“Free to Love"
Excerpts from a sermon preached on Sunday, July 5, 2015 at Hebron Baptist Church, Denham Springs, Louisiana by Pastor Joe Alain.
Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
More than ever, we are asking, “What does it mean to be free? Are there limits to our freedoms?” And “How do we balance our individual freedoms with the greater community and nation of which we belong to?” These are not always easy to answer. And when these issues get “messy, they sometimes end up in a court of law. As Christians living in these United States we have dual freedoms, we have freedoms as US citizens and because of the cross of Christ we have spiritual freedom from the tyranny and power of sin.
Exercising our Christian freedom can sometimes be “messy” because more often than not, we must be guided by principles rather than specific rules. In Christ we are free, but we are “Free to Love.” Life Application: Christians should practice their Christian freedom responsibly by considering others, building others up in Christian love. In using your freedom responsibly, you will be honoring God and helping to build up other believers, helping them to mature in Christ.
First Corinthians 8:1-13 deals with knowledge, love, idols, and the weaker Christian. What does it all mean for us today? How does this relate to the exercising of our Christian freedom?
In our text, there is a plea to . . .
1. Use your spiritual knowledge to build others up (8:1-3)
The immediate issue that Paul was dealing with was “food sacrificed to idols” (8:1). Animals would be offered as sacrifices in pagan temples. The meat from those sacrifices would be split up in three ways: (1) Some would be burned (usually the fat), (2) Some given to the priest, and (3) Some given to the person bringing the offering. Obviously, the priest could only use so much meat (they didn’t have freezers), so the excess meat would be offered in the local meat markets. Now, only the best animals were brought for sacrifices so that meant that usually the best meat was found in the markets. Christians had some questions about all this.
(1) Is it acceptable to buy and eat meat from a sacrificed animal? Did the pagan god actually have an effect on the meat?
(2) Is it acceptable to eat this meat as a guest in a friend’s home? Should you ask your neighbor where he bought the Sunday roast?
(3) Is it acceptable to attend a pagan sacrifice and enjoy the meal? Believers were invited to banquets and some participated for social reasons. For us in South Louisiana, the question might be, is it ok to attend a “Mardi Gras” celebration?
Paul’s basic answer to all of this is not to deal specifically with a list of what’s right and what’s wrong, but to move beyond to the principle that spiritual knowledge (knowing the truth) should result in a more loving attitude towards others. The question really is not, “Can I do it?” But, “Should I do it? Will this be seen as something that could edify others?” “Knowledge puffs up [i.e., knowledge without thought of others leads to pride] while love builds up” (8:1). It’s possible for a believer who has misunderstood knowledge to be self-centered. However, knowledge properly understood leads to an attitude of love towards others. While knowledge may be self-centered, love is always other-centered.
People who have knowledge, who are maturing believers, who are stronger have a heavier burden of responsibility to bear. In Scripture, it is the strong who must care for the weak (Rom. 14-15). Five times the word “weak” is used in this passage (8:7, 9, 10, 11, 12). Gentiles (non-Jews) would have participated in sacrifices to idols prior to their coming to Christ. After salvation some would have found it difficult to forget those associations with their gods. More mature believers should show some sensitivity to the weaker believers in this area.
The mention of “love” in this passage is key to the entire argument and echoes the “Shema” in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. This passage is a very practical application of the Great Commandment, to love God and love one another (Matt. 22:37-40). So, this is a plea for sensitivity on the part of the Christian who has “knowledge,” over against the weaker believer who doesn’t. While freedom comes through faith in Christ, it is always governed by love. Paul says, “You who know are to love.” Use your knowledge to build others up.
2. Deepen your understanding of the character of God (8:4-6).
The mature are growing in their understanding of God’s character and world. They have learned some things about God and the world. They have learned some things that the weaker believers at Corinth need to learn as well. What have they learned?
(1) They know that “An idol is nothing,” (8:4). The very word for “idol” means “no-thing,” “empty,” “vanity.” Idols are “no things.” Eating meat sacrificed to idols means eating food sacrificed to nothing. By the way, for those of you who have an I Phone, ask Siri what is 0 divided by 0. This is what Paul is saying. If an idol is a “nothing,” it doesn’t matter what you do with it, or how you pray over it, because by definition, the idol is a “no thing.”
(2) They know “There is no God but one” (8:4). There may be many little “g’s” (gods) and little “l’s” (lords), but there is only “one Lord, Jesus Christ” (8:6). While the burden of sensitivity falls on the strong, the more mature believer, the weak need to mature in their understanding of the nature of God so that they too can experience freedom in Christ.
However, I don’t want to imply that as you mature and experience freedom in Christ that you will get to the place where there are not limitations. The limits (boundaries) of your freedom will be framed by exercising your freedom in love and based on your conscience. In other words, you could be a maturing believer in Paul’s day and still not feel comfortable eating meat sacrificed to idols, not because you don’t have “knowledge” or you don’t “understand,” but because of personal convictions. Your conscience won’t really allow you, and that’s fine, but because of spiritual maturity you realize that what your conscience tells you is not binding on everyone else. So while you don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, neither do you condemn your brother who does or look down upon him as a lesser Christian. So while I’m free in Christ, my conscience informed by past experiences may limit the exercise of that freedom. And even if they do not, I still will be limited to exercising my freedom in love. So freedom is exercised in love and done with a clear conscience.
3. Exercise your Christian freedom with care (8:7-13)
Here is the heart of the passage. We are free, but free to love! The more mature are to consider “the weak” (8:9) in “conscience” (8:7). Believers are not to be “stumbling blocks” but “building blocks.” What does Paul mean by “stumbling block”? If my actions or my example lead someone else to violate their conscience, then they will experience “guilt,” something I certainly would not want a person to do. But even more dangerous, it may go beyond guilt to compromising with pagan idolatry (8:13). This is the kind of falling away or destruction that Paul has in mind.
Verses 8-10 (“if someone . . .”) provides a case study. It might go beyond eating the steak to participation in pagan idolatry. A careless Christian could lead a newer believer to fall away all together from the faith. Let me share a personal testimony that parallels the point being made in this case study. I am completely free to drink alcohol but I freely choose not to drink alcohol for two reasons. First, I witnessed the destruction that happens firsthand when people abuse alcohol. My parents split up when I was young and while I’m sure there were other factors that led to the breakup, the abuse of alcohol was certainly a major part of the disintegration of their relationship. Aside from destroying a marriage and family, alcohol destroyed my Dad’s liver which hastened the end of his life sooner than it had to be. I too began early in my teenage years following in my Dad’s footsteps. I too was traveling down a dead end street. Fortunately, when I gave my life to Christ, He changed me, he set me free from the need for alcohol. Now, I experience a “high” and a “feeling” that no bottle could ever provide. I have in me through the Holy Spirit the joy of the Lord!
So drinking alcohol is not really an option for me on that one point alone. I’m free to drink alcohol, but my conscience doesn’t have a very good feeling about it. I’ve just seen too much destruction wrought due to its use. But second, I don’t want to participate in anything that could lead you to believe that a potentially destructive behavior is acceptable for a child of God. I love you too much to indulge in a behavior that I know personally robs people of life. I would never want you to follow my example if it leads you into sin and enslavement. The present danger is that my behavior could embolden a believer who has been set free from alcohol to drink again, and even worse, you might completely fall away. So my freedom is limited by my conscience and my love for others.
You might be tempted to think, “What’s the big deal?” “Aren’t you kind of being extreme hear?” Loving others in the exercise of our Christian freedom is pretty important to God! When we exercise our freedom without love, which means without thought of others, we possibly sin against our brother or sister which in turn is a “sin against Christ” (8:12). So yes, it is a big deal.
At this point, I do want to inject a word about “Balance.” I don’t want to suggest that the stronger believers need to be paranoid or always pandering to the weaker believers, constantly giving up their freedoms in Christ. The weak do need to be maturing in Christ. What God is saying is that the stronger believers need to be sensitive and loving to the weaker believers (“for whom Christ died”) and the weaker believers need to move forward in maturity (“possess knowledge”) and be free from a legalistic version of Christianity that Jesus died to free us from.
The final word from Paul sums up the Christian principle (8:13, “Therefore”). Paul is saying, “The exercise of my personal freedom in Christ is not worth it, if it ‘causes my brother or sister to fall into sin’” (8:13). “I am free, but I am free to Love!” Christian freedom properly understood, leads to serving one another in love (cf. Gal. 5:13).
How then do we determine right from wrong? How do I know when there is no clear word in Scripture? Here are some questions to consider.
(1) Does my conscience accuse me or excuse me? What does my conscience tell me? Keep in mind, to be trustworthy and reliable, your conscience must be informed by the truth of God’s Word. Without God’s truth you and I will probably not get it right. So, be sure that your conscience is being informed with God’s Word.
(2) What will my actions communicate to others intentionally or unintentionally? This requires “thinking through” issues. Some in Corinth (probably unintentionally) didn’t think about how their actions might effect their fellow believers.
(3) Am I acting in love? If in the exercise of my Christian freedom my attitude is, “People need to grow up, or get over it,” I’m probably not acting in love because love considers others.
Exercising our Christian freedom can sometimes by messy because more often than not, we must be guided by principles rather than specific rules. In our Scripture and throughout the New Testament, we find that as Christians we are free, but we are “Free to Love.” Christians should use their Christian freedom responsibly by considering others, building others up in Christian love. When you use your freedom to love, you will be fulfilling the Great Commandment, to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.
“For His Glory, By His Grace!”
“I thank my God every time I remember you.” Philippians 1:3