I remember being at a conference one time as elders listening to a pastor speak who was simply doing an excellent job at articulating the mission Christ has given to the church. He was engaging, told powerful stories, gave practical examples of how they were carrying this out as a church, and was Christ-honoring in all that he did. But what brings me to think of that talk again and again was one insight he mentioned during that conference. He noted that oftentimes we feel like we’ve made something very clear and said it multiple times, and feel that everyone must not only understand what you’re saying, but are tired of hearing it. But, he said, the reality is that it is only when we are to the point of getting weary of saying something again and again that everyone else is really beginning to get it.
And I feel like studying the text this week really confirmed that truth for me. I was sitting at my computer on Thursday morning, after having studied and outlined the text, when I was searching for a way to sum up what Paul was saying in this last half of Romans 14. I was throwing around different thoughts when finally one thought entered my head and I said to myself, “Yes, that’s it.” But immediately after thinking it, it dawned on me that this was not simply a summary of what Paul was saying in the last half of Romans 14; it was a summary of what Paul was saying in these last five chapters. It’s what he’s been saying again and again in these chapters.
The statement that came to my mind as a summary of Romans 14:13-23 is this: “It is not enough to ask where we have liberty as believers, we must also ask how we might best love our brothers and sisters.” In other words, we do not merely ask what we’re allowed to do as believer, we ask what is most loving. And, again, isn’t that what Paul has been saying for paragraph after paragraph since he started his exhortations in chapter 12? He wrote in 12:9-10, “Let love be genuine. . . . Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” Then he wrote in 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” And we’re going to see in chapter 15 (which we’ll look at next week) that Paul sees Christ’s example of loving and serving us as a model for us to love and seek the good of others. Therefore, it should not catch us off-guard that when Paul talks about issues of liberty and freedom in the Christian life, the overall guiding principle he employs for us is that, “We must work each decision we make (even in areas of freedom) through the grid of asking, ‘What is most loving for my brothers and sisters?’”
That is what we’re going to see in our text this morning. But before we get to what this means for us specifically, we need to understand some basic premises that Paul is working with in the text because he starts out with an exhortation in verse 13—not to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother—that I think only makes sense when you understand some other statements that Paul builds on as he goes through the text. So, let me start by noting a reality that Paul is building on in this text, and then we’ll move to the exhortation. One of Paul’s foundational truths that he’s dealing with in this text that undergirds his exhortations in this text is this truth:
If you think something is sinful and do it, you’re sinning
Let me actually say it with a little more precision. If you do something that you think is sinful, even if it’s not objectively sinful, you’re sinning. I gave the example last week of a toddler who is told by his mom one day not to walk into the living room. And the mom, telling the child not to walk into the living room, is giving that command for a specific reason. It’s because she has just swept in the living room, and there are piles of dust that she doesn’t want him to run through before she finishes the task of sweeping those piles up into the dust pan. But the child runs into the living room anyway, and he is sinning. He is disobeying his mother. We all know that.
However, now we fast forward to the next day, and mom is doing something in the room that connects to the living room, and the child looks at her and feels rebellious in his heart, thinking, “I’m going to run through the living room again.” Now, what the child doesn’t realize is that the command not to run into the living room is actually gone today. The only reason he couldn’t run into the living room the previous day is because there were dust piles in there, but today they’re gone. He would be completely free to run into the living room if he wanted.
But the problem is that the child doesn’t know that. He still thinks that running into the living room is a way to disobey his mom, so he looks at her, and with a desire to rebel against his mom’s authority, he runs into the living room.
You see, objectively, what that child did was not sinful. It was okay to run into the living room. But what that child did is nonetheless sin. Why? Because he thought it was rebellion. He intended to sin, and therefore it was sin for him to do that. I think we all understand that example. Well, Paul says the same thing is true of us as Christians. If we think something is sinful—whether it’s actually sinful or not—and we do it, then we have sinned.
Paul notes this two different times in the text. First, he writes in verse 14, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (v. 14). What Paul is saying is that in the Old Testament there were certain laws about what foods one could and could not eat. Some foods were deemed “clean,” and you could eat those. But other foods were deemed “unclean,” and you weren’t allowed to eat those. So, God’s people, in the Old Testament weren’t allowed to eat pork, among many other foods that we regularly enjoy as those on this side of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Well, when God the Son came and walked the earth, he declared explicitly that this category of “clean” and “unclean” foods was no longer in force. That law had been like a shadow, pointing to a substance, and it was no longer needed. As I’ve compared it before, it had been like training wheels on a bicycle (i.e. something that was always meant to be temporary). Specifically, we read of Jesus saying in Mark 7:18-19, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” And Mark added, “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
It is this truth that Paul is affirming again, noting that he knows and is fully convinced that there is no longer any food that in and of itself is unclean and forbidden from being eaten. Nonetheless, there were some believers in the church in Rome who hadn’t fully grasped the freedom that Jesus’ words had given them, and they still felt that it would be sinful to eat certain things. As we’ll see in verse 21, there was a group who likely felt that eating meat and drinking wine was off-limits for Christians, not realizing they were actually free to eat meat and drink wine.
And Paul is saying about them that if they think eating meat and drinking wine is sinful—even though it isn’t in and of itself—and they eat meat and drink wine, they’re actually sinning (like the toddler running into the living room). Again, he confirms this truth in verse 23, writing, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” That is to say, if you aren’t sure that eating or drinking a certain thing is okay and you think, “This could be sin,” and you proceed to eat or drink it, you’re sinning because you’re not eating or drinking from a place of having full faith that what you’re doing is Christ-honoring. You’re thinking, “This could very well be sin.” And so, again, you’re like the toddler running into the living room.
And I think we can easily understand why doing what you think is sinful is indeed sinful (even if it isn’t objectively sinful). By choosing to do what you think is sinful, you’re actually attempting to sin. You’re attempting to rebel against the Lord. You’re conditioning your heart to believe that it is acceptable, and good, and right to do those things that God forbids, just like the child who is conditioning his heart to rebel against his parents by running into the living room when he thinks he’s not allowed to do it. And this is the premise that Paul is working from in our text: If you think something is sinful and do it, you’re sinning.
This then leads to his main exhortation, which is this:
We should never tempt others to do what they think is sinful
Now, Paul uses different words in his exhortation, but the main idea is that we shouldn’t tempt our brothers and sisters to do what they think is sinful. The idea is that Paul doesn’t want the strong brothers to tempt the weak brothers to imitate their behavior precisely because the weak cannot eat and drink in faith, so to tempt them to mimic your behavior would be to tempt them to do something that would be sinful for them.
Paul writes, “Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (v. 13). That is, not only stop judging (a directive mainly aimed at the weak in the previous section) but also don’t put a temptation in the path of your brother that might cause him to fall. And even more strongly, Paul writes in verse 20, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.” Thus Paul is saying that of course we’re allowed to eat meat and drink wine without feeling like it’s sin. It simply isn’t sin. However, if by eating and drinking you’re causing your brother to stumble by imitating your behavior though he thinks it’s sinful, then you’re sinning by causing him to stumble.
But Paul also provides us with some more details as to why this is his exhortation. Let me note four of them.
1. If you tempt your brother to do what he believes is sinful, you could do damage to his soul.
Paul writes in verse 15, “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” Now, when the text says that your brother is “grieved,” commentators agree that Paul isn’t meaning that by seeing you eat meat and drink wine, it makes your brother who doesn’t feel freedom to eat or drink these things sad or irritated.i Rather, by “grieved,” Paul is referring to the grieving caused in the weaker brother as he feels pressure by your actions to imitate your behavior and does so but then is grieved in his conscience because he thinks he has just sinned. He doesn’t feel the freedom he truly has and his conscience condemns him when he imitates your exercise of this freedom.
And Paul adds that this could lead to him being destroyed. That is, if your weaker brother sins by doing what you know is okay but he feels is sinful, then that could lead to his heart being hardened and conscience being seared, which is turn could lead to more and more sin, which could lead to his eternal destruction. Thus, your flaunting of your freedom in front of this weak brother could pave the way for his condemnation. Thus, Paul is saying that it is simply unloving of us to be unwilling to restrain ourselves in front of our weaker brothers when failure to do so could lead to their condemnation. Surely we could do without meat and wine in front of our brother for the sake of his soul!
2. Your flaunting of your freedom could result in something good being reviled.
Paul writes in verse 16, “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” What does he mean by that? Well, let me give an example that I think might illustrate this. Clearly on this side of Christ’s death and resurrection, we’re allowed to eat pork. And that’s a rich blessing. In fact, when you sit down and eat bacon, my guess is that you thank God for such a tasty gift. It’s a good thing to do, and you’re honoring the Lord when you give him thanks for it and eat it.
But, let’s say that your brother thinks that eating bacon is sinful. And one day the two of you are together and you say, “Do you want some bacon because I’m frying some up right now?” And he says, “No, I think it’s a sin to eat bacon,” and you respond by saying, “What? Are you crazy? Great. More for me.” And then you start eating that bacon in front of him, letting him know that it’s one of the best foods on earth as you are devouring it, and he says, “Fine. Give me some of that bacon.” And, of course, he enjoys it. But when he gets home, he thinks, “Man, why did I sin by eating that bacon?” He’s violated his conscience.
Then, what’s more (because this is how sin works), he begins to say to himself, “Well, if I’ve already sinned by eating bacon, I might as well sin by …” and so it goes. And sometime later some gather with him to call him out of his sin, and they say, “Where did all of this start?” He answers that it was when he ate bacon with you, and they say, “See, that’s why eating bacon is so terrible for any Christian to do.”
Now, I know that feels silly. But it illustrates how your action of tempting your brother to violate his conscience has opened the door for others to speak of as evil what you know is good. And Paul is so careful not to allow freedoms to be condemned as sin that he sees this as a serious issue. That’s reason number two why we must not tempt our brother to sin by flaunting before him our freedoms. Next:
3. You don’t have to exercise your freedoms to honor the Lord, but you do have to pursue righteousness, peace, and joy.
Paul writes in verse 17, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” In other words, even though you’re free to eat meat and drink wine, you don’t have to eat or drink either of those things to honor Christ as your king. Christ’s rule in our lives isn’t manifested in making sure we eat or drink certain things. What Christ does demand, however, is that we pursue righteousness, peace, and joy. So, you can give up meat and wine in front of your brother and still honor the Lord. In fact, this leads us to one final reason:
4. If you pursue what is best for your brother, you’ll honor God and edify others.
Paul writes, “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (vv. 18-19). In other words, if you make the decision to say, “Hey, if you feel like it’s sinful to eat meat and drink wine, then I’m going to put those things away and not consume them before you because I don’t want you to feel tempted to join in with me and violate your conscience,” then the Lord will be pleased by that. And your brother will feel loved and encouraged. He will in fact speak well of you before others. All will be edified and Christ will be honored. And isn’t that more important to us that Christ is honored and our brothers and sisters edified than that we eat and drink whatever we want whenever we want? Which of us wouldn’t give up some food or drink for the edification and even salvation of our brothers and sisters? I would hope we all would.
But this doesn’t mean that Paul is telling us that we can never enjoy those freedoms that could be a stumbling block to our brothers and sisters who don’t feel the same freedoms we know that we have in Christ. Rather, Paul ends by noting:
You can still enjoy these freedoms privately or with other strong believers
After telling the Roman believers in verse 21 that it is sin to cause your brother to stumble, he writes in verse 22, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.” In other words, be grateful to God that he has opened your eyes to see the freedom he has given you. The fact that you know and see and understand that you can eat and drink and glorify God in it is a blessing. Others can’t. Their consciences convict them. They don’t have your faith. And the fact that they can’t eat and drink those things in faith would make their eating and drinking of those things an act of sin for them (v. 23).
So, give thanks to God for the blessing he’s given you. But that doesn’t mean you need to flaunt it before your weaker brothers and sisters. You can eat that meat in your own home, not in front of them, or only with other strong believers who also know it’s okay to eat meat.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to always be looking over your shoulder when you do anything, in case someone with an overly sensitive conscience might be tempted to imitate you. You don’t have to go to the grocery at 3:00 AM so as to never be seen by others. Paul, for example, when telling the Corinthians not to eat meat that may have been sacrificed to idols in front of their weaker brothers, he still exhorted them to go to the public market, buy meat without asking questions, and bring it home. And he didn’t suggest they only go to the market in the dark of night.ii
Rather, he told them that when they found themselves with another who shared with them their weak conscience, they should abstain from eating that meat in front of them. So it is with us. In other words, if we go back to the question we started with last week—How do we walk in unity while holding different convictions in matters of freedom?—we can now add to our commands not to mock or ridicule and not to judge that we also should not put ourselves in a place to tempt another to violate his or her conscience. We should love our brothers and sisters more than we love the freedom to eat and drink whatever we want whenever we want. And isn’t that a small price to pay when we serve one who literally gave his life for us and rose from the dead so that we might have life? Indeed it is. So let’s remember him now as we come to the table. Amen.
i See, for example, Doug Moo, Romans, NICNT, 854.
ii Nathan Webb helpfully pointed this out in my discussion with the interns this week.