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Lesson 89: Christ: Lord of our Politics (Rom. 13:1-7 and other Scriptures)

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This message is a revision and update of one that I first gave in November, 1984, on the eve of the election of Ronald Reagan for his second term. Earlier that summer, while we were on vacation in San Diego, we had gone to hear the well-known Christian pastor and author, Tim LaHaye, speak. His message was, “The Second Most Important Day of Your Life.” He said that the most important day of your life was when you trusted in Christ as Savior. (So far so good!) But the second most important day, even more important than the day you met your mate, would be that fall when you went to the polls and voted for Ronald Reagan! The implication was that if Reagan was not re-elected our nation was doomed.

While I’m glad that Mr. Reagan was re-elected, I must respectfully disagree with Mr. LaHaye. I do not think that any election is the second most important day of my life. Granted, if our religious freedoms are taken away, life would become very difficult. But, Christianity survived and even thrived under Maoist China, so I think that it would survive here in spite of attempts to eradicate it.

Before we leave Romans 13:1-7, which is the longest New Testament passage dealing with Christians and the government, I wanted to address the topic of to what extent Christians and the church should be involved in politics. Some, such as John MacArthur (whom I greatly respect), argue that we should preach the gospel, but not be much involved in politics (Why the Government Can’t Save You [Word]). Others, such as Tim LaHaye, imply that getting conservative Christian candidates elected is of utmost importance. So I want to explore the implications of what it means to have Christ as Lord of our politics.

I must make several disclaimers. The first is that I cannot possibly be comprehensive in one message. I must limit my comments on many points where, if time permitted, much more could be said. If you want to read a more comprehensive, biblically-based book, I’d recommend Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible [Zondervan, 2010, 619 pages].

Second, my goal is not to give you pre-packaged answers on every issue, but rather to lay down some guidelines to help you think biblically about the subject of politics. And thirdly, I am still in process on some of these matters. Feel free to interact or disagree with me and we can help each other grow in this area.

I’m going to make a foundational proposition; then I’ll talk about the nature of civil government in the Scriptures (a quick review of last week); the relationship of the church and the government; and finally, the relationship of individual Christian citizens and the government. My foundational proposition is:

Christ must be Lord of our political views.

That may sound obvious, but it is anything but obvious in practice. People whose lives are otherwise in submission to Christ have a tendency to forget about His lordship when the subject turns to politics. They haven’t thought through what the Bible says about politics and our involvement in that area. But if Christ is Lord of all of life and if the Bible speaks about political matters, then we must allow Him to be Lord of our political views.

1. The nature of civil governments: God-ordained and accountable to God.

The Scriptures teach that government is ordained of God and thus accountable to God.

A. Civil governments are ordained of God.

We saw this last time in Romans 13:1b, “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” When Paul wrote this, the godless Nero was the emperor. Since he obviously fell far short of the ideal ruler, we must conclude that there are no exceptions to the principle laid down here, namely, that God has ordained government authority as a part of His plan for this earth. God’s purposes for government can be boiled down to two broad areas:

(1). God ordains government to promote justice for all.

God does this by protecting law-abiding citizens and punishing law-breakers (1 Pet. 2:14). Romans 13:4 talks about the government being a minister of God for good to those who do good, but it bears the sword as “an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” That points to the power of the state to use both capital punishment and (by implication) lesser punishments to promote justice for all.

We also saw last time that the government does this (in part) by legislating morality. Laws against murder, theft, rape, assault, and many other crimes are moral issues commanded in the Bible. Laws should protect citizens from destructive sins (e.g. prostitution, drugs, etc.). The fact that something is illegal will restrain many who otherwise may be tempted to engage in that activity. The real debate is, which moral standards should we legislate? (I’ll say more on that in a moment.)

(2). God ordains government to promote peace and order in society.

Paul says (1 Tim. 2:1-2) that we should pray for kings and those in authority “in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” This means that the government must maintain adequate national defense so that we are not overrun by a foreign power that would rob us of peace and liberty. On the local level, there must be adequate law enforcement to maintain peace and order. There should be adequate regulation of commerce, medicine, and other areas to protect citizens. Since the government has been ordained of God to promote justice and peace, it follows that…

B. Civil governments are accountable to God.

As we saw last week, Daniel’s testimony to both Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar was consistent and clear: “The Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Dan. 4:17, 25, 32; 5:21). And, Jesus told Pilate (John 19:11), “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given you from above.” Neither of these rulers were believers in God or part of the covenant nation. And yet Daniel and the Lord Jesus reminded these pagan rulers that their authority was not autonomous. God gave it to them and the implication is, they would have to give an account to Him someday. Part of our role as believers, as we have opportunity, is to remind even pagan government authorities that they rule under God and are accountable to Him. That leads to the thorny issue of…

2. The relationship between the church and the government: Not total separation nor total identification, but education and confrontation.

A. Not total separation: There is no such thing as total separation of church and state.

The ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are trying to use the First Amendment to mean that religion cannot have any part in government matters. That amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As you know, these groups have gone to absurd lengths to eradicate any mention of religion in schools, the military, and government.

But the intent of that amendment was not to keep religion out of the government, but to keep the government out of religion. As you know, the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” is not in the U.S. Constitution. It occurs in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association on January 1, 1802 and it reflects Jefferson’s interpretation of the First Amendment. Originally the first amendment was added to insure that the federal government have nothing to do with state religious affairs and that the federal government be prohibited from establishing a national church (such as the Church of England). Several of the colonies had state churches. That was not in question.

The same Congress which drafted the Constitution reaffirmed the Northwest Ordinance in 1789 which states, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of learning shall forever be encouraged” ( Thus religion and morality (based on religion) were a part of the foundation of our nation’s educational system. The founding fathers would be aghast at the current interpretation of the First Amendment which excludes any mention of God or the Bible from public schools and the government.

Since part of the government’s God-ordained function is to promote justice, and since, by necessity, that involves legislating morality, it is absurd to talk about a total separation of church and state. The church concerns itself with morality, and so there is much overlap. Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. Church leaders and individual Christians should not withdraw from the government or public education under the guise of separation of church and state. On the other hand …

B. Not total identification: The church must be careful to be known primarily for the gospel and righteousness, not for a partisan political stance.

We need to remember several things in this regard.

(1). Evangelism, not political power, is God’s primary means of dealing with the world’s problems.

If we forget this, we fall into the trap of liberal theologians who promote the social gospel. Since the major problems in this world stem from sin in individual hearts, the only real solution is to see people brought into a right relationship with God. Jesus didn’t command us to go and win political races; He did command us to go and disciple all nations. We need to keep this as our main focus. Our hope should be in God and the gospel, not in political power.

(2). The gospel does include ministry to the whole person, and so we cannot neglect working for just laws.

Dr. Grudem (pp. 49-51) points out many ways that Christians have influenced governments positively throughout history. These changes have also facilitated the spread of the gospel. These changes include outlawing infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion in the Roman Empire; outlawing the gladiator battles in Rome; outlawing branding the faces of prisoners; instituting humane prison reforms; stopping human sacrifice; outlawing pedophilia; granting property rights and other protections to women; banning polygamy; prohibiting the burning alive of widows in India (due to William Carey’s influence); outlawing the crippling practice of binding women’s feet in China; advancing the idea of compulsory education for all children in Europe; and abolishing slavery.

Thus to say that preaching the gospel is our only business and that the church should not influence the culture through promoting just and righteous laws is out of balance. It is often through Christian efforts to promote justice for the oppressed that God opens the door for the proclamation of the gospel.

(3). The doctrine of depravity must always be in view when the church touches politics.

We need to be careful not to become overly enamored with a particular political party or candidate. The church should not posture itself as Republican or Democrat. Neither party is thoroughly biblical. There is a mixture of good and evil in both parties. And all candidates (even if they are Christians) are fallen sinners who are susceptible to the lust for power and prestige. We also need to realize that candidates of both parties posture themselves to appeal to large blocks of voters, such as “the Religious Right.” We should not be duped or overly optimistic that a candidate who says that he holds to “conservative family values” will actually promote those values once he is in office.

But when one party (or its presidential candidate) endorses abortion and homosexual rights, and the other party (or its candidate) stands on the opposite side, I don’t see how a Christian in good conscience can vote for the pro-abortion, pro-homosexual rights candidate. These are moral issues, not political issues. The current president has appointed two Supreme Court justices who will invariably rule against Christian moral values. The next president will appoint at least one, if not several, Supreme Court justices who will tilt the Court in one direction or the other. These rulings do affect our country for good or ill, as the infamous Roe v. Wade decision proves. Over 50 million lives have been snuffed out because of that tragic ruling. If the Court rules in favor of “homosexual marriage,” it will have devastating consequences for America.

So while the gospel is our main focus, electing officials who will enact laws or appoint judges in line with Christian values is important. The gospel is essential for lasting change, but God has also ordained that righteous laws protect our society. Thus the relationship between church and state is not one of total separation nor one of total identification. Rather, it is:

C. Education and confrontation: The church must educate and confront the state on matters of morality and justice.

In the Old Testament the prophets called the kings to account on these matters. In the New Testament, John the Baptist and Jesus confronted the religious and political leaders. The Apostle Paul confronted Felix, the governor, concerning righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come (Acts 24:25).

This brings up the difficult question: How far can we push Christian morality (legislatively) in a secular society? During the colonial days, some states punished people who traveled on Sunday. I remember going into grocery stores in Texas in the late sixties where you could not purchase certain items on Sunday. Obviously, we don’t want to go that far (most of us would be guilty!). A few (thankfully, not many!) advocate imposing the Mosaic Law on our culture, including stoning adulterers, homosexuals, and rebellious children. But how far should we go?

I do not have all the answers on this! Wayne Grudem does an admirable job of addressing an extensive list of specific issues: protection of life (abortion; euthanasia; capital punishment; self-defense and gun ownership); marriage (including incest, adultery, homosexuality; polygamy; divorce; pornography); the family (including child-rearing and education); economics (including taxes; Social Security; health care); the environment (including global warming); national defense (including war; pacifism; homosexuals in the military); foreign policy (including immigration); freedom of speech; freedom of religion; and, a number of other special topics, such as affirmative action, farm subsidies, the National Education Association, Native Americans, and gambling.

Obviously, I can’t begin to deal with all of these specific issues here, but I want to lay out a few guidelines. (I’m relying on theologian John Warwick Montgomery, Christianity Today [1/23/81], pp. 60, 63; although I’ve modified his approach slightly.)

(1). We must distinguish between biblical moral absolutes and gray areas.

Abortion is clear-cut. I do not see how any Bible-believing Christian can argue in favor of abortion, except to save the physical life of the mother. On other issues (economics, the environment, foreign policy, etc.), committed, godly believers differ. On such gray areas you may argue for your position as a Christian citizen, but have the grace to acknowledge that other godly Christians disagree. Also, prioritize your issues. Some things, such as outlawing abortion, save human lives. Other issues, such as divorce laws or environmental issues or economic policy, may be important, but not as crucial as saving the lives of unborn babies.

(2). We must not seek to legislate even biblical moral teachings where the value of that teaching will be recognized only by those who have already accepted Christ as Lord and the Bible as God’s Word.

We don’t want to prosecute blasphemers or adulterers, even though such things violate God’s law. To force unbelievers to abide by such laws would be counter-productive in the long run in that eventually people would rebel against Christianity and cast off all influence of the church. This happened with Prohibition.

(3). We should strive to legislate all socially valuable moral teachings of Scripture whose value can be meaningfully argued for in a pluralistic society.

Laws against abortion; laws protecting women, the handicapped, and the elderly; laws against pornography and child abuse; can all be argued for on the grounds of broad social appeal, even for the non-Christian. Our reason for arguing for such laws is because God’s Word is clear on these matters. But these and many other values can be agreed upon by a broad coalition of people, many of whom would not accept Christ as Lord or the Bible as God’s Word. If we argue these issues on the basis of scientific, social, and ethical grounds (such as the Golden Rule) which even the non-believer can accept, then if the matter becomes the law of the land, the unbeliever who disagrees with it is less likely to feel that a particular religion has been forced upon him.

(4). In the political arena, if the choice is between a reasonable compromise that has a good chance of passing versus the uncompromised position which has a poor chance of passing, go for the compromise.

I am not saying that we compromise our moral standards. I am saying that in a fallen world, where we’re dealing with unbelievers, we may have to settle for less than God’s best. In the area of abortion, for example, although I believe that it is immoral to kill a developing baby simply because it is the result of rape or incest or because it is deformed, I would be quick to settle for an amendment banning abortions except in those cases rather than in holding out for an amendment which bans all abortions. By accepting the compromise we would end 95 percent or more of all current abortions. Then we can go to work on the other 5 percent. So I’m not saying that we compromise our standards. I am saying that we need to be politically wise.

We have talked about: 1. The nature of government: God ordained and accountable; and, 2. The relationship between the church and the government: not total separation nor total identification, but education and confrontation.

4. The relationship between individual Christians and the government.

Here I’m not focusing on the church as a bloc, but on the individual Christian citizen. First I’ll show what is required of all Christians; then what is optional according to gifts and calling.

A. Required of every Christian:

(1). To be subject to the government unless it asks us to disobey God (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-14; Acts 4:19-20; 5:29; Daniel 1, 3, 6).
(2). To grant proper honor to those in authority (Rom. 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:17).
(3). To do right and cooperate with government authorities whenever possible (Titus 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:15).
(4). To pay taxes (Rom. 13:6, 7; Matt. 22:17-21).
(5). To pray for government authorities (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
(6). To evangelize and disciple government leaders when possible (1 Tim. 2:3-4; Matt.28:19; Paul’s example with Felix, Festus, Agrippa, and others).
(7). To be informed and vote for candidates and issues which will, to the best degree possible, uphold God’s purposes for government (Matt. 5:13-16; Titus 3:1).

The Bible does not address voting directly because democracy was not practiced then. Some Christians argue that we are citizens of heaven and thus should not get involved at all in politics. But we are also citizens of this earth. Since we are given a say in who rules over us, not to vote is to allow the ungodly to win.

B. Optional for Christians according to gifts and calling:

(1). To help inform the church regarding candidates or important legislation that relates to biblical issues.

Not all of us have the time to stay informed. If you are so gifted and led, help us out. Let us know about important petitions that we can sign to endorse moral legislation.

(2). To work as volunteers or supporting staff for politicians who uphold justice and morality.

This is not required of every believer, but it may be the legitimate calling of some.

(3). To run for political office.

Again, this must be a matter of personal calling before God. It may be on a local level (school board, city council, etc.) or on a state or national level. The church ought to be supplying the government with men and women of integrity who fear God. Government is a difficult place to maintain a strong testimony for Christ. But there are two notable examples in the Bible of men who served well in pagan governments: Joseph in Egypt, and Daniel in Babylon.


Let me return to my foundational proposition:

Christ must be Lord of our political views.

I trust that you now have some tracks to run on as you think through the implications of that statement for your own life.

Application Questions

  1. Should the government grant religious freedom for all? What about Mormon polygamists? What about blood transfusions for the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
  2. Does the Bible support a particular political theory of economics (for example, free enterprise vs. socialism)?
  3. To what extent should we try to push through legislation on matters like divorce, pornography, gambling, etc.?
  4. What biblical truths could be used to argue for democracy as the best form of government?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 90: The Debt You Always Owe (Romans 13:8-10)

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A Roman nobleman died, leaving enormous debts that he had successfully concealed during his lifetime. When the estate was put up for auction, Caesar Augustus instructed his agent to buy the man’s pillow. When some expressed surprise at the order, he explained, “That pillow must be particularly conducive to sleep, if its late owner, in spite of all his debts, could sleep on it.” (The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. by Clifton Fadiman [Little, Brown and Company, p. 28)

Debt creates pressure and no one likes pressure. But there is one debt that you will always owe and never be able to pay off fully: The debt of love to others. You’ll never reach the place where you can say, “Now I love others as much as I ought to.” And so, no matter how long you’ve been a Christian and how much you have grown as a Christian, you still have room to grow in love.

The biblical emphasis on love is not exactly minor or infrequent! Jesus said that love is the distinguishing mark of His followers (John 13:34-35): “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” In case they missed it, in the same discourse He added (John 15:12), “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” Then, in case they missed it again, five verses later He repeated (John 15:17), “This I command you, that you love one another.”

The apostle Paul frequently hammered on the same note. He said (Rom. 12:9, 10), “Let love be without hypocrisy…. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.” Again (1 Cor. 16:14), “Let all that you do be done in love.” In the same vein as our text, he wrote (Gal. 5:14), “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” He told the Ephesians (5:2), “And walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us ….” He wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:9), “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another ….” And, of course, he wrote the great love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. In addition, in Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, and 1 & 2 John there are repeated commands to love one another (Heb. 10:24; 13:1; James 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:22; 4:8; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7-21; 2 John 5).

The revival preacher, Jonathan Edwards, in trying to determine the reality of the many professions of faith that were made during the First Great Awakening, put love at the top of the list for determining whether someone’s faith was genuine. He believed “that evidences of love (or their absence) were the best test by which ‘Christians may try their experience whether it be real Christian experience’” (George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life [Yale University Press], p. 190).

Would you pass the test? Or, more importantly, would your family or those you live with say, “Yes, he (or she) is a loving person”? Granted, it’s a lifelong growth process and we all often fail to love as we ought. But love should be your diligent focus and over time there should be progress. In our text, Paul tells us,

As Christians, we should pay our debts, including the debt of love for others, because love fulfills God’s law.

The flow of thought (going back to Rom. 12:1-2) is: based on the mercies of God, we should present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice to God. Rather than being conformed to this evil age, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we prove in practice God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will. The renewed mind will be humble (12:3) and will serve as a gifted member of the body of Christ (12:4-8). Love, even toward those who mistreat us, will be our aim (12:9-21). Our obligation as believers also includes living in subjection to the governing powers, including paying our taxes (13:1-7). “Did I say, ‘Pay your taxes’? Also, pay your debts. But there is one debt that you always will have and always need to be paying, namely, the debt of love. This debt sums up all the commandments and fulfills God’s law.”

Don’t miss that the foundation for loving others must always be that you have experienced God’s love in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). If you try to love others when you have not experienced the love of God in Christ, you are just into moralism. You mistakenly think that your good deeds will commend you to God. But the Bible is clear that by nature, we all are selfish (Rom. 3:10-18). Our attempts to love others are based on wrong motives. We may love others because we want to get something from them or because of what love does for us. It’s only after we have come to the cross as guilty sinners and received God’s gift of eternal life that we have the capacity to deny ourselves and to love others as we should. Only then will our motive be to glorify the God who loved us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8).

But before we look at Paul’s instruction on love, we need to consider his brief phrase regarding debt.

1. As Christians, we should pay our financial obligations.

Romans 13:8a: “Owe nothing to anyone ….” Although some godly Christians, such as George Muller, believed that this phrase prohibits all borrowing, I could not find a single commentator who agreed. There are many Scriptures that regulate, but do not prohibit, debt and borrowing (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37; Deut. 15:7-9; Neh. 5:7; Ps. 15:5; 37:21, 26; Ezek. 22:12; Matt. 5:42; Luke 6:34). In the parable of the talents, the lazy servant at least should have put his money into the bank and given it back with interest (Matt. 25:27). Implicit in that story is that the bank pays interest by loaning money. Jesus didn’t condemn that system, but rather condemned the slave for not using the system to earn a profit. And so all commentators agree that Paul isn’t forbidding all debt. Rather he is saying that we must pay our debts when they are due.

At the same time, the Bible warns against the dangers of debt. Proverbs 22:7 says, “The borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” Often debt reveals underlying greed that drives us to buy things that we can’t afford. Or it reveals that we love the world and the things that are in the world (1 John 2:15). We want the status that goes with having nice things, and so we go into debt to get those things. If we borrow too much and have to declare bankruptcy, it is not a good witness and is tantamount to stealing. Also, if you’re in debt, you’re not free to give generously to the Lord’s work. And so we need to be very cautious about taking on debt, especially for depreciating items. Never incur debts that you cannot pay on time.

Paul uses the transition from “pay your taxes and pay your debts” to say that there is one debt you will always owe:

2. As Christians, we should work at, but can never fully pay, our debt of love toward others.

Romans 13:8: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”

A. We owe the debt of love to all people.

Certainly “one another” includes those who are believers, but this command extends to all people. “His neighbor” (13:8) is literally, “the other,” which includes any other person. In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), Jesus showed that the command (Lev. 19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” extends even to strangers in need. It applies to people whom we may not especially like and to those who have wronged us. We do not necessarily have to like them, but we do need to love them. We need to treat them as we treat ourselves.

B. We pay the debt of love out of the surplus of God’s inexhaustible love for us.

You may wonder, “How did we incur this debt of love to others?” They haven’t given us anything to put us in their debt. We may not even know these people! We find a clue to this question back in Romans 1:14, where Paul wrote, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” “Under obligation” is literally, “I am a debtor.” Paul’s debt was to preach the gospel to all people (Rom. 1:16). The reason he incurred that debt is that he received God’s gracious love while he was yet a sinner (Rom. 5:8).

Even so, if you have received the gracious gift of eternal life, then you owe a debt of love to all people. But you don’t have to pay it out of your own meager store of love. Rather, you pay it out of the limitless overflow of God’s love toward you. As the Lord enables you to be rooted and grounded in love and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:17-19), that abundant love of God spills over onto others. That’s why I emphasized a moment ago that you must have experienced the love of God in Christ before you can love others as you should.

You may also wonder why Paul does not mention here the first great commandment, that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37). The answer is twofold: First, Paul’s focus here is on our relationships with others, not directly on our relationship with God. Second, he is assuming that you’ve been reading Romans 1-11, where he spelled out in detail God’s great love for us, which is the source and motivation for our love for God and for others.

C. The measure of our love for others is whether we love them as we love ourselves.

In the past 40 years, it has often been taught that your relational problems stem from your low self-esteem and because you don’t love yourself enough. So you must first learn to love yourself before you can properly love others. But hopefully that teaching is dying out. It does not come from the second great commandment or from anywhere else in the Bible. It came to us from worldly psychologists who do not know God.

There are only two great commandments, not three: Love God and love your neighbor. Self-love is the assumed standard by which to measure your love for others. We all love ourselves quite well. We all take care of ourselves. We give ourselves the benefit of a doubt in every situation. I’ve noticed that the guy who drives faster than I is a complete idiot who is going to cause an accident. And the guy who drives slower than I needs to take some driving lessons or get off the road. But I drive just right! Or, if my wife and kids would just get their acts together, our family would run just fine. But me? Hey, I don’t need to change!

William Hendriksen (cited by Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 469, note 60) astutely remarks, “It is a certain thing that a person will love himself, and it is also certain that he will do so in spite of the fact that the self he loves has many faults.” So Moses (in Lev. 19:18), Jesus (Matt. 22:39), and Paul are saying, “Extend the same grace to other faulty sinners that you extend to yourself as a faulty sinner.” Love your neighbor as you do in fact love yourself.

D. Since we can never exhaust the debt of love, we must keep working to pay it off.

Paying off debts is hard work. It requires discipline. You’d really enjoy that $4 latte at your favorite coffee shop, but you’re trying to get your credit card debt paid off, so you say no. You’d really like to get that latest computer gadget or smart phone, but you can’t afford it, so you wait. It’s not easy to get out of debt because it requires denying yourself in order to reach your goal.

It’s the same with the debt of love, except that you never will get it paid off. You’ll never get to the point where you can honestly say, “I love my wife as much as I should. I don’t need to work at it any longer.” The reason that it’s difficult to love others is that it always requires self-sacrifice or self-denial. I’d really rather sit there and watch the news or a sports program on TV than get up and help my wife with the kids or with the dishes. Besides, doesn’t she realize that I worked hard all day (as if she didn’t!)? Or at church, you’re so focused on talking with your friends that you don’t notice a visitor who is standing there all alone. You have to take your focus off yourself and put it on others and their needs in order to work at this debt of love that you owe.

I’m countering the popular notion that love is spontaneous and effortless. We talk about “falling” in love. Falling doesn’t take much effort. And if we’ve fallen out of love, there doesn’t seem to be much that we can do about it. But according to the Bible, that’s nonsense. The Bible commands us to love others, which implies that we can do it even though it requires some thought and effort.

E. The debt of love involves not only our feelings, but also our actions, both positive and negative.

While love, especially in marriage, should involve our feelings, at its core it’s not a feeling but rather a commitment that results in action. Love is the commitment that we make to sacrifice ourselves in order to seek the highest good of the one loved. The highest good for every person is that he or she comes to know Jesus Christ and grow to be more like Him. So with a total stranger, love may be the commitment to sacrifice our time or our comfort level to tell him about Christ. Love may be the thoughtfulness to recognize a need and take action to meet that need without any request from the other person. Love may realize that a brother in Christ is drifting spiritually or is in sin and so you take the initiative to try to help restore him to the Lord.

In our text, Paul cites four of the Ten Commandments to show what love does not do. First, he cites the seventh commandment (13:9), “You shall not commit adultery.” Although those who commit adultery convince themselves that they love the new partner, they are deceived. They love themselves and mistakenly think that the new partner will make them happy or meet their needs. But they aren’t loving the new partner, because they are not committed to helping that partner know Christ and grow in Him. They certainly aren’t loving their present spouse or their children.

Then Paul cites the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.” (He may have been following a LXX manuscript which reverses the sixth and seventh commandments in Deut. 5:17-18.) While most of us have never actually murdered anyone, Jesus pointed out that our anger towards others violates this command (Matt. 5:21-22). If you are angry at your mate or at your kids, you’re not loving them.

Then Paul cites the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal.” Obviously, taking what belongs to others is not loving them. It is loving yourself above them, because you think that you have a right to what they own.

Finally, Paul cites the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet.” Coveting or desiring what others have is the attitude that lies beneath stealing. It’s based on self-love, not on the love of God and others. When I covet, I want what others have because I mistakenly think that it will make me happy. I’m not thinking about how it will make them feel if I take it from them.

Paul is not being exhaustive and so he adds (13:9), “And if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Since he has been citing the Ten Commandments, which are negative, he summarizes negatively (13:10a), “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”

Thus love involves concrete actions, often positive, but sometimes negative, towards others. It requires continual self-denial in order to meet the needs of others. Since self-denial runs counter to my flesh, love requires constant effort and thought. I have to take my focus off myself and think about how the other person must feel or what the other person may need.

3. As Christians, loving others fulfills God’s law.

Paul says this twice explicitly (13:8, “he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law”; 13:10, “love is the fulfillment of the law”) and a third time implicitly (“it is summed up,” 13:9).

Why does Paul bring up God’s law here? Earlier in Romans (6:14) he has made the point that we are not under law, but under grace. We have died to the law in Christ (7:4). He has said (10:4) that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” So, why does he now bring up the law and cite from the Ten Commandments?

In my estimation, this is one of the most difficult theological issues in the Bible. Most Reformed scholars say (and I used to teach) that the Mosaic Law is divided into three areas: civil, ceremonial, and moral. In Christ, the civil and ceremonial laws for Israel are done away with, but God’s moral law is still binding on us. While there is some truth to that, in that there is a moral aspect to God’s law, the problem is that the law isn’t neatly divided into these three areas and so it’s difficult to sort out which is which. Also, the law is a unity, and thus you can’t pick and choose which parts of it you place yourself under. For Paul, either you’re under the law in its entirety or you’re not (Douglas Moo, in Five Views on Law and Gospel [Zondervan], p. 363).

So my understanding here (Rom. 13:8-10) is that Paul is countering his critics who accused him of abandoning the law and promoting licentiousness (Rom. 3:8; 6:1). He is showing them that when believers in Christ love others, they are fulfilling the law of Moses. And while we always fall short of perfectly loving others, Christ, who is our righteousness, did perfectly fulfill the law on our behalf. But as we practice true biblical love, which is to seek the highest good of those we love, we will not commit adultery or murder or theft or coveting. We will obey God’s holy commandments. Thus we fulfill the law through love.


So the question that Paul asks us here is, “Are you paying your debts?” Are you working at paying the debt that you will always owe, the debt of love for others? Are you making the effort to sacrifice your comfort and convenience to meet the highest good of others? If you’re married, begin with your mate. If you have children, practice on them. We all have difficult members of our extended families who need God’s love and we may be the only channel for it to flow to them. It may be someone at work. Love’s aim is their highest good, which is to know Christ and be conformed to Him. It will take effort. But we owe such love to them, both in good deeds and in sharing the gospel as opportunities arise.

If you ask, “How can I develop this quality?” Paul’s answer is, “Walk in the Spirit.” Love is the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 22). If you ask, “How can I know whether I am acting in love?” Paul gets pretty specific (1 Cor. 13:4-7):

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

That’s our debt to all people! Are you working on paying it off?

Application Questions

  1. Should we borrow to purchase a house? A car? A computer? How can we know when debt is permissible or wise?
  2. Who is a person that you find difficult to love? How could you show God’s love to him (or her)?
  3. What is the difference between liking someone and loving him (her)? Are we required to like everyone?
  4. Memorize 1 Cor. 13:4-7 and do an in depth study of these verses. Then ask God for opportunities to apply them.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Finance, Love

Lesson 91: Your Present Walk and the Coming Day (Romans 13:11-14)

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Think back over this past week. How much of what you did was motivated by your conscious awareness of the coming of the Lord? If you’re like me, you’ll have to admit, “Not much.” I often get so caught up with daily pressures and deadlines that I forget the big picture. I forget that Jesus is coming and that I should be living each day in light of that great future event.

Romans 12:1-2 exhorted us to live in the present in light of God’s past mercies to us. Romans 13:11-14 exhorts us to live in the present in light of the future return of Jesus Christ. This is a frequent theme in the New Testament. Jesus warned (Matt. 24:42-44),

“Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.”

In a paragraph that contains language and imagery quite similar to our text, Paul writes (1 Thess. 5:1-10):

Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.

Many other verses also use the promise of the Lord’s coming to motivate us to holy living (e.g., Phil. 4:4-7; Titus 2:11-13; Heb. 10:24-25; James 5:7-8; 1 Pet. 4:7-11; 2 Pet. 3:11-14; 1 John 3:2-3).

In our text, Paul begins with a short phrase that most scholars interpret as an imperative: “Do this.” Then (13:11-12a) he gives some indicatives: “knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near.” Then he gives more imperatives, calling us to action in light of the time (13:12b-14): “Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” To sum up, he is saying,

The approaching day of the Lord should cause us, in contrast to this evil world, to walk in holiness.

First let’s look at the great contrast between believers and those who are in the world; then we’ll look at the motivation for why we should live differently than the world lives.

1. There ought to be a great contrast between believers in Jesus Christ and those who are in this evil world.

Paul’s phrase, “Do this” is literally, “And this.” It gathers up all that he has been saying and sets it before us in one collective package before he adds something else. Paul uses the same phrase in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God ….” “And that” refers back to the entire package of being saved by grace through faith. Paul gathers it into one phrase so that he can say, “That salvation by grace through faith is not of yourselves. Rather it is God’s gift so that no one can boast.”

So here Paul is saying, “All that I have been saying about presenting your bodies to God as a living sacrifice and not being conformed to this world and being transformed by the renewing of your minds, and all that I’ve been saying about living in love, do all of this in light of the time in which we live. The day of the Lord is near.” And so as those looking forward to that great day, we should be distinct in our behavior from those who live with a temporal viewpoint only.

Paul uses several metaphors to make his point: Unbelievers are sleeping and walking in the darkness of night. Believers are supposed to be awake and walking in the light of day, because we are looking for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

A. The world is characterized by the deeds of darkness.

Have you ever tried to walk in the dark? Maybe it was in the middle of the night and you got up to get something in the kitchen. You didn’t want to be startled awake by the light, so you were groping your way along when suddenly your shin whacked against a child’s chair that was not where it was supposed to be. Ouch!

The Bible often describes this sinful world and those who live in it as darkness. Satan and his evil forces are described as “the world forces of this darkness” (Eph. 6:12). His territory is the “domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). Unbelievers are “darkened in their understanding” (Eph. 4:18) because the god of this world has blinded them (2 Cor. 4:4). Jesus said that men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil (John 3:19). He is the Light of the world. If we follow Him, we “will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12; see, also John 12:35).

In contrasting believers with unbelievers, Paul asks rhetorically (2 Cor. 6:14-15), “What fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” Peter draws the contrast by saying that God has called us “out of darkness and into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

It is crucial to keep this in mind, because the world always sells itself as enlightened, bright, and progressive, whereas it portrays Christians as being in the dark. According to the world, if you believe in moral absolutes, you’re from the dark ages! Every educated person knows that moral standards vary from culture to culture. It’s ignorant and arrogant to claim that your culture’s standards are the only right ones. Or the world can’t believe that any thinking person would believe in judgment and hell. How could a God of love judge good people who try to do their best? If you believe that an ancient book about Hebrew religious customs and beliefs has any relevance for these enlightened times in which we live, you need to get an education! So the world thinks.

But the Bible declares just the opposite. The world is in utter darkness concerning God. It does not know Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word (John 17:25). It is also in the dark concerning man. It assumes that men are basically good, whereas the Bible tells us that there are none righteous or good (Rom. 3:10-17). The world is in the dark concerning our purpose for living. It thinks that the goal in life is to collect all the money and stuff that you can so that you’ll be happy. But Jesus says that even when one has an abundance, his life does not consist of his possessions. He says that the person who stores up treasures on earth, but is not rich toward God, is a fool (Luke 12:15, 21). The world is also in darkness concerning death and eternity. It thinks that death will usher us into a peaceful place and that almost all people will go there. But as Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (Romans: Life in Two Kingdoms [Banner of Truth], p. 237), “The world would not go on living as it does for a second if it knew something about the judgment to come.”

Paul spells out the world’s deeds of darkness with three couplets of sinful behavior. These are not comprehensive, but representative. Also, the fact that he commands Christians to lay aside these deeds of darkness shows that we are not immune from doing them. As believers, we must be on guard so that we are not enticed by these sins.

First, the deeds of darkness consist in carousing and drunkenness. The Greek word translated “carousing” was used generally of “feasts and drinking parties that are protracted till late at night and indulge in revelry” (Joseph Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [Harper and Brothers, 1887], p. 367). Many first century believers came out of backgrounds where they had “pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries” (1 Pet. 4:3). Paul lists drunkenness and carousing as deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:21). But such things are not appropriate for believers.

I’ve always had trouble understanding why people go to wild parties and get drunk. To me such parties are superficial and stupid. But venturing a guess, it helps them, at least for an evening, forget about their troubles. From hearing them brag about how wasted they got, it must give them some sense of being cool, at least with their fellow drunks. And, it often lowers inhibitions and leads to sexual encounters, which appeal to those who do not have satisfying marital relationships. But I’ve known a few who claim to be believers, but they still go out partying and drinking. But these are deeds of darkness, not fitting for children of light.

Second, the deeds of darkness consist in sexual promiscuity and sensuality. The first word refers here to sexual intercourse outside of marriage. The second word means licentiousness and unrestrained lust. It is also a deed of the flesh (Gal. 5:19), characteristic of unbelievers, not of believers (Eph. 4:19-20). God has given the marriage relationship as the proper place for sexual relations. To engage in any sexual activity outside of marriage is to participate in the deeds of darkness (Eph. 5:3-12).

Let me remind you that no one who is walking in the light suddenly and without warning falls into sexual immorality. Sexual sin always begins when we toy it in our minds. We relish lustful glances by replaying them in our thoughts. We sneak a peak at pornography, which leads to more frequent and longer looks. Eventually, the temptation to flirt with a tempting woman comes and it sucks us into the fatal act (see Proverbs 7). The key to avoiding it is to judge every sinful thought as quickly as it happens and to make no provision for the lusts of the flesh. Much of our sin can be traced to the fact that we made provision for it by toying with it.

Third, the deeds of darkness consist in strife and jealousy. These are relational sins that we often shrug off as no big deal. But they are opposed to the second greatest commandment, which is to love others as we love ourselves. Leon Morris observes (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 473), “Both indicate a determination to have one’s own way, a self-willed readiness to quarrel. All six of these vices stem from self-will; they are all the outreach of a determined selfishness that seeks only one’s own pleasure.” They are all a failure to love. By way of contrast …

B. Believers are to be characterized by the armor of light.

Rather than calling it the deeds of light, Paul refers to the armor of light, which calls attention to the reality of the spiritual conflict that we face every day. As Paul points out in Ephesians 6:12-13, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

It’s easy to forget this as we go about our daily routines, because it is an unseen battle. If our eyes were open to see the demonic forces that are trying to bring us down, we’d probably die of fright! But even though these hideous enemies are unseen, they are very real and dangerous. The fact that Paul gives this command to believers implies that we are not immune to the sins he has just listed. The lusts of the flesh still war in our hearts, even after we have walked with Christ for many years. And so we need to be aware of the enemy’s schemes (2 Cor. 2:11) and put on the full armor of God (Eph. 6:14-17; 1 Thess. 5:8).

By calling it the armor of light, Paul is calling attention to holiness or righteousness. It is important to remember that the command to love one another (13:8-10) is not just an amorphous feeling. Love means obedience to Christ’s commandments. He said (John 14:15), “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” It is not legalism to obey the commandments of the New Testament. Putting on the armor of light means that we walk in obedience or holiness. We turn from temptation and sin and we follow the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. If there is not a significant behavioral difference between you and the world, you need to engage in some sober self-examination. The difference between how the world lives and how Christians live should be as stark as the difference between night and day.

2. The motivation for walking in holiness is that we know the time and we are looking for the culmination of our salvation at the return of Jesus Christ.

A. Knowing the time should motivate us to walk in holiness.

The motivational factor is brought out by the therefore that begins verse 12. Note the flow of thought (Rom. 13:11-12): “Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

Paul’s word for time denotes the present age, the time between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. He came the first time to bring salvation for all who will believe. He will come again in power and glory for judgment on unbelievers and to consummate final salvation for us who believe. Thus “salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.” The time in which we live is still dark, but the night (this present evil age; Gal. 1:4) is almost gone and the day (of the Lord) is near. The possibility that Christ could come at any time and the certainty that He will come at some time should motivate us to holy living right now.

Some have questioned the validity of Paul’s view of the end times by saying that he mistakenly thought that Christ would come during his lifetime or shortly thereafter. It is probably correct to say that Paul did not expect the Lord’s return to be delayed for 2,000 years. But neither did he teach that it would happen in his lifetime, but rather that it could happen in his lifetime (1 Thess. 4:17). Thomas Schreiner explains (Romans [Baker], p. 698), “He argued in light of the certainty of the end, and the possibility that it could come soon, that believers should always be morally ready.” Henry Alford put it (cited by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 822, italics his), “On the certainty of the event, our faith is grounded: by the uncertainty of the time, our hope is stimulated and our watchfulness aroused.”

When I was in seminary, Marla and I used to baby sit for some wealthy Dallas families while the parents went away for several days. We knew approximately when the parents would return, but we didn’t know exactly when they would return. So as the time drew closer, we made sure that the house was in decent order. As believers, we know that Christ could come (or we could die) at any time, although we don’t know exactly when. But knowing that we will be with Him when He comes should motivate us to clean up our lives so that we are ready for that certain day.

B. Looking for the culmination of our salvation should motivate us to walk in holiness.

If you have believed in Christ, you have been saved in the past; you are being saved in the present; and you will be completely saved in the future when you meet the Lord. It is that third aspect of salvation that Paul refers to here when he says, “Now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.”

But to walk in holiness, we have to shake off spiritual drowsiness. Last week, Marla and I left our daughter Joy’s apartment in central Asia at 4:30 a.m. Monday (3:30 p.m. Sunday in Arizona). Neither of us sleep well on airplanes, so when we arrived at our house at 10 p.m. Monday (it was then 11 a.m. Tuesday in Asia), we were exhausted. On the drive home from the Phoenix airport, I was beginning to swerve on the road and I couldn’t keep my eyes focused, so I finally pulled over and let Marla drive, since she wasn’t quite as groggy as I was. But we both were very drowsy!

Paul implies that his readers are prone to spiritual drowsiness. I confess that I’m often spiritually drowsy. I’m not alert when opportunities to share the gospel come up and so I miss them. I’m half asleep when temptation hits and don’t flee or resist as I should. Or I waste time on trivial matters because I’m not alert to the shortness of time. But as Jesus said (John 9:4), “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

In verse 12, Paul tells us to put on the armor of light. But in verse 14 he says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” The way that we put on the armor of light is, positively to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and negatively to make no provision for the lusts of the flesh. In one sense, we already put on Christ at the moment of salvation when we were identified or clothed with Him (Rom. 6:3-6; Gal. 3:27). But in another sense, we need to put on Christ moment by moment by yielding to His lordship. This means “that we are consciously to embrace Christ in such a way that his character is manifested in all that we do and say” (Moo, pp. 825-826).


Although this text is not directly evangelistic, it is the text that God used to save Augustine. He had been a promiscuous young man and had lived for some years with a mistress. He had come under conviction of sin and wanted to be saved, but he had not yet gained assurance of God’s forgiveness. He was weeping over his spiritual condition as he sat in the garden of a friend when he heard a child singing, “Take up and read! Take up and read!” He picked up a scroll that lay nearby and his eyes fell on the words, “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” At that point, he said (Confessions, 8.12), “Instantly, as the sentence ended—by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart—all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”

May the reality of the approaching day of the Lord weigh upon us every day, so that we trust in Him as Savior and walk in holiness before Him as Lord!

Application Questions

  1. Many polls have shown that there is virtually no difference between the morals of evangelicals and the rest of the population. What conclusions can we draw from this?
  2. How can believers be more cognizant on a daily basis of the reality and certainty of Christ’s coming?
  3. Does it strike you as odd that Paul would list strife and jealousy alongside carousing, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, and sensuality? What can we conclude from this?
  4. Practically, how does a person put on the Lord Jesus Christ when temptation hits? What does it entail?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come), Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Lesson 92: Getting Along in Spite of Our Differences (Romans 14:1-4)

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H. A. Ironside (Illustrations of Bible Truth [Moody Press], p. 115) relates a story that the late Bishop Potter of New York used to tell on himself. The bishop was sailing for Europe and found that he was to share a cabin with another passenger whom he did not know. After he had met his cabin mate, he went to the ship’s purser and asked if he could leave his gold watch and other valuables in the ship’s safe. He explained that normally he would not do that, but he had been to his cabin and had met the man who was in the other berth. He said that judging from his appearance, he was afraid that he might not be trustworthy.

The purser took his valuables to store in the safe and said, “I’ll be glad to take care of them for you, bishop. The other man has already been up here and left his valuables for the same reason.”

We’re all prone to judge others, aren’t we! But Jesus’ words (Matt. 7:1), “Do not judge so that you will not be judged,” are frequently misapplied. I once sat on a jury where the defendant had twice the legal blood alcohol level. But one woman on the jury would not vote to convict the obviously guilty young woman. When I asked why she wouldn’t vote to convict, the woman replied, “Because the Bible says, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’”!

If people would keep reading Matthew 7, they would see that in verse 6 Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to dogs and not to cast our pearls before swine. He isn’t talking about animals, but about people who are dogs and swine. Obviously, we have to make some judgments to obey that command! And in verse 15 Jesus warns about false prophets, who come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Again, to spot a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you have to make some careful judgments.

So Jesus was not telling us that we should not make any judgments. Rather, we should judge ourselves by taking the log out of our own eye before we help our brother with his speck. The Bible repeatedly teaches that we must be discerning in terms of judging other people’s character so that we can either avoid their company (1 Cor. 15:33; 2 Cor. 6:14-18; 2 Tim. 3:5; 4:14-15) or try to help them grow in the Lord (2 Tim. 2:24-26). And we must be discerning of true and false doctrine so that we are not deceived by it (Matt. 7:15; 2 Tim. 4:3; Titus 1:9).

But, having said that, there is still the danger that we wrongly judge one another, which can lead to all sorts of problems in the local church. A younger believer might come into the church and his appearance is very different than that of the older believers. If they judge him so that he feels unwelcome, he may never come back to the place where he should have felt loved and accepted, where he could grow in the things of God. Or, he may conclude that Christian maturity consists in conforming to certain standards of dress or appearance, and so be led astray from the heart of the faith, which is to love God and love one another.

So the apostle Paul was very concerned that the believers in Rome not judge one another on non-essential matters where the Bible does not give specific commands. He has just made it clear that Christians are never to be involved in carousing and drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and sensuality, or strife and jealousy (13:13). Those are clear moral commands that we all must follow. But there are many other areas that the Bible does not address or where it allows liberty of conscience. In these matters, Paul repeatedly says that we are not to judge one another or regard one another with contempt (14:1, 3, 4, 10). Rather, we are to accept one another, just as Christ has accepted us (14:1, 3; 15:7). He’s saying,

In the church, we are to accept and not judge one another when we differ on matters where the Bible does not give specific commandments.

You may wonder why in Romans Paul urges tolerance and acceptance of those who have scruples over food and drink and observing certain days, but in Galatians and Colossians, he denounces in no uncertain terms those who do such things. The difference is that in Galatians, those who urged observing certain days (Gal. 4:10) were saying that in addition to trusting in Christ as Savior, you must keep the Law of Moses to be saved. They were perverting the gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith alone. In Colossians, the heresy seems to have been a form of Gnostic asceticism, where the false teachers said that by abstaining from certain foods or by keeping certain holy days, you could be more godly. But they were not holding fast to Christ and our position in Him. But in Romans, the weaker believers who did not eat meat and who observed certain days did not hold to these heretical views that undermined the gospel. And so Paul deals with them quite differently (see John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], 2:172-173).

Also, while there are some similarities between Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul deals with the problem of eating meat sacrificed to idols, the two situations were different. Scholars are not sure exactly who these people in Rome were who were not eating meat or drinking wine (14:21) and observing certain holy days. Some argue that they may (as in Corinth) have been Gentile believers, but most contend that they were mostly Jewish believers who had not let go of their continuing loyalty to the Mosaic Law (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 829; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], pp. 708-710). They were immature in their understanding and needed to grow. But they were not promoting heresy that undermined the gospel. So Paul’s main concern was the potential divisions among Christians because they were wrongly judging one another over secondary matters where the Bible does not give specific commandments.

Here are five observations that I hope will explain and apply these verses to our church:

1. Paul is talking here about matters between believers who are all seeking to please the Lord.

The weak brother here is “weak in faith,” or “weak in the faith.” (The Greek text has the article.) This does not mean that he does not trust in Christ as his Savior or that he is confused about the gospel. Rather, Paul specifies that the one who is weak in faith eats vegetables only (14:2), apparently for religious reasons, not for health reasons. He thinks that eating meat somehow would damage his relationship to God. He has not yet understood the full ramifications of faith in Christ that frees us from the law (Rom. 7:1-6). The strong brother (Paul puts himself in that camp, 15:1) knows that eating or not eating meat has no effect on one’s relationship with God, so it doesn’t bother his conscience to eat a good steak or, for that matter, a slice of ham or bacon.

Paul says that the weaker brother is not to judge the brother who eats meat, “for God has accepted him” (14:3). He assumes that both the weak and the strong are the Lord’s servants and that they are doing what they do out of a desire to please the Lord (14:4, 6). These non-essential matters do not determine whether a person is saved or not. A person is saved if God has accepted him. God accepts sinners when they turn from trusting in their own good works and trust in the blood of Christ to cover all their sins. Those who have been accepted by God inevitably then live to please God. They may need teaching regarding what pleases God, but pleasing Him is their motive and aim.

So we need biblical discernment. We should not immediately jump to the conclusion that someone who does things that we do not approve of is not saved. He may be a weaker brother or he may be stronger than I am and his behavior shows me where I need to grow. But unless he is knowingly denying some cardinal doctrine of the faith or living in unrepentant sin, I should not accuse him of not being saved. He may need to grow, but so do I. He and I may never agree on the particular issue, but if it’s a secondary matter where Scripture is not specific, then we may need to agree to disagree. But we should not accuse each other of not being saved.

2. Paul is very concerned that we believers get along with one another in spite of inevitable differences between us.

James Boice (Romans: The New Humanity [Baker], pp. 1723-1724) points out that the subject of how we get along with those who disagree with us on non-essential matters must have been of supreme importance to Paul, because he spends the longest part of the application portion of Romans on it. He only spends two verses (12:1-2) on developing a Christian mind. He spends six verses (12:3-8) on having a right estimate of ourselves and of others in the body of Christ. He spends 13 verses (12:9-21) on love and seven (13:1-7) on church and state. He gives three more verses on love (13:8-10) and four more on godly living in light of Christ’s return (13:11-14). But now he spends 35 verses (14:1-15:13) on how we are to accept and not judge one another on non-essential matters where we differ. It was very important to Paul!

There are probably several reasons that this was so important to Paul and should be important to us. For one thing, the unity of the body of Christ is at stake. If we separate from those who differ from us on minor matters, we will soon be left all alone. In fact, I don’t always even agree with myself! Again, we need discernment to determine whether a matter is crucial to the gospel and vital to a person’s spiritual health, or whether it’s relatively minor. It’s sad to say, but Christians divide far more often over relatively minor issues than over major doctrinal or moral reasons.

Also, the body of Christ is to be an earthly example and demonstration to the world of the love of Christ. Jesus said (John 13:35), “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” If we quarrel and divide over minor issues, we damage the testimony of Christ and the gospel to a watching world. So it’s very important that we learn to work through relational differences and get along when we disagree over minor issues.

The word “accept” (14:1, 3, 15:7) does not mean that you just tolerate someone who differs with you, but you avoid being around him. It’s the word used of God’s acceptance of us in Christ (14:3; 15:7). Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 478) writes,

The verb means more than “allow to remain in the membership”; it has the notion of welcome, of taking to oneself and so taking into friendship. The weak are not to be made to feel that they are barely tolerated and seen as second-class members. They are to be received with warmth and true fellowship. Christian love demands no less.

Pride is usually at the root of divisions over minor issues. We baptize our pride by claiming that we’re defending the truth of God’s Word. We’re protecting the church from heresy. But the truth is, we’re proud that we are right (so we think!) on some minor point on which other souls have not yet seen the light. Or we take pride in keeping some manmade rules that “less spiritual” believers do not keep. By judging others, we feel superior to them. But this is just pride.

So it’s very important that we get along with one another in spite of our differences. It always grieves me when I hear that someone is no longer coming to the fellowship here because they had a falling out with another believer over some difference between them. Yes, it is hard and often threatening to work through our differences and to learn to accept one another. But we need to do it. The testimony of Christ is at stake.

3. Paul acknowledges that there will always be differences among believers that we must learn to accept.

Some in Rome were weak; some were strong. The danger for the stronger believers was to look with contempt on the weaker believers (14:3): “If they only had the biblical knowledge that I have, they would see how silly their views are!” The danger for the weaker brothers was to judge the stronger brothers: “How could a born again Christian do what he is doing? He must not be saved!”

It’s important to recognize that in every church there will be inevitable differences between believers and that we’re careful to deal with these differences with humility and love. We have different temperaments. God does not change our basic personality when we get saved. Some by nature are more prone to worry and anxiety. They’re easily bothered by things that may just roll off you. While they need to grow and God may eventually use you to help them grow, you need to be kind and patient toward them so that the door might open for you to help them grow. Others may be more prone to depression than you are. Again, you need to come alongside and accept them or you’ll not be able to help them become more joyful. If you judge them because they aren’t like you are, you’re acting in pride. Depression may not be your weakness, but you’ve got other weaknesses.

Also, we’re different in our natural and spiritual gifts. Rather than being threatened by another person’s strengths or differences, we should rejoice in them and learn from them. As we saw in chapter 12, we’re the body of Christ, each having different gifts that we should use to build up one another.

We’ve all had different experiences along the way. Some have come to Christ out of very difficult backgrounds, whereas others grew up in loving homes. Some have gone through horrible trials, whereas others have had relatively few traumatic things happen to them. Before you judge the other person, get to know him. Find out his background. Listen to his testimony. Often you’ll be humbled and enriched to hear how God has worked in his life.

We’re also at different stages of growth in our Christian walks. Some are weaker, new believers, babes in Christ. You don’t expect babies to take on the responsibilities of an adult. Babies need time to grow and they need teaching and guidance. Of course, if a baby is doing something that could seriously injure him (about to pull an iron off on his head), you give a strong warning and do everything you can to protect him. If a spiritual baby is doing something that could damage his relationship with Christ, warn him! But if he’s just acting immaturely, as babies do, accept him and try to show him a better way so that he will grow.

We need discernment to know whether this is the right time to speak with the person about a matter where he may need to grow. Paul’s statement (14:1), that we should “accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions,” does not mean that we should never bring up the weaker brother’s opinion so as to help him grow. Rather, he is dealing with the spirit or manner in which we go about it. I’ll not help him grow if my aim is to set him straight or to prove that I’m right and he’s wrong. The weaker brother will probably be more open to correction if I’ve established a relationship with him and he knows that I care about him. If I flaunt my liberty in Christ or if I show contempt for the weaker brother’s views or I insensitively try to prove that he’s wrong, I’m not acting in love and I’ll harm the weaker brother’s walk with God (14:15).

So the point is, we’re all different in many ways, so we need to learn how to accept one another, to encourage one another, and in the proper time and manner, if need be, correct one another. If we judge one another or show contempt for one another, we’ll only cause harm.

4. Paul is talking here about matters on which the Bible either does not directly speak or it gives room for different views.

I repeat this so that we’re all clear. Paul does not mean that we should not judge others on matters where the Bible speaks clearly. We should judge sin in others as sin. In 1 Corinthians 5, he rebuked the church because they accepted and did not judge a man who was involved immorally with his father’s wife. We should judge and not accept serious doctrinal error. In Galatians, Paul did not accept the Judaizers’ view that you must obey the Law of Moses in addition to faith in Christ to be saved. He said that they were damned if they taught such a false “gospel” (Gal. 1:6-9). So the Bible is clear that we are to hold to sound doctrine and condemn false doctrine on core issues. We are to make moral judgments on matters where Scripture gives commandments. We must speak out if a matter threatens the truth of the gospel or the spiritual health of a church or an individual.

But then there are many issues where the Bible either is silent or not clear about what to do. Often we can apply biblical principles to figure out what to do. On some issues, godly men differ. We might debate our case vigorously, but we need to be gracious toward those who differ with us.

In Paul’s day, eating or not eating meat and keeping certain holy days were big issues. What are some of the issues in our day? I’m sure that you could come up with many more, but here are a few that I thought of where Christians wrongly judge one another:

         Either you home school your children or you are being negligent of your duties as a Christian parent.

         The King James Bible is the only acceptable translation.

         You should dress up for church as you would if you were going to meet the President.

         Contemporary music accompanied by guitars and drums is from the devil! We should only sing hymns accompanied on the piano and organ.

         It is sin for Christians to drink any alcoholic beverages or use tobacco!

         Sunday is the Christian Sabbath. You should not read the newspaper, watch sports, or go to a restaurant or a store on Sunday.

         Christians should have nothing to do with Christmas and Easter, which are pagan holidays.

The list could go on an on!

5. To refrain from wrongly judging my brother, I must remember that God is the Savior, Sanctifier, and Lord; I’m not.

Paul says (14:4), “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” In other words, I didn’t save the one with whom I differ; God did. I’m not the one who will keep him and perfect him for the day of Christ Jesus; God is. I’m not that man’s Lord and Judge; God is. So I need to let God be God and trust that He will deal with my brother on these non-essential matters if He thinks that they need correcting. But my job is to love my brother, accept him in Christ, and trust God to work in his life.


When I was in seminary, a classmate of mine told me after we had become acquainted that when he first met me, he questioned whether I was even a Christian. I asked him why he thought that. He replied, “Because you have a mustache and you mentioned that you had gone to some movies.” (I would have had a beard, but the seminary wouldn’t allow it!) He had grown up in an ultra-conservative church where being clean-shaven and not going to movies apparently were marks of the new birth! The truth is, I probably would have judged some of the ultra-conservative brothers for not being as free in Christ as I was.

We’re all prone to judge those who are different than we are. But we need to learn to accept one another and love one another in spite of our differences over minor matters where the Bible does not give specific commandments.

Application Questions

  1. Why does Paul here command us not to judge others, but elsewhere (1 Cor. 5:3, 12, 13) he rebukes the church for not judging a man?
  2. How can we determine whether a matter is non-essential, so that we should let it go or one that requires correction?
  3. When (if ever) is it okay to debate a non-essential matter? What guidelines apply?
  4. What are some non-essential matters (besides those in the message) where we must accept and not judge those who differ from us?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship, Grace, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

Lesson 93: Why We Should Not Judge Others (Romans 14:5-12)

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Years ago, when ice cream was a bit cheaper than now, a 10-year-old boy approached the counter of a soda shop and asked the waitress, “What does an ice cream sundae cost?”

“Fifty cents,” she answered.

The boy reached deep into his pockets and pulled out an assortment of change, counting it carefully as the waitress grew impatient. In her mind, she had “bigger” customers to wait on.

“Well, how much would just plain ice cream be?” the boy asked.

With noticeable irritation, the waitress answered, “Thirty-five cents.”

Again the boy slowly counted his money. “Then may I have some plain ice cream in a dish, please?” He gave the waitress the correct amount and she brought him the ice cream.

Later, the waitress returned to clear the boy’s dish and when she picked it up, she felt a lump in her throat. There on the counter the boy had left two nickels and five pennies. She realized that he had had enough money for the sundae, but sacrificed it so that he could leave her a tip (adapted from A Lifetime of Success [Revell], by Pat Williams).

That story shows that we often treat people wrongly because we judged them wrongly. We need to treat all people with respect and kindness, because we don’t know all the facts. Especially, we don’t know what’s in their hearts. We don’t know their motives.

As we saw last time, the apostle Paul was very concerned that the believers in Rome learned to accept and not judge one another. He spends more time on this in the application part of Romans than on any other subject. After mentioning the issue of eating or not eating meat, Paul brings up a second matter where believers in Rome wrongly were judging one another: observing certain days as holy (14:5). Then, mentioning both issues, Paul deals with the motives behind those who do or do not do these non-essential things. He assumes that they are doing or not doing them “for the Lord” (14:6). Then he explains that all believers are under the lordship of Jesus Christ (14:7-9). As Lord of all, He also will be the Judge of all, to whom each of us will give an account (14:10-12). Thus, we are wrong to judge our brothers and sisters.

So that we’re clear, I repeat what I said last week, that Paul is not condemning all judgment. Rather, he is dealing with the subject of judging others on non-essential matters where the Bible gives no commands. Paul corrected the Corinthians because they did not judge a sinning man in the church (1 Cor. 5). And Paul was not tolerant of the damnable doctrinal error of the Judaizers (Gal. 1:6-9; see, also, Rom. 16:17-18).

So on moral issues where the Bible gives clear commands or on essential doctrinal truth, we would be wrong not to judge others. But there are many other secondary areas where we must be gracious and tolerant with those who differ with us. We are not to judge them or treat them with contempt. In our text, Paul is saying,

Since Jesus is Lord and we all will give an account to Him, we must not judge other believers on non-essential matters where the Bible gives no commands.

Note four things:

1. There are non-essential matters where the Bible gives no specific commands.

Paul brings up (14:5) the matter of one person regarding one day above another, whereas another regards every day alike. Then he adds, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” Paul never would have said such a thing if he had been talking about the clear moral commands or essential doctrines of Scripture. Can you imagine him saying, “One person thinks that to have sexual relations outside of marriage is a sin, whereas others don’t have a problem with that; each person must be fully convinced in his own mind”? Or do you think he would have said, “Some say that we are justified by grace through faith alone, whereas others say that we must add our good works; each person must be fully convinced in his own mind”? Hardly!

Rather, Paul is dealing here with non-essential matters where the Bible does not give specific commands or clear teaching. These matters may have an effect on how you live your Christian life. Paul calls those who abstain from eating foods “weak in faith” (14:1) and he would put those who observe certain days as holy in the same camp. Obviously, weaker believers need to grow stronger in their understanding and practice. But these non-essential areas do not affect one’s salvation. Both the weaker and the stronger believers have been accepted by God (14:3) on the basis of faith in Christ. Both are servants of the Lord (14:4). And both are seeking to please the Lord (14:6). But they hold to different views on these secondary matters.

There are some pastors and commentators whom I greatly respect, but with whom I differ on their understanding of verse 5. They argue that Paul was referring to some of the Jewish festivals, but that he could not possibly have been referring to keeping Sunday holy as the Christian Sabbath because that is a part of God’s moral law, the Ten Commandments. Since God’s moral law is never abrogated, Paul could not have been referring here (or in Gal. 4:10 or Col. 2:16) to observing Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. They also argue that the Sabbath was a creation ordinance, stemming from God’s resting on the seventh day. Thus it applies to us today.

But I find these arguments unconvincing for several reasons. First, regarding the Sabbath being a creation ordinance, there is no commandment or example of anyone before Moses’ time keeping the seventh day holy to the Lord. God commanded Abraham regarding circumcision, but He never mentioned keeping the Sabbath. Although it is mentioned in Exodus 16 (before the Ten Commandments, Exod. 20:8-11), the Sabbath was unique to Israel as God’s covenant people.

With regard to the Ten Commandments being God’s moral law, the Jews would have viewed all of the commandments in the Mosaic Law as being morally binding. They would not have divided the law into moral, civil, and ceremonial categories, as many scholars do (I formerly did so, also). For the Jew, the law was a whole. To reject any of it would have been unthinkable. Also, commands that we might label as “moral” are often mixed together with other laws that we might view as “ceremonial” (e.g., Lev. 18:19 & Ezek. 18:6 in context). But the Old Testament does not label any laws according to various categories. So if we’re under the “moral law,” then we’re under the entire law. You can’t break it up into pieces.

But Paul is clear that we are not under the Mosaic Law as a system of relating to God (Rom. 6:14; 7:1-6; 2 Cor. 3:6-18; Gal. 2:19; 3:10; cf. also, Heb. 8:6-13). If the Sabbath commandment were still in effect, it is incredible that in writing to Gentile believers, who did not understand the Mosaic law, Paul would say (Col. 2:16), “No one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” Surely he would have put in an explanatory note, so that the Gentile Christians would not be confused. And if the Sabbath law was still binding, how could Paul have said what he says in Romans 14:5 without some note of clarification? In light of the strong emphasis on the Sabbath in the Old Testament, why is there not a single command in the New Testament to Gentile churches to observe Sunday as the Christian Sabbath?

Also, I have observed that when Christians emphasize keeping Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, they easily fall into the same kind of legalism that plagued the Jews with regard to the Sabbath. By Jesus’ time, the Jews had devised all sorts of ridiculous rules about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath. Jesus often deliberately violated their rules to show them their errors and to teach that He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). I have read well-meaning books that argue that Christians should observe Sunday as the Sabbath, but invariably they get into lists of what is permissible on Sundays: To think or talk about anything other than spiritual subjects is to violate the Sabbath. To stop by the store for a gallon of milk on your way home from church is to violate the Sabbath. Pretty soon, we rival the Pharisees!

Having said that, I must point out that the Lord Jesus appeared to the disciples on the first Sunday when He arose and on the following Sunday. The early Christians met on the first day of the week (Sunday; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), arguably to testify to Christ’s resurrection. The apostle John refers to “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10), which everyone acknowledges to be Sunday. The author of Hebrews (10:25) exhorts us not to forsake assembling together, as is the habit of some.

Thus there is the principle that we should regularly gather on Sunday, the Lord’s day, for worship, teaching, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:42). It’s also profitable to use the Lord’s day to seek and serve Him in ways that the other busy six days of the week do not allow. Set aside your normal work and chores and spend more time in the Word, in prayer, and in reading good Christian books. Visit shut-ins, have other believers over for a meal and fellowship. Do things to refresh your soul with the Lord. (For more on this, see my sermon, “God’s Day of Rest,” from Gen. 2:1-3, on the church web site.)

But Paul allows for a measure of freedom on this matter. The key thing, he says (14:5), is, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” This means that you shouldn’t just do what you do by habit or because everyone else does it. Rather, take the time and effort to study the Scriptures and to think it through biblically. Do what you do because you believe that it glorifies God, it’s not sinful, and you’re applying biblical principles to this non-essential issue as best as you can.

It’s important that you not violate your conscience, because to do so is not to act in faith, which is sin (14:22-23). As you grow in your knowledge of the Word, your conscience becomes more informed. You will see that keeping or not keeping certain days is not the issue; rather glorifying God in all that you do is the issue (1 Cor. 10:31). But on these non-essential matters, don’t judge your brother; judge yourself. Obey God as you understand His Word, seeking Him for more understanding.

2. In these non-essential matters, your motive is crucial: Do what you do for the Lord.

Romans 14:6: “He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.”

The recurring phrases here are, “for the Lord” and “gives thanks to God.” As believers, we belong to the Lord and we live for the Lord. Our aim is always to please Him. If you observe a special day as holy, such as Christmas or Easter (neither of which are commanded in the Bible), you should do it as unto the Lord. If you don’t feel compelled to observe special days, you still should live every day as unto the Lord. The same applies to feasting or fasting: you should do it as unto the Lord with a thankful heart. It’s your motive that matters. Unlike the pagans, who do not honor God or give Him thanks (Rom. 1:21), believers live for God’s glory with thankful hearts.

When Paul says (14:7-8), “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s,” he means that all of life, including dying, is to be lived with a God-ward focus. When you get saved, Jesus becomes your Lord. You recognize that He is the sovereign over your circumstances. Nothing happens to you apart from His kind and loving will. Nothing, whether “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword,” can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35). So, rather than living to please ourselves, as we did before we met Christ, now we live every day for Him (2 Cor. 5:9, 15). Since He has all of our days numbered (Ps. 139:16), when it comes time to die, we die for Him.

By the way, this means that suicide is never right. God is the sovereign over life and death. As believers, we should want to glorify Him in our dying as much as we have glorified Him by our lives. The Puritans used to talk about “dying well.” They did not have modern medications to dull their pain, but they wanted to glorify God in their suffering and with their dying breath.

To come back to the principle of our motives in these non-essential matters, here’s how it applies. You ask, “Can I go to a movie that contains profanity, sexual immorality, or violence?” The answer is, “Can you go to that movie ‘for the Lord’? Will going there help your relationship with Him? Will it glorify Him?” You ask, “What kind of music should I listen to?” “Which TV programs and how much TV should I watch?” “How should I spend Sundays?” “Which Bible-believing church should I join?” “How should I spend my free time?” Apply this principle to any non-essential matter where the Bible does not give a direct command: Can I do it for the Lord and His glory? Your motive is crucial.

3. Jesus is the Lord of all; thus we all will give an account of our lives to Him.

Romans 14:9: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” Christ, of course, was the Lord of all before He came to this earth. He is the eternal Son of God. But in coming to this earth as a man, Jesus subjected Himself to death on our behalf. When God raised Him from the dead, He conquered death once and for all. God highly exalted Him to His right hand and put all things in subjection to Him as the crucified and risen Lord (Eph. 1:19-23; Phil. 2:5-11). By virtue of His death and resurrection, He is “Lord both of the dead and of the living” (14:9).

This means that He is the Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:5). As Paul told the Athenians (Acts 17:31), God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Or, as Jesus Himself told the Jews (John 5:22-23), “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” By the way, that is a strong claim of Jesus’ deity. You see the same thing in our text, where Paul freely moves between “Lord” (referring to Jesus) and “God” (referring to the Father).

In Romans 14:10, Paul says (according to the best manuscripts), “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” In 2 Corinthians 5:10, he says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ ….” Since God and Christ are one (John 10:30), it’s the same judgment seat. We all will give an account of ourselves to God and Christ.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “But I thought that there is no condemnation for Christians (Rom. 8:1). I thought that we will not come into judgment (John 5:24). How is it, then, that we all will stand before the judgment seat of God?”

Paul cites first a phrase from Isaiah 49:18, “‘As I live,’ says the Lord,” followed by Isaiah 45:23, “Every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” Then Paul concludes (14:12), “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” The point is, God is the sovereign Lord of all and hence He has the right to judge all, including believers. For believers, it will not be a determination of heaven or hell, but rather a judgment of our works. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15:

Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

I’m not sure what it means to “suffer loss” at the judgment, but I don’t want it to happen to me! It must involve a moment of deep regret and shame over what I have done or not done with the spiritual gifts that God has entrusted to me. But, clearly, I should live in light of that certain day ahead when I will stand before the Lord to give an account. Have I lived in light of His purposes? Have I used my time, talents, and treasure to seek first His kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33)? Will I be able to say, with Paul (2 Tim. 4:7), “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith”?

4. Since God is the Judge of all, we must not judge other believers or regard them with contempt.

Romans 14:10, “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Again, this does not refer to judging our brothers over matters of sin or serious doctrinal error. We must judge one another on these matters. In this context, it refers to not judging one another over non-essential matters where the Bible gives no commands. This calls for discernment. The fact that I will stand before the judgment seat of God gives me the courage to confront a believer who is in sin or who is promoting serious error when by nature I would not do anything (Ezek. 33:1-10). It gives me the courage to teach difficult truths from God’s Word that I would be prone to skip.

But the fact that I will stand before God’s judgment seat should also cause me to refrain from speaking against a brother who may be doing or saying something that is not clearly commanded in Scripture. If I think that what he is doing or saying is spiritually immature or will cause him or others spiritual harm, I may need gently to come alongside and offer correction at the proper time. But if it’s a neutral matter, then I should assume that he is doing it for the Lord and let the Lord be his judge.


A traveler, between flights at an airport, bought a small package of cookies. Then she sat down and began reading a newspaper. Gradually, she became aware of a rustling noise. From behind her paper, she was flabbergasted to see a neatly dressed man helping himself to her cookies. Not wanting to make a scene, she leaned over and took a cookie herself.

A minute or two passed, and then came more rustling. He was helping himself to another cookie! By this time, they had come to the end of the package, but she was so angry she didn’t dare allow herself to say anything. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the man broke the remaining cookie in two, pushed half across to her, ate the other half, and left.

Still fuming some time later when her flight was announced, the woman opened her handbag to get her ticket. To her shock and embarrassment, there she found her pack of unopened cookies! Sometimes, we judge others very wrongly! (Leadership, Spring, 1991, p. 45.)

Perhaps our text can best be summed up by saying, “Don’t judge your brother on non-essential matters, because God will judge him. Judge yourself, because God will judge you” (paraphrased from F. Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 459).

Application Questions

  1. How can we determine whether a non-essential matter is spiritually harmful or not? When should we talk with a brother or sister about such matters?
  2. Where are you at on the matter of Sunday being the Christian Sabbath? Could you use Sundays more profitably than you do?
  3. What are some areas where you are prone to judge other Christians or to look on them with contempt?
  4. Do you live in light of standing before Christ for judgment of your works? How can we make this more central in our daily lives?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship, Grace, Spiritual Life

Lesson 94: Love Trumps Liberty (Romans 14:13-16)

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In a sermon on our text, Pastor Ligon Duncan commented that someone needs to write a book, Romans 14 for Dummies, and he would be the first to buy it, because this is a difficult text to understand and apply in its context. I’d buy one, too! We’re not concerned in our day about the spiritual implications of eating or not eating meat, which is the main issue Paul was addressing. He also mentions keeping certain days as holy (14:5) and drinking wine (14:21), which may be a bit more relevant. But even so, it’s difficult to apply these verses in a way that is true to the text.

For example, I’ve heard of older believers who wrongly use this text to lay unbiblical rules on younger believers. They tell them, “As a Christian, you can’t dress or look like worldly young people do. You need to dress and look as I do. If you don’t, you’re causing me to stumble.” In some strict Christian circles, women are not allowed to wear any makeup. Sometimes men are not allowed to grow beards, but in other groups, all the men must grow beards. And so it goes!

One of the most ridiculous church splits that I’ve ever heard of happened years ago when a preacher was trying to make a point with a strong gesture and his hand got caught in his necktie. Of course this distracted the congregation from his point, so he tore off his necktie and declared that ties are from the devil. Others disagreed, and so they split into the non-tie church and the tie-wearing church. My sentiments are definitely with the non-tie brothers (I think that ties are strangulation devices), but obviously this is not a biblical reason for splitting a church!

In Romans 14:1-12, Paul’s main point is that we are to accept one another and not judge or look with contempt on those who differ with us over non-essential matters. He was talking both to weaker and stronger believers. The weaker believers were not weak in the sense of not being able to resist temptation. That kind of weakness is sin. Rather, they were weak in that they were hung up with scruples about things that the Bible does not command or with stipulations of the Jewish law that were fulfilled in Christ and thus no longer in effect. They tended to judge the Gentile believers who were not bound by these scruples. The stronger brothers (Paul classed himself with them, 15:1) realized that we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, and so they didn’t have a problem eating non-kosher meat. They realized (1 Cor. 8:8), “But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.” But their tendency was to look with contempt on their Jewish brothers, belittling them for their petty rules.

Now (14:13-23), after an introductory summary that goes out to both sides (not to judge one another), Paul turns mostly to the stronger believers. He was concerned that they would flaunt their liberty in Christ to the detriment of weaker believers, who may be influenced to violate their consciences. Paul tells the stronger believers that love for their brothers should trump their use of liberty. As he states (14:15), “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love.” So the principle is:

Love for others should govern our exercise of liberty in Christ when our liberty would cause a weaker brother to stumble.

Our main focus should not be on our liberty or our rights, but on loving our brother. Love gladly yields its rights when it is necessary to keep a weaker brother from stumbling. But while the overall principle is fairly clear, the difficulty is in the details. Let’s work through these verses, looking at four things that love does not do.

1. Love does not judge others on non-essential matters, but determines not to put obstacles or stumbling blocks in a brother’s way (14:13).

Romans 14:13: “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” Paul uses a play on words here: the word translated “determine” is the same word translated “judge” earlier in the sentence. We might paraphrase, “Don’t judge your brother; rather, judge yourself so that you don’t put an obstacle or stumbling block in your brother’s way.” Keep in mind that in this chapter, Paul is talking about non-moral matters where the Bible does not give clear commands. He is not talking about judging your brother regarding sin or serious doctrinal error (which we need to do), but rather on non-moral or secondary matters.

Not judging your brother means that you do not condemn him or question his salvation over matters of doctrine where the Bible is not clear or behavior where it gives no direct commands. You can have your own convictions before God by working through the issue biblically (14:5, 22), but let your brother work out his convictions. You aren’t his judge; God is his judge and your judge, too!

The words “obstacle” and “stumbling block” are basically synonymous. “Obstacle” refers to anything that would trip up your brother. “Stumbling block” originally referred to a trap. Here it refers to any cause of spiritual downfall or ruin. Paul (Rom. 9:32-33) uses both words of Jesus, who is the “stone of stumbling” and “rock of offense” for those who try to be justified by their works. The cross of Christ offends the self-righteous because it tells them that their works can never commend them to the holy God.

To put an obstacle or stumbling block in your brother’s way would be to do something in front of a weaker brother that for you is a matter of liberty in Christ, but it’s not something that he feels free to do. When he sees you doing it, he joins you in doing it, but it violates his conscience. Perhaps he goes along with you because he wants your approval, but he gets his eyes off of living to please the Lord. He sins because he is not acting in faith (14:23). He is disobeying the Lord.

It’s difficult to come up with modern examples, but perhaps one example would be having a glass of wine or beer. The Bible does not prohibit drinking alcoholic beverages, as long as you do not get drunk and you’re not depending on the alcohol to escape from your problems. But perhaps you’re with a new believer who had a problem with alcohol before he got saved. Because of the devastating effects alcohol had on his life, he now believes that it’s wrong to have even one drink. You’re out to dinner with him and you order a beer or a glass of wine with your meal. Your brother sees this and wants to fit in, so he orders a drink with his food, but in so doing, he violates his conscience. His guilt causes him to fall away from the Lord. Perhaps he begins drinking to excess again. You have put a stumbling block in your brother’s way.

Does this mean that you must become a teetotaler? Well, there may be good reasons to do that, but not necessarily. The entire church is not limited by the conscience of the weakest believers in its midst. But you should not flaunt your liberty in front of a weaker believer when you know that it’s an issue for him (see 1 Cor. 10:23-30). Out of love for him, limit your liberty in his presence. As the Lord gives opportunity, you may teach him about true liberty in Christ. But don’t do anything that would cause him to violate his conscience by following your example. That’s the next point, which Paul explains in verse 14:

2. Love does not cause a weaker brother to violate his conscience (14:14).

Romans 14:14: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” “Nothing” here is limited by the context. Paul is not saying that you can do anything you feel like doing! The Bible gives clear, absolute, binding moral commandments. To violate these commands is to disobey God and defile yourself. Paul is talking about non-moral matters, where Scripture is silent. He is especially talking here about the matter of eating or not eating certain foods. He is saying (and this was radical for a former Pharisee like Paul!) that the Old Testament laws for clean and unclean foods were no longer in effect.

Paul underlines what he says with strong conviction: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus.” This could mean that the Lord had revealed these things directly to Paul, perhaps during his time in Arabia shortly after his conversion. Or, perhaps he knew what Jesus said (Mark 7:18-23), that it is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out of his heart that defiles him. Mark (7:19) adds his own editorial comment, “(Thus He declared all foods clean.)” God showed Peter the same truth through a vision before he went to preach the gospel at the house of the Gentile centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:15), “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” Paul mentions the same thing in relation to food (1 Tim. 4:4-5), “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.” (See, also, 1 Cor. 8:4-8.)

Okay, if Paul is so convinced that we’re free to eat anything, then what’s the big deal? Just eat what you want and don’t worry about it! No, because Paul adds, “but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” In other words, it is wrong to violate your conscience, even if your conscience is not completely in line with Scripture. God gave the conscience as an inner “faults alarm.” It goes off when you think you’re at fault. As Paul said (Rom. 2:15), even the Gentiles who do not have the law of God have a conscience that either accuses or defends them. They will be guilty before God someday because when they violated their conscience, in their heart they were disobeying God.

Again, it’s important to keep in mind here that the weaker brother is not a legalist who would never be tempted to do what he sees you doing as you exercise your liberty in Christ. To use the drinking illustration, the weaker brother is not the teetotaler who would never touch a drop of alcohol even if he was dying of thirst. Rather, it’s the brother for whom to drink a beer would violate his conscience. He does not have the liberty in Christ to do what you are free to do. But he sees you drinking and it tempts him to join in, even though he thinks that he shouldn’t. So out of love don’t flaunt your liberty in front of him and cause him to sin.

But you may be thinking, “Don’t I have a right to drink a beer or a glass of wine? Why should I have to limit my freedom because of the weaker brother’s hang-ups? Why doesn’t he just grow up?”

3. Love does not insist on its rights to the point of damaging a weaker brother’s walk with God (14:15).

Romans 14:15: “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.” The argument here is, “If Christ loved this brother enough to die for him on the cross, then don’t you think that you should love him enough to be willing to give up your ham sandwich (or glass of wine) so that you don’t lead him into sin?” In other words, get some perspective: Your sacrifice of some liberty is nothing compared to Christ’s sacrifice of His very life! Since Jesus called us to love one another as He loved us, the least you can do is to give up your right to certain liberties for the sake of your weaker brother.

But what does Paul mean when he talks about destroying your brother? He uses the same Greek word (translated “ruined”) in 1 Cor. 8:11: “For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.” It’s a very strong word, used most often to refer to eternal damnation. Paul uses it this way in Romans 2:12, “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law ….” It’s also translated “perish” to refer to damnation in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

Because of this, a number of scholars who believe in the eternal security of believers nonetheless argue that Paul is saying that if you cause a weaker brother to sin by violating his conscience, you could cause his damnation. They explain this by saying that if the weaker brother falls away so as to perish, then he was a “brother” in name only, not in actual fact. Also, since Jesus will not lose any of His sheep for whom He laid down His life (John 10:28-29; 17:2, 12), they have to say that Christ didn’t actually die as a substitute for this so-called brother. It only appeared for a while that this weaker brother was one of God’s elect. But his falling away proves that he was not.

Also, they explain that God uses severe warnings in Scripture to cause the elect to persevere. For example, Paul says that Christ has reconciled you and will present you holy and blameless before God (Col. 1:23), “if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel ….” The warning passages in Hebrews sound as if true believers could perish, but the severity of the warnings causes true believers to turn from sin and continue in the faith.

One example of this use of means to accomplish God’s promises is when Paul was on the boat about to be shipwrecked. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and promised that none on the ship would perish. But a short time later when the sailors tried to escape on the ship’s small boat, Paul told the centurion that unless these men remained on board the ship, the centurion and his men would not be saved (Acts 27:22-24, 31). Paul’s warning was heeded, the sailors stayed on board, and all were saved.

While I greatly respect these scholars who say that the word destroy here means eternal destruction and I agree with some of the arguments that they put forth in other contexts, it seems to me that the context here overrides the usual meaning of the word and that here Paul means that flaunting your liberty will damage your brother’s walk with God, not that you will cause a professing believer to go to eternal damnation. It’s still a serious matter—we shouldn’t minimize how bad it is to hurt a brother’s walk with God. But I think that it goes too far here to insist on the usual meaning of destroy. Here are some reasons why I think as I do:

First as John Stott says, (pp. 365-366, cited by Sam Storms on, “Are we really to believe that a Christian brother’s single act against his own conscience—which in any case is not his fault but the fault of the strong who have misled him, and which is therefore an unintentional mistake, not a deliberate disobedience—merits eternal condemnation? No, hell is reserved only for the stubborn, the impenitent, those who willfully persist in wrongdoing.” Granted, perhaps this act of violating his conscience could lead to further violations, until finally he makes shipwreck of his faith (1 Tim. 1:19). So if we’ve caused a brother to stumble, we need to do all that we can to restore him. But our one sin that resulted in our brother’s sin does not cause him to perish.

Also (as Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues, Romans: Liberty and Conscience [Banner of Truth], p. 191), the ultimate destiny of another soul is never in our hands. If we could cause anyone to be eternally lost, then our power would be greater than God’s, who alone is able both to save and to keep us for eternity (Rom. 8:31-39). Also (Lloyd-Jones, p. 192), if sinning against our conscience results in perishing, we all would perish, because we’ve all sinned in this manner. But the Lord promises that those to whom He gives eternal life can never perish (John 10:28).

The practical application is that we should be very sensitive about not doing anything that might cause a weaker believer to violate his conscience. If we have sinned in this way, we should do all that we can to help get him back on track with the Lord. Love does not insist on its rights if doing so would damage a weaker brother’s walk with God.

Thus love does not judge others on non-essential matters, but rather determines not to put a stumbling block in a brother’s way. Love does not cause a weaker brother to violate his conscience. Love does not insist on its rights to the point of destroying a weaker brother’s walk with God. Finally,

4. Love does not insist in its rights in disregard of the testimony of Christ (14:16).

Romans 14:16: “Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; …” Some say that the “good thing” refers to the gospel, but in the context it seems to refer to the liberty that we enjoy in Christ as a result of the gospel. Paul does not say who it is that speaks evil of your liberty that has caused harm to a brother. It may be other weak believers, who say, “Look at what your liberty in Christ did! You have liberty, but where’s your love?” Or it could be unbelievers, who see that you’re not walking in love and scoff at the message behind your liberty, namely, the gospel. Either way, the testimony of Christ, which is supposed to result in believers loving one another, will be damaged.

The late Bible teacher, H. A. Ironside, was once at a Sunday School picnic in Detroit where a former Muslim from India who had come to know Christ was present. His name was Mohammed Ali (not the boxer!) and he ran his father’s tea business in the States. As Ironside and he were chatting, a young woman came by passing out sandwiches. Ironside helped himself to several of them, but when Mr. Ali learned that they were all pork or ham, he refused to take any. The young woman laughingly said, “Why, Mr. Ali, you surprise me. Are you so under law that you can’t eat pork? Don’t you know that a Christian is at liberty to eat any kind of meat?”

“I am at liberty to eat it,” he said, “but I am also at liberty to let it alone. You know that I was brought up a strict Muslim. My old father, nearly eighty years of age now, is still a Muslim. Every three years I go back to India to give an account of the business and to visit the folks at home. Always I know how I will be greeted. The friends will be sitting inside. My father will come to the door and say, ‘Mohammed, have those infidels taught you to eat the filthy hog meat yet?’ ‘No, father,’ I will say. ‘Pork has never passed my lips.’ Then I can go in and have the opportunity to preach Christ to them. If I took one of your sandwiches, I could not preach Christ to my father the next time I go home.” (Edited from H. A. Ironside, 1 Corinthians [Loizeaux Brothers], pp. 244-246.)

That converted Muslim was willing to limit his liberty in Christ for the sake of the gospel. Whether towards unbelievers or toward weaker Christians, out of love we should not insist on our rights if it would damage the testimony of Christ.


As I said, it is difficult to extrapolate the principles that Paul sets forth here into modern situations. The first thing to determine is whether the Bible speaks directly to the situation. If so, obey what it commands. If not, don’t think first about your rights to liberty. Rather, think about your weaker brother’s spiritual growth. Love trumps liberty. Love says, “My liberty is no big deal. The big deal is that my brother grows in his walk with Christ.”

Application Questions

  1. What are some situations where the principles from this text may apply? Be as specific and practical as possible.
  2. Has a stronger believer ever caused you to violate your conscience by following his example? Was it difficult to recover?
  3. Sometimes Jesus deliberately offended the legalists to make a point (e.g., Luke 11:37-52). Should we do this? When? How?
  4. Sometimes it seems that whatever you do is bound to offend someone on both sides. What should you do then?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Fellowship, Grace, Love, Spiritual Life

Lesson 95: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing (Romans 14:17-18)

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Stephen Covey and Roger and Rebecca Merrill begin their book on time management, First Things First [Fireside/Simon & Schuster], with a chapter titled, “How Many People on Their Deathbed Wish They’d Spent More Time at the Office?” The subtitle is, “The enemy of the ‘best’ is the ‘good’” (p. 17). Toward the end of the book (p. 301, italics his), Mr. Covey writes, “I deeply believe that if we attend to all other duties and responsibilities in life and neglect the family it would be analogous to straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.”

One of the most poignant books that I have read is Days of Glory, Seasons of Night [Zondervan, 1984], by Marilee Pierce Dunker. It’s the story of her father, Bob Pierce, who founded the well-known Christian relief organization, World Vision. He was a successful evangelist, seeing thousands make professions of faith at crusades that he held in the Far East. He was highly respected in Christian circles as a great leader. He raised millions to help the needy in Asia. And yet he abandoned his family for the ministry. One daughter committed suicide. He and his wife eventually divorced. And World Vision, the organization that he founded, had to fire him because of his explosive temper and his refusal to work well with others. He was very successful at some good things, but he failed at the main thing.

Many other Christians have done the same thing: succeeded in their careers, only to fail at home. Some have built hugely successful ministries, only to succumb to pride or immorality. They failed to keep their relationship with God as the main thing. Even in less dramatic ways, it’s easy in the local church to get enamored with numbers, but to run roughshod over people. It’s easy to get into a battle over some minor issue and forget the cause of the gospel.

In the Roman church, some were flaunting their liberty in Christ to eat whatever they wanted to eat, but they were not sensitive about how their actions affected their weaker brothers, who had not let go of the food regulations in the Law of Moses. The stronger brothers were putting their liberty above love, which should have been the main thing.

So Paul appealed to the stronger brothers not to hurt their weaker brothers by causing them to violate their consciences by eating food that they believed was wrong to eat. In Romans 14:16, he says, “Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil.” In other words, don’t let your liberty in Christ (a good thing) be the cause of your brother’s spiritual downfall. Then (14:17-18), he explains, “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” He’s saying,

God’s kingdom is the main thing and it centers not on external matters, but on our relationship with God and with others.

Paul is saying, “Keep the main thing as your main thing.” He gives us this warning because …

1. It’s easy to focus on external matters and neglect the main thing.

Ray Stedman in one of his books said that he once heard of a church that got into an argument over whether they ought to have a Christmas tree at their Christmas programs. Some thought a tree was fine and they understood it in a Christian sense. Others thought no, Christmas trees are of pagan origin and you should not have any Christmas trees. And so when the time came for the party, one group brought in a Christmas tree. The other group dragged the tree out. The first group dragged it back in again. They got into a squabble and finally actually some fist fights broke out at the Christmas party over the Christmas tree. Eventually, the whole thing was in the newspapers because they ended up suing each other. Ray said, “What else could non-Christians conclude but that the gospel consists in whether you have a Christmas tree or not?” (From a sermon by S. Lewis Johnson, “No Stumbling Blocks,” on Romans 14:13-23,

The Pharisees in Jesus’ time are a classic example of focusing on secondary matters and missing the main thing. Jesus reamed them out (Matt. 23:23-24), “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” The law commanded tithing, but these men had gotten so carried away with tithing that they even counted out a tenth of their table spices! All the while, Jesus says, they neglected the heart of the law, which was justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

The apostle John brings out the same contradiction with exquisite irony when he points out (John 18:28) that when the Jewish leaders led Jesus to Pilate so that they could crucify Him, they would not go into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, because they wanted to eat the Passover! Here they were, crucifying the sinless Son of God, but they didn’t want to defile themselves by walking on Gentile ground so that they could observe their religious ritual!

Of course, Paul himself had been the same way. He was so zealous for the Law that he was persecuting anyone who was a Jewish follower of Jesus. He was imprisoning and even killing Christians in the name of religion, but he had missed the main thing, which is to know Jesus Christ (see Phil. 3:4-11).

What are some ways that we’re prone to focus on secondary matters and neglect the main thing? I’ve seen some who are at church every time the door is open. They give hours every week to serving, which is a good thing. But their personal walk with God is virtually non-existent. Often there are serious problems in their families, which they dodge by serving at church.

Others are hung up on external matters to the neglect of a person’s relationship with God. I read of a father who would brag to his friends about how his three daughters didn’t drink, smoke, dance, play cards, or go to movies. But there was severe conflict between the man and his daughters, because they felt like he was forcing them to be freaks. They weren’t abstaining from these things because they loved God and wanted to honor Him. That dad was majoring on the minors, but missing the main thing. As soon as the girls were old enough, they rebelled and left the church.

I knew another father who forced his adopted teenage daughter to have a daily quiet time. It’s a good thing to have a daily quiet time, if you’re motivated by the desire to know Christ better. The dad meant well, but in effect, he was making a secondary thing the main thing. The daughter hated being forced to have a quiet time, along with all the other rules that her parents laid on her. Eventually she sued her parents and the state took her away from them. The parents were on a Focus on the Family program telling of how the state was usurping parental rights. I think that the crisis could have been averted if they had kept the main thing as the main thing. So, what is the main thing?

2. The main thing is God’s kingdom, which centers on our relationship to God and to others.

This is Paul’s only reference to God’s “kingdom” in Romans. He only uses the word 14 times in all of his letters (here; 1 Cor. 4:20; 6:9, 10; 15:24, 50; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; Col. 1:13, 4:11; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5; 2 Tim. 4:1, 18). Here Paul is saying that the main thing is not exercising your liberty in Christ or your rights. The main thing is God’s kingdom. But what does he mean by “the kingdom of God”?

A. God’s kingdom is the realm where He rules and I submit.

George Ladd wrote (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], ed. by Walter Elwell, p. 608), “The ‘kingdom of God’ means primarily the rule of God, the divine kingly authority.” In the New Testament, he explains (ibid.), “The kingdom of God is the divine authority and rule given by the Father to the Son (Luke 22:29). Christ will exercise this rule until he has subdued all that is hostile to God. When he has put all enemies under his feet, he will return the kingdom—his messianic authority—to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28).”

A kingdom has a king, and Jesus is God’s anointed King (Ps. 2:6-7). We are either in Satan’s domain of darkness (Matt. 4:8; 12:26) or in God’s kingdom, subject to His King. Paul said (Col. 1:13), “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus said that we can only enter God’s kingdom through the new birth (John 3:3, 5). Thus He preached (Mark 1:15), “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The gospel (good news) is that God sent His only Son to bear the punishment that we deserve for our sins. He forgives all our sins and imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to those who believe in Him. As we’ve seen, the gospel of God is the main theme of the book of Romans (1:1, 16, 17). So God’s kingdom exists now wherever Jesus reigns in the hearts of His people who submit to His rule.

But Jesus also spoke about His kingdom that would come in fullness in the future when He returns. He taught us to pray (Matt. 6:10), “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As He gave them the cup, Jesus told the disciples at the last supper (Matt. 26:29), “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” That kingdom will come when Jesus comes again bodily, in His glory. Some (amillennialists) believe that Jesus’ Second Coming will usher in the new heavens and new earth, also called the eternal state. They view the 1,000 years in Revelation 20:1-10 as symbolic for this age when Christ reigns over the church. Others (premillennialists, I am of this persuasion) believe that Jesus will reign on earth for a thousand years in fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.

So I understand God’s kingdom to be an already, but not yet, sort of thing. It already exists wherever people surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord. We experience a taste of His kingdom rule now. But when He returns in power and glory, He will subdue all of His enemies, including Satan, who will be bound and cast into a pit for the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:2). During that time, Jesus will rule the nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 19:15). God’s kingdom will then reign on earth through Jesus in its fullness. At the end of the 1,000 years, Satan will be released for a final rebellion. He will then be finally defeated and thrown into the lake of fire, along with all who have not submitted to Christ (Rev. 20:7-10). Then will come the new heavens and earth, in which righteousness dwells (Rev. 21:1; 2 Pet. 3:13).

So the crucial question is, “Are you in God’s kingdom right now?” Have you trusted in Jesus Christ as your Savior? Are you in submission to Him as your King, or Lord? That’s the main thing! Don’t major on the minors. Keep the main thing as the main thing. Make sure that your life, beginning on the thought level, is subject to Jesus Christ as your King!

B. God’s kingdom centers on our relationship with Him and with others.

Romans 14:17, “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Godly scholars divide into two camps over the interpretation of these three qualities, righteousness, peace, and joy. Is Paul describing our standing or position in Christ, or is he describing practical righteousness, relational peace, and the joy we experience with one another as we live in harmony? I agree with Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 489) who writes, “It seems likely that Paul is not differentiating sharply between these two views and that he is using the expression in a way that suggests both.” He also thinks that the concluding words, “in the Holy Spirit,” apply to all three qualities, not just to “joy.”

Here’s why I agree with Morris: First, earlier in Romans, Paul emphasizes that the gospel is all about the righteousness of God being imputed to those who believe in Jesus as the sacrifice for their sins (1:16-17; 3:21-26; 4:1-25). In 5:1-2, Paul mentions these three qualities: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” To be “justified by faith” is to be declared righteous by God. This brings us into peace with God, leading to our exulting (“joy”) in the hope of the glory of God. Since all three qualities are produced by (or in the sphere of) the Holy Spirit and are characteristic of God’s kingdom, they must at least in part refer to our relationship with God.

But our relationship with God necessarily affects our relationship with our fellow members in His kingdom. Because of our new standing as righteous before God, we seek to practice righteousness (Rom. 6:13, 18; 1 John 2:29; 3:7). Because we have peace with God, we are to pursue peace with others (Rom. 14:19; Eph. 2:14-22). Because we know the joy of God’s salvation, we love to share our joy with others who enjoy the same blessings. Also, verse 18 argues for these three terms applying both to our standing before God and our relationships with one another: “For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” We are acceptable to God because He has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us. We are approved by men as they see our practical righteousness, our desire for peace, and our joy in the Holy Spirit. So I think that Paul is saying that our righteous standing before God through faith in Christ, the peace that we enjoy with God because of being reconciled to Him, and the joy of our salvation are the basis for our righteous deeds, our peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and our shared joy in the Lord.

So these three qualities serve as a summary of being in God’s kingdom: we are rightly related to God and to one another, which are the two great commandments. These qualities are a benchmark by which you can evaluate whether you are focused on the main thing. Do you know that you are in right standing with God, that all of your sins are forgiven, and that you are clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ? Do you know that you are at peace with God? The answer to these questions is another question: Have you let go of the pride of trying to establish your own righteousness and instead trusted in Christ alone (Rom. 9:30-10:4)? As Paul states (sness to everyone who believes.”

If you have trusted in Christ, then ask yourself, “Am I consistently experiencing the joy of my salvation?” If not, there could be a number of reasons. You may not be spending enough time thinking about God’s abundant grace that you received in the gospel. You may not be processing your trials through the lens of the hope of the gospel (Rom. 5:1-5; James 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:3-9). Or, you may be yielding to temptation and sin, which always robs you of joy in your relationship with God. But your relationship with God as a subject of His kingdom is the main thing. Follow the practice of the godly George Muller, who used to make the first business of every day to seek to be truly at rest and happy in God (George Muller of Bristol, by A. T. Pierson [Revell], p. 257).

Then evaluate your relationships with others, especially with your brothers and sisters in God’s kingdom. Are you practicing righteousness in your relationships? Do you think of others’ needs and how you can serve them? Are you at peace with others? If you have offended or wronged someone, have you sought to make it right? Have you asked forgiveness for your wrongs and granted forgiveness to those who have wronged you? Do you enjoy sharing in the things of God with His people?

All of these qualities grow in us as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit. Righteousness (overcoming sin) is the opposite of the deeds of the flesh and is promised to those who walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-21). Love, joy, and peace are His fruits (Gal. 5:22). All of the fruits of the Spirit have a relational dimension. To walk in the Spirit is to yield to the Spirit on a moment by moment basis. It is to trust in the Spirit’s power for victory over sin.

Having healthy, godly relationships that flow from our relationship with God is the main thing. You can win arguments about theology, but shred relationships. You’re off track. You can prove that you’re right and your mate is wrong, but you’re off track. You can take pride in what you do for the Lord, but you’re off track. The main thing is God’s kingdom, where He rules and you submit. God’s kingdom centers on your relationship with Him and with others. Keep that as the main thing!

C. God’s kingdom is about serving Christ, having God’s acceptance, and man’s approval.

Romans 14:18: “For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” “This way” refers to the way that Paul has just described in verse 17: You serve Christ by focusing on righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. To serve in a way that is “acceptable to God” goes back to Romans 12:1-2, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

To be “approved by men” stands in contrast to verse 16, where others speak evil of those who have hurt their brothers by flaunting their liberty. But how can we be approved by men? Jesus said that the world will hate us because we’re not like them and because He chose us out of the world (John 15:18-19). He told us to expect opposition from the world (John 16:2). So how do we harmonize this with being approved by men?

Paul seems to mean here that if we lay aside our rights and demonstrate genuine concern and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the world must at least acknowledge that we are genuine. They won’t be able to accuse us of being hypocrites. It’s the same as Paul said of elders, that they must have a good reputation with those outside of the church (1 Tim. 3:7). If he is a businessman, he must have a reputation for being honest. He must treat others with respect and kindness. Even if they don’t agree with your Christian faith, they must admit that you treated them rightly (see 1 Cor. 10:32-33).

Years ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse was teaching about Christians being in the world, but not of the world. He concluded by saying, “You may be sure that if nobody thinks you are strange and out of step, you are not a good Christian.” After the message, a friend who had been present added wisely, “However, you should also say that if everybody thinks you are strange and out of step, you are not a good Christian” (told by James Boice, Romans: The New Humanity [Baker], 4:1784).


So don’t spend your life arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Keep the main thing as your main thing. God’s kingdom is the main thing and it centers not on external matters, but on our relationship with Him and with others.

Application Questions

  1. What are some minor issues that in the past have gotten you distracted from the main issue of God’s kingdom?
  2. There are well over 20,000 denominations in the Protestant world. Are the matters that divide us major or minor? When (if ever) should churches divide and form new denominations?
  3. When is it right to debate secondary theological issues with another Christian? What guidelines apply?
  4. Some have used Luke 14:26 to support putting the ministry above commitment to family. Is this right? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Fellowship, Kingdom

Lesson 96: One More Time (Romans 14:19-23)

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I’ve told you before about my college physics professor who would begin every class by explaining his teaching method. He would say, “Class, I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you. Then I’m going to tell you. Then I’ll tell you what I told you. Then I’ll review.” He knew that repetition is the key to teaching well.

The apostle Paul was a master teacher, and so he often follows the method of my physics professor. The verses that we’re going to look at today don’t say much that is new. Instead, they say one more time what Paul has already said. But since the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to repeat these concepts, rather than tuning out, we need to tune in. Apparently these are things that we may be prone to forget and so we need to hear them again.

The content is arranged in a loose chiastic (ABCC’B’A’) format (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 850, points this out, although I’ve expanded his analysis somewhat).

A: 14:5: Be fully convinced in your own mind.

B: 14:13: Don’t put a stumbling block in your brother’s way.

C: 14:14: Nothing (no food) is unclean.

D: 14:15: Do not destroy your brother.

E: 14:16: Do not let your good (liberty) be spoken of as evil.

F: 14:17: The kingdom of God is … peace.

F’: 14:19: Pursue the things that make for peace.

E’: 14:20: Your clean food becomes evil if you hurt a brother.

D’: 14:20: Do not tear down the work of God.

C’: 14:20: All things indeed are clean.

B’: 14:21: Don’t do anything by which your brother stumbles.

A’: 14:22: Have your own conviction before God.

The practical heart of the passage is 14:17, 19: “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…. So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” There is a textual variant of one letter in verse 19 that changes the subjunctive, “let us pursue” (old NASB) into the indicative, “we pursue” (updated NASB). But most commentators argue that the context demands the subjunctive. In other words, Paul is urging us not to put our rights or minor issues in place of the main issue, which is God’s kingdom and the relationships that we are to promote as members of that kingdom. I’d like to go over Paul’s “review” by pointing out four things:

As Christians, we should pursue godly relationships, preserve godly priorities, develop godly convictions, and maintain a good conscience.

1. As Christians, we should pursue godly relationships (14:19).

Romans 14:19: “So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” In the context, Paul is mainly addressing the need for Gentile and Jewish believers to get along so that the church would not be fragmented along racial lines. The Jewish believers tended to cling to the Law of Moses, including its regulations about clean and unclean foods. It was difficult for them to let those things go. But the Gentile believers, coming to Christ out of paganism, didn’t understand why there was all the fuss over food. They had no problem eating a steak that had been offered to an idol in the pagan temple before it showed up at the meat market. So the Gentile Christians tended to look with contempt on the Jewish believers for being legalistic, whereas the Jews tended to judge the Gentiles for being licentious.

The problem had two ramifications. First, if a Jewish Christian saw a Gentile Christian eating what to the Jew was “defiled” meat, it could lead to a break in their relationship. The Jew might think, “I’m not going to have anything to do with a so-called Christian who is so licentious!” Or, the Gentile believer might think, “I’m not going to be friends with a person who is hung up over such legalism. He needs to grow up!” And so their personal relationship would be ruptured.

In a worst case scenario, the entire church could be divided along the lines of the meat eater faction and the vegetarian or kosher meat only faction. But for Paul, it was central to the very concept of the church that it was composed of “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman,” with Christ as “all and in all” (Col. 3:11). To divide over secondary matters would send the wrong message about the power of the gospel and the testimony of Christ to the watching world.

By the way, this is one reason that I refuse to divide up the church into a “traditional” (sometimes called, “classic”) service and a “contemporary” service. This effectively divides a church along age lines. The older folks were raised on the traditional hymns, accompanied by the organ and piano. It warms their hearts to sing the familiar old hymns. So they all flock to the traditional service. Younger believers who were not raised in the church can’t relate to the old hymns. They sound archaic to them. So they flock to the service with newer music. And so the church is divided.

But I think that God wants the church to be like a family, where there are grandparents, parents, and grandkids all coming together to enjoy one another’s company and learn from each other. The younger people can benefit by learning some of the great hymns. Granted, some of those old hymns need to be put to rest, but some of them need to be passed on to the next generation. Perhaps the tunes need to be updated, but the words are rich and spiritually nourishing. And the older people should rejoice when they see young people coming to Christ and let their youthful zeal warm their hearts afresh with the power of the gospel. So we need to yield to each other and be committed to preserving “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). But especially the stronger, more mature believers need to yield their rights to the younger saints. That is the thrust of Romans 14:13-23.

The second aspect of the problem was that if a Jewish Christian saw a Gentile Christian eating “defiled” meat and because of this the Jewish Christian went against his conscience and ate the same meat, he would be sinning. Also, the Gentile Christian would be sinning by influencing his weaker brother to violate his conscience. Since sin always has devastating consequences, Paul does not want either side to fall into sin.

So Paul gives this exhortation (14:19): “So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” “Pursue” is not a passive concept. You don’t pursue something accidentally. It takes deliberate effort and persistence. “Pursue” is the same word that is sometimes translated “persecute.” We saw the word used in the two senses in Romans 12:13-14, where Paul said (literally), “pursuing hospitality,” and then, “Bless those who persecute you.” We are to go after hospitality with the same determination that a persecutor goes after his victim. Here (14:19) we should determine to go after the things that make for peace and the building up of one another. We aren’t to be laid back about it, thinking, “Well, if it happens, that’s cool!” Rather, we are to go after these things with determined zeal.

A mother with a scout troop said to her son, “I will not take any of you to the zoo if you don’t forgive Billy for stealing your candy bar.”

“But Billy doesn’t want to be forgiven,” her son complained. “He won’t even listen.”

“Then make him,” his irate mother demanded.

Suddenly, her son chased Billy, knocked him to the ground, sat on him, and yelled, “I forgive you for stealing my candy bar, but I’d sure find it easier to forget if you’d wipe the chocolate off your face!” (Josephine Ligon, “Your Daffodils are Pretty,” Christianity Today [3/2/1979], p. 18)

Well, we aren’t to be that aggressive in pursuing peace, but we are to pursue it! Do you do this? Do you do all that you can to try to make peace with your brother or sister in Christ when you’re at odds? Before you speak, do you pause to consider, “What will build him (or her) up in Christ?” As Paul says (Eph. 4:29), “Let no unwholesome [lit., rotten] word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” What about with your mate? If husbands and wives would pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another, the air in our homes would be filled with the fragrant peace of Christ!

You may be thinking, “Yeah, but if you only knew how rude he was to me!” “If you had heard what he said to me!” “If you knew how she nags me and snaps at me!” “Don’t I have a right to be treated with some kindness and love?”

But the Bible doesn’t give us those kinds of loopholes: “Pursue peace and building up one another, except when you’ve been treated wrongly!!” “Go after peace and building up the other person except when he deserves the silent treatment!”

Maybe you’re thinking, “Am I just supposed to be a doormat? Am I just supposed to absorb his abusive speech? If I don’t fight back, I’ll get trampled!” The biblical answer is that sometimes you are supposed to just absorb it. I’m not talking about physical abuse, but about times when someone is rude or mean or insensitive. At other times, especially in marriage, you should try to talk about it in a way that will not lead to more conflict. Approach it from the standpoint of, “I love you and I want our relationship to be all that God wants it to be. But when you say such and such or you treat me like that, it makes me want to pull away from you. So could we communicate in a way that builds up one another?” Here are God’s inspired commands (1 Pet. 3:8-12):

To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For, ‘The one who desires life, to live and see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. He must turn away from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, and His ears attend to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’”

In other words, if you seek peace and pursue it when you’re wronged, the Lord notices. He will listen to your prayers. He will take up your cause against those who have wronged you. But your job is to pursue peace and the things that build up the other person. This does not mean “peace at any cost,” because often that does not build up the other person. If the other person is sinning or is embracing seriously wrong doctrine, you are not building him up to ignore his behavior. But, our aim should be to pursue godly relationships. Love for one another is the second greatest command in God’s kingdom.

2. As Christians, we should preserve godly priorities (14:20-21).

Romans 14:20-21: “Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.”

Paul is repeating here that the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking (14:17). Also, he is repeating that all foods are clean (14:14), as Jesus said (Mark 7:18-23). But that doesn’t mean that the stronger brother can ignore the scruples of his weaker brother. The priority is not our right to eat or drink whatever we want. The priority is the work of God, His kingdom. If you ignore that and pursue your “rights” to the disregard of your weaker brother, your food or drink becomes evil.

The phrase at the end of verse 20 is ambiguous. It is literally, “but they are evil for the man who eats with offense.” Some understand this to refer to the weaker brother, who sins by eating meat against his conscience. But in the context, it refers to the stronger brother who eats and causes his weaker brother to stumble. Eating whatever you want or drinking a glass of wine or a beer is not sin in and of itself. But if a weaker brother sees you doing what you’re at liberty to do and he is led to violate his conscience by doing the same, your eating and drinking becomes sin for you. As Paul said (14:15), “you are no longer walking according to love.”

The phrase “the work of God” is unusual. It’s only found one other place in the New Testament (John 6:29), and then with a different sense. Scholars are divided here over whether it refers to tearing down an individual Christian or to damaging the church. In the context, Paul has been emphasizing that we are not to do anything to cause a brother to stumble, so it must refer on a primary level to the individual. But hurting a brother can also lead to damaging the entire church. His friends will take up his cause and your friends take up your cause, and soon the church is at war, leading to divisions over secondary matters. It’s frightening to realize that by our selfish behavior, we can damage a brother who is a work of God, a new creation in Christ (Eph. 2:10; 2 Cor. 5:17). And our selfishness could ultimately damage the church for which Christ died (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

So Paul’s point in these verses is that if we selfishly put our rights above a brother’s spiritual growth and above God’s kingdom, relationships will suffer and God’s work will be damaged. People will speak evil of what for us is a good thing (14:16). And so we need to preserve the godly priority of His kingdom, which focuses on our relationship with Him and with others, rather than on our rights with regard to secondary issues.

3. As Christians, we should develop godly convictions (14:22).

Romans 14:22: “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” Paul is repeating here what he stated in 14:5b, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” Again, he is not talking about matters where the Bible gives clear moral commands. He is not saying, “If you think that adultery is okay, just be convinced in your own mind.” Or, “If you think that stealing is allowed in certain circumstances, just have that as your own conviction before God.” Adultery, stealing, and many other things are always sin for all people in all circumstances. Your conviction to the contrary does not make them okay. God’s Word, not our opinion, defines what is sinful.

Rather, Paul is talking about developing convictions in areas where the Bible does not give direct commands. The Bible never says, for instance, “You shall not watch movies.” It doesn’t say, “You shall not play computer games or watch TV for hours every day.” It does not say, “All alcoholic beverages are sinful,” although it does say that we should not get drunk or depend on alcohol for relief. You have to develop convictions about these and many other things by extrapolating biblical principles that apply.

You will change in your understanding of these things as you grow in Christ. As a newer believer, you may not be bothered by going to movies that are filled with profanity, sexual scenes, or violence. But as you grow in your understanding of God’s Word, you will realize that certain kinds of movies are defiling and do not help your growth in Christ. So you develop a conviction that for you, those movies are off limits. As you grow in the Lord, it will dawn on you that you are wasting gobs of time that you could be spending furthering God’s kingdom purposes playing computer games. And so you’ll limit your time in that activity. It becomes your conviction before God. It isn’t a legalistic rule. Rather, you are applying Paul’s counsel (1 Cor. 10:23), “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.”

Paul says that you are happy (“blessed” is a better translation) if you do not condemn yourself in any non-biblical activities that you believe God allows you to do. He means that if you have a conviction that it’s okay to do (or not to do) something (in an area where the Bible gives no command), then you’re blessed to hold and follow such convictions. It shows that you have thought things through biblically. You’re not just following the crowd. And, you’re not violating your conscience, which is his last point:

4. As Christians, we should maintain a good conscience (14:23).

Romans 14:23: “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.” Paul refers here to the weak brother, but he’s still speaking to the strong brother, showing him why he needs to be careful with his liberty. If by his exercising his liberty, the strong brother causes a weak Christian to go against his conscience, he’s influencing the weaker brother to sin. When Paul says, “he who doubts is condemned,” I do not agree with those who say that Paul is referring here to eternal condemnation. Rather, Paul means it in the sense that Peter stood condemned (a different Greek word, but the same idea) when he acted with hypocrisy in Antioch (Gal. 2:11; see 1 John 3:20-21). He was guilty of sin. If a weak Christian violates his conscience, he has sinned.

Paul explains that the reason he has sinned is “because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.” While it’s a general principle that we sin if we do not trust God in every situation, in this context Paul’s meaning is more focused. “Faith” here refers to a person’s conviction before God (14:22). As Douglas Moo explains (ibid., p. 863), “What he here labels ‘sin,’ … is any act that does not match our sincerely held convictions about what our Christian faith allows us to do and prohibits us from doing.” He adds (pp. 863-864), “Violation of the dictates of the conscience, even when the conscience does not conform perfectly with God’s will, is sinful.”

Over time, you should educate your conscience through a diligent study of God’s Word. Your convictions will become progressively conformed to the principles of Scripture. But you should not go against your conscience, even if you see other Christians doing something that you think is wrong or even if they tell you that you’re free to do it, because that isn’t your conviction yet. If you act against your conscience, you’re doing something that you think God doesn’t want you to do. You’re not acting in the faith which you have as your own conviction before God. That, for you, is sin.


Since “Professor” Paul goes over it one more time, let me go over it one more time: First, as Christians, we should pursue godly relationships by diligently working for peace and doing the things that build up one another. Are you doing that, beginning at home? Second, as Christians, we should preserve godly priorities. Keep the main thing as the main thing. Don’t tear down the work of God in a brother or in Christ’s church over secondary matters. Don’t put your rights ahead of helping other Christians grow. Third, as Christians, we should develop godly convictions. Don’t go with the flow of our culture, even if it’s our Christian culture. Study the Word continually to see how it applies to modern issues. Finally, as Christians we must maintain a good conscience. Don’t do anything that you think is wrong. As Paul put it (Acts 24:16), “Do [your] best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” These four things will appear on the final exam! Class dismissed!

Application Questions

  1. How can we know whether to absorb a wrong done to us or to confront it in love? What biblical guidelines apply?
  2. Think of a situation where you damaged a relationship over a secondary matter. How should you have dealt with it?
  3. What are some areas where the Bible gives no direct commands, but where you need to develop “your own conviction before God”? How can you go about this?
  4. Why should we not violate our conscience, even if our conscience is not in line with Scripture?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 97: Me First or Me Last? (Romans 15:1-3)

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Here are a couple of phrases that you will never need to teach your toddler: “That’s mine!” and “Me first!” Because of the fall, we all come pre-wired to put ourselves in first place. We never hear a three-year-old naturally say, “You can have the last cookie,” or, “Please, go ahead of me.” When I was a boy and was acting selfishly toward my sister or brother, my mother would always say, “The way you spell ‘joy’ is, Jesus first, Others next, and Yourself last.” I always hated to hear that because in my heart I knew that she was right. But at the moment, it never seemed like the way to be happy or joyful.

But Jesus taught that self-denial is the path to true joy. He said to His disciples (Matt. 16:24-25), “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” The way to true and lasting joy is for Jesus’ sake to deny yourself for others.

In our text, Paul continues his discussion of how those who are strong in their understanding of Christian liberty should relate to those in the church who are weak. The stronger believers (Paul classes himself with them in 15:1) knew that the Mosaic dietary laws had been fulfilled in Christ. They also knew that the Sabbath law was fulfilled in Christ. We’re not under obligation to keep the Sabbath in line with the strict Old Testament rules. And they knew that they were free to drink wine, even if it had been used in pagan temple sacrifices, as long as they did not get drunk.

But in the church were weaker believers, probably from Jewish backgrounds, whose consciences would be bothered if they ate certain foods or violated the Sabbath (or other Jewish feast days) or if they drank pagan wine. So Paul’s direction to the strong was that they should not flaunt their liberty to do any of these things if in so doing it caused a weaker brother or sister to follow their example in violation of his or her conscience. He sums it up (14:21), “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.” In other words, love for your weaker brother should trump your exercise of liberty in matters where the Bible does not give direct commands.

Now as Paul continues to emphasize the need to consider the spiritual welfare of our brother, he brings in Jesus Christ as the great example. First and foremost, Christ is our Savior and Lord; but also He is our example of self-denial for the good of others. To sum up Paul’s message here:

Following Christ’s example, we who are strong in the Lord should not live selfishly, but sacrificially to build up others.

I offer four observations:

1. Godly relationships in the body of Christ are of utmost importance.

This observation comes not only from these verses, but also from the fact that Paul has been hammering on this theme pretty much from 12:3 on. In that verse, he emphasizes the need for humility, since pride invariably damages relationships. He went on (12:4-8) to talk about how each of us is a gifted member of the body of Christ and that we are to use our gifts to build up others. Then he developed the theme of love, extending it even toward those who persecute you (12:9-21). After showing how Christians should relate to government authorities (13:1-7), Paul picked up again with the theme of love, saying that it is the debt or obligation which you never will be free from (13:8-10). Then (13:11-14) he showed how we should be morally pure in light of the Lord’s coming. And then (14:1-23) he shows at length how the weak and the strong are to avoid judging or showing contempt for one another. In all of this, Paul’s great concern was for love and unity in a church made up of people from very different and naturally antagonistic backgrounds: Jew and Gentile.

But why was Paul so concerned about healthy relationships in the church? Why should we be very concerned about this? Was it just so that everyone would be happy? No, Paul’s ultimate concern was that we would have healthy relationships in the church and, by implication, in our homes, so that God would be glorified. He writes (15:6-7), “so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.” He brings it up again (15:9), “and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy….”

To glorify God through our relationships means to treat one another with such uncommon love and consideration that we make God look good as He truly is. Unbelievers should observe how we love one another and marvel, “How can this be?” Our answer is, “God has changed our hearts from being selfish to being concerned for the good of others. Because of His love in our hearts, we now gladly lay down our rights to help our brothers and sisters in Christ.” So God gets the glory.

On the contrary, if we damage our relationships with others in the body of Christ, we damage God’s reputation. That’s true not only when we get angry with others or argue or say abusive things to them or about them. It’s also true when we are just indifferent toward those whom we may not like. We don’t care how they feel. We don’t care about their needs. When we are indifferent or unloving toward those for whom Christ died, we tear down the work of God and He does not get the glory that He deserves.

So we need to put a premium on our relationships, beginning with our immediate family members and extending outward to those in the local church. Sometimes, even those who do not profess to know Christ recognize the importance of healthy relationships. They aren’t doing it for the glory of God, of course, but rather for the personal benefits. But occasionally they do see it. The October, 2012 Money magazine has an interview (pp. 97-100) with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who is one of the most influential thinkers in management today. He recently co-authored How Will You Measure Your Life? in which he applies business-school theories to finding happiness and integrity in life. I don’t know whether he is a believer in Christ or not, but he says (p. 98), “I believe that the source of our deepest happiness comes from investments we make in intimate relationships with our spouse, children, and close friends.” He adds, “The way I ought to measure my life is in terms of the others I helped to become better and happier people. That’s the biggest thing to think about if you’re not happy.” So in the church, godly relationships are of utmost importance.

2. A major key to godly relationships is that we consider others above our rights and our needs.

Rather than pleasing ourselves (v. 1), Paul says (15:2), “Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.” By “pleasing ourselves,” Paul means standing up for our rights no matter how it affects a weaker brother. He may also be thinking, as I said, of just being indifferent or insensitive toward others’ needs as we pursue our own agendas.

By using “neighbor,” Paul calls to mind the command from Leviticus 19:18, cited in Romans 13:9, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Paul uses “neighbor” in 13:8, 9, & 10.) “Neighbor” also extends the command beyond the church to any person we have regular contact with. In 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 Paul also incorporates the idea of glorifying God by pleasing others, even those outside the church: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.”

You may wonder how Paul’s statement that he pleased all men fits with his comments elsewhere about not living to please others. In Galatians 1:10 he says, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:4, he writes, “but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.” How do these verses harmonize with pleasing all men in all things?

The explanation is: when you have to choose between pleasing others or pleasing yourself, deny yourself and seek to please others. Don’t do anything needlessly to offend them. While the gospel message may be offensive, you shouldn’t be! But if you compromise the gospel by toning down sin or repentance or if in your attempt to please others you do anything that would displease God (such as joining unbelievers in their sin), then displease others and please God.

So by pleasing our neighbor, Paul does not mean pleasing them at any cost. He doesn’t mean avoiding or watering down the truth, because it might offend the other person. He doesn’t mean avoiding confrontation that might upset your neighbor. He clarifies this by adding (15:2), “for his good, to his edification.” It may be for your neighbor’s good and edification to let him suffer the consequences of his sin. It may be for his good to let him fail even when you could bail him out, so that he learns to be responsible for his actions. It may be for his good to confront him with his sin and to show him from God’s Word that his sin will lead him to judgment if he does not repent. But you should never do this out of a desire to get even or “make him pay.” Rather, your sincere motive should always be for him to get saved and to grow in his relationship with Jesus Christ. Love sincerely seeks the highest good of the one loved, which is that he be conformed to Christ.

So a major key to godly relationships is that we consider others above our rights and needs. Most relational problems in our homes or in the church just stem from plain old selfishness. I want my way and if I don’t get my way, I get angry or assertive. I demand my rights! When Cain grew angry and depressed before he killed Abel, God conducted the first “counseling session” in the Bible. He asked Cain (Gen. 4:6-7), “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Keep in mind that God never asks a question in order to get information. Rather, He wanted Cain to think about the answer. Sadly, Cain did not respond properly, but God’s question is a good one to ask yourself when you get angry or depressed about a relational problem: Why am I angry or depressed? How can I do well in this situation? What are the needs of the other person? How can I meet those needs to help him or her grow in Christ?

The interview with the Harvard Business School professor that I referred to earlier ends on an interesting note. Professor Christensen, who is 60, shares that four years ago he had a heart attack. Then it was discovered that he had advanced cancer that put him into chemotherapy. Then two years ago he had a stroke. He had to learn to speak again one word at a time. He shares what he learned through these difficult trials:

“The more I focused on the problems in my life, the more miserable I was. And then somehow I realized focusing on myself and my problems wasn’t making me happier. I started to say, ‘Every day of my life I need to find somebody else who I could help to become a better person and a happier person.’ Once I started to reorient my life in this direction, the happiness returned.

“So if you look at retirement and you think, ‘Oh, finally I can focus on myself,’ you run the risk of becoming very bored very quickly. The most important piece of planning for retirement most of us need to think about—of course you need enough money to survive—is, How are we still going to orient our lives on helping other people become better people?”

Again, I don’t know whether this man is a believer in Jesus Christ or not, but his counsel certainly reflects both what Jesus and Paul taught. Don’t live selfishly, but consider the needs of others above your rights and your needs. This is the way to true joy.

Thus, godly relationships in the body of Christ are of utmost importance. A major key to godly relationships is that we consider others above our rights and our needs.

3. Those who are stronger in Christ especially have an obligation toward those who are weaker.

Romans 15:1: “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.” That statement acknowledges that there are going to be differences among members in the body of Christ. Some are strong; some are weak. Also, we have different ages, different genders, different races, different family backgrounds, different life experiences, and different spiritual gifts and natural abilities. All of those factors mean that healthy relationships do not just happen by accident. We have to work at them and learn to understand one another and accept one another (Rom. 15:7).

But Paul here especially puts the burden on the stronger believers to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please themselves. His exhortation implies that even strong believers have a propensity to live for themselves. In other words, becoming more mature in Christ does not annihilate the tendency toward selfishness that we all battle due to the fall. One key mark of spiritual strength toward which we all ought to aim is to be servants, rather than to expect to be served. As Jesus said of Himself (Mark 10:45), “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” If we aim to be like Jesus, we should aim to become servants of others for His sake. You will turn a corner in your Christian life when you come to church with the outlook, “How can I serve?” rather than, “How can the church serve me?”

But in families there are babies who need to be served. They can’t take care of themselves, let alone be expected to care for others. The aim and hope is that eventually they will grow up, learn to take responsibility for their own lives, and learn to serve others. Maybe someday, instead of crying when they’re hungry and expecting to be fed, they will learn how to fix their own food and feed themselves. Eventually, maybe they’ll even earn enough to buy their own food and, with a few miracles, learn to clean up after the meal! I know that sounds impossible, but that’s the goal! But until that day arrives, the stronger have to help serve the weaker, both in the family and in the church.

Paul uses the same verb here (“ought”) that he used in 13:8, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” The strong are indebted to help the weak because in the past those who are strong now were weak and someone helped them. That’s just the way that families work, including the family of God.

“Bear” does not mean “bear with,” in the sense of “put up with,” while you roll your eyes and think demeaning things about the weaker person. Rather, it means to carry or support, much as an older brother might pick up his younger brother who is too tired to walk any farther. Paul uses the word in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” Just three verses later (6:5) he balances this by saying, “For each one will bear his own load.” The idea is, we are to help the weak with things that are beyond their ability to bear alone, but we are not to do for them things that they are capable of doing for themselves.

Since the tendency of the strong is to look with contempt on those who are weak (14:3), I would advise you to sit down and listen to the weaker believer’s situation before you either offer help or write them off as hopeless. Sometimes weaker Christians are carrying heavy burdens from the past. They may have been abused or neglected as children. They may be plagued with past or present sins that have deeply wounded them. They may have mental or personality issues that hinder their growth. Before you can help a weaker brother or sister, you have to understand compassionately where they’re at.

But perhaps some of the stronger believers would complain that it’s unfair that they should have to bear the weaknesses of those without strength. They might impatiently complain, “Why don’t they just grow up?” Granted, they should grow up eventually. But meanwhile, we are not to condemn or reject those who are weak, but patiently bear with them. To help us do that, Paul points us to our Savior, who laid aside His rights for our sake and for God’s glory.

4. Jesus Christ is our great example of one who did not live to please Himself, but sacrificially bore insults for God’s sake.

Romans 15:3: “For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.’” Just think how different life would be if Jesus had lived to please Himself! He wouldn’t have submitted to the cross, with its horrible insults, pain, and separation from the Father. I realize that it was for the joy set before Him that He endured the cross (Heb. 12:2), but it was not joy in the short run! But He did it for God’s glory and out of love for you and me.

To support his point, Paul does not refer to any incident in Jesus’ life, but rather he cites Psalm 69:9. That psalm is cited or alluded to often in the New Testament with reference to Christ (Matt. 27:34-35 [parallels, Mark 15:35-36; Luke 23:36; John 19:28-29]; John 2:17; 15:25; with reference to Christ’s betrayers or enemies, Acts 1:20; Rom. 11:9). The application is: In light of what Jesus was willing to bear for your salvation, shouldn’t you be willing to give up your rights to help your weaker brother or sister? Isn’t it worth denying your selfishness to help others grow in their walk with Christ?


Shortly after the end of the Civil War, General Sherman’s victorious army was scheduled to march in a victory parade in a large city. The night before, General Sherman called General Oliver Howard to his room and said, “General, you were at the head of one of the divisions that marched with me through Georgia and you ought rightly to ride at the head of your division in the parade tomorrow. But I’ve been asked to let the general who preceded you in command represent the division. I don’t know what to do.”

General Howard replied, “I think I am entitled to represent my division, since I led them to victory.” “Yes, you are,” said Sherman. “But I believe you are a Christian, and I was wondering if Christian considerations might lead you to yield your rights for the sake of peace.”

“Oh,” said Howard, “in that case, of course I’ll yield.” “All right,” said General Sherman. “I will so arrange. And will you please report to me in the morning at 9? You will be riding with me at the head of the army.” General Howard’s willingness to deny himself his rightful place led to the position of greatest honor (from “Our Daily Bread,” June-August, 1983).

Are you looking for ways to serve others or is your focus on how others should serve you? Think about where you may be acting selfishly or standing on your rights. Focus instead on how you can sacrificially serve others and you will have rewards in heaven.

Application Questions

  1. Are you putting the priority on godly relationships that the Bible does? Is there a strained or broken relationship that you need to try to restore? What should you do next?
  2. Paul says that we are to please others, not ourselves. But obviously, there is a balance point where we need time for ourselves or we will burn out. How do we determine that point?
  3. When we do for others what they should do for themselves, we actually do more damage than good. Are you prone to this tendency? How can we know when we cross that line?
  4. Read through one of the gospels and look for examples of when Jesus pleased others for their good, to their edification, rather than pleased Himself. Did this ever involve confronting someone in his sin? Did He ever say no to demands on His time? How can you apply this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Fellowship, Sanctification, Spiritual Life

Lesson 98: Why You Need the Old Testament (Romans 15:4)

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Years ago at the church I pastored in California, I referred in a sermon to the story of when Sennacherib had surrounded Jerusalem with his army. He sent a threatening letter to King Hezekiah, which the king took to the temple and spread out before the Lord, praying for deliverance. As I referred to that story, I could tell from the looks on people’s faces that many had no clue of what I was talking about.

So I asked everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes. Then I asked everyone who had never read that story to raise their hands. More than half of the hands in the congregation went up. I was stunned. That isn’t an obscure story in the Bible. It occurs in three different places (2 Kings 18-19; 2 Chron. 32; Isa. 36-37). That meager show of hands told me that my people were not reading the Old Testament.

I won’t ask for a show of hands today, but I suspect that many of you have not read through the Old Testament. Maybe you’ve read the Psalms or Proverbs, or perhaps a few other favorite parts. But you don’t regularly read through the Old Testament over and over. If that describes you, then you’re not reading the Bible of Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles. The Old Testament was the only Bible that they knew. The teaching of Jesus and the apostles is built on the Old Testament. They assumed that those they taught were familiar with its stories and teaching. It’s safe to say that if you don’t have a basic grasp of the Old Testament, you cannot adequately understand the New Testament. It was primarily to the Old Testament that Paul referred when he wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 3:15-17),

from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Without the Old Testament you lack a major part of God’s revelation that He gave for teaching about Himself, about man, sin, and salvation. You lack much of what God gave for reproof and correction of your sins. You’re not adequate, equipped for every good work. In short, you lack an understanding of God’s ways.

I can anticipate your objections: “I tried reading the Old Testament, but I died in Leviticus. I skipped ahead to Numbers, but that really did me in!” I feel your pain. I’m not telling you that the Old Testament is always easy to read or understand. I’ll be honest in saying that I find parts of it tedious to read. I bog down reading the dimensions and descriptions of the tabernacle and the temple. I fog over reading the boundaries of the twelve tribes in the land. I find the long lists of genealogies just as irrelevant as you do. I struggle every time I come to the chapters where the prophets pronounce judgment on all of Israel’s enemies. I sometimes wonder why God put these things in the Bible.

But I keep working at it, prayerfully reading it through over and over, because it is God’s written revelation to us. True, there are parts that I still do not understand, but I remember the comment of Mark Twain: “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand!” In our text, Paul tells us why we need the Old Testament:

You need the Old Testament because it points us to Christ and instructs us in godly living, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The result of learning what is written in the Old Testament is that we might have hope. And we all need hope! About one in ten Americans suffers from depression and depressed people need hope. To overcome our problems and to live joyfully in this troubled world, we need hope from God. Paul says that such hope comes from the instruction of the Old Testament. Note five things:

1. The Old Testament points us to Christ.

“For” points back to the previous verse, where Paul cited Psalm 69:9, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” It’s amazing that to present Christ as our example of self-sacrificing service, rather than pointing to an incident in the life of Christ, Paul points to Scripture. Then he detours for one verse (15:4) to emphasize the importance of Scripture to instruct us so that we can endure trials with encouragement and hope.

The major point of the Old Testament is to testify to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. Jesus rebuked the Jews for not reading the Old Testament in light of Him (John 5:39-40): “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” After His resurrection, He told the two men on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:25-27),

O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.

Later He told the disciples (Luke 24:44), “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

This means that every part of the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ. It may not directly relate to Christ, but it is part of a larger context that must be understood in light of who He is and what He came to do. Some things are obvious: the sacrificial system points to Christ as the final and complete Lamb of God, who bore our sins on the cross. The Exodus illustrates and has many parallels with how God redeems us from slavery to sin. Some are less obvious. But it has been said that there are over 300 specific Old Testament prophecies that Christ fulfilled.

Years ago, math professor Peter Stoner (Science Speaks [Moody Pres, 1963], pp. 99-112) calculated the odds for just eight of these prophecies being fulfilled by one man who has lived since the time of Christ. Taking a conservative approach, he came up with the number, 1 in 1017. To visualize this, he said that 1017 silver dollars would cover the state of Texas two feet deep. Mark one, blindfold a man, and let him go wherever in the state he wished, but he had to pick the one marked silver dollar. That is the probability that Christ could have fulfilled just the eight prophecies that Professor Stoner used. Then Professor Stoner doubles it to 16 prophecies and the number of silver dollars becomes a sphere extending from earth in all directions more than 30 times as far as from the earth to the sun! Picking the right silver dollar would be the odds that Jesus fulfilled just 16 Old Testament prophecies. But He fulfilled more than 300!

But, it’s not always easy to draw a line from an Old Testament text to Christ. So you may ask, “How does the main point of the Old Testament text find its fulfillment in Christ?” David King suggests six ways (“Christ in the Old Testament,” Christ-old-testament):

(1). Promise: a salvation promise or Messianic prediction.

The earliest of these is Genesis 3:15, where God said to the serpent: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you will bruise Him on the heel.” It is the first promise of a Savior who would conquer Satan. But there are many more such promises throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 2; Isa. 53).

(2). Instruction:

Any time you read a general instruction (especially in the Law and wisdom literature), you’re reading about Jesus because He kept all these laws. He read the Old Testament and it shaped Him. Jesus often cited the Old Testament in His moral teaching (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43).

(3). Progression: Stories:

How does the story help make progress to Jesus? How is God keeping His redemptive promises that lead to Jesus? The Book of Ruth is an example here. (Read, The Jesus Story Book Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones.)

(4). Need:

How does the text show our need for the Savior? Every sin, failure, defeat, or problem in the Old Testament points us to Jesus.

(5). Type:

A type is a theological shadow in which a greater reality is the substance. Adam is a type of Christ (Rom. 5:14). Special days, such as the Passover and the Day of Atonement, point to Christ (Col. 2:16-17). The Temple was a type of Christ (John 2:19-21), who is now the dwelling place of God with His people. Are there Old Testament types that are not mentioned in the New Testament? We need to be careful, but the answer is probably, yes. Joseph, who was rejected by his brothers, but later became their “savior,” is in many ways a type of Christ.

(6). Theme:

There are many themes in the Old Testament, such as justice, wrath, mercy, holiness, etc. As you read, ask how is the theme fulfilled in Jesus Christ?

Also, I would advise you to read the Old Testament in an accurate modern translation (either ESV or NASB) study Bible, such as The ESV Study Bible or The MacArthur Study Bible. Or, use a small Bible Handbook as you read. These tools will give you the historical setting of the book, the author, the outline, and explanations of difficult verses or issues that you will encounter as you read. As you read the Old Testament, look for Christ.

2. The Old Testament instructs us in godly living.

Romans 15:4: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction ….” Unbelievers are ignorant about God and His ways, so they live in futility, sensuality, and greediness (Eph. 4:17-19). To avoid the ways of the world, we need instruction in godly living. God has provided this for us not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old. As we’ve seen (2 Tim. 3:16-17), the Scriptures are profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness so that we will be adequate, equipped for every good work. After mentioning how Israel in the wilderness disobeyed God, Paul concludes (1 Cor. 10:11), “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” Hebrews 11 traces the lives of men and women of faith, as found in the Old Testament, so that we can benefit from their examples.

The historical sections of the Old Testament show us how people succeeded through faith and obedience or failed through unbelief and disobedience. The wisdom books (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) show us how to think and live rightly. The Psalms teach us to worship God and how to cry out to Him in prayer in all our trials. The prophets warn us of the devastating consequences of sin and the threat of God’s judgment if we do not repent. They also encourage us with the truth that God will judge those who persist in evil and He will reward the righteous.

Don’t miss the word “written” in our text; it occurs twice: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction….” God saw fit to have His revelation put into written form. This means that to grow in knowing God and His ways, you must become a reader. This implies becoming a thinker and a student so that you can understand the written Word. You must use your mind in dependence upon the Holy Spirit to grow in understanding the truths of the Word. As we saw in Romans 12:2, Paul tells us that the way not to be conformed to the present evil age is to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. The fact that God communicated His revelation to us in written form appeals to us to use our minds so that we become biblical thinkers. Don’t neglect reading and studying the Word.

Also, note that wherever the gospel has gone throughout the world, schools and colleges have sprung up. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were founded to train godly pastors! While the simple gospel message can save illiterate, uneducated people who believe, it does not leave them in that condition. The fact that the Word of God is written urges us to develop our minds.

We’ve seen in Romans that chapters 1-11, the so-called “doctrinal” portion of the letter, are the foundation for the “practical” section that follows (12-16). Even so, teaching and doctrine are foundational for godly living. You can’t jump down to “hope” at the end of verse 4 if you bypass “instruction” at the beginning.

3. The Old Testament gives us perseverance.

Strictly speaking, the Greek grammar of verse 4 separates “perseverance” from the phrase “of the Scriptures.” The word “through” is repeated twice, so that the verse should read, “through perseverance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” This might be saying that we gain hope through our perseverance and through the encouragement that comes from the Scriptures.

But I think Dr. James Boice is right when he says (Romans: The New Humanity [Baker], 4:1807), “… this is a place where it may be wrong to read too much into a fine point of Greek grammar.” He argues that Paul surely was thinking that through the Scriptures God produces perseverance in us (see verse 5). And we know from other Scriptures (James 5:10-11; Heb. 11; etc.) and from our own experience that the examples of perseverance in the Old Testament encourage us to persevere through our trials.

As you read about how Abraham persevered in faith for over 25 years before God granted the promise of a son, and how he died in faith without owning any part of the Promised Land, except for a burial plot, it strengthens your faith to endure through times when God does not immediately answer your prayers. Or as you read the story of Joseph in prison, falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, but how God eventually worked it out for His good and sovereign purpose, it encourages you to trust God when you’ve been maligned. As you learn both through the narrative portions of the Old Testament and through the Psalms how David cried out to God when enemies were trying to kill him, you learn how to take your own problems to the Lord and how to praise Him in the midst of those problems.

But also, there is a sense in which you must persevere in order to gain the benefits of the Old Testament. It’s not always easy to read, as I’ve already said. There are many parts of it that are difficult to understand, both from the standpoint of ancient customs that we don’t comprehend and difficult incidents that seem harsh by today’s standards: A man is stoned to death for gathering firewood on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36). God commands the Jews to exterminate the Canaanites, including women and children (Deut. 20:16). The seven sons of Saul are hanged to stop a famine (2 Sam. 21:1-14). There are many such issues where you have to seek God for understanding and submit to His Word, even when you don’t understand. So it’s true that we gain perseverance from the Old Testament, but also we need perseverance to study the Old Testament to gain the hope that it brings.

4. The Old Testament gives us encouragement.

The main encouragement that comes from the Old Testament is that God promises a Savior to Adam and Eve in the Garden right after their rebellion—and He keeps His promise! All of the Old Testament shows God working through human history to bring the Savior not just for Israel, but also for the Gentiles (see Rom. 15:8-12). As the godly Simeon exclaims when he holds the baby Jesus in his arms in the Temple (Luke 2:29-32), “Now, Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

The Old Testament also gives us encouragement as it reveals to us who God is and how He deals with fallen sinners. In one of the first revelations of Himself, God proclaims to Moses (Exod. 34:6-7), “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” That description of God is repeated about a dozen times throughout the Old Testament (Num. 14:18; Deut. 4:31; 2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nah. 1:3). When you see how the Lord deals graciously with imperfect sinners who made some terrible mistakes—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and others—it gives you encouragement that He will also be gracious to you when you fail.

5. The Old Testament gives us hope.

“Hope” has the article here: “the hope.” Paul wrote about this hope (Rom. 5:1-5):

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Biblical hope is not uncertain, as when we say, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” We don’t know whether it will rain or not, but we’re expressing our wish. Biblical hope is certain because it’s based on the promises of God, who cannot lie; but it’s still future.

During World War II, some men in a German prisoner of war camp received a secret message that Germany had surrendered to the Allies, but it was three more days before the Germans heard that news. During those three days, their grim circumstances were no different than before, but their spirits were uplifted because they now had hope. The news was certain, but not yet realized.

Reading the Old Testament should give you hope because it shows you that in spite of your trials, in spite of what seem like unanswered prayers, in spite of years of waiting on God without seeing any change in your circumstances, God is faithful to His promises. As the angel announced to the shepherds in Bethlehem (Luke 2:10-11), “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”


This means that if you’re not reading the Old Testament, you’re missing a major source for hope in the midst of your trials. Or if you are reading the Old Testament, but it’s not changing how you think, how you process your trials, and how you feel in the midst of your trials, you’re not reading it rightly. You need the Old Testament because it points you to Christ, who is your sufficiency in all of life. You need it because it instructs you in godly living in the midst of an ungodly world. You need it to give you perseverance, encouragement, and hope in the midst of your trials. I encourage you to make reading the Old Testament a regular part of your time alone with God each day!

Application Questions

  1. What has been your biggest obstacle to reading the Old Testament? How can this message help you overcome this?
  2. Read through one of the gospels, noting what Jesus said about the Scriptures and how often He quoted Scripture. What does this teach us about the importance of the Old Testament?
  3. Since we are not under the Old Testament law, how should we apply its moral commands to our lives?
  4. Get a “through the Bible in a year” guide (there are dozens on­line) and set aside the time each morning to do it, asking God to reveal more of Christ to your soul as you read.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christology, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Old Testament, Sanctification, Spiritual Life