Liberty, Love, and Faith – Romans 14
Read the Passage: Romans 14
Christian Liberty (14:1–13)
Since sanctification is a process, oftentimes new believers do not grasp the implication of the gospel for their lives. Indeed, many new converts are prone toward either legalism or license. In Paul’s context, a prevalent issue was Christians’ keeping of the Old Testament ceremonial law, especially those laws related to eating certain foods and observing special days (cf. Col. 2:16–17). In our context, topics where Christian liberty applies include practices such as consuming alcohol, worship styles, places of employment, games of chance, military service, and the like. In Paul’s discussion, as well as in his similar instructions at 1 Cor. 8–10, Paul refers to immature believers as “weaker brothers” and to mature believers as “stronger brothers.” Here in Rom. 14:1–4 Paul exhorts his readers not to judge or to despise those who exercise more or less liberty than themselves (cf. Gal. 5:13).
In Rom. 14:5–13, primarily writing to stronger brothers, Paul explains the reason why these brethren are “not to put a stumbling block, or a cause to fall, in our [weaker] brother’s way” (Rom. 14:13)—that is, because Christians must always be motivated by devotion “to the Lord” (cf. Rom. 14:6–8). When a weaker brother, with an as-yet unformed conscience, refrains from eating or he observes a special day, and the weaker brother does so “to the Lord,” it is an acceptable act. Therefore, a stronger brother is to accommodate such a weaker brother, because a stronger brother can sacrifice his Christian liberty without sinning. Whereas a weaker brother cannot adapt for a stronger brother without transgressing his own conscience. As Paul will explain in the following verses, it is always wrong to violate one’s own conscience—somewhat counter-intuitively—even if one’s conscience is wrong (cf. Rom. 14:14, 20–23).
Neighbor Love (14:14–18)
At Rom. 14:14 Paul writes, “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” This statement is similar to what Paul later writes at 1 Tim. 4:4, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving,” as well as Titus 1:15, “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.” In these passages Paul is not teaching that morality is subjective. Rather, in regard to morally indifferent practices, Paul is saying that if one cannot engage in these practices “to the Lord” (Rom. 14:6–8), and doing so contravenes one’s conscience, then the moral event in view is sinful. Note that the sin here is not the practice itself, but the transgressing of one’s conscience.
In Rom. 14:15–18 Paul explains that an unwillingness to give up one’s Christian liberty means “you are no longer walking in love” (Rom. 14:15). Indeed, a failure to sacrifice one’s liberty in Christ for the sake of another believer is a sure sign that one is, in fact, a weaker brother, for “love does not seek its own” (1 Cor. 13:5). In Rom. 14:17 Paul gives one of the shortest and clearest definitions of the kingdom of God in all of Scripture as he writes, “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The idea here is that kingdom citizens do not seek their own rights but conform to the image of God. While some think of the kingdom of God as only a future event, at Luke 17:21 Jesus taught, “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” The idea here is that while the kingdom will be ratified at Jesus’ return, it has already been inaugurated.
Personal Faith (14:19–23)
In Rom. 14:19–23 Paul gives a concluding exhortation about pursuing peace and fostering edification. Remember that in this chapter Paul is primarily addressing stronger brothers. As he concludes this chapter Paul reminds these readers that a duty of stronger brothers is to accommodate their actions in light of weaker brothers. As Paul writes, “It is good neither to eat meat nor to drink wine nor to do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (Rom. 14:21). Since stronger brothers are mature and enjoy more Christian liberty than their weaker counterparts, it may seem counter-intuitive that stronger brothers are the ones who are called to curtail their actions. Yet, these same dynamics are in play in other areas of the Christian life, as Scripture repeatedly calls upon the strong to take care of the weak, the marginalized, the ostracized, and the helpless.
- What is Christian liberty? Why do believers sometimes disagree over what activities and events are permissible for Christians?
- What is the kingdom of God? Is the kingdom of God a future event, a present reality, or both? In what ways has being a kingdom citizen impacted your life?
- Why does Paul use the phrase “to the Lord” six times between Rom. 14:6–8? As you have matured in your faith, how has your view of Christian liberty changed?
- In what areas does Christian liberty apply in our context? Do you consider yourself a weaker or a stronger brother (or sister)?
- What does Paul mean in writing that “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23)? What does it mean that “all things indeed are pure” (Rom. 14:20)?