All Things are Lawful: Three of Paul’s Substitutes for the Torah

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a clear example of his unwillingness to cite the Law when it seems natural, logical, or reasonable for him to have done so. Paul abolished the Law in his letters to the Christians in Rome, Galatia, and Colossae. Galatians is his most vituperous denunciation of the Law; and Colossians is his briefest statement. Romans is his most carefully reasoned abrogation of the Law, and in that letter he substitutes 1) the Law of the Spirit, 2) the Law of Love, 3) the Law written on the human heart (conscience), 4) human law, and 5) scripture.

In I Corinthians, in four nearly word-for-word lines, Paul demonstrates his complete unwillingness to invoke the law, and instead substitutes three additional criteria for motivation and decision-making. The three additional tests of decision-making and motivation are 6) the profitability test, 7) the self-mastery test, and 8 ) the edification

In the passages we’re looking at, Paul is dealing with two problems.  The first deals with encounters with sex workers (prostitutes), and the second deals  with idolatry. On the topic of engaging sex workers, Paul could have used a number of passages from the Torah to prove his point.

About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” (Genesis 38:24)

If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute,  she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire. (Leviticus 21:9)

Paul could have invoked these or other warnings from the Torah, but he didn’t. Instead he writes, “All things are lawful for me, but—”

The second topic, idolatry, is more complicated. The ancient Jews were henotheists, believing in the reality of foreign gods, but forbidden to worship them. Paul, however, did not believe in their reality. So, “technically,” eating meat offered to idols was  not a problem in the ultimate scheme of things because the idols were mirages, illusions. But former idol worshipers felt they were very real, even if they had become Christians. And they could easily feel their former idols were actual gods till the day they died.

Three Substitutes for the Law

But instead of citing the Law to deal with prostitution and meat offered to idols, Paul responds like this.

  • All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. (I Cor. 6:12; 10:23)
  • All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. (I Cor. 6:12)
  • All things are lawful, but not all things edify. (I Cor. 10:23)

The first thing to notice is that “All things are lawful” is reiterated four times, practically verbatim. This was obviously something Paul felt strongly about. I’m sure the verbal parallelism is discussed by source critics, but my concerns here deal with how we receive direction and guidance from God according to Paul.

One of the problems Paul obviously wanted to solve at Corinth were encounters with prostitutes. If he had believed that “The Spirit of God will never lead you to do something contrary to Scripture,” Paul could have quoted the Torah. If he believed it was legitimate to measure other people’s behavior by their conformity to the Law, he could have simply “cut to the chase” in chapter six and quoted one of the examples in the Torah of burning prostitutes alive.

But he didn’t. Paul did quote from Genesis, but the it isn’t one of those “thou shalt not” verses. He quotes “and the two shall become one flesh,” but with reference to Christ and the believer, which is not the “literal” meaning some people prefer.

Why Not Just Say: “No, Not Everything is Lawful!”

Or Paul could have simply refuted the statement by writing, “All things are lawful? God forbid! Some things are absolutely not lawful!”  He would have then explained which laws applied and which did not, and why. (Which is what we’re left to do when we insist on preserving the fiction of the moral law/ceremonial law.)  But Paul did not refute the belief that “all things are lawful.”

There is a reason why Paul did not refute the idea.  Namely, he actually believed that all things are lawful. Or, to put it another way, nothing is unlawful–because the law no longer applies. This is not an argument from silence.  Elsewhere Paul made it abundantly clear why he would not invoke the Law against behavior of which he disapproved. Nothing was unlawful, because the Law was no longer in effect–except, perhaps, by choice. The Torah had been nullified, voided, abrogated. Why?

  1. Apart from law, sin is dead. (Romans 7:8b)
  2. Sin is not taken into account when there is no law. (Romans 5:13)
  3. The law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. (Romans 4:15)

To clarify this, let me state the corollaries to these three statements.

  1. Remain under the law, and your sin remains alive.
  2. Your sin is taken into account when you remain under the law.
  3. The law brings wrath. And when you remain under the law, your transgression remains.

Do you want your sin to die, or to remain alive? Do you want your sin to be taken into account, or not taken into account? Do you want your transgressions to be taken away, or to remain?  Why do you cling to the Law, which the flesh seizes upon to produce in you every kind of coveting? Why do you embrace the Law, which your flesh uses to deceive you and thereby put you to death?  Please, die to what once bound you, and be released from the Law so that you can serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

“What difference does it make, so long as we don’t do those things? Does it matter whether we don’t kill someone because the Torah says not to, or because we are led by (the Spirit/our conscience/love) not to? Isn’t the end result all that matters?”

There is a sense in which this is true. But Paul gave a lot of thought to what would function internally (with two elements of the external remaining) in place of the external Torah. So if we want to profit from Paul’s understanding of how the living God lives and dwells within us, the “God in whom we live and move and have our being,” then we really do need to pay heed to him. In place of the Torah, the Apostle Paul gave us these sufficient and powerful sources of guidance.

Sources of Guidance: Sufficient, Powerful, and Divine

  • the Law of the Spirit of Life
  • the Law of Love
  • conscience (the Law written on the human heart)
  • human law
  • scripture
  • the profitability test
  • the self-mastery test
  • the edification test

Paul’s “replacements” for the Torah do several things for believers.

Spiritual Benefits Inherent in Paul’s Torah-Substitutes

  • They guide us to consider the effects of our actions on the people around us.
  • They encourage us to listen for the still, small voice of the Spirit.
  • They lead us to consider our relationship with the broader society.
  • They encourage us to be aware of our abiding tendency to be “man-pleasers.”
  • They encourage us to learn from the record of people’s relationships with God and with one another.
  • They urge us to weigh our options and alternatives.
  • They place a priority on introspection and self-awareness.
  • They encourage critical thinking.

They discourage some things as well.

  • They discourage mindless obedience to a handful of rules or practices, and thinking we have thereby “discharged our responsibility” to God and to others.
  • They discourage sleep-walking through life.

Finally, Paul’s Torah replacements place full responsibility on each of us as community-centered individuals to be the most loving, caring, deep-thinking, reflective, analytical, socially engaged, and independent servants possible.

[To Read All the Posts on Paul Abolishing the Law, click here.]


About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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2 Responses to All Things are Lawful: Three of Paul’s Substitutes for the Torah

  1. Ken says:

    Interesting. On the subject of meat sacrificed to idols, I think that it was the EATING of meat sacrificed to idols, not the SACRIFICE to which Paul was referring. He may still have argued from the same principles against sacrificing to idols, but I think he would have argued much more strongly against it. To use an analogy, it would be sort of like the difference between the responsibility of the smoker vs the responsibility of the recipient of second hand smoke.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      I think you’re right, Ken, Paul was referring to the eating of the meat. But the person who purchased the discounted meat was, in some way, participating in the worship of the god, or participating by supporting the priest financially. But the problem was the conscience of the person who took the gods as real. An inconsistent message went out because it implied that the Christian wasn’t really a monotheist at all, but worshiped multiple gods like everyone else. It’s a difficult passage, which may be one reason expositors avoid it, and avoid dealing with conscience much at all.


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