In 1 Corinthians 6:12, we read, “Everything is permissible for me” (CSB), a statement that, pulled from its context, would seem to cast off all restraint. Is everything permissible for the believer? Can we do anything we want? Here is the whole verse: “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” (NASB). Paul repeats the idea in chapter 10, verse 23: “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (NASB).
Freedom in Christ is a truth Paul constantly emphasizes. For example, Paul says, “Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. . . . For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters” (Galatians 5:1, 13, NLT). Paul states that believers “are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14) and “by grace you have been saved, through faith . . . not by works” (Ephesians 2:8–9; cf. Romans 3:20). Paul never tires of telling Christians that “we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6).
Evidently, some in Corinth had distorted Paul’s message of liberty and moved toward an antinomian approach of living, which sees moral law being of no use and not binding because faith alone is necessary to salvation. Because of the textual construction in the Greek, many commentators believe the statement All things are lawful for me was used by the Corinthians, and Paul is simply repeating back to them their own words. It was the Corinthians who were saying, “Everything is permissible for me,” repeating it as a mantra to cover their sinful behavior. In their minds, they probably even thought they were quoting Paul, who had taught them about Christian liberty. In his corrective letter to them, Paul’s intent was to counter that attitude. Some translations use punctuation to bring out that meaning, putting everything is permissible or its equivalent in quotation marks: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23, NIV).
In both places where everything is permissible is found, Paul reminds his readers that, when he speaks of Christian freedom, it is always in relation to freedom from works-based righteousness, i.e., earning salvation by good deeds. When we try to merit salvation through the Mosaic Law, Pharisaic tradition, or any other means, we pervert the gospel. Grace is unmerited and by definition cannot be earned. The Christian is free from the burden of attempting to earn salvation, but the Corinthians had perverted Paul’s message of freedom to justify sinful lifestyles.
Grace is not license to sin. The believer should not live as if “everything is permissible.” Beyond the book of Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that freedom in Christ does not equate to freedom to sin: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? . . . What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (Romans 6:1–2, 15, NASB); “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13, NASB).
Chapters 6 and 10 in 1 Corinthians also emphasize a restraint of Christian freedom when it comes to other believers. Paul’s primary message on this subject for the Corinthians and all believers in all ages is summarized in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (NASB).