On Wednesday, we looked at our greatest joy. What could make you happy forever? The surest and most stable answer to this question is found in the Bible, in four representative texts. Those were Psalms 40:16; 70:4; Romans 5:11; and 1 Peter 3:18. And they get mentioned a lot on this podcast to make one precious point: God himself is the prize of the gospel.
But even as God is the prize of the gospel, he daily lavishes on us all sorts of other created gifts that are good and lawful and should be embraced with thanksgiving. But handling such gifts is not without challenges for all of us, and particularly for Jameson, a podcast listener with today’s question.
“Pastor John, hello! Here’s my question for you today. I have Christian friends who believe that alcohol and drugs, particularly pot, are morally good things to be received in the spirit of what Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:4 — ‘Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.’ But I know Paul also says, ‘“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up’ (1 Corinthians 10:23). I’m trying to figure out what we can thank God for, and what we cannot thank him for. (1) Can we thank God for a substance that is illegal for us — say underage drinking or recreational pot where it breaks the law? And (2) does Paul imply that we cannot thank God for anything that is lawful for us but not helpful to us? I guess I’m asking, in what ways would you qualify Paul’s ‘nothing is to be rejected’? When my friend attempts to thank God for the pot that I don’t think benefits his life, and which is illegal for him to use, I’m troubled.”
Right. You should be troubled. I’m glad Jameson got to the point where he said, “I guess what I’m asking is, In what ways would you qualify Paul’s ‘nothing is to be rejected’?” because that is really the issue. The issue is not, What can I give thanks for? Paul teaches that we should give thanks for everything. It doesn’t help his case at all. Ephesians 5:20: “[Give] thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus.” But that does not mean “Give moral approval to everything.” It means, rather, that we recognize that, in the providence of God, he makes everything serve his wise and loving purposes, even some very painful and even sinful things.
I don’t think the key question is, What should we thank God for? When Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:4, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,” he’s saying, “That’s why everything exists — namely, to reveal the goodness of God and to awaken in the human soul thanksgiving.” In other words, we should only use creation, all of it, the way it was designed to be used — namely, with thanksgiving.
So Jameson says the real question is — and he’s right, I think; it’s certainly the question that exercises me — What does Paul mean when he says nothing in creation is to be rejected? I think he means nothing is to be rejected because it is ritually unclean. According to Mark 7:19, Jesus declared all foods clean. So they’re all lawful, not to be rejected. None of the Old Testament dietary laws applies anymore. They were a temporary way for Israel to set itself off from the nations.
The church doesn’t aim to set itself off from the nations in that way anymore with food laws. Nothing is ritually unclean for the Christian in that sense. It’s lawful — it’s all lawful. None is to be rejected as ritually off-limits, which also means that the false teachers in 1 Timothy 4, who were forbidding marriage and requiring abstinence from foods (1 Timothy 4:3), were falling back into the old legal way rather than walking in the freedom of Christ.
But to say that nothing is to be rejected as ritually unclean does not mean that all is to be eaten or drunk, even with thanksgiving, because there are other factors to take into account, which Paul doesn’t mention here because they’re not the issue with the false teachers in 1 Timothy. But Jameson is right that he should bring in Paul’s principles from 1 Corinthians, because they are relevant as to what we shall reject or not reject. I think there are at least three principles that Paul mentions as to what we do with nature, the goodness of nature.
“To say that nothing is to be rejected as ritually unclean does not mean that all is to be eaten or drunk, even with thanksgiving.”
One principle is love. First Corinthians 10:23–24: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” So we do not simply say, “I’m free. All foods are clean, and that’s that. I eat what I want.” No, that’s not the way a Christian talks. We ask, “Will it be helpful? Will it be profitable? Will other people benefit from my enjoyment of this use of this, this doing of this?” That’s the principle of love.
Then, in 1 Corinthians 6:12, he brings out two other principles, I think. He says, “All things are lawful for me” — same beginning, but he continues differently — “but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated [controlled, taken over, enslaved] by anything,” even good things. Here the principle looks the same as 1 Corinthians 10, but it’s not quite. Instead of saying, “Seek the good of your neighbor in what you eat,” he says, “I will not be dominated or enslaved by anything.”
You might say this is the principle of self-love, a proper self-love. Be watchful not to be addicted. Be watchful not to be damaged. I think those would be the two principles. (1) Is it tending toward my slavery, making me a slave? I’m out of control here. I’m utterly dependent on this thing. (2) Is it hurting me? Is it doing me damage as my master?
Everyone Makes Distinctions
So three principles, at least, put limits on the statement “nothing is to be rejected”:
- Love: Will it help or hurt others?
- Addiction: Will I be enslaved? Is it enslaving me?
- Damage to my body or soul: Will it dominate me hurtfully?
Maybe the clearest way to show Jameson’s friends that they don’t really mean it when they say, “Since everything that God made is good, absolutely nothing’s to be rejected” — they don’t mean that, because they know good and well that there are mushrooms that will kill you if you eat them. There are some people with such severe peanut allergies that they would die if they ate a peanut. They won’t even let you have peanuts on the airplane when these people are on board. They don’t serve peanuts. They know this. These friends know this. They make distinctions themselves.
“Is cannabis helpful to others when we use it? Is it addicting to my mind? Is it hurtful to the mind or to the soul?”
So the questions are these: Is cannabis helpful to others when we use it? Is it addicting to my mind? Is it hurtful to the mind or to the soul? Those are the key questions.
Our Radical Call
It might help to close by me just doing a little memory exercise here. When I came to Bethlehem Baptist Church 43 years ago as pastor, the church covenant said this: “We engage to abstain from the use and sale of alcoholic beverages,” which meant that teetotalism was required for church membership. Now, I told the leaders when I came, “That is seriously unbiblical. Even though I myself see good reasons in our culture, in our day, with my personality, for being a teetotaler, that’s not a biblical requirement for church membership.”
So how did we change it? We did. I mean, it almost cost me my job in the second year I was there, but the vote passed, and I survived. How did we change the covenant? We made it more radical. Here’s the present wording: “We engage to seek God’s help in abstaining from all drugs, food, drink, and practices which bring unwarranted harm to the body or jeopardize our own or another’s faith.” So not just alcohol or cannabis or whatever, but all drugs, all food, all drink, all practices. The way we test what we eat or drink or do is this: Does it bring unwarranted harm to the body, or does it jeopardize our own or another’s faith? I think that’s a good application of Paul’s principles in the New Testament.