The liberty we are to enjoy - Romans 14:1 - 15:13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
You may know the story from the USA about a man who was walking through the city late one evening when he came across another man about to jump off a bridge. The walker takes up the story. I said: "Wait a minute, don't you believe in God?" He said: "Yes, I do believe in God." I said, "Really? Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said: "A Christian." I said: "Me too. Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" He said: "I'm a Protestant." I said: "Really? What denomination?" He said: "Baptist." I said: "Me too. Southern or Northern?" He said: "Northern." I said: "Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said: "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said: "Wow! Me too. Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist." I said: "Me too. This is a co incidence! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me too, this is incredible! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said: "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said: "What? You evil heretic!" and I pushed him off the bridge.
If there's one thing that seems to be a persistent thorn in the flesh in the side of the Christian church, it's Christians arguing amongst themselves. You'll find it in every breed of church around, whether it be Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Free Independent. Wherever you are, Christians have a habit of arguing amongst themselves. And what is most distressing is that these arguments are often not so much over the essentials of the gospel, matters of great importance; rather they are over matters of minor or secondary importance. And they are arguments that are frequently bitter and fierce leading to pain and divisions and disillusionment. Churches are split, people are hurt and most sad of all, God's name is dishonoured.
But it is somewhat refreshing to discover that the apostle Paul no less faced exactly this situation in his ministry. It was happening in the church in Rome. The church was being divided into factions over a small matter of secondary importance. And chapters 14 and 15 of the letter to the Romans is Paul's teaching on how to handle such matters. So what exactly was the problem? Well Paul explains the situation in chapter 14 verse 2: "One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables." And again in verse 5: "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike." In short the dispute was a cultural and lifestyle issue. The Roman church was made up of non Jewish and Jewish converts. And the Jews had very strict laws governing what they were to eat, and what days were special in their calendars. And when they became Christians some of them carried with them those cultural taboos. They would continue to eat only kosher meat, or to be on the safe side, they would give up meat altogether, and they'd continue to observe Sabbaths and New Moon festivals and the like. The issue was a cultural and lifestyle issue. These Jews weren't insisting that to be a real Christian you had to do these things to get into God's good books. That of course would be wrong and heretical. Paul is very strong in other letters on false teachers who insisted on non Jews doing these things in order to become Christians. But that's not the issue here. Here the issue is one of cultural preference. These Jewish Christians had always been brought up to eat kosher meat, and they continued to do so.
But the problem came when the Gentiles, the non Jewish Christians, and perhaps some liberated Jews as well, tried to insist that the Jews eat ordinary meat and give up their special days. Paul says in verse 10 that they are judging their Jewish brothers and looking down on them. Now these Gentiles are what Paul calls the strong. They are strong in the sense that they, like Paul, know that all food is OK to eat, now that Jesus has come. Food laws don't apply anymore. And those whose cultural sensibilities prevent them from eating ordinary meat are weak, says Paul. Now by that he doesn't mean that they are morally weak or weak characters. Rather that they have yet to become sufficiently mature in their faith to see that food laws are now irrelevant. So on the one hand there were some saying, "eat anything", and forcing their opinions on others. And on the other hand, there were some who were saying, "No, let us eat what we want. And besides you are not following the law according to how we see it!" So, there was a real rumpus in the Roman church the cultural taboos. And it was causing Christian brothers and sisters to fall out. And the worst thing was that it was not a primary issue. It wasn't that the gospel was at stake in this particular issue. Rather, they were fighting over trivial food laws, cultural taboos, what Paul calls in verse 1 "disputable matters", and it was threatening to break up the church.
So what does Paul advise? Well it's very important as we come to this passage to remember the context of these chapters in the scheme of Paul's argument. If you remember for the whole of chapters 1-11 Paul has been explaining the mercies of God, how God has rescued us from his judgement through his Son's death on the cross. And now, in the light of that mercy, Paul in chapters 12-16 is teaching us how to live. We are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God. And that will mean all sorts of things in practice, including how we conduct ourselves as citizens in the state, as we saw last week, and also not least how we conduct ourselves together as God's family, as his people, in the local church, in our particular congregation. And what quality above all is to mark the Christian church? Well chapter 13 v 10 makes that abundantly clear. "Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfilment of the law." Love is the quality that is to be the mark of the Christian church.
And so what is the solution for this dispute in Romans 14-15? Well in a word it is love. A loving attitude towards Christians with whom we disagree, and a gracious acceptance of them. Verse 1: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters." And it's not just the strong who are the targets, because Paul concludes the argument in chapter 15 v 7 directing it at everyone: "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God." That's Paul's principle. Loving acceptance of everyone. Because that is what it means in nitty gritty practice. That is what it means for us to live in the light of the mercies of God in the life of the local church. It will mean loving patience and grace towards those with whom we disagree. And notice that what Paul has in mind is "disputable matters." We'll see exactly what he means by that in a moment, but for the time being in those issues which are of minor and secondary importance, we are to lay aside our prejudices and love one another.
Now before we think that this chapter is a total irrelevance to us with it's talk of vegetables and holy days, then please think again. Because one of the biggest dangers a church can face is not so much pressures from without, but rather pressures from within. More often than not churches are destroyed from within, often as a result of squabbles over what are really minor and secondary issues, but which are elevated to being matters of soundness or doctrinal orthodoxy. And we here at St. John's need to be aware of the dangers of disunity and fragmentation. For Paul says in Ephesians 4 that we are to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Yes we are united around the gospel, but we'll need to work at maintaining that unity. Wonderfully we are all different, and here at St. John's there is a lovely blend of cultural, social, and denominational flavours. And it would be so easy for those differences to become reasons for arguments and factions. But Paul urges in this chapter to lay aside our minor differences and accept one another in love. It's primarily a chapter about how we interact in our particular church fellowship, not so much with other churches, but within our own church. Because if we do not display the marks of the gospel in our church fellowship, and supremely that of love, then our confession of faith is not worth the breath its spoken with. Because by our actions we would be denying our words. So Paul asks us a very simple question this evening. How warmly do we welcome those with whom we disagree? Can we accept them warmly in love as fellow Christians? What is our attitude to other Christians in the church family, perhaps those we like less, or find it difficult to get on with. Are we going to love them unconditionally, despite our differences? Are will we proudly stand aloof thinking we're the strong ones, and they need to grow up. That's the challenge for us this evening for our church fellowship. Accept one another, says Paul as Christ has accepted you. And so for the rest of our time we're going to look at three motivations for doing just that, accepting one another. Now it's a long chapter and we've not got time to look at the details. This is really just the bare bones for us to go away and think about. So why should we accept one another in love? Because of:
1) The Past Sacrifice
2) The Future Reckoning
3) The Present Challenge
1) The Past Sacrifice
So the first motivation to accept one another is because of the past sacrifice. And the past sacrifice that Paul has in mind is the sacrifice of Jesus. Because at a number of points in his argument Paul reminds his readers just what it cost for God to rescue his people from their sins. Chapter 14 verse 15: "If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died." You can imagine the scene can't you? Brutus wants to have a BBQ. He's invited all his mates over because they are going to watch Gladiators on TV later that evening. Brutus has got in all the chunkiest bits of steak, pork sausages and ribs he can find. So he says to his Jewish Christian friend in church: "Hey, Boaz, will you come to my BBQ this evening." "Yes, but Brutus, you know I don't eat pork. It goes against my culture. In all good conscience I cannot eat your pork sausages and ribs." "Oh don't worry about it," says Brutus. "I'll get kosher stuff!" But at the BBQ, what should they all be eating, but pork sausages and ribs. And Boaz is deeply offended. "Oh Boaz!", says Brutus. "You're such a wet fish. You're a Christian now. Chill out! You really are a pathetic excuse for a Christian aren't you!" But Paul says that sort of insensitivity to a Christian's scruples in these matters is deeply unloving. How dare you ride rough shod over someone else's feelings like that, he's saying. In fact, you can actually damage someone's faith like that. Because later on in verse 23, Paul will argue that to go against your conscience, which you have decided before God on a particular matter is to sin. You force a person to go against his conscience and you are causing them to sin. Yes you, as the strong in faith, might think it's weak mindedness on the other person's part. Yes you might think they are in the wrong. Yes you might impatiently think to yourself: "Oh come on grow up. Anyone with an ounce of Christian faith wouldn't think in such and such a way." But actually you are being very unloving. In fact, says Paul, you're the one who should grow up, because you are not accepting them in love. And what's interesting is that Paul does actually think the weak are wrong to have these scruples, because the gospel frees us from food laws. But because it's of secondary importance, he won't impose his own liberated views upon them and force them to go against consciences. Because in doing that he'd be very unloving. And it is all the more serious given the fact that Jesus died for them.
And he makes the same point in chapter 15 verse 1: "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: 'The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.'" Can you see how the cross is the model for how we are to deal with each other in the local church? Not only is every individual so precious to God that he was willing to send his Son to die for them. But also Jesus himself shows us by his own self sacrifice that we should not live to please ourselves, but others. So how dare we seek to impose our views on others when they are in matters that are of secondary importance. How dare we offend the conscience of those for whom Christ died. If Jesus thought these people were precious enough to die for, if he thought they were important enough to pour his own blood for, then what arrogance it is of ours to offend their consciences, presume they don't really matter, and do them damage. It's totally unloving and totally self centred. No, we're to recall Jesus' sacrifice for us as a motivation to love and accept others.
Now of course, one of the big questions we no doubt want to ask is how we distinguish between matters of primary and secondary importance. OK, Paul here decrees that food laws and Sabbaths are secondary and must be put aside for the sake of unity, but how do we decide? Because all too often Christians believe that their point of view is the right one, and is important. Even the greatest Christians can fall into that trap. For example, Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker were two of the most well known preachers in the Victorian era. In their early days they were good friends and they would preach in each others' pulpits. But one time they had a disagreement, and the reports got into the papers. Spurgeon accused Parker of being unspiritual because he attended the theatre. Spurgeon on the other hand smoked cigars, a practice some Christians today might condemn. On one occasion when someone questioned Spurgeon on his cigar smoking he said that he didn't smoke to excess. When he was asked to explain, he said it meant he didn't smoke more than two at a time. What's sad though is that two excellent and godly men fell out over what seemed like such a trivial issue.
So how do we decide what's important? Well Paul hints at the answer in 15 v 4: "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." It's through the Scriptures that we can be taught. So what the Bible holds as important we are to hold as important. What the Bible is silent on or at the most indifferent on, cannot be that important. So that is to be the rule of thumb. And so as we look out on our congregation here, I trust we'll be united on the major tenets of the gospel. The exclusivity of Jesus, the centrality of the cross, the reality of heaven and hell, the authority of the Bible. But there will be a whole host of issues where we will have differences of opinion. Some will be on doctrine, things like the exact nature of Jesus' return, the precise nature of the gifts of the Spirit. But they are not central, and there is room for humble disagreement. There will be differences of opinion on a whole host of practical issues, like music, dress codes, body piercing, church government, sport, money, alcohol, or Bible translations to name but a few. The list is endless. But woe betide us if we judge others and condemn our brothers and sisters in Christ on a secondary issue. Let us never make those issues the standard of orthodoxy.
But, we say, I'd never do that. Would we not? If you see someone who you think isn't wearing quite the right clothes for church, don't you feel yourself getting worked up? If we know someone has a different view on alcohol, can you hear yourself thinking: "A little naaren't they, not drinking?" Someone has a view different to yours on the exact nature of Jesus' return. "A bit unsound aren't they?" Woe betide us if we make our own cultural or lifestyle standards the mark for someone else. For where we do that we are being unloving, and casting aspersions on those for whom Christ died. And where we disagree over what is even primary and what is secondary, then again we need to humble ourselves under Scripture and check out the Scriptures to see what they are saying on a given issue. It maybe that we are wrong and we will need to change. Because true humility is the willingness to change and grow more like Christ in mind and action. As one puritan writer put it: "In essentials, unity. In non essentials, liberty. And in all things, charity." And let the past sacrifice of Christ be a motivation and model to accepting one another in love.
2) The Future Reckoning
But Paul gives us another motivation for accepting others, and that is the future reckoning. Chapter 14 v 10: "You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written: ''As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'' So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way." Paul is reminding us here of the truth that every person will actually have to stand before God and give an account of himself. We will all stand before God's judgement seat, says Paul. Now of course for the Christian, this is not a judgement to fear. This is not a judgement at which we will be condemned, because we know that Jesus has already taken that condemnation for us. But nevertheless we will all stand before God to give an account for the way we have served him. Not condemnation but evaluation.
It's a sobering reminder that we are in no position to judge others when we ourselves will face God's bar of justice. And what each of us needs, and what each of us can have is mercy. It reminds me of the story of the well to do lady who was having her portrait done, and she said to the young artist: "Young man, I hope you will do me justice." To which the artist replied: "Madam, at your age, what you need is not justice, but mercy!" And that is what each of us needs! We deserve God's full and perfect justice, but through the cross of Christ we find mercy and grace. But when we come to stand before God, forgiven of our sins, we will still have to give an account of the way we have treated others and used our gifts. So how stupid it is then to look judgmentally down on others who will also stand before God on judgment day. What right do we have to pass judgement when we ourselves will stand before God.
Now of course he's not saying that we can never make any judgements in this life. The NT is very clear that we do need to make judgements on, for instance, false teachers. When it comes to key issues concerning the gospel, we must make judgements. Rather what he's warning us against is judgementalism, that attitude which looks down on fellow Christians in the congregation, which snootily says or thinks, "I'm better than him or her!". Don't do that, says Paul, because we will all have to stand before God.
And once again the application is very powerful. Now it maybe you have been thinking all the way through this sermon that this doesn't apply to you. You don't impose your views on others. You are happy to live and let live in the congregation. Of course people can have different views if they want. But actually I challenge anyone here to say that they are never judgemental towards others in their hearts. There is a much broader application in this passage than simply to arguments over disputable things. Fundamentally it is about how we treat one another in the local church family. It's so easy, isn't it, to compare ourselves with others. "Oh, I'm better than them! I do more than them in the church. I do such and such, I'm on this committee, I'm involved in this activity. They aren't! I'd never do what they did last week! I'd never say what they said last week!" Not one of us, me included, are totally free from that judgemental spirit which creeps into our hearts. That attitude which puts ourselves above others and compares ourselves with others, usually favourably! And we need to repent of it. Because, says Paul, we'll all stand before God's judgement seat. So what right do we have to pass judgement on others. Accept one another, because of the future reckoning.
3) The Present Challenge
The past sacrifice, the future reckoning, and finally the present challenge. And what is the present challenge? It's to put self second, and put the gospel first. Put self second. See what Paul says in chapter 14 v 19: "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall." Paul is saying that we need to put our own preferences and desires second to others who may be offended by our actions. And it is possible to destroy the work of God, he says, if we arrogantly pursue our own personal self interest. Churches can be split, Christian brothers and sisters hurt and great harm done to the cause of Christ. Rather it's better to lay aside what we are happy to do for the sake of others. For example I have a good Christian friend who has decided that it is not right for him to drink alcohol for various personal reasons. But it would be totally ungodly for me to impose my own views on him and force him to drink. I'm perfectly happy to drink and I'm perfectly happy not to drink. It's not a gospel issue, therefore I must lay aside my personal preferences for his sake and respect his decision. What right do I have to impose my views on him on an issue which is of secondary importance? And it's all the more important in a church fellowship to do the godly thing and not cause others to stumble. Because, says Paul, our goal should not be self interest, but peace and mutual edification. In other words, my primary interest in the church family will be what builds others up, not tears other down. And if that were the motto of every person here, then what a great beacon for the gospel our church would be.
And when self is second, then we are to be put the gospel first. And that is why Paul ends the whole discussion in the way he does. Because in chapter 15 vv 8 to the end, Paul seems to go finish with a digression on Jew-Gentile relations. But actually it is key to his argument, not just in this passage, but in the whole letter. Because what he is showing us is that the OT promises that both the Jew and the Gentile, non Jews like most of us, are the recipients of the gospel promises. In other words, he is saying that God's good news is for us all. It is more important than minor disagreements and personal scruples. And when that gospel perspective is put first in a church fellowship then all the small issues over which we may well have differences of opinion pale into insignificance. When we put the gospel first as a church, when we seek to reach our community and the people around us with the gospel of Christ, then we all have one primary focus, which is the evangelisation of our area and the glory of God. And that is where our focus is to be. We'll just be too busy to worry about minor disagreements. But when we lose that gospel focus, then all the disagreements bubble to the surface. We'll have nothing better to do than argue over minor issues. And then the secondary becomes primary and the primary becomes secondary.
But notice who it is that can bring about such unity and peace in the church family. We cannot do it on our own. Chapter 15 verse 13 it is God. Because significantly the last thing Paul says on this issue is a prayer! Paul prays that God would fill us with joy and peace as we trust in him, so that we might overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. So let us make that our prayer as we seek to serve God by presenting his gospel to the needy world around us. And may we be a fellowship who accepts each other in love, remembering the past sacrifice of Jesus, the future reckoning of judgement day, and the present challenge to put self second and the gospel first. And may we do it all for God's glory!
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