Romans 14:13-23 - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Romans 14:13-23


The Counter Cultural Christian Life


Last Sunday morning we looked at the first half of this chapter. We focused upon how we are to relate to other Christians when we find ourselves in disagreement with them. We saw that Paul was not thinking about differences over the fundamentals of the faith and we noted that Paul did not consider a person to be a Christian unless he wholeheartedly embraced those fundamentals. As we thought about this we saw that genuine Christians shared so much in common even when they found themselves disagreeing with one another in other areas.

Paul wrote this entire chapter to help Christians know how they should behave towards one another and so we must continue now to think about our the way in which we are to live out our Christian lives and the attitudes and behaviour we are to adopt towards our Christian brothers and sisters.

I propose to look at the second half of this chapter under three headings:

  • What really matters

  • How to use our freedom

  • What to do with our conscience

What really matters
Have you ever been shopping in a supermarket and you turn down one of the aisles and there is someone on their mobile phone earnestly talking it seems about the price of two different brands of Baked Beans? When it's a man I tempted to think that he is some hen-pecked husband fearful of making an executive decision and getting it wrong. Of course it may be a serious attempt to secure the best bargain possible and we have proverbial sayings that would encourage such behaviour: "Take care of the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves."

Many of us will shop carefully to avoid paying over the odds and there is nothing wrong with this. However things seem to change when it comes to buying a house. Did you know that 40% of house purchasers have made their decision to buy before they've even got beyond the hallway of their new home?

Why is it that we can spend a long time comparing the relative price of baked beans which differ in coppers and so little time when it comes to that largest of all purchases a house to live in? Maybe it is a case of "penny-wise and pound-foolish".

I mention this as an example of what I'm labelling the mind-set of "majoring on the minors". It is something that I think we all tend to find very easy to slip into if we are not vigilant.
Jesus encountered this attitude when he met with the Scribes and Pharisees of his day. They mixed things up and got their priorities all wrong. They were punctilious in their attention to the detailed minutiae of the law but overlooked what was much more important in God's sight:

Mt.23:16-24 "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!"

The Christians in Rome were obviously in danger of doing something very similar. They were in danger of putting so much emphasis upon what they ate (or didn't eat) that they were acting as though food and drink was of the very essence of Christianity!

Paul had to remind them that this was not the case and he had to refocus their thinking. Having stated his conviction that no food was unclean in itself Paul quickly turned to declare that far more important principles were at stake:

Rom.14:17 "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."

Now perhaps we are not in danger of doing the exact same thing but are we in danger of overlooking the essential matters by our concern for something else?

Paul points out throughout this section what the most important things are in the life of a Christian. Since the Kingdom of God is bound up with spiritual matters so the Christian should give precedence to promoting genuine spiritual realities too:

  • v.13 the Christian is not to pass judgment on his fellow Christian but he is to judge it right not to hinder his brother in his discipleship (v.21).

  • v.15 the Christian is to take care not to destroy the one for whom Christ died, nor to destroy the work of God (v.20)

  • v.19 in his service the Christian is not merely to avoid causing trouble but to be active in promoting the good – "to pursue that which makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding."

  • v.18 the Christian who serves Christ in a way  pleases God and secures human approval too

  • v.14 this is what it means for the Christian to walk in love

  • v.22 the Christian will seek to live out his faith in a God-oriented manner

Jesus himself maintained these emphases in the way he dealt with men and women who so easily get side-tracked and get overly caught up with matters of lesser importance. Do you remember that man who called out to Jesus asking Jesus to intervene in order to resolve some family disputes over an inheritance? Let me read the account to you:

Lk.12:13-15 "Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.""

If the Kingdom of God really is about "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" shouldn't these matters be at the very centre of our thinking, the focus of our attention? Are they in your life? Are they in mine?

Christian Liberty – freedom for what?
The West we live in is dominated by a highly individualistic culture with an ever increasing emphasis being placed, it seems, on me-ism. It is not a new phenomena but one particular way in which human sinfulness expresses itself. The very first sin committed in the Garden of Eden came about because it promised so much to satisfy the individual:

Gen.3:6 "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate."

Adam and Eve sinned giving no thought to the evil into which they were plunging the entire human race. Men and women sin today (and in many quarters are encouraged to do so) without giving thought to anything other than their own immediate perceived interest. Restraints that were perhaps there in earlier times have been progressively removed with the result that we think far more about our rights than our duties or responsibilities and the cult of me-ism develops.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains 30 separate articles this is the first of them:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

It is the only article, apart from the Preamble, that suggests men have responsibilities as well as rights: men should act in a spirit of brotherhood. The preamble adds that men have the responsibility of promoting the Declaration! One further article mentions that our rights may be restricted if the exercise of them is detrimental to the rights of others.

Now I'm not knocking the Charter – I am glad to live in a country that for the most part cherishes human freedoms – but it is very lop-sided indeed.

Now the reason I'm mentioning this is that Christians are not immune from the values prevailing in the culture in which they live. Given the fact that Christians still have that self-centred bias of sin remaining in them it will hardly be surprising to find Christians buying into the me-ism of the day. We see it in the readiness to move easily from one local congregation to another: I don't like the minister and his preaching; I don't like the music; I don't like the way the people welcome/don't welcome me; I'm free after all I'm going somewhere else. Their decision, if declared at all, is usually announced as a fait accompli allowing no scope for discussion and sharing to take place. And so in the name of freedom no thought whatsoever is given to those left behind who may be disappointed, deceived, destroyed even by the one who thinks only about himself!

Paul knew all about the freedom and the exercise of Christian liberty. He also knew how some folk were flaunting their liberty and caring not a whit for the consequences they were having in the lives of others.

Paul did not write to these folk to tell them that they had got their doctrine wrong – on that point he sided with them, he knew that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat – but it was what they were doing with that doctrine that was the problem. The fact that there was nothing wrong with eating meat did not mean that they had to do so – they were free to eat and they were free to abstain there were other factors that they needed to take into consideration. But these folk it seems had been dazzled in the headlights of their freedom and they couldn't see that they had responsibilities too!

Paul's understanding of Christian liberty seems to be something very different from modern ideas concerning "my rights" Paul does not see the Christian as an isolated individual but as part of the church family where relationships exist and where promoting the interests of others in this family takes precedence over my selfish enjoyment of "my rights".

What a tragic state of affairs it is to be able to rightly understand and apply Christian teaching to relatively unimportant matters (in this instance the eating of meat) and yet be blind as to the more important concerns of love, of fostering the spiritual wellbeing or another and avoiding being a hindrance to another by our own selfish indulgence and that in the name of spirituality too!

Friends we are not to sneer at theological understanding – it is a good and wholesome thing and we all need to grow in this area. Just because it is possible to hold right views and act wrongly does not mean we are to give up on those views but rather that we must at the same time give more attention to right practice.

It is not an either/or situation – either the truth or the practice – but a both/and! Just as Jesus said to those scribes and Pharisees:

Mt.23:23 "These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

To deliberately limit the exercise of one's personal liberty in order to promote the benefit of another person may well go against the grain of our secular culture but it is just this sort of counter-cultural behaviour which is truly Christian.

Matters of Conscience
The third and final area I want us to think about together this morning is what Paul has to say about the role of conscience in our lives.

I want you think for a moment about a set of traffic lights. You know about traffic lights don't you – they order the flow of cars giving information to the drivers as to whether or not they can proceed and how they are to go about it.

The order of the lights is important:

Red – red and amber – green – amber – red.     

Now I wonder which lights you think might correspond to your conscience?

Red is pretty straightforward isn't it? Red means stop and when you conscience tells you "No" you should stop and not do what otherwise you might have done.

But does that mean that when your conscience doesn't show a simple red light that you are free to advance as if you were being given a green light? Well, no that is not really how Paul sees these things in Romans. Just because your own conscience is clear doesn't mean that you can automatically advance there are other factors to consider.

When your conscience doesn't show a red light I want to suggest that the Christian conscience has only advanced to the red and amber light. This still means stop though you are being told that soon you may be able to go. The red and amber is preparing you for action but you can't go yet, you must now as a Christian consider whether the behaviour you're about to undertake will cause another Christian to stumble.

We could suggest any number of possible scenarios: you're out on a shopping trip with a friend and you know they don't have much money to spare but won't accept charity – you'd like to go into a nice restaurant but you know your friend can't really afford it but would go in with you and probably spend money that would be better spent on something else. Now you're free to choose but in order to protect your friend you suggest instead a sandwich and a cup of tea in a cheaper café. You don't go into great lengths to explain why it is that you're doing things that way – you keep it between you and God – but instead of just focusing on your interests you are lovingly serving your friend and Christ!

Being able to do something doesn't mean an obligation is upon you to exercise your liberty in a self-centred way – you can as alternative exercise of your liberty say "no" to yourself too!

Just because your own conscience is in the clear about certain things doesn't necessarily mean that your brother is in the same happy position. Your personal history and his are undoubtedly different and you will each be products, to some extent of your pasts. A glass of wine with a meal may be no problem to you but to the brother who comes from an alcoholic past his conscience may well be troubled. So you don't put a glass in front of him and pressurise him to join with you in what is truly for you an innocent matter. Your example and your urging may lead to him joining you and messing up his life all over again. How would you feel if you saw him drunk in the gutter the following week – all because you couldn't forgo the pleasure of one glass of wine with your meal that day!

The Christian must not put pressure either upon himself or upon another to go against conscience, as Luther famously declared in front of the Diet of Worms in 1524 "to go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

And interestingly Paul presses the Christian to respect that red light of conscience even when the conscience is poorly informed and is forbidding things that in themselves are legitimate. This is how Paul put it:

Rom.14:14 "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."


Rom.14:23 "whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin."

It doesn't matter that the conscience might have been misinformed, for a person to act against conscience is to do something he believes to be wrong and demonstrates a rebellious spirit for which God holds him responsible. No-one can go against conscience and then try to argue that his conscience had been wrong all along – in doing what his conscience said was wrong the man has shown that the desire of his heart has been to be a deliberate wrong-doer.

Now if you see clearly that your friend's conscience is overly sensitive you may wish to try to bring more light to him but you must not encourage him to go against his conscience. How later will he know when he should to listen to his conscience or not?

Perhaps for completeness sake we should add that conscience doesn't only err by sometimes making us regard as unlawful what is in fact lawful, our consciences can sometimes be silent when they really ought to be flashing those red lights at us. As it is possible to have an overly scrupulous conscience it is possible to have a seared one too! But that is not Paul's concern here.

I said earlier that Paul does not see the Christian as an isolated individual but as fully functioning member of the church family. His actions and attitudes don't only affect him alone they affect others too and he is to keep this in mind:

John Donne wrote his famous poem "No Man Is An Island" about humanity as a whole; if what he wrote was true of mankind as a whole how much more so if applied to the church!

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom  the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

May God keep us from self-centred living and grant us to use our freedoms wisely so that we may "pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding".


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