Liberty, Legalism, and Love (1)3
How is a Christian to act with regard to matters not explicitly addressed in Scripture? How is a Christian to conduct himself/herself in situations on which the Bible is silent, issues for which there is no explicit biblical guidance? This is the question Paul addresses in Romans 14. We could as easily ask: "What is the nature and extent of Christian freedom?" The NT speaks of freedom in a variety of ways. Here we are concerned with our freedom from the conscience of other Christians. We are addressing issues that do not affect our acceptance with God, i.e., they do not pertain to whether or not one is a Christian. They are what we might call secondary, as over against primary, issues. Keep reading...
[At the December 11, 2013, gathering of the Oklahoma chapter of the Gospel Coalition, I addressed the issue of liberty, legalism, and love, based on a close evaluation of Romans 14:1-23. Due to the length of the paper, I’ll divide it into several parts.]
How is a Christian to act with regard to matters not explicitly addressed in Scripture? How is a Christian to conduct himself/herself in situations on which the Bible is silent, issues for which there is no explicit biblical guidance? This is the question Paul addresses in Romans 14. We could as easily ask: "What is the nature and extent of Christian freedom?" The NT speaks of freedom in a variety of ways. Here we are concerned with our freedom from the conscience of other Christians. We are addressing issues that do not affect our acceptance with God, i.e., they do not pertain to whether or not one is a Christian. They are what we might call secondary, as over against primary, issues.
Such matters of conscience fall within the domain of Christian liberty. Unfortunately, some Christians insist on elevating their opinion on such matters to the status of divine law. They feel compelled to impose their convictions regarding the moral status of such practices on the conscience of other believers.
How do we know that Paul, in Romans 14, is dealing with secondary issues, i.e., those which play no part in our acceptance with God? There are three reasons.
1) According to v. 3. "God has welcomed him." Sanday and Headlam explain: "God through Christ has admitted men into His church without imposing on them minute and formal observances; they are not therefore to be criticized or condemned for neglecting practices which God has not required" (385). Again, Charles Hodge writes: "As God does not make eating or not eating certain kinds of food a condition of acceptance, Christians ought not to allow it to interfere with their communion as brethren" (419).
2) Paul's plea for tolerance also indicates that he is addressing matters not relevant to justification. He pleads for mutual acceptance. If anyone in Romans 14 had been insisting that a particular custom must be observed in order for one to be saved, Paul would have severely denounced them, as he does in Galatians 1:6-10; 3:1-3; and Colossians 2:20,23. "In Galatians Paul is dealing with the Judaizers who were perverting the gospel at its center. They were the propagandists of a legalism which maintained that the observance of days and seasons was necessary to justification and acceptance with God" (Murray, 172-73). In Colossians the form of legalism was ascetic in nature and threatened to undermine the preeminence and uniqueness of Christ. But in Romans 14 Paul's tolerance and sympathetic gentleness are "strong support for the view that the weak were not abstaining from meat and observing days with the intention of earning thereby a status of righteousness before God . . ., but because they felt sincerely, albeit mistakenly, that it was only along this particular path that they could obediently express their response of faith to God's grace in Christ" (Cranfield, 2:696).
3) Paul's counsel in v. 5b that each should "be fully convinced in his own mind" indicates that he is addressing issues on which God has not spoken. In other words, he calls on each believer to evaluate, think, reason, and make up your own mind as to how you should behave. If one's eternal status before God were at stake, Paul would never have issued such advice.
Thus Paul is articulating principles to guide the believer in his/her dealings with other believers when they face ethical decisions not directly addressed in Scripture. These are issues which God has neither commanded nor forbidden. These are matters of individual conscience. These are not issues such as theft, lying, sexual relations or other such matters on which the Bible gives clear guidance.
Before we go any farther, let me briefly address the relationship between Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10.
Many believe that Paul is addressing the same issue in both Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. In Corinth, much of the meat being sold for consumption by the public had come from animals sacrificed or consecrated to pagan idols. Two groups emerged in the church over the propriety of buying and eating such meat. One group, probably the majority, knew that "an idol has no real existence" (1 Cor. 8:4) and that the meat was neither better nor worse for its association with the pagan deity. Hence they entertained no scruples about eating the meat. The other group, not possessing such knowledge, believed that to eat the meat was to participate in idolatry. They believed the meat had somehow become infected by its association with pagan idolatry. F. F. Bruce explains:
"In giving his judgment to the Corinthians on this question, Paul ranges himself on the one hand with those who knew that there was no substance in the pagan deities, and that a Christian was at perfect liberty to eat meat of this kind. But knowledge was not everything; the claims of love were to be considered. He himself was prepared to forego his liberty if by insisting on it he would set a harmful example to a fellow-Christian with a weaker conscience. If a Christian who thought the eating of idol meat was wrong was encouraged by the example of his robuster brother to eat some, the resultant damage to his conscience would be debited to the other's lack of charity and consideration" (249).
Whereas the principles to which Paul appeals in resolving both problems appear to be similar, if not identical, the circumstances evoking the problem differ in three respects: (1) In Romans 14 there is no mention of food or drink offered to idols; (2) The observance of days as special is in Romans 14 but not in 1 Cor. 8-10; and (3) The weakness of Romans 14 involved a vegetarian diet, i.e., a scrupulous attitude toward all meat, whereas in 1 Cor. there is no reason to doubt that the weak would have eaten meat not offered to idols.
We will approach Romans 14 by asking and answering four questions. Come back tomorrow for the first.