“So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Do not tear down God’s work because of food. Everything is clean, but it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats. It is a noble thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother stumble. Do you have a conviction? Keep it to yourself before God. The man who does not condemn himself by what he approves is blessed. But whoever doubts stands condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from a conviction, and everything that is not from a conviction is sin.” (Romans 14:19-23 HCSB)
Growing up, one of the first songs I remember learning in church was “Deep and Wide.” It went like this, deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide. Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide. It was a simple song but it was about how deep and wide God’s love and mercy are. No matter how deep my need, God’s love goes deeper. No matter how wide my sin, God’s mercy is still wider. Deep and wide, I’m never too far from God’s reach.
Over the last several weeks, we’ve considered how our spiritual freedom must not be used to injure or cause a brother to be tripped up in his faith-filled efforts at being obedient to Christ. Paul has used three situations which seem to have been prevalent in the Roman church: eating meat, drinking wine and observing holy days. Those stronger in their Christian faith saw nothing wrong with eating any and all types of meat, drinking any wine, and held all days the same. Yet, the weaker brothers struggled with all of these issues. Their fear of eating something that might be impure or dedicated to an idol, wine that might have been offered up as an idolatrous sacrifice, or the fear of breaking the sabbath or of profaning a holy day kept them duty bound to Old Testament laws and cultural traditions.
We still face similar issues in many of our churches, today. We may not deal with issues surrounding “kosher” foods and Jewish dietary restrictions, but we do struggle with issues related to worship styles, gifts of the Spirit and their use and, more recently, mask wearing guidelines and vaccinations. Like Paul’s audience, there’s often conflict between those who hold differing views on these topics in our modern churches. Those who hold one view find fault with the others, back and forth and back and forth, it goes. The stronger looks down on the weaker and the weaker criticizes the stronger.
Let me remind you, “don’t argue about doubtful issues” (Rom. 14:1b).
Doubtful issues, issues that you “reason through” (Greek: dialogismos, you can see where we get our English word; dialogue. Dia = through or by, logos = logic/reason) or use logic and reasoning to reach or infer a conclusion on a subject that Scripture doesn’t directly address. Issues like those Paul addresses with the Roman church (meat, wine and holy days) and issues we face like worship styles, observing Sabbath rules on Sunday, and a host of issues surrounding the current pandemic, like wearing masks, and mandating vaccines. I’m sure each of you has an opinion on these topics, most do and they blast them all over their social media accounts and… sometimes they blast their friends, family and church relationships with their thoughts and feelings on these issues. Honestly, there have been times I’ve done this. I suspect you may have, too, at some point.
When we think we’re right, we can become quite forceful in pushing our way onto others. That’s precisely what Paul was facing with these “strong” disciples in Rome as they pushed their beliefs and opinions into the lives of their weaker brothers. But in verse 20, Paul says “don’t tear down God’s work because of food.” Don’t miss what Paul has been saying throughout this chapter, each of us stands or falls before our Lord (see v. 4). Each of us is at a different stage of growth in our faith relationship with Jesus. Some of us are deeper in one area of faith but shallow in another, while others are shallow in that area but deeper in another area. Those who fully believed they could eat anything would have struggled with trusting God at some other point in their faith walk. Stated simply, we are not where we could be or should be in every aspect of our faith. We all have room for growth when it comes to faith.
Paul doesn’t deny the truth of the “strong” disciple’s beliefs regarding these things, but he does question their actions when exercising their freedoms causes a brother to stumble. He says the “noble thing” is NOT to exercise your freedom but to exercise responsibility and to choose not to eat, drink or do anything that could cause a brother to stumble. Then he says, “Do you have a conviction? Keep it to yourself before God. The man who does not condemn himself by what he approves is blessed.” There are several ways this could be understood, but the basic premise seems to be “Your personal convictions about these “disputable things” are between you and God. But don’t let your personal convictions cause you to be condemned by God, instead seek His blessings.”
In other words, if you put your personal freedoms and acting on them above the spiritual needs and growth of a brother then you’re not acting in brotherly love and will be condemned by God. Don’t be condemned by your freedoms, instead be blessed by them when you submit them to God’s will and your brother’s needs.
On the other hand, the brother who is weak and has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating doesn’t flow from faith. Anything that is not from faith is sin. Let that sink in, a bit. Anything that does not flow out of your faith, the convictions you have regarding what you believe about God and ALL that involves, is sin. That’s really deep, if you think about it. In modern terms, we call this your worldview. It means how you see, understand, interact with and respond to the world around you. Simply put, what you believe about God impacts everything!
There are those in our modern culture who simply do not get this. They believe that religious beliefs should be kept private and practiced only in church. What? How is that even possible? What I believe about God can’t be confined to those realms. What I believe about God demands that those beliefs not be private and they can’t be relegated to actions only within the walls of a religious building. He’s TOO big for any restrictions and could never be confined to the cloistered halls of sacred spaces. In fact, the false wall we’ve built between secular and sacred simply doesn’t exist. I think our forefathers knew and understood this when they crafted the very first amendment to our Nation’s Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
A wall of separation? Not really, more like a one way door that prevents government involvement in religion and how it is practiced but nothing that prevents religious beliefs from impacting how a member of Congress might do his/her job. Why? Because it’s simply not possible, not if what we believe about God and the Son of God is true. Ah, there’s the rub. That really is the core issue.
Much of our culture, even much of our modern Christian culture, follows more of a moral therapeutic deism approach to religious belief than they do historical Biblical Christianity. What is moral therapeutic deism and what does it believe? Here are the basic tenets: 1) God exists, created and ordered the world and watches over life on earth. 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to resolve a problem. 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.
I’d like for you to stop and read those five points, one more time. Does that describe your basic beliefs about God? If so, those five tenets do NOT describe the God of the Bible and they are not Biblically based. There’s nothing quite as dangerous as a half truth. Why? Because a half-truth sounds true, but isn’t true. While there is a tiny seed of truth in a couple of these tenets, as a whole they are simply false. In fact, the entire Christmas story exposes the lie at the core of these tenets of belief.
“See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:23 HCSB)
God with us, among us, walking with us each day. Jesus didn’t come to make us good, moral, nice and fair people. He came to make dead people alive, to transform us. Jesus came to change the central goal in life from seeking personal happiness and feeling good about ourselves to loving God more than anything or anyone else in life and loving others in the same way we love ourself. That’s not about being good and fair, that’s about being transformed. Life isn’t about loving yourself better, it is about loving God more than you love yourself and loving others like you love yourself. Do you see where the lies begin to creep in? Moralistic therapeutic deism is focused on one’s self, our personal happiness and self worth. Biblical Christianity is focused on God and loving others. My self worth is not inward focused, but upward focused. I’m valuable, not because of my love of me but because of God’s love for me. You’re valuable, not because of my love of you or even your love of yourself but because of God’s love for you. That’s not only radical, it is impossible without the transforming power of Jesus Christ.
Now, let that last phrase in this week’s focal passage settle into your soul: “everything that is not from faith (a conviction) is sin.” Anything and everything about how you live and love, give and receive, act, react and interact, speak and listen, work and relax, pray and even stay silent must flow out of your faith, your convictions about God and the truth He has revealed to us in Jesus, His Son and through the indwelling presence of His Spirit. Faith isn’t something you “bolt onto” your life like an automobile option, real faith becomes so deeply embedded in your life that they truly become one. Just like scripture talks about marriage, the two become one.
Is that how you’ve experienced faith in Christ, the two of you (you and Him) becoming one? If not, perhaps that’s because you’re treating faith as if it is an option, something you can take or leave, something you simply bolt onto life and use it when necessary. Being morally good, when it’s convenient, and hoping for the best because good people get into heaven. If that’s the case, your faith may not be based on the truth of scripture and the reality of Jesus. It may be based on those half truths, I listed, and a half truth is still a lie. Don’t trust your eternity to a half truth. Determine now to seek out the truth about God, and then love Him with everything that’s in you. I promise, if you seek Him with all your heart you will find Him and He will lead you into a real faith relationship with His Son, Jesus. And remember, anything and everything that doesn’t flow out of that faith relationship with Jesus, is sin.