Romans 14: The Law of Liberty

In Ephesians 2:14-18, we read about how God reconciled not only sinners to Himself but also Jews and Gentiles together. God has and is calling for all peoples everywhere to repent and get into a right relationship with Him, and that is glorious! It is amazing that the Gospel can unite all peoples together. Regardless of background, class, upbringing, etc.

However, because the body of Christ is diverse, there will be differences in what we do in personal practice. So, how do we maintain love and unity when we differ in personal convictions? Paul in Romans 14 shows us the way.  

Before we begin, this chapter can be broken down into two parts: “The Law of Liberty” (vv. 1-13) and the “Law of Love” (vv.14-23). Each section has two major conclusions or takeaways for us. This morning we will examine the first major division and, Lord willing, next week examine the second.

The Weak and Strong in Faith:

The chapter begins with. “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (Rom. 14:1). The idea here is to receive into full fellowship (full sharing and joint participation in Christ) a brother or sister who has differing opinions on things that have no bearing on their (or your) standing before God. The NASB ’95 translates this passage as, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.”

“For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables” (Rom. 14:2).  “Believes” in this verse carries the idea of to “be of opinion” (Mounce). And here we have the first example of what Paul has in mind as a matter of opinion or a “doubtful thing.” Some believed they could eat all things (meat sacrificed to idols, food sold in the market, vegetables, etc.), while others were troubled in their consciences about doing such things and ate only vegetables. Those who believed they could eat all things didn’t just have the belief that they could, but they believed rightly they could (Rom. 14:14). They had a more mature understanding of liberty in Christ allowed them to do. And Paul saw himself in this group (Rom. 14:14 cf. 1 Cor. 8:1-4).

On the other hand, the weak brother did not have this knowledge. His lack of knowledge could be for many possible reasons, including that they had yet to grow in their understanding. Or, they had yet to have the conviction that eating all things was okay. Consider two possible Christians at the church at Rome.

  • The Jewish Christian. They have spent their entire lives distinguishing between the clean and the unclean. And when one has done something like that for their whole life, that is a habit that is hard to break. They might know that all things are clean, but they cannot bring themselves to eat an animal that was once considered unclean. It feels wrong. It hasn’t become a conviction.
  • The Gentile Christian. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:4-7 that some converts had grown up with the knowledge of idols until their conversion. That they may not know, yet there’s no such thing as an idol. So, for them, to eat meat sacrificed to idols is to participate in their worship and thus dishonor God. They refrain from eating meat to honor God by not participating in idolatry.

It is not a stretch of the imagination to see how a mature Jew or Gentile Christian might want to accept a weaker one to set them straight on this issue. Or how they might look down on them for their “immature faith.” But, Paul says to the strong group, hold up there.

God Receives Him:

How do we maintain unity when some feel strongly about not eating meat? “Let not him who eats despise him who does not ear and let him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him” (Rom. 14:3). The receiving here is the same as in verse one, a full fellowship. So, Paul is saying this because God is in full fellowship with the one who eats and the one who does not eat do not despise or judge each other.

We are not to pass judgment on each other over opinions. The judgment under consideration is a judgment with the intent to condemn. That is putting yourself in God’s place. James dealt with this kind of judging in James 4:11-12, where he says, “There is one Lawgiver [and judge], who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” Jack Cottrell notes on this verse that “Paul’s question is a strong rebuke, and it reveals the presumptuousness of any Christian who either ridicules the weak or condemns the strong for following his conscience in the area of opinions” (Cottrell 1996, 500).

“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convicted in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). The other example Paul gives is the observation of days. The brethren that were doing so were observing out of personal conviction and practice, not out of religious obedience (Paul condemns such practices in Galatians 4:9-11). Thanksgiving would be a good example of many Christians’ observing a day above another as a personal practice without binding it on others. Paul adds the qualifier, though, that if we are going to observe a day (or none for that matter), know why you are doing so.

“He who observes a day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord, he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks” (Rom. 14:6). The one who does not have the knowledge to eat all things honors God by not violating his conscience and likewise to the one who can eat all things. The one who observes or does not observe days does so to honor God.

We Are the Lords:

The first takeaway in this chapter is we live to please God, not ourselves. There was a very real problem of accepting one who had differing opinions to “disputes over doubtful things” (Rom. 14:1) simply to win them over to “their position.” Which to me, if it is over something that does not matter what is the purpose of winning them over if not to feel that you’ve “straighten them out.”

Hence, Paul’s first takeaway is to remind them, and us, that the whole faith is not about us; it is about God. He does so by saying, “for none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8). One writer made this apt observation, “No part of our life or death, not even our seemingly insignificant opinions about matters of indifference, is outside the boundaries of our responsibility to our Lord” (Cottrell 1996, 502). And here is the ironic application, God’s explicitly stated law governs matters of opinion.

Therefore, let us not cause each other to Stumble:

We are God’s, whether we live or die because Christ “died and rose again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:9). Paul then doubles down on his point back in verse four. Why are you judging each other’s opinions? We are all going to stand before God and give an account in judgment, so do you want to answer for your unloving conduct? Paul then quotes Isaiah 45:23, saying, “As I live, says the LORD, every kneed shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”

The second conclusion in the chapter is found in Romans 14:13, “Therefore let us not judge one another, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brothers’ way.” Instead of accepting each other to debate opinions, let us rather, Paul says, determine not to cause each other to violate our consciences. The Apostle applies this point in 1 Corinthians 8:1-9 regarding the question of food again. In short, if I am mature (have knowledge that gives me liberty), but I do not consider my brother who doesn’t, and I press ahead with my liberty, thus risking him to violate his conscience, my liberty has become sin.

Conclusion:

Lord willing, we will cover the second half of the chapter next Lord’s Day. This morning, what we need to understand is this. We may at times differ on things of opinion and practice, things that do not commend or condemn us before God. When we find ourselves in such disagreements, we need to remember what God has said about our liberty in Christ.

1.) All Christians live and die to God and endeavor to live lives that give Him all glory and honor (Rom. 14:7-8).

2.) Because of that, I ought not to pass judgment about my brothers standing before God based on their opinions (Rom. 14:13a).

3.) And instead of judging, I need to resolve to be a help and not a hindrance to my brethren (Rom. 14:13b).

Works Cited

Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Ro 14:4.

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