35. Love and Liberty: Liberties Love Won’t Take (Romans 14:1-23)
I remember reading an anecdote in Reader’s Digest a number of years ago entitled, “Keeping the Faith.” A Roman Catholic priest told of his encounter with a mugger in a dark alley—in back of the church at Notre Dame. As the priest was making his way down the alley to his parked car, a man suddenly emerged from the shadows, thrusting the muzzle of a revolver into his ribs demanding, “Hand me your wallet!”
Offering no word of protest, the priest immediately began to comply. As he reached into his inside pocket, his clerical collar became evident in the dim light, catching the robber off guard. “Are you a priest?” he exclaimed. “Yes, I am,” the priest replied. “Oh, I don’t rob priests,” the thief responded, “I’m Catholic, too.”
Greatly relieved, the priest withdrew a cigar from his inside pocket and offered it to the penitent thief. “Oh, no!” I can’t do that,” the thief exclaimed, “I’ve given them up for Lent.” This thief was a man with convictions, which he refused to violate.
We all have our convictions. Sometimes others may wonder about them, and sometimes our convictions may be detrimental to others. Personal convictions are very important to the apostle Paul. Three chapters are devoted to this subject in 1 Corinthians (chapters 8-10) and nearly two chapters to this same subject in Romans (14:1-15:13). In the vitally important application chapters of Romans (12-15), no subject is dealt with in greater detail than our convictions concerning Christian liberties.
The Text in Context
Paul began his argument in the Book of Romans by showing all men to be sinners, deserving of God’s eternal wrath and without hope of attaining righteousness and God’s blessings by human effort (1:18–3:20). After declaring man’s sin and condemnation, Paul explained God’s way of salvation in Romans 3:21–4:25. God has provided forgiveness by sending His Son to die for our sins, bearing our punishment in our place. He offers His righteousness to us, so that we may enter into God’s presence and blessings. We cannot earn this forgiveness and righteousness; we can only receive it as a gift, by faith, by trusting in Jesus as our Savior.
As Christians, we now have hope—the hope of our future blessing and even a hope in the midst of present suffering and distress. We have this hope knowing that all the adverse effects of Adam’s sin have been overruled and overcome by Jesus Christ. Those who are “in Christ” by faith need not fear the condemnation of those who are “in Adam” (Romans 5).
Being saved by faith requires a new lifestyle. We can no longer continue to live in sin as we once did. We must die to sin and live to righteousness, for when we were joined with Christ by faith we died to sin and were raised to newness of life, in Him (Romans 6). Our good intentions do not make us holy. We are just as powerless to be righteous as Christians as we were before our salvation. Our flesh is weak and subject to sin’s power (Romans 7). Our deadness to good deeds is overcome by the Holy Spirit, who dwells within each Christian. By walking in dependence upon Him, and in obedience to God’s Word, we fulfill God’s requirements. As sons of God, we have the Spirit of God dwelling within us. He strengthens and sustains us as we continue to live in this fallen, imperfect world, assuring us of the hope of our full and final deliverance from sin and its effects (Romans 8).
God’s promises to Israel have not been forgotten or forsaken, even though many Gentiles have trusted in Christ and many Jews have rejected Him. God has faithfully preserved a remnant of believing Israelites, preserving the hope of Israel. Because the Jews refused to be a blessing for all nations by their obedience, God has used their disobedience to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. The preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles is not contrary to God’s promise to bless Israel. Rather, it serves to provoke the Jews to jealousy. When God has completed His purpose of saving many Gentiles, He will once again turn to His people, Israel, to bless them with salvation. Then He will have shown mercy to all men (Romans 9-11).
In the meantime, we are to live righteously, not out of fear but out of sincere gratitude for God’s mercy and grace. Our gratitude should be expressed by worshipful service to God. Our worship is expressed by our sacrificial service, performed through our mortal bodies, once dominated by sin and self-interest (Romans 12:1-2).
Our service is divinely empowered. The Holy Spirit has endued each and every Christian with special abilities, spiritual gifts, which we are to employ for the benefit of others.
Christians are to “walk in the Spirit” (8:4) and also to “walk in love” (see 14:15). Love motivates us to flee evil and to pursue what is good. This “good” includes not only our brother in Christ but our enemy (12:9-21). In addition to the inward motivation of love, which inclines us toward good and away from evil, we have the external influence of human government. Human government is God’s divinely ordained means for rewarding those who do good or for punishing evil-doers (13:1-7).
Love and law are not enemies. They are not opposed to each other. Love “fulfills the law” (13:8-10). Far from the worldly definitions of love, Christian love denies fleshly lusts, choosing to live now in the light of eternity (13:11-14).
Love fulfills the law, but it goes beyond the law as well. Love not only prompts us to fulfill the law, it guides and governs us in those areas of conduct not governed by law—the areas we shall call personal convictions. Romans 14:1–15:13 is Paul’s explanation of how love should govern the exercise of our Christian liberties. Where law has no guidance, love does. I have therefore chosen the title “Love and Liberty” for this section.
An Overview of Romans 14:1–15:13
I understand our text to have four major divisions (14:1-12; 14:13-23; 15:1-3; 15:4-13). The first two divisions, in chapter 14, are more negative in nature. The last two, in chapter 15, are positive. This is because love is both negative and positive in its manifestations. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10; see also 13:9). It also seeks to do what is good and “right in the sight of all men” (12:9-21).
In chapter 14, Paul focuses on the negative outworkings of love. Love does not judge others concerning their convictions in the area of Christian liberty (14:1-12). Beyond this, love prevents me from exercising what is, for me, a liberty when this would cause a weaker brother to stumble (14:13-23).
In chapter 15, the positive outworkings of love are described in relationship to Christian liberties. Those who have liberty, who are strong, will employ their strength in serving the weak and in bearing their infirmities, rather than seeking to please themselves (15:1-3). In so doing, Christian unity is practiced and preserved, thereby facilitating the harmonious praise of God (15:4-13).
Four pictures sum up the message of this vitally important section of Scripture. These pictures are like symbolic traffic signs. The first picture is a circle, with a judge’s gavel in the center and a diagonal line passing through it—No judging! The second picture is a circle with three feet in the center. One foot is tripping the other two. There is a diagonal line through this circle—No tripping! We are not to be the cause of our weaker brother’s stumbling.
The third picture is a circle with a crutch in the center. There is no diagonal line. We are to help bear up our weaker brother in his infirmity. Pleasing is required! The fourth picture is a circle with a choir in the center. The faces are those of men and women, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, all singing praises to God in unity and harmony! Harmonious praise is certain, in eternity.
Our Approach in This Lesson
The written exposition of Paul’s teaching on love and liberty will be in two parts. In this first lesson, we will consider Paul’s teaching in Romans 14; the theme of this chapter is “Liberties Love Will Not Take.” In our next lesson, we will study Romans 15:1-13 where the emphasis is positive: “What Love Will Do.”
Defining Personal Convictions
Our Romans text deals with the matter of Christian convictions. Although the term “conviction” is found only once in Romans 14 (verse 22), the expression “personal convictions” best describes the areas of difference among Christians which threaten the unity of the church at Rome. To understand Paul’s teaching in our text, we must first have a general idea of the problem he is addressing; thus we must understand what convictions are. Briefly outlined are some of the characteristics of convictions, especially as they relate to our text.
(1) Convictions are strongly held beliefs. According to Webster a conviction is, “a strong persuasion or belief.”93 In our text, Paul urges each of his readers to be “fully convinced in his own mind” (14:5). Convictions are beliefs which are held with conviction.
In the overall complex of our belief structure, we need to recognize the place convictions play. Consider the following spectrum or hierarchy of beliefs, as I understand them:
- Prejudices: Men are better drivers than women.
- Opinions: President Bush was right to declare war against Iraq.
- Theories: Taking vitamin C reduces one’s chance of getting sick.
- Convictions: The rapture will come before the great tribulation. As a Christian, I should not drink wine. Or, as a Christian, I am free to drink wine, in moderation.
- Knowledge or Understanding: Area = length times width.
- Biblical Doctrine or Theology: God is omniscient—He knows all.
- Biblical Principles: Whatever is not of faith is sin.
- Biblical Statements: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
- Biblical Commands: “Flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14)
(2) The convictions of which Paul speaks are behavioral beliefs.94 In Romans and 1 Corinthians, convictions are beliefs which govern our behavior. Convictions here are not as much a decision concerning what is true as a decision about what we should or should not do. Our convictions determine whether we will or will not eat meat, drink wine, or observe certain holidays.
(3) Convictions, by their very nature, are inferential. Convictions are not necessary concerning murder. Murder is sin.95 It is also against the law, whether God’s Law or man’s. Convictions are conclusions we reach when there are no hard and fast answers, no moral absolutes. Almost always, these convictions are inferential—the extension of certain beliefs we hold to be true and pertinent to a given circumstance or choice.
(4) Christian convictions do not define what is “right” and “wrong.” God’s Word defines what is right and what is wrong. Biblical revelation is not a matter of personal discretion.96 It is not a conviction to believe that murder is evil or that loving our enemy is good. Convictions take up where biblical revelation and human law leave off. Convictions determine what my conduct should be in those areas not specifically prescribed by Scripture. My convictions draw the line between what I will do and what I will not do as an exercise of Christian liberty.
Convictions reach the conclusions of “should” and “should not.” The question is not so much, “Can I do this or that?” but “Should I do this or that?” In Hebrews, we are told:
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).
Further, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:
All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Within the category of “all things which are lawful,” there are things which do not contribute to my own spiritual life and growth or that of others. Even though I “could” do some of these things, I may decide I “should” not do them—not because they are evil, but because they do not promote what is good.97 I believe these decisions fall into the category of my convictions.
(5) Christian convictions are matters of conscience.98 Convictions are the result of the interaction of several factors. One factor is knowledge—a grasp of biblical teaching and doctrine. Another is that of conscience, our “inner umpire” which causes us to feel either guilt or moral affirmation.
However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7).
(6) Christian convictions are matters of faith. Knowledge and conscience are factors which determine our convictions. Faith also plays a vital role in our convictions. We should only practice those liberties we can do in faith. If we doubt (the opposite of faith), we are condemned by doing what our conscience does not approve.
The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:22-23).
The strength or weakness of our faith greatly influences our convictions (see Romans 14:1-2). Since this may be the measure of faith given by God,99 there is no indictment of those whose faith is weak nor commendation of those whose faith is strong.
(7) Christian convictions are a reflection of one’s strength or weakness. Christian convictions differ, in part, according to the strength or weakness of the individual who holds them. In Romans 14 and 15, Paul distinguishes between those who are weak in faith (14:1-2) and those who are strong (14:2; 15:1). In 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to the brother whose conscience is weak (8:7).
How is one believer weak and the other strong? How is one weak? How is another strong?” Two areas are suggested. First, one may be weak in his understanding and grasp of the gospel.100 Second, one may also be weak in the strength of his convictions. The brother who is weak regarding the strength of his convictions is more likely to cave in to peer pressure and to do what his faith does not endorse and his conscience condemns.
The “weaker brother,” then, is not the one who simply disagrees with what I do, or who gets upset by my freedom; the weaker brother is the one who is likely to imitate me in what I do, violating his own conscience and convictions. The weaker brother is the one more likely to sin because he gives in to another’s convictions rather than living by his own.
(8) Christian convictions concern those practices which, in and of themselves, neither contribute to our spirituality nor take away from it. Neither doing nor abstaining from the practices Paul mentions commend us before God. We are not spiritually strengthened by eating meat, but by God’s grace (Hebrews 13:9). Neither does abstinence make us more spiritual (Colossians 2:20-23). Both the legalist and the libertine tend to err here.
(9) In our text, Paul does not talk about convictions in general but of convictions concerning Christian liberties. Christian liberties are those practices the Christian is free to engage in, those practices which are not identified as sin. These are not “gray” matters, but practices God has granted us freedom to enjoy, if we can do so with a clear conscience.
(10) Christian convictions are private and personal. Convictions are those decisions about Christian liberties which each person holds and practices before God. They are private and personal. Our convictions should not be the subject of criticism or debate, nor should we seek to impose our convictions on others (see Romans 14:22 above, also 14:5-9). Nowhere does Paul seek to shape or change the convictions of another. Our convictions may change as we mature, but God is the One who achieves this in the heart of His children through the work of His Spirit.
(11) While the possession of one’s convictions is personal and private, the practice of liberties is not. The exercise of our convictions may be either beneficial or detrimental to others. Therefore, while we are urged to hold our convictions firmly, we are not urged to practice every liberty which our convictions allow.
(12) Christian convictions are necessary because of the grace of God. The grace of God has been an emphasis of Paul’s teaching in Romans. Opposed to the principle of grace is that of works or legalism. Legalism has a rule for every occasion. A study of Judaism in the time of our Lord reveals how the Judaizers distorted the Old Testament Law so that, interpreted and applied by them, the Law became nothing but an intricate system of rules.101 No decisions had to be made about what was right or wrong; for virtually any situation, there was a rule.
Grace is different. Righteousness is not a matter of external rules nor even of external compliance to them (see Luke 16:15). Grace starts with the heart (see also, Mark 7:14-23). Grace first motivates men to obey God. Grace gives men choices to make out of a desire to please God. Paul would have had no need to write the text we are studying were it not for the grace of God.
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. 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. 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. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD.” So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Verse 1 clearly lays down the point of the paragraph. The weaker brother is to be welcomed into the fellowship of the saints, but not so that he might be harassed about his personal convictions.
We must keep several things in mind as we consider this command.
(1) Paul is speaking to Christians about their relationship to other Christians.
(2) Paul is speaking about personal convictions concerning Christian liberties.102
(3) The strong believers have more faith and a greater grasp of grace and Christian liberty. Those who are weak are weak in faith and therefore fail to grasp the full implications of the work of Christ. The weaker saints are inclined to be legalistic. The weaker saints tend to be those who think they cannot do what God’s Word allows.
(4) While the strong and the weak differ over their convictions, both are tempted to think too highly of themselves, looking down upon their brother and passing judgment on his convictions.
(5) Differences in their convictions concerning Christian liberty seems to have created strife and dissension in the church. There seems to be a problem of disunity at Rome, as is evident elsewhere as well, such as in Corinth. Corinth, you will recall, is the city from which Romans was penned.
(6) While differences in personal convictions should never cause Christians to separate from one another, there are a few good reasons for separation. There are times when Christians are to exclude professing Christians from fellowship. Church discipline, due to persistent, willful sin, divisiveness, or false teaching is one such time (see Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; Titus 3:9-11; 2 John 7-11). Paul himself calls for separation from those who would call themselves Christians in his closing words in this Epistle to the Romans:
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting (Romans 16:17-18).
When it comes to differences in convictions, Paul would have us know this is not an acceptable basis for excluding a brother from fellowship.
Paul provides two illustrations of differing convictions in verses 1-12 of chapter 14: eating meat (14:2) and the observance of certain holidays (14:5). The meat-eater is the stronger believer while the vegetarian is weaker. Both the strong and the weak are tempted to sin against their brother. The danger for the strong believer is to look upon his weaker brother with contempt: “How could he be so shallow in his grasp of God’s grace and of Christian liberty?” The weaker brother stands in danger of condemning his stronger brother for his liberty in Christ: “How could he be so liberal? Does he not believe in separation?”
Both of these brothers, the strong and the weak, are represented as judging the other. Both are looking down on each other, while at the same time thinking too highly of themselves. Paul offers several reasons why judging our brother concerning his convictions is evil.
First, judging a brother because of his convictions is an offense against God. Judging is wrong because it takes God’s place as the One who is each man’s judge: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls” (14:4). It is also wrong because the man who judges sets himself above God’s Law. Convictions deal with those freedoms which the Law allows. Thus, in judging a man’s convictions, we become judges of the Law, setting standards even the Law refuses to establish (see James 4:11).
In this context, judging our brother goes even further. It either ignores God’s verdict or sets it aside. God, the Judge of all mankind, has accepted every person who comes to Him by faith in Christ. When we refuse to accept a fellow-believer, one whom God has accepted, we act contrary to God Himself. How dare we refuse to accept one whom He has accepted?
God’s acceptance goes beyond this. He who began the good work is also He who will complete it (Philippians 1:6). When we pronounce judgment on a fellow-believer, we are pronouncing his downfall. Paul reminds us that he will surely stand, “for the Lord is able to make him stand” (14:4). Judging our brother concerning his convictions is a most serious error on our part, an act of rebellion against God and His gospel. While the matter over which we differ may be insignificant, the manner in which we differ, judging, is most significant.
Second, judging our brother is wrong because we are distracted from paying attention to our own convictions and conduct before God. In verses 3 and 4, Paul focuses on our sin in judging a fellow-believer, showing that it is not our role to serve as our brother’s judge, but God’s. Now in verses 5-12, Paul places the spotlight where it should be—on our own convictions, not our brother’s. Tending to our brother’s business causes us to neglect our own. Paul clearly teaches us here to mind our own business.
“Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind,” Paul urges. After citing his second example of differing convictions in the first half of verse 5, Paul now urges each Christian to expend his energy in considering his own convictions, rather than those of his brother. If convictions are not a legitimate matter for public scrutiny and debate, they are a most important consideration in our personal walk with God. Convictions are private matters, between each Christian and his God, whether one exercises a liberty or refrains from it:
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. 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 (14:6-8, emphasis mine).
Nothing could be more clear or more emphatic: convictions are not a matter of public scrutiny and debate; they are a private matter between each believer and God. The important thing is not whether we do or do not practice a given liberty, but whether in exercising or refraining from our liberty we do so as to the Lord.
With these words, Paul redirects our focus. Cease from judging your brother, and concentrate on examining yourself. Jesus is Lord, Lord of both “the dead and of the living” (14:9). Whether by living or by dying, we should do so as to the Lord. Paul was not speaking in purely theoretical terms. Shortly, he would be informed that going to Jerusalem would mean “bonds and afflictions” for him (see Acts 20:22-24). Later, when Paul was imprisoned and awaiting the outcome of his trial before Caesar, death was a very real possibility. Listen to Paul’s words to the Philippians which exemplify the attitude he calls for in our text in Romans:
For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:19-21).
Why this emphasis on life and death, living and dying (see verses 7-9)? Because this makes Paul’s teaching all-encompassing. Life and death circumscribe the whole of life—nothing lies outside these boundaries. Therefore, nothing we do, or choose not to do, lies outside the realm of our service to God.
Further, I am not convinced that when Paul speaks of “living” and “dying” his words are intended to be restricted to literal life and death. Paul has made much of our death to sin, in Christ, and our new way of life as Christians, in Him (see Romans 6). The deeds of the flesh must be mortified, put to death, and we must live so as to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (see Romans 13:11-14).
Judging our brother in the matter of his personal convictions is wrong. It condemns the one God has justified; it refuses to receive the one God has accepted; it doubts the survival and sanctification of a brother whose ultimate standing has been accomplished and assured by God. Yet one more blow must be struck against a judgmental spirit in the church stemming from differing convictions. This blow is dealt in verses 10-12: we who would judge a brother should not overlook that full and final judgment comes when each of us stands before God, where we must give account for our own convictions and conduct.
Paul rebukes both the “strong” and the “weak” in verse 10 for judging his brother. The “strong” looks on the “weak” with contempt. The “weak” condemns the “strong” for the exercise of liberties he cannot accept. Both need to be reminded that God is the Judge, and before Him each of us will stand and give account.
Isaiah 45:23 is cited in verse 11. To those familiar with Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Philippians 2:10-11), these words are not new.103 They are a solemn reminder of the account each of us must give to God for our attitudes and actions. How could we be so preoccupied with judging others, which is not our task or calling, when we will all have to stand before God as our judge? Since we must each give account of ourselves, let us take heed to our own convictions, and cease judging our brother.
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. 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 him104 it is unclean. 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. 16 Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. 20 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. 21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. 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. 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.
Verse 13 brings a distinct shift in focus. In verses 1-12, Paul calls for Christians to give up pronouncing judgment on the convictions of their brother, because such judgment is wrong. In verses 13-23, he calls for the obedient Christian to give up the practice of any liberty which would be detrimental to a brother. Paul thus moves from “no judging” to “no tripping.”
How Love Responds to a Weaker Brother
Paul begins verse 13 by underscoring the main thrust of the first 12 verses. Stop judging your brother.105 Ceasing from this practice is not enough. Paul presses his reader to replace this detrimental practice with a beneficial one. We are to “determine106 not to put an obstacle or stumbling block in a brother’s way.”
We dare not contribute to the downfall of a brother in Christ. What does Paul mean by “putting an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (verse 13)? He means we are not to exercise any liberty which encourages a weaker Christian to sin by following our example and thereby violating his own conscience.
Paul has chosen his words carefully, and rightly so. Some Christians may disagree with our convictions. They may very well be upset that we have acted as we have. But unless these Christians are so weak that they follow our example, and thus violate their own convictions, they are not the “weaker brother” to whom Paul is referring. If I am fully convinced it is right to eat meat, and I do so in front of some believers, they might be upset by my actions, but they will not do as I have done. A weaker brother is one who thinks it is wrong to eat meat, but who does so because he has seen me do so, thus violating his own convictions. When the exercise of my liberty causes a weaker brother to stumble, I have sinned in exercising my liberty, even though it is consistent with my own convictions.
In verse 14 Paul pauses to clarify why the exercise of my Christian liberty is sinful for me if it causes a brother to stumble. It is not because of any uncleanness in the act itself. Christian liberties are clean.107 There is no defilement in their exercise. But to the one whose conscience forbids the practice of a certain liberty, this practice becomes evil. It becomes evil only because he thinks it is evil, and thus it is something he cannot do in faith.
Be sure to note that what Paul says one way, he does not reverse. If we think a certain matter of liberty is wrong, then for us it is wrong—because we cannot do so in faith. Merely thinking something is right does not make it right. Committing adultery is always wrong, no matter whether I think it is right or not. Thinking something is right does not make it right, but thinking something is wrong does make it wrong, for me.
In verse 15, Paul lays down two powerful arguments which support his teaching that one should surrender any liberty when it harms a brother. Two standards are set down to govern our conduct. The first is the standard of love. Love, as Paul has already said, “does no wrong to a neighbor” (13:10). Walking in love does not allow me to harm my brother by letting my liberty be the cause of his stumbling.
The second standard is that set by our Lord Himself at Calvary: We dare not allow our liberty to destroy a brother whom Christ died to save. Paul sets before us the dramatic contrast between the outcome of our self-indulgence and that of Christ’s ultimate self-sacrifice. By demanding to exercise my liberty to eat meat, I could destroy a brother. My brother could be destroyed by my self-indulgence, by my eating one T-bone steak. How could I even conceive of exercising this liberty when my Lord gave His very life, His all, on the cross of Calvary to save my brother—and me! If Christ gave His all to save my brother, surely I can sacrifice eating meat, so as not to destroy him.108
Verses 16-18 sum up the essence of the matter. What is “good” for me should not bring about “evil” for another (verse 16). Eating meat, or not eating it, is not where true life is for the Christian. For the unbeliever, who has no hope for eternity, life consists of “eating, drinking, and being merry” (1 Corinthians 15:32). For the Christian, “the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (verse 17). In the light of these blessings, whether or not there is meat on our plate should be seen as a matter of no great gain or loss.
Love does not take liberties; it surrenders them for the benefit of a brother. To surrender a liberty for the benefit of a brother is to serve the Lord and to gain approval by men (see also Romans 12:17). Surrendering our liberties offers each of us great benefit for ourselves and for others, at very little cost. Demanding our liberties threatens great damage and promises little benefit to us. Surrendering our liberty is a great investment; spending them is a dangerous form of self-indulgence.
From Principle to Practice
So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. 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. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. 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 shifts gears in the transitional verses of 19-23 and moves from a negative to a positive emphasis. He moves from what we should stop doing to what we should pursue. We must stop judging one another (verses 1-12), and cease from exercising any liberty which causes your brother to stumble (verses 13-23). Instead, we should “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (verse 19). Pursue those things which promote the kingdom of God, and put aside those things which hinder it.
Christians are in the building business—not in the demolition business. Judging others and demanding the right to exercise our liberty, regardless of its affect on others, tears others down. In the abstract, all things are clean for the one whose faith is strong and whose conscience is clean concerning their exercise. Yet these “good” things become “evil” for the strong if and when they cause another to stumble.
How quickly and easily sin corrupts! For those who are strong in their faith, every Christian liberty is clean. But the moment my “good” causes “evil” for another, it becomes evil for me also. Any liberty I exercise at the expense of a brother becomes a sin for me (verse 20). Therefore, it is “not good” for me to exercise any liberty (here, Paul illustrates with eating meat and drinking wine) by which my brother stumbles (verse 21).
The strong Christian then is left with two principle concerns. He must first be certain of his own convictions. The first danger is that he might exercise a liberty to the detriment of a weaker brother (verse 21). The second danger is that he might be tempted to approve that which God does not—to press his liberty too far. To him, Paul says, “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves” (verse 22).
The weaker Christian is left with one exhortation: “Don’t act out of doubt, but only out of faith.” The principle governing his actions is simple: “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (verse 23). Doubt is the opposite of faith. Actions which proceed from doubt are not of faith, and thus are sin.
Let us reflect on some important principles Paul has underscored in this passage of Scripture as we conclude this lesson.
(1) Convictions concerning Christian liberties are necessary and important. For the sake of conscience, and for the sake of our walk before God, we need to carefully consider our convictions. In Paul’s words, we need to be “fully convinced in our own mind” (verse 5). We need to be careful that we do not approve that which God does not approve (verse 22). Each of us will stand before God and give account of our lives. One thing for which we will give account is our convictions and how we have lived by them.
(2) We need to recognize our convictions as convictions. Convictions should be beliefs we have thought through carefully and hold firmly. As strongly as we may hold them, true convictions are not the test of true piety. And the convictions which we hold are not the fundamentals of our faith. Rather, they are the outworking, the implications, of our faith. We dare not confuse convictions with truth, with God’s commands, or with fundamentals of the faith.
(3) We must recognize that our convictions are a private matter, between us and God. The convictions which we hold are to be held privately. We are not to seek to impose them on others. Neither are we to judge a brother regarding his convictions. “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (Romans 14:22).
(4) We must also recognize that the exercise of our convictions is a public matter, between us, others, and God. The convictions we hold are a matter between us and God. The practice of those liberties which our convictions allow are not private, but public. My practice sets a precedent and an example for others. Those who are weak in faith may be influenced by my example and encouraged to violate their own convictions by doing that which their conscience condemns. Thus, while the convictions I hold are a private matter, the convictions I practice are not. I am therefore free to believe as my faith and my conscience dictate, concerning Christian liberties. But I am not free to behave only in accordance with my faith and conscience. My behavior is governed by love as I consider the effect my conduct will have on others, and as I surrender my liberties for the good of my brother.
(5) In our text, Christian love is defined in a way that is distinct from the “love” of those who do not know Jesus Christ. How vastly different Christian love is from all other “loves.” Christian love does not take liberties when doing so is detrimental to others. Christian love surrenders liberties, for the good of others. Christian love does not indulge the flesh, but denies fleshly desires and appetites (such as the desire for meat, or wine) when the enjoyment of such things comes at the expense of others. How different Christian love is from the “love” of this world, which seeks pleasure at the expense of another and knows nothing of self-control and self-sacrifice.
May each of us give serious thought to our convictions. May we each be fully convinced in our own minds. And may the practice or setting aside of our Christian liberties be done as to the Lord.
94 I do not think that all convictions fall within this category of behavior, however. There are other categories as well. For example, Christians must reach certain doctrinal convictions. Convictions are required wherever the Scriptures are not quite specific or dogmatic on a given point of theology. Wherever there is a lack of clarity or certainty, convictions are necessary. For example, in the theological category of eschatology (the doctrine of future things), some Christians are pre-tribulational; others hold to a mid-tribulation rapture, and others are post-tribulational. Each of these positions is, in my opinion, a theological conviction. Many of the differences between Christians fall in this area of theological or doctrinal convictions.
97 It is interesting to compare this with Romans 8:28. God employs those things which ultimately work for our good. We should do likewise, considering whether the exercise of a particular liberty promotes what is good, for us and for others.
98 The term conscience does not appear in Romans 14 or 15, but in a related passage in 1 Corinthians 8-10, the term occurs five times in those three chapters (8:7, 10, 12; 10:29 2x). I would define “conscience” as man’s internal moral referee, which condemns us for doing that which we believe to be wrong, and commends us for doing that which is right. All men possess a conscience (Romans 2:14-15). One’s conscience may rightly discern “good” and “evil” even without God’s Law (Romans 2:14-16). Our conscience should conform to the definitions of “good” and “evil” as defined by God’s Law and biblical teaching (see 1 Timothy 1:5ff.) and the laws of the land (Romans 13:5). Our consciences are cleansed by the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:9, 14; 10:22; see also 1 Peter 3:21). The verdict of our conscience can be confirmed by the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1). It can be trained and sensitized by obedience (Hebrews 5:12-13) and desensitized and corrupted by sin (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15). One’s conscience can also be weak (1 Corinthians 8:7) and susceptible to wounding by another (1 Corinthians 8:12). The ideal for the Christian is to have a conscience that is clear before both God and man (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 2 Corinthians 1:12). In this way we are free to serve God (Hebrews 9:14). When Paul taught, he addressed himself to the conscience of those he taught (2 Corinthians 4:2). His goal in teaching was to inspire love, which could only occur in those whose consciences were pure and undefiled (see 1 Timothy 1:5).
100 “Their ‘weakness’ is expressed in a number of abstentions which will be noted in detail below; it attests a failure to grasp the fundamental principle, which page after page of this epistle emphasizes, that men are justified by faith alone—or, better, by God’s own free electing grace, faith being man’s recognition that all is dependent not upon himself but God. So strong is this emphasis that it comes as a surprise to find that Paul recognizes that both strong and weak have a place in the Church, and that both can stand before God and be accepted by him.” C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1957), pp. 256-257.
101 In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged this pharisaical system of interpreting and applying the Old Testament as inconsistent with the meaning and use of the Law of Moses as given by God. There were rules, do’s and don’ts, but these were intended to teach us principles, and it was by these principles that men were to be guided. A study of the entire sermon reveals how much Jesus challenged His audience to think. Legalism does the opposite. You do not have to think as a legalist; you only have to find the right rule and keep it. Legalism therefore has no category labeled, “convictions.” It needs none.
103 If the translation of this verse in the NASB is correct—with emphasis on praise and not just confession—then Paul is making an additional point. Not only will we stand before God to give account for our own convictions and how we have used them, but we will also give praise to God as the one who alone deserves praise. While we are liable for our sins, we are not worthy of praise for any of our good deeds. If we sin in the area of convictions, we will give account to God. But there is no merit in this area of convictions for which we will take any credit. When we stand before God, only He will be praised, for in the final analysis, any good done through us is that good which God has accomplished in us (see Romans 15:17-19).
105 The expression, “let us not judge one another any more” clearly implies that passing judgment was a wide-spread practice at the time. This is not some hypothetical evil which was to be avoided. It was an evil practice which was to be abandoned.
106 The word “determine” found in the NASB is a translation of the term which is derived from the same root rendered “judge” earlier in this verse. Paul employs a deliberate play on words. He urges us not to “judge” our brother but to come to the “judgment,” the verdict, that we will not do anything which will cause our brother to stumble.
108 My self-indulgence could be the cause of a brother’s destruction. Self-discipline is often the key. Self-discipline enables me to “just say no” to my fleshly appetites when exercising my liberty might destroy a brother. This matter of self-indulgence and self-discipline is spelled out much more fully in 1 Corinthians 9:24–10:13.