12. Application to Doubtful Things (Romans 14:1—15:13)
Eleventh Bible Class
V. Application (cont.)
B. Application to Doubtful Things (14:1—15:13)
It is not difficult to run across two extreme positions in Christianity. One position is intensely legalistic and structured, and if you do not agree with them in such positions, you are not spiritual. The other position makes almost no separation from the world, their lives being almost carbon copies of the world, because they feel free in the Lord and unrestricted. Both of these positions are flawed because of their attitudes, their treatment of the other side, and the way that they employ their convictions. Somewhere between these poles the believer is to live. These, and other related issues are the subject of this chapter. Paul will divide the discussion up between those whose faith is strong and those whose faith is weak.
1. Christians must be generous and charitable in their assessments of others (14:1-4)
Paul begins the chapter by telling us to accept those who are young or inexperienced in the faith without passing judgment. Who is “weak” in the faith? This does not mean the one who is weak in the great doctrines of the faith, who may be teaching heresy—Paul has lots to say about that one. Nor does this refer to a Christian who has been a believer for, say, twenty-five years, but refuses to grow—all he does is criticize anything different. It is hard to cause someone to stumble if he or she isn’t moving. No, Paul is talking about believers who are growing but are weak in applying the faith to all the areas of doubtful things—things the Bible does not specifically address. The chapter is about conduct, not doctrine.
Paul’s first illustration is about eating meat. This has to be interpreted in the light of the early Church, especially in Jewish and Gentile relationships (see Acts 15). Mature Christians know that they can eat anything they wish, because Jesus made all things clean (Mark 7:19) and Peter was given the specific lesson on this in his vision in Joppa (Acts 10:9-16). From that sign they knew the Gospel was going to the Gentiles, and Gentiles did not have to become Jews first and then be converted. But many Jewish people who grew up under the dietary laws of the Law of Moses could not quickly make the transition to eat pork or to purchase meat that may have come from a pagan temple. The instructed and maturing believer knows that the dietary laws do not apply—we are not under Law. In time the new believer will realize the teaching and perhaps be able to make the break—or, some may simply have a problem with this throughout their lives because of a long tradition in it.
But Paul says the instructed and mature believer must not look down on the other who has problems with this. And, the person who cannot eat must not be critical of the one who does. They have to think of this as a family—there are some things the children have to learn before they have the freedom of adults. Or in the imagery of slavery from the Roman world, the other person is accepted by God—a slave of God (as Romans has argued)—and you cannot judge another person’s slave. It is presumption and spiritual pride to judge another Christian in such areas. God will deal with each person where change is necessary, for God is able to make him stand. This is a hard lesson to learn because of human nature. Some think they are mature and they look down on others; and some who are struggling with things become very critical of others whom they think are worldly. If both people are walking with the Lord, in the Word, and conscientiously trying to grow as a body, these attitudes cannot be there.
2. Christians must make their choices by faith (14:5-8).
Paul now introduces the principle of faith. He uses the example now of holy days. The mature Christian considers all days alike. Certain days may be set aside for various purposes, but according to Paul’s teachings in Colossians and elsewhere, one day is not more holy than another as in the Jewish calendar. Or, to put it another way, if it is wrong to do something on one of these “holy days” it is wrong to do it any day. But some might consider some days more holy, and they need those structures to order their spiritual conduct and life. There are dozens of examples. One person may have grown up in a strict home where nothing could be done on Sunday. But after he or she grew in their own convictions, that was not such a binding restriction, although they still might not do certain things on Sunday because there are other Christians out there who would be bothered by it. Or, some people need the period of Lent for their amendment of life. If it is helpful for spiritual growth, fine. But if someone gives something up for lent, that has to be explained properly. If one needed to give it up in Christian piety, perhaps it should have been given up earlier—why wait till lent? There is much more to all of this, of course, but these are the kinds of issues Paul is addressing in this passage. The main point is that we are not all the same in our outlook on spiritual growth—how it is to be developed and what our convictions are; and if we start judging and criticizing others for the way they see it, or considering ourselves more spiritual, then that is wrong. Remember, we are talking here about doubtful things. This teaching of acceptance would not apply for someone teaching what is clearly false doctrine, or someone living in what the Bible clearly says is sin.
Paul’s principle for doubtful things is this: “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” It is a matter of personal convictions based on faith. You dare not do something if you have serious doubts about it—that is not walking by faith. So you are to think through your practice, be sure that you are doing it in the full conviction that right now in your spiritual life that is what you should be doing, and do it for the Lord (not because others think you should). Believers are to be examining everything they do, and they are to be sure that what they do they can do with a clear conscience. If there is hesitation or uncertainty or doubts, then it may be wrong to do it. Questionable things are wrong if they are indeed questionable.
Here again Paul is applying the teaching of the book. We are not under Law, but under grace. What is on the table is not important; it is what is in the heart that makes the difference. It is always a matter of walking by faith. We cannot live our lives apart from Jesus Christ; so that is our main concern as we decide if what we are doing is by faith. Can I do this for the Lord? Can I give him thanks for it? Will it honor and glorify him?
3. All Christians must answer to the Lord (14:9-12)
It is, after all, Christ who died for our sins. If I do things that I believe are wrong, I am not responding to the Lord in the proper way. That would include sinning against my conscience, or judging others. The bottom line is that each one of us is accountable before God. Each of us must one day stand before the Lord where our deeds—not the guilt of our sins—will be examined. This is usually referred to in Paul as the “judgment seat (bema seat) of Christ” where rewards are given out for faithfulness, an examination that differs greatly from the Great Judgment. 2
So in view of the fact that each one of us is accountable to the Lord and not to one another, then we should forbear judging one another. Learn to accept one another. I must reiterate here, however, that Paul is talking about doubtful things. If a brother is teaching heresy, or living in sin, or overtaken in a fault, then our responsibilities are different.
4. Christians are to be governed by the law of love (14:13-18).
Our main concern is not to put a stumblingblock in some one’s way. If I have freedom in Christ, I cannot use that freedom if it will offend and make a young Christian do something against his conscience. I may in love have to relinquish my rights. The analogy of a parent and a child works well here. Sometimes when a parent is training a child, that parent cannot do things in front of the child that the child cannot do. It will be too confusing, and perhaps dangerous.
So rather than hurt another Christian who is trying to grow, we must be willing to refrain from things that offend. After all, Christ was willing to die for the weak—he did not think equality with God was something to be grasped or held on to, but he relinquished the use of the privileges of deity for our sake (Phil. 2).
On the other hand, Paul says, do not allow what you consider good to be evil spoken of. Your Christian liberty is a wonderful privilege for maturity in the faith; but if by exercising it people will call it worldliness or evil, you have to be concerned about that. We always should have other believers in mind when we choose our applications. The goal of all our activities is the good of the Kingdom of God—righteousness, peace, and joy.
5. Christians must make peace and mutual edificationtheir main goal (14:9-23)
This is a rather extended section with several major points being made. But the common theme running through it is the peace, unity and mutual edification within the body of Christ. Anything that destroys peace, unity and mutual edification has to be addressed.
In verse 19 Paul makes this point, reiterating the warning not to cause others to fall. “Let us make every effort” is certainly a call for diligence in these things. Indifference to the spiritual growth of others is unacceptable. We must press toward the goal of spiritual values—righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit—for these build up and do not destroy the body. If you have personal convictions that differ from others, keep them to yourself unless asked, or unless the issue comes up. Whatever you do, do it by faith, because to do it with doubting is sin, and your conscience will condemn you in that. The believer must be able to look back on his or her activities without any qualms of conscience. Vincent writes, “Christian practice ought to be out of the sphere of morbid introspection.” Or as Paul says it, “Blessed is the one whose conscience approves that which he approved before the act was performed.”
So the believer is saved by faith; and the believer walks by faith. Any conduct or any act (in the area of personal living and choices) which is not the outflow of faith becomes sin for the believer. Now Paul had earlier said (8:1) that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; but here he seems to say the one who sins is condemned. Obviously he is not contradicting himself. The condemnation spoken of here is from the conscience that condemns for sin; earlier the condemnation referred to final judgment of sinners.
When a believer sins and does not confess several things happen—conviction, guilt feelings, separation in fellowship with Christ, usefulness to God at risk, prayers not answered, chastening likely—just to name some of the major things. They are still in the family of God, but their joy, fellowship, and service is hindered by unconfessed sin. So in the area of doubtful things Christians must be sure to walk by faith.
What Paul is concerned with here, I remind you, is a body of true believers in Jesus Christ who are struggling with matters of conduct. He also had to deal with the presence of Judaizers in some of the Christian groups, people who opposed the truth and tried to teach new converts false doctrine (sort of trying to straighten out what Paul was trying to say). Paulwas not at all interested in bonding in peace and unity with them.
6. Christians ought to show consideration for the feelings and prejudices of weaker believers (15:1-3).
So beginning in chapter 15 he tells us not just to please ourselves but to bear with those who are weak. The first three verses give another discussion of the weaker brother. Since our chief concern is with the good of others, we are not to be pleased with their detriment or loss. When they are hurting, troubled, confused, we dare not gloat in our self-sufficiency—even if they should have been more mature by now! Paul supports this point with a citation from the messianic Psalm 69 to say that Christ did not seek to please himself; he served others and bore their burdens.
7. Christians of all backgrounds must grow together in unity (15:4-13).
The samples Paul has been using really do come from the difficulty of uniting Jew and Gentile in Christ in the first century, as indeed much of the argument of Romans has addressed. But the principles they teach are applicable in any period and any culture. Now, in the rest of the chapter he will cite Scriptures for our edification that show the unity of the faith.
The use of the verse in verse 3 from Psalm 69:9 prompted Paul to stress a point that might be missed—the Old Testament Scripture is certainly applicable for us today. The Old Covenant and the Law of Moses may not be operable as the ordering structure of the Church; but what the Law revealed—the righteousness of God—is timeless truth. Some have made the helpful distinction that the Law was both revelatory and regulatory (not different passages, but each law regulated and revealed); the regulatory aspect is not binding because it usually regulated how Israel was to carry out the principle, but the revelatory, the revealed truth or principle behind the regulation, is timeless because it reveals the will of God. One of the main problems of modern Christianity is its ignorance of the Old Testament, whether by misuse or by simple avoidance. But once the Old Testament is studied in this way, one can see how the principles can also apply to us today.
The Old Testament gives us encouragement and teaches endurance. Therefore Paul prays that the God who gives encouragement and endurance grant us the spirit of unity (vv 5,6), so that with one heart and one mouth we may glorify God. Here is an important point: the praise should express the unity of the faith. Of, to put it another way, in glorifying God all the little walls that separate will fall down—if praise is biblical praise and not entertainment or show. A farmer in Iowa was once asked if all the fences didn’t mar the landscape. He agreed that they did, but also said that when the corn grew high they couldn’t see the fences. The differences between believers should be hidden by fruitful lives filled with praise.
Verse 7 gives some pretty basic advice: accept one another as Christ accepted you, and work patiently with one another as Christ works with you. This will change our attitudes to other people. Here are individuals for whom Jesus died—just as He did for me; and here are individuals that our Lord graciously accepts and develops. I am no better than they, and certainly do not have an inside track on divine favor. Here is the spirit of unity.
And there can be no superiority over Jew and Gentile issues, as the early Church had to learn. Paul’s reasoning is that the Son of God became a Jew to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, in order that the Gentiles (“all the families of the earth”) might glorify God for his mercy. In support of this Paul strings together a series of passages from the Old Testament that show God’s plans to include the Gentiles in the praise of God. His first passage is from Psalm 18:49 where praise to God comes among the Gentiles. He then uses Deuteronomy 32:43, Moses’ song with the panoramic view of God’s eternal program. Then he works in the shortest psalm, Psalm 117, which is a call for Jew and Gentile to praise the Lord. And then he adds Isaiah 11:10 to show that even though the Messiah will spring from Jesse, he will rule over the nations. It was clearly God’s plan that Gentiles should come to faith in the Messiah.
Paul stops to offer a benediction, for the main themes of his epistle end here. “The God of Hope” is a new and marvelous title for the Lord. The hope comes through the power of the Holy Spirit (5:2), and it will fill the believer with joy and peace. Only God can take people who are lost in sin and spiritually dead, save them by His grace, sanctify them by His Spirit, put them into service within the body of believers, and fill them with joy and peace. From beginning to end it is a work of grace by the power of the Spirit. It is up to us to respond by faith every step of the way, for faith accepts the word and the work of the Lord and transforms it into reality.
Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)