food tempts my brother to sin, then I will never eat that food in the presence of my brother. When we are aware of weaknesses in our brothers and sisters, the love of God should guide our actions. We should seek to see them prosper in their walk with Christ, and not be tempted by their weaknesses.

Mutual Respect

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.

Romans 14:1-2 NIV

Just as Paul instructed the Corinthians that they should constrain their liberty out of love to their weaker Christian neighbors, Paul also explained to the Romans that those who are weak to temptation should respect the liberty of those who are stronger. This mutual respect is a cornerstone of the great commandment given by Jesus Christ: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Every child of God has weaknesses that can be a struggle and temptation to them. Just as we expect others to respect our weaknesses, we should likewise respect their weaknesses. Many convictions that are widely held by Christians have been developed as a response to weakness to temptations. Any conviction is acceptable if it has been erected by an individual to help themselves avoid temptation and sin.

If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.

Romans 14:15 NIV

Those who are strong in faith and free from such temptation to sin should be guided by love towards those who are weaker. As Paul told both the Corinthians and the Romans, if meat led his brother or sister to offend, then in their presence he would never eat meat. (1 Cor 8:13)

Keep It Between You and God

Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.

Romans 14:5 NKJV

In his letter to the Roman Church on the same topic, Paul laid out another principle that is still good today. Each person is entitled to make up their own minds on matters of convictions.

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.

Romans 14:22 NKJV

This right to make up our own mind and establish our own convictions extends beyond the examples of food to eat, holidays to celebrate, or festivals to participate in, which Paul used in his illustrations. The freedom to make up our own mind extends to any matter which Christ has given us liberty in.

If the Bible has not given us clear guidance, then it is an area where we have liberty to make up our own mind.

But whatever our opinion or conviction on such matters, we should never attempt to force our personal convictions or opinions on others. We are called on to respect one another’s judgement, and to acknowledge that Jesus Christ gives us liberty.

Avoid Making Stumblingblocks

The topic of convictions and liberty was contentious in the days of the Apostle Paul, and it can still be so today. Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to show his readers a framework they could use that would both respect the liberty Christ has given us, and also show love and respect towards those with strong convictions. Paul’s wisdom in dealing with the topic is a product of the love of God in his heart.

The guiding principles behind the exercise of our convictions and our liberty must be love. When love informs our decisions and actions, our goal becomes a desire to avoid placing obstacles before others that will hinder them in their walk with Christ.

Applying Scripture

A former alcoholic may develop a conviction that she will not walk down the liquor aisle at the grocery store, because the temptation to purchase alcohol becomes too strong to resist. Someone who was saved from a lifestyle of drugs, sex, and rock and roll may avoid places where certain music is played. It is common for people who are saved by Christ to erect barriers to prevent them from being tempted back into the sin Christ rescued them from.

Do not be dismissive of the convictions of others, but respect them, and realize they may have been erected in their life for good reasons. Their convictions are between them and God.

When you look at your own strong convictions, it is also important to realize not everyone is like you. One may be strongly tempted to get drunk when they walk down the liquor aisle of the grocery store, but their neighbor may feel no such temptation at all. We have a right to expect our neighbors to respect our conviction, but we don’t have a right to expect our neighbors to share our convictions.

As individuals, we can use discretion, wisdom, and love in how we exercise our liberty from day to day. We must also respect the judgement of our elders when it comes to decisions on practices to be observed or prohibited at church functions. Like in the days of the apostles, elders can make decisions about activities to be observed or prohibited in the church to ensure the wellbeing of all the members.

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.

Romans 14:12 NKJV

Divine Support: A Prayer of the Puritans 

Thou art the blessed God,

Happy in thyself,

source of happiness in thy creatures,

my Maker, Benefactor, Proprietor, Upholder.

Thou has produced and sustained me,

supported and indulged me,

saved and kept me;

Thou art in every situation able to meet my needs and miseries.

May I love by thee,

live for thee,

never be satisfied with my Christian progress, except when I resemble Christ

And may conformity to his principles, temper, and conduct grow hourly in my life.

Let thy unexampled love constrain me into holy obedience,

and render my duty my delight.

If others deem my faith folly,

my meekness infirmity,

my zeal madness,

my hope delusion,

my actions hypocrisy,

may I rejoice to suffer for thy name.

Keep me walking steadfastly towards the country of everlasting delights,

that paradise-land which is my true inheritance.

Support me by the strength of heaven that I may never turn back,

or desire false pleasures that wilt disappear into nothing.

As I pursue my heavenly journey by thy grace

let me be known as a man with no aim

but that of a burning desire for thee,

and the good and salvation of my fellow man.

For Christ’s sake 


The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan Prayers Edited by Arthur Bennet, 1975 

Study Questions

  1. Can you name some examples of convictions that you or others hold?
  2. What are some ways you can be respectful towards the convictions of others, if you do not share their conviction?
  3. What is the difference between a conviction and the clear instruction of scripture?