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Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 14:1-17, Liberty and Conscience By D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

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Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003, 271 pages.

On Friday evening, 1 March 1968, at the age of sixty-eight, Martyn Lloyd-Jones went into his pulpit as usual at Westminster Chapel, London, to preach on the Epistle to the Romans. The few side notes he took with him were numbered as his 372nd sermon in the Romans series which had begun ten and a half years earlier on 7 October 1957. He had now reached chapter 14, verse 17, “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost”, and though he did not know it, that night, on the word “peace” he was to conclude his thirty-years’ ministry in the heart of London…(for) before he could return to the pulpit on the following Sunday morning he was diagnosed with a condition that led to surgery and then, two months later in May, to the decision to retire…in all seriousness he was later to tell a group of ministers that he had been stopped before completing verse 17 because he was not yet ready to preach on “joy in the Holy Ghost” (from the Preface by Iain H. Murray, pages xi-xiv).

Murray goes on in the Preface to say that Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) was not discouraged by this sudden retirement from the pulpit ministry. Rather, he saw it as a God-given opportunity to undertake a long-desired but daunting task, that being to prepare the Romans series of sermons for publication. The sermons were all on tape, and the first task was to take the recorded messages down into manuscript form, since MLJ’s sermon notes consisted of little more than headings and main thoughts. Until his death in 1981, MLJ took the main share of the editing, a process undertaken with much thought and care. He was assisted by his wife, his elder daughter Lady Catherwood, and Mr. S.M. Houghton (who died in 1987). Mrs. Lloyd-Jones remained involved in the editing until her death in 1991, and since that time Lady Catherwood has had the sole responsibility.

In addition to the sheer volume of the task, Murray says “there was no modern precedent to indicate how the Christian public would react to a magnum opus on Romans running into very many volumes. Indeed, the preacher (MLJ) “never anticipated the whole going into print” (page xii). The first volume was published in 1970, on Romans 3:20-4:25, and subtitled Atonement and Justification. In the preface, MLJ expressed his hope of “several volumes” to follow. However, that hope has been far exceeded. With the publication of this volume on Romans 14, the entire Romans series from chapter one, verse one, is now in print, with the set consisting of fourteen volumes.

In all, the publishing project took 33 years. Publication of the first volume in 1970 was followed by the second in 1971 (on chapter 5), the third in 1972 (on chapter 6), and so on, on an annual basis, so that by 1975 the series was complete from Romans 3:20 thru chapter 8 in six volumes. There was then a lapse of 10 years until publication of the seventh volume in 1985 and eighth volume in 1989, which went back and picked up chapters 1 and 2-3:20, respectively. In 1991, the ninth volume was published on chapter 9, and subsequent volumes followed in chapter order: chapter 10 (1997), chapter 11 (1998), chapter 12 (2000), chapter 13 (2002), and chapter 14:1-17 (2003).

I began reading the series in 1993, beginning with chapter 6, and was awe-struck by the exposition. I acquired and devoured the other volumes in print, so that by the end of 1995, I had read all volumes in print, covering the first nine chapters of Romans. Chapter 10 came out in 1997, and from then on it was a matter of anxiously awaiting the publication of each new volume, and then immediately diving in. So, having completed the final volume of the Romans series, it is with no small amount of sadness that I realize there will be no more volumes to look forward to every two years or so.

The reason I mentioned my reading history of the series is to emphasize that you don’t need to feel that you have to commit to reading the entire series in order to benefit from MLJ’s great work. Each volume stands on its own, as MLJ is constantly reminding the reader of where the particular chapter fits into the argument of Romans as a whole, and retracing the ground covered in preceding chapters. So the reader would greatly profit from picking up and reading the fifth volume (The New Man, chapter 6), or the eighth volume (The Final Perseverance of the Saints, chapter 8:17-39), or the thirteenth volume (Life in Two Kingdoms, chapter 13). In an Appendix at the end of this review, I will list the volumes and the subjects and chapters covered by each.

As previously noted, the publishing project, begun with some uncertainty, has been a resounding success. In his Preface, Murray cites a review in Christianity Today when the first volume came out in 1970: “This is no average book. Nor will you read it indifferently. It is the kind of book that will grip your mind and heart…it has been a long time since I have read a book I have enjoyed so thoroughly as this”(page xiii). I believe this praise applies just as well to each volume in the series. As far as a publishing success, Murray says it is not known how many volumes have been sold, but “the million mark was passed many years ago” (page xii). The books have been printed in many languages and have been read by “thousands, in nations from Brazil to Korea” (page xiii).

Now as to the contents of this volume: MLJ begins by saying that the section in view should actually extend from 14:1 to 15:4, rather than ending with 14:23. Then he says that this section should fall under the admonition of 12:1-2: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God”. This is because chapter 12 begins the second major division of the book of Romans: the first division is doctrinal and covers chapters 1-11; the second division begins with chapter 12 and is practical, that is covering the application of the doctrine in practice and in daily living. So chapter 14 (actually 14:1-15:4) is a subdivision , covered by the opening words of the second main division (12:1-2). He then gives a recap of chapter 12 (which deals with our relationships with other believers, first in the matter of spiritual gifts and then in regard to other aspects, and then our relationships with non-Christians) and chapter 13 (which deals with the relationship of believers to the powers that be, to keeping the law of love, and ends with a reminder that since our time on this earth is short we should conduct ourselves accordingly).

But with chapter 14, he begins a new subsection, although “it is still under the general heading of behavior and our relationships with other people” (page 3), though here he is back to our relationship to other people inside the church. And here Paul is primarily concerned with what have been called “matters of indifference”. In fact, this is the theme of the subsection. In contrast to those issues in connection with the Christian life that are absolutely essential, there are other matters “that are quite important but are not essential, and it is conceivable that Christians may hold different points of view about them” (page 3). That is why these questions are referred to as “matters of indifference”. The specific matters Paul takes up in this subsection are food and drink, and the setting aside of particular days as “holy days”. The same principles are dealt with by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, 1 Corinthians 10, and 1 Timothy 4. They are obviously issues that had caused a great deal of friction in the early church, and while the specifics may vary today, the general issues regarding matters of indifference, Christian liberty and the guidance of the conscience frequently cause friction in the church today.

With regard to matters of indifference, an important concept is that of the strong believer, versus the weak believer who is “weak in the faith” (14:1). The weak believer is truly Christian, they understand their own guilt and sinfulness, and they understand that they have been justified by faith in the Lord Jesus. So where have they gone wrong?

Though they have clearly seen the great central matter of salvation, when it comes to particular details of life and living, quite unconsciously, they have dropped back from the faith position into an old legalistic, pre-Christian way of thinking, and have begun to think in terms of justification by works (page 9).

So the weak believer is weak in his understanding and/or application of doctrine, while the strong believer is well-grounded in doctrine as well as its application to specific areas of the Christian walk. He understands those areas where he is free to exercise his Christian liberty. So what accounts for the difference between them? On pages 12-17, MLJ cites six possible causes of the believer who is weak in the faith: 1) natural ability, 2) temperament, 3) diligence and application, 4) length of time in the Christian life, 5) lack of good teaching, and 6) background (ancestry, nationality, etc).

On pages 5-6, MLJ gives a basic outline of this subsection:

A). 14:1-12 The Governing Principle: “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations” (vs 1).

Vs 2-4: The principle applied to eating certain foods.

Vs 5-6a: The principle applied to the observance of days.

Vs 6b-12: The way these matters should always be considered, i.e., which is in the light of our relationship to the Lord (He is the judge before whom we will all have to appear).

B). 14: 13-16 We must not consider these matters without remembering that we are brothers, we are all children of God.

C). 14: 17-20a We must also always remember the nature of the Christian church, the nature of the kingdom of God.

D). 14: 20b-23. Sums up the argument and reminds us that although we are all brothers, nevertheless each individual must be careful not to violate his conscience.

E). 15: 1-4 Paul’s final appeal, which lifts us up right up to the Lord Himself, to our whole relationship to Him, and especially to what He has done for us already.

MLJ points out that there are always two extremes to which Christians are prone to fall: legalism, which is a kind of “moral scrupulosity” (pg 7), and at the opposite extreme, the danger of antinomianism (license, lawlessness, saying since you are now a Christian, it doesn’t matter what you do). And in this portion of Romans, the issue is one of legalism.

The second chapter or sermon emphasizes how we are to treat the ones who are “weak in the faith” (vs 1), and the Apostle says we are to “receive them”, but not to “doubtful disputations”, which MLJ renders as “but not to judgment of thoughts”. In other words, they are to be received cordially, as brethren, and with grace, but not for the purpose of sitting in judgment on their thoughts. The stronger believer is not to be constantly raising the issue so as to agitate them, or to make fun of them, or to try to foist his opinions on them. All of which doesn’t mean the issues can’t be discussed. In fact, it is desired that brothers teach one another in love. So MLJ sets forth five rules for having discussions among Christians in the life of the church. To summarize, discussions should not be just for the sake of having a discussion, not for the sake of entertainment, not for the sake of displaying yourself, and not in a bad-tempered manner. In addition, there should be a distinction between a discussion and an argument, with the purpose of the latter being to win at all costs. Therefore his sixth rule is that the desire should be to gain a better understanding of the truth and to help one another. MLJ concludes that we must all learn the art of teaching, and in pages 33-35 he sets forth five principles for teaching one another in love.

Over the next several chapters, he deals with such issues as foods, meat and the ceremonial law, Sabbath law, and despising and judging. In chapter seven, he shows that the primary issue in verses 5-9 is being concerned with the glory of the Lord (pages 96-97). Whether one eats or doesn’t eat, he should do so “as to the Lord”.

In chapter nine, MLJ deals with a doctrine that he feels is neglected by evangelicals, the fact that ”we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (vs 10-12). In view of that, Paul says to the weaker Christian, “why doest thou judge thy brother” and to the stronger Christian, “why dost thou set at naught (despise) thy brother”?

In chapter 11, the focus is on a statement by Paul which MLJ says is “in many ways one of the most difficult we have so far encountered in the whole of this Epistle (page 166)”: “Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died” (vs 15b). He begins his analysis by stating what it cannot mean and what it does mean: “it does not mean his everlasting and final perdition and damnation—but it means that you are putting him on the road to ruin, on the road that leads to ruin and destruction” (page 167). The reason for this is that when the stronger believer, in front of the weaker believer, eats meat that the latter feels is tainted, the weaker believer may follow his example and do something against his conscience. And this, to the Apostle, is “one of the most serious things you can ever do” (page 171). Rather, we are to walk in love toward our brother and the supreme motivation for that is that he is a brother “for whom Christ died” (vs 15b). So if Christ loved him enough to die for him, “is it asking too much of you to forego the eating of these meats to which you are entitled?” (page 170). Chapter 12 follows with a thorough study of the conscience, which may be in Biblical terms “good, bad, weak, pure, defiled, or seared” (pages 177-180).

Chapter 13 deals more thoroughly with a question that was earlier raised in chapter 11, concerning vs 15b: “Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died”. That brings up the question of the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints, or to put it another way, “the possibility of falling from grace” (page 186). In setting forth the doctrine, MLJ deals with other so-called “problem passages” that bring up the same issue, such as Galatians 5:1-4, Hebrews 6: 4-6, and Hebrews 10:26. He also launches into side discussions such as how to deal with apparent contradictions in scripture (“apparent”, because “Scripture never contradicts itself—never”, page 189). And therefore “it is for us to reconcile the passages that on the surface seem to be contradicting one another” (page 189), and he leads us through the process. After establishing the eternal security of the believer, MLJ concludes that the warning passages discussed in this chapter are the “very means that God uses to preserve the saints.” Another doctrine that MLJ also feels is presently neglected by the church, and which he deals with in this chapter, is the doctrine of backsliding (page 192).

Chapter 14 begins a new subsection that runs from verses 17-19. The subsection is introduced by verse 17 which contains what MLJ considers to be one of “the Apostle’s great resounding statements…a mighty and magnificent statement that seems to be a perfect summary of the gospel and of the nature of the Christian life” (page 203):

For the kingdom of God
is not meat and drink;
but righteousness, and peace,
and joy in the Holy Ghost
.
(vs 17)

In chapter 14, MLJ spends much time dealing with what he considers one of Christianity’s big problems today: what he refers to as “lop-sided Christianity” (page 205). He says “the principle at issue is the vital importance, always, of preserving a sense of balance and proportion in the Christian life…One of the greatest dangers is to be so absorbed, and concerned about, particulars and details as to forget the whole” (page 205). Because we are unbalanced, minor issues are inflated into major issues, and we strain gnats while swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24). The “grand corrective” to this whole problem is “to remember that what we are really concerned about is the kingdom of God” (page 224).

And so beginning with chapter 15, MLJ sets forth the general teaching of the Bible regarding the kingdom of God (pages 225-229). And when he starts rolling on this grand subject, he will carry the readers along with him. I wish that each reader of this review could read those five pages. He begins with the general statement that “the great theme of the Bible, ultimately, is the kingdom of God” (page 225). God created the world, and made man and woman to live in communion with him. But they rebelled and disobeyed Him, and so “the whole message of the Bible, therefore, is the restoration of the kingdom of God. And this, in particular, is the theme of our Lord’s own preaching” (page 225). But, he warns:

How often we forget this…We put so much emphasis on the subjective experience, upon personal salvation, that we tend to forget this teaching, do we not? Our whole error is that we always start with ourselves…It is the wrong way round. We should start with the kingdom of God, for it is what our Lord preached about. All that happens to us is in order to make us citizens of that kingdom…You must start with what God has done, God’s plan and purpose, and this kingdom that He is establishing (page 225). But what does the kingdom of God mean?…It means the rule, the reign, of God. And He brings about His reign through the Word, the Word that He has given, and through the Spirit. But the center, of course, is always the Lord Jesus Christ…(for) God’s kingdom has happened supremely in the Lord Jesus Christ…He is the King…and everything He did was done in order that this kingdom might ultimately be manifested in all of its glorious fullness. (pages 225-226).

As an amillennialist, MLJ states that while in the old dispensation, the kingdom took the external form of the nation of Israel, “the kingdom of God is now to be seen in visible form in the Christian church”, citing Matthew 21:43. And of course the kingdom of God will yet be seen, again in visible form, when our Lord returns at the second coming, and His kingdom will be universal.

And so the application:

The question for you is: Are you in the kingdom of God? Nothing else is going to matter, nothing except this glorious kingdom of God and His Christ…(and) we must emphasize that the kingdom of God is also within every one of us who is a Christian. It is the reign of God, which means the reign of Christ…That is the sense in which the kingdom of God is within us…My great concern should not be for meat and drink and observation of days, or this, or that, or the other, but that the King should be enthroned in my heart (pages 227-228).

And so MLJ relates the teaching on the kingdom of God to the issues regarding food and drink and special days, which were causing hard feelings and divisions and factions. In fact, he asks if we cannot feel the Apostle’s sarcasm when he talks about meat and drink, and MLJ states:

How pathetic it is. We rob ourselves of the most wonderful things in the Christian faith and the greatest glories when we indulge in this minutiae…The Apostle is saying: Where is your sense of perspective? Where is your sense of proportion? Where is your sense of balance? Do you not realize who you are and what you are?…Now that is the first and greatest and fundamental argument: the kingdom of God. You start with that, then all you do and all your thinking and everything else must be governed by that. The moment it is not, you will go off at a tangent and make peripheral things central. You will make yourself miserable, you will divide the church, you will produce chaos and havoc, and do harm to the kingdom of God. That is what Paul is saying (page 228-229).

So in chapter 16, MLJ goes on to explore the implications of this great proclamation about the kingdom of God in verse 17.

In chapter 17, he looks at the meaning of the first positive descriptive term about just what the kingdom of God is in verse 17: “For the kingdom of God is…righteousness”. Here he deals with an interpretative issue that has found some of the great Reformed commentators of the past in disagreement (pages 244-246). On the one hand, is the term righteousness referring to imputed righteousness, i.e. the righteousness of God in Christ that He puts to our account in justification? This is the way the term is generally used in Romans, and supporters of this position include such worthies as John Calvin, Charles Hodge, and William G.T. Shedd. Or on the other hand, is an ethical righteousness in view, i.e. the behavior of believers who are in the kingdom of God? Supporters of this position include Robert Haldane and Professor John Murray. To these opposing interpretations, MLJ says: “there is a sense in which I agree with both views, and yet, at the same time, say that both are wrong” (page 246). Instead, he concludes:

So to me, this seventeenth verse is a general statement of the character or the characteristics of the kingdom of God and its citizens. In other words, I argue that Paul is not dealing here with ethical relationships, but with personal relationships…he is trying to show that these Romans had forgotten their whole position and their entire relationship to one another, and this was the source of all their trouble. They were reducing the whole matter of the kingdom of God to attitudes towards certain details and certain practices. They had become so involved in the minutiae that they were missing the whole thing (pages 247-248).

So MLJ detects a measure of impatience on the part of the Apostle towards these people.

He then goes on to introduce some supporting evidence from Galatians 5:1-6, Galatians 6:12-17, and Romans 6:17-23 (pages 248-252), and then concludes:

It is the kingdom of God that is the sphere and the reign of righteousness. This is the interpretation of Romans 14:17. Christians, then, are new men and new women in this new realm. They have liberty in Christ, a new way of thinking. And now they view all matters of conduct not primarily in terms of particular actions, but rather in terms of their conformity to the kingdom to which they belong and to the King of the kingdom. That is the difference…The Christians in Rome were tending to forget that there is a great distinction between holiness and morality…Christian men and women are not primarily concerned about detailed rightness, but are profoundly concerned about being well-pleasing to God, and right in His sight (page 252-253).

And then finally, in chapter 18, he focuses on the second positive descriptive term of the kingdom of God: peace, which he says means more than just peaceableness. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace where a great reconciliation has taken place. And what is that reconciliation? First and foremost, peace with God as a result of our justification. Then secondly, salvation gives men peace within. And third, peace with others, “and that is the subject the Apostle is dealing with in particular in Romans 14:17” (page 267). The kingdom of God has broken down the middle wall of partition that divides men. But, says Paul to the Romans, “you are re-erecting these middle walls in terms of eating and drinking. This is not the kingdom of God” (pages 267-268). For:

The kingdom of God abolishes enmities, and re-introduction of enmities in any shape or form is a denial of the kingdom…people only behave as the Romans were behaving when they forget that the one thing that matters is the glory of God and the Lord Jesus Christ…What do my opinions matter as long as God and Christ and the Spirit are glorified and honoured? That is Paul’s appeal (pages 268-270).

For the kingdom of God

is not meat and drink;
but righteousness, and peace,
and joy in the Holy Ghost.
(vs 17)

And so ended MLJ’s masterful exposition of the book of Romans, without his even being able to complete the exposition of the final phrase of verse 17, much less the rest of Romans chapter 17. But although the cancer diagnosis on that date in 1968 led to his retirement, and his pulpit career at Westminster Chapel was over, his work was far from complete, as he lived until 1981 and during that time engaged in ministry in many other ways until he died, including the editing of this Romans series as well as a multi-volume exposition of Ephesians.

It is hoped that some of those reading this review will be encouraged to undertake to acquire (or check out from a library) some if not all of the 14 volumes composing the Romans series. As I previously noted, each volume does stand on its own. And you will be greatly rewarded for your effort. The Appendix below lists each volume, the subject matter covered, and the date of its first publication.

APPENDIX: The Romans Series

The Gospel of God (1:1-32), 1985

The Righteous Judgment of God (2:1-3:20), 1989

Atonement and Justification (3:20-4:25), 1970

Assurance (5:1-21), 1971

The New Man (6:1-23), 1972

The Law: Its Functions and Limits (7:1-8:4), 1973

The Sons of God (8:5-17), 1974

The Final Perseverance of the Saints (8:17-39), 1975

God’s Sovereign Purpose (9:1-33), 1991

Saving Faith (10:1-21), 1997

To God’s Glory (11:1-36), 1998

Christian Conduct (12:1-21), 2000

Life in Two Kingdoms (13:1-14), 2002

Liberty and Conscience (14:1-17), 2003

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology)