I. Church Fellowship assumes that it will contain a mixture of the mature and the immature. Romans 14:1-4
A. Christians, newly claimed from the world by the new birth, whose only mark of discipleship is a hearty faith in the completed work of Christ and a desire to turn from sin wherever it appears, are to be received into the fellowship of the church. Paul is clear that one should not involve them in disputations. This can be taken to mean that they are not qualified as new Christians to make decisions on issues of doctrinal dispute. Another interpretation could be that they are not to be received with a view to judging their maturity and placing doubtful requirements on them as indications of spirituality. That approach to a new believer often results in the development of a moralistic and legalistic style of sanctification that focuses on externals and shuts off substantial spiritual growth. Both might be implied, but in this context it seems that the latter view is more likely.
B. Verses 2, 3: The example that Paul gives concerns scruples about eating. One person that is doctrinally mature knows that God has created all things and that even the animal kingdom as subject to humanity is valid for food. See 1 Timothy 4:4 for Paul’s vindication of this view and see Peter’s experience in Acts 9:9-16. Jesus spoke to it also in Mark 7:19 ESV “(Thus he declared all foods clean.)” Theologically in Paul’s discussion, this is the more knowledgeable view. Another person, because of something in his background may feel uncertain that he should eat anything that has had animal life and thus confines himself to vegetables. Though eating meat is perfectly acceptable, one does not create a theological necessity of eating meat for one’s diet. The carnivore is not, in principle, superior to the herbivore. By the same token, the vegetable-eater must not condemn the one that feels perfectly at ease in conscience eating flesh along with his salad. Unless one enthrones a kind of dualism as a theological necessity governing the diets of people, both of these options are perfectly acceptable for one’s personal practice. Neither should feel that the other is wrong. Greater strictness in diet does not translate to superior spirituality. Freedom in diet does not mean superior faith in Christ. God has welcomed both on a ground completely distinct from the substance of one’s diet.
C. Verse 4: All Christians must realize that we have a master to whom we answer in all matters. Under God, no Christian is the servant of another so as to answer to him for those issues that are strictly matters of conscience. We have been set free from all human regulations, and therefore, all human judgment on these kinds of matters; our freedom however, is not a freedom for pursuing the flesh and its manifestations, for this indeed is sin; nor is our freedom an occasion for detachment from the well-being of others but we are by love to serve one another. (Galatians 5:13) We must realize that the Lord himself will direct the steps of his people to lead them into holiness through the means of preaching, worship, the ordinances, and heavenly discipline. He will lose none of his people but will bring them finally to glory and their lives will result in praise and glory and honor at His appearing (Philippians 1:11).
II. People will reach different convictions concerning personal religious practice on issues unregulated by divine revelation. Romans 14:5, 6
A. Verses 5, 6a: The esteeming of days concerns special observances throughout the year, whether religious or civil, in which a Christian may or may not participate without any negative reflection on the sufficiency of the gospel. Paul had in mind specifically those days as a part of the Jewish calendar that were designed to give gratitude to God for his watching over his people and providing for them. Some Jewish Christian were insistent on maintaining that rhythm of national life and were seeking to impose these on Gentile Christian Colossians 2:16 refers to this; “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or sabbath days.”
- Certain special Sabbaths prescribed in the Old Testament were clearly irrelevant to the New Covenant community (Levitical 23:24, 32). Some might, however, still be a matter of observance, recalling special events in the life of the nation of Israel without any denial of Christ’s having fulfilled all the types and offices of the Old Covenant (e.g. Feast of Trumpets). There can be no doubt that a Christian could not go back to the sacrificial system without denying the priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 10:1-14) and thus the Sabbath connected with the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:32) would be necessarily abolished. Days in themselves, however, that commemorate historical events or special holidays (Acts 20:6, 16) could be observed without a denial of Christ’s perfect fulfillment of the sacrifices. Some Christians feel that it is a compromise to celebrate special religious days such as Christmas or Easter and that national holidays such as the fourth of July or even Thanksgiving should not be given any special significance. One may forego celebrating these with no loss to his spiritual life. On the other hand, one may celebrate them, sanctify them, and observe them in honor of the Lord.
- Paul is not talking about the day of the week for Christian worship as negotiable according to conscience.
- The ESV Study Bible on this verse represents the thinking of many evangelicals in saying, “The weak thought some days were more important than others. Given the Jewish background here (see verse 14,) the day that is supremely in view is certainly the Sabbath. The strong think every day is the same. Both views are permissible. Each person must follow his own conscience. What is remarkable is that the Sabbath is no longer a binding commitment for Paul but a matter of one’s personal conviction.”
- Ironically, to impute a Sabbath commitment to weakness in “the faith” calls into question some of the most profound and edifying thinkers in the history of the Christian church. For example, the Second London Confession has a chapter of eight paragraphs devoted to “Religious worship and the Sabbath Day.” One of its phrases says that the Sabbath “from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week which is called the Lord’s Day; and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath; the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.”
- The Sabbath as a moral proposition was instituted at creation in recognition of God’s completed work (Genesis 2:3). Divine sovereignty over creation, its goodness as a reflection of his glory in all of its levels of existence, and his perfect effecting of a covenantal purpose are all embedded within the institution of the Sabbath. It is precisely at the point of rejecting this reality within creation as enforced by regular Sabbath observance that provides the most poignant path of rebellion for fallen humanity: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” The Sabbath was given in the framework of the moral duties of man to maintain that recognition but it quickly was ignored so that “even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculation, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:20, 21). From this refusal of honoring God, the formal recognition of God’s creation rights, flowed increasingly perverse idolatry, sexual perversions of augmented malignity, and the breaking of al the commandments written on the heart.
- The Sabbath is set within this moral framework as the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments accompanied by reinforcements (Exodus 20:8-11). It is an insuperable contextual difficulty to say that the commandment would be relegated to the category of ceremonial, a commandment to be dispensed with and subjected to pure relativity by making it a matter of individual conscience. This is strikingly the case when we view its vital connection to the worship and honoring of God with a timely recognition of his ownership of the world, the world’s being brought into existence for his own purpose, and as a perpetual recognition of the character of God’s finished work as a manifestation of his glory.
- It was given particular covenantal status in Israel. For enforcing its close observance in order to establish the people as God’s special possession, it was protected with certain civil and ceremonial requirements, even unto death (Exodus 31:14, 15; Numbers 15:32-36). Other days also were called sabbaths related to the recognition of historical events in the life of Israel (Leviticus 23:39). Others would be established in anticipation of the final Sabbath observance that would be accomplished by Christ and then recognized in perpetuity by his people (Leviticus 16:29-34). Temporary measures would be made obsolete with a new manner of identifying the people of God and moral judgments would be fulfilled as established in the life of Christ and brought to perfection by his complete work of atonement (John 2:18-22; 3:1-8; 4:21-26; Galatians 3:13, 14; Philippians 3:3). These fulfillments, however, of both the ceremonial and moral components of the commandments do not negate the fundamentally moral character of the fourth commandment. It is still a testimony to the covenantal faithfulness of God and the consequent claim that he has on the affections of all people, both by way of creation and of redemption.
- Greater than the work of creation is the work of redemption. On that fait accompli consummated by Christ is based the entirety of the new creation, both in its people and the glory of its place (2 Peter 3:11-13). The moral nature of giving perpetual and timely recognition and worship in light of this completed work still abides. On the first day of the week, the full acceptance of Christ’s work of new creation was announced by the resurrection—“declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. . . . Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:4; 15:57). If the worship of the God of creation was revealed to be of moral necessity through the commandment, how much more should redemptive grace be insinuated in that commandment as the fountain from which all true worship flows.
- We are in fact commanded to observe that day along with all that are within the body. Immediately, the disciples began to come together on the first day of the week (John 20:19, 26). Paul assumes that the church as a congregation is meeting together (1 Corinthians 5:4; 11:18, 20; 14:26) at some established time. That this established time in the first day is confirmed by the practice of the church at Troas (Acts 20:7 – “Now on the first day of the week when the disciples came together-“). This is consistent with his instruction to the Corinthian church when he points to the “first day of the week” as the time when they would be together (1 Corinthians 16:1) in order to collect their offering. Unless the apostles, or the church, had assumed an unauthorized power to designate such an important aspect of the new covenant community apart from divine warrant, we can look upon the first day of the week as the time when the regulated elements of corporate church life were to be practiced.
- Certain civil and ceremonial applications were given to Israel as a nation that no longer are intrinsic to it morally. The symbolic aspect of the seventh day has been changed to the first in light of reasons given above, though the intrinsic moral principle of honoring God as sovereign and covenantally possessive of his people still stands. Also, violation does not call for capital punishment or other civil applications, for the functioning of the new community of God transcends the legal codes of the nations.
- These aspects of community spiritual life are surely commanded in Hebrews that we might encourage one another and hear the word together. If this were a simple matter of individual conscience the writer of Hebrews would not have said, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24, 25). If the command to meet together stands, then the day of meeting would surely conform to the stated practice of the churches and be consistent with the newly arranged sabbath rest, shifting the emphasis from creation to redemption (Hebrews 4:9, 10, 14-16).
- The matter that is left to the Christian’s conscience, therefore, is not a stated day of worship as an element of the moral law of God, but the ceremonial part of the observance of certain days.
B. Verse 6b: The same principle applies to eating. If one abstains, he must not do it to be seen of men or to give an appearance of greater spirituality than others. His abstinence must arise from personal conviction. His motive should be to honor the Lord, not harass men. Paul was aware of some that made a great show of abstinence as if it were a superior type of spirituality. In Colossians, he described those that submitted to such regulations as if it they constituted a superior religion by having an “appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). Even so, those who believed that eating flesh forbidden in the Old Testament still is a matter of conscience must honor the Lord, not judge men, in their abstinence. So those who have seen the ceremonial aspect of “unclean” meat, and have consequently found freedom in eating, must give thanks to God both for the freedom and the meat, but, in the execution of their freedom, must not judge their brothers. The same principle was applied in the controversy in Corinth over meat offered to idols. Paul said, “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake.” But for the sake of the conscience of another, one must learn to avoid offending him, whether Jew or Gentile, while maintaining integrity in his own conscience (1 Corinthians 10:24-33).
III. In these matters, one must not judge but leave a person’s conscience free before the Lord Himself. Romans 14:7-9
A. Verses 7 and 8: The Christian lives with the constant reality, and blessing, that he is under the lordship of Christ and must do all, whether eating or drinking, to the glory of God. No moment of the day nor any thought of the mind nor any action of the body is ours, but all belongs to Christ; he will hold us accountable for our stewardship.
- When Paul wrote about sexual purity to the Corinthians, he reminded them, “You are not your own, for you have been bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). When he wrote about whether to be married or remain single, he said, “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your individual devotion to the Lord.” (1 Cor. 7:35).
- When he promoted genuine self-giving and humility he wrote, “Let this mind be in you [have this mind among yourselves] which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5) When we make decisions about the nature of our actions, therefore, we must remember that we make these decisions with a view to pleasing the Lord, not men; we must not live to impress men but with a consciousness that our Lord is with us, in us, around us, knowing us, loving us, cleansing us, yearning for our holiness, and operating in us for our conformity to Him.
- “We are the Lord’s.” How far superior is the state of being the Lord’s than not being the Lord’s. What mind can conceive of the grace that makes sinners the special concern of the Lord to grant them his favor and his special operations to restore us to fullness of life and unbroken joy. Nor can any imagine how dismal it is not to be the Lord’s, to shoulder a future eternity on our own, unforgiven, uncleansed, untransformed, still possessed by the god of this world.
B. Verse 9: Christ died for this very purpose, that he might be the redemptive Lord of sinners. “For to this end, Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of the dead and of the living.” Had he not died, none would be saved and none would be considering how we might live in a way pleasing to our Redeemer. That he, Jesus, might be the first born among many brethren is the reason for Christ’s death and resurrection. Death had its hold on us because we were under the curse of the law that demanded death for sin. Christ became a curse for us, shouldered the burden of sin, bore it in his own body, suffered under its power in the grave and emptied it of any of its claims on those for whom he suffered, died, and rose again. He has bought us, we are his. He is Lord of the dead, that is those that died in the Lord he has redeemed and will bring them into his presence. He is Lord of the living for they now walk in the light as he is in the light and his blood cleanses us from all sin. This position of living unto the Lord is made possible by the redemptive work of Christ and is a mark of great blessing and grace. “For if we died with him, we shall also live with him” (2 Timothy 2: 11). Did we not live to the Lord, we still would be under his wrath and fit only for eternal damnation.
IV. We must not assume to judge our fellow Christians in these matters but realize that we all are coming to the final judgment that will be infallible and perfectly executed. Romans 14: 10-12
A. Verse 10: Paul points out how presumptuous it is for us to think that we can hold our fellow believers accountable to our standards, on an issue that is being adjudicated by God alone. How can we accurately evaluate that which is a matter of conscience between a Christian and his Lord, when we ourselves have every moment of our lives to live before God and to seek to live in a way that honors him. Seeking to walk in the Spirit, quench the fiery darts of the evil one, put off the deeds of the flesh, and live responsibly before men to the honor of God should be more than enough for us without taking on that task for another servant of the Lord. To his master he will stand or fall, and the Lord will make him stand.
B. Verse 11 and 12: Paul shows from Isaiah (a verse he also uses in Philippians 2) that God himself takes charge of issues of worship and declares that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess.” We need not worry that another person might slip by without giving an account to God. Nor should we think that our views on their convictions and conduct is at all necessary for God to give an accurate appraisal of their life before him. He does not need an evaluation sheet from us. Our task, andamazing privilege, is to give attention to the issues that look us in the face each day and use every opportunity to test and prove what the will of God is—that is the good and acceptable and perfect—that we might be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Though we preach truth and set forth an absolute moral standard which all are to follow, many areas of living are not easily brought under the template of those clearly revealed truths. Some issues must be matters of conscience. No other person can decide what is right for another on such issues of day by day conduct. All are responsible, however, to do nothing that harms one’s neighbor or interrupts the principle of love within the church. Any insincere actions and judgmental spirit are known by the Lord of the living and the dead. We must live in the trust that Christ really does live within his church, is its head, is the one who builds it and will make all of his servants responsible to him.