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Hard Call: When the Bible Is Silent - Part 3

Tom Pennington • Romans 14:1-15:13

  • 2008-10-12 AM
  • Sermons


For the last couple of weeks, we have been studying how to use our Christian liberty—how to make wise decisions when we are faced with issues of conscience. Now, I want to make sure, this morning, as we begin our study again that I'm very clear on this. And so I want to take just a moment to clarify even further, the categories into which the decisions we face fall. Listen carefully. Every moral decision you will ever have to make falls into one of three categories. Without exception, every moral decision you will ever face falls into these three categories. Number one: The Bible explicitly forbids it. The Bible explicitly forbids that choice that you're faced with. Secondly, a second category: The Bible explicitly commands it. The Bible requires that you do that thing that you're faced with the choice concerning. The third category is that it is an issue of conscience or Christian liberty. Those are the only three categories. So, if there isn't a clear passage of Scripture that forbids it or commands it, then every other moral choice you're faced with falls within the category of Christian liberty or issues of conscience.

Now, let me briefly illustrate for you how this works using a few of the issues that can tend to divide Christians. And there's so much more that ought to be said about each of these things, and you need to put the comments I'm about to make in the context of the last couple of weeks as we've talked about these things, and even what we've yet to talk about today, and in the message two weeks from today. But let me just see if I can illustrate it.

Take the issue—the rather contentious issue among Christians—of drinking alcoholic beverages. The Bible clearly discourages drinking strong drink. That's true in a number of passages. Also, it clearly forbids unequivocally and explicitly, being drunk. The rest of the decisions that we have to make about the issue of alcohol, then, fall into that third category—the areas of Christian liberty. Take another example. The issue of educating our children. The Bible clearly commands that parents teach their children God's way and God's word—Deuteronomy 6 and a number of other passages. But the Bible nowhere commands a certain approach to education when it comes to subjects like math and science. Nor does the Bible anywhere forbid a certain approach explicitly. So the issue of public education or private education or home-schooling is then, for every Christian parent, an issue of conscience.

What about entertainment choices? Well, let's take just a couple of examples there. I was raised in a home where I was taught that it was sinful for Christians to go to a movie theater. What about that? Well again, the Bible nowhere clearly, directly, explicitly commands or forbids going to the theater, even though there were Greek and Roman theaters in the first century where plays were held. So, going to a theater to see a play, which is really what you're going to see—a movie is nothing more than a sophisticated recorded play—is an issue of Christian liberty. But here's where it gets tricky. Because, while going to a movie theater is a matter of Christian liberty because it's not explicitly spelled out in Scripture, not all movies are a legitimate issue of conscience. Some of the content of some of the movies would be clearly forbidden for a Christian. And so, there are elements of that decision that are in that third category of issues of conscience and areas of Christian liberty. There are other aspects of decisions regarding that entertainment choice that are explicitly forbidden for Christians. Take the issue of music. If you take styles of music. Set aside for a moment the lyrics and just think about different styles of music. There is not a single style of music that is ever forbidden by Scripture or commanded by Scripture. That means the choice of what style of music we listen to is determined by our own taste, or if we're young enough and still living under our parents' authority, by their consciences on the issue. And ultimately, when we're on our own, it's something that each of us must decide before the Lord for himself or herself. However, while the style of music is an issue of conscience, if the lyrics of that particular style encourage rebellion against authority, or sexual sin, or other things that are clearly forbidden by the Scripture, then it has now slipped out of the third category and back into the first two categories. You get the idea. In every difficult decision we face, we have to ask ourselves into which of those categories does it fall. Every decision we face will fall into one of these three categories. The Bible expressly and explicitly forbids it, the Bible explicitly commands it, or requires it, or it is an issue of Christian liberty—an issue of conscience.

The problem comes when you and I hold our own decisions about issues of conscience with the same conviction that we do the Scriptures themselves. By the way, a little sidebar for parents here. Can I take just a moment and encourage you to do something? I encourage you, as you teach and raise your children, to clearly distinguish with your kids between your own family's decisions about issues of conscience and those choices that are clearly forbidden or commanded by Scripture. Make sure your kids understand the difference between "dad said" and "God said." Why is that important? Because it creates great confusion for your kids, it weakens your own integrity, and it undermines the ultimate authority of God and His word if you tell your kids "this is what the Bible says" when it's not what the Bible teaches. How do you expect them to trust you when you tell them what it really does teach? But, to this whole issue of Christian liberty. We do have liberty. Everything that is not expressly commanded by the Scripture, or not expressly forbidden by the Scripture—everything else—is our liberty as Christians to enjoy.

But there's another crucial point to consider. The simple fact that we can make a choice does not mean that we should make that choice. How do we know? How do we know when to use our Christian liberty? Well, in God's goodness to us, the Scripture tells us how. There are two passages that set us on the right road to thinking correctly and Biblically about the exercise of all of those things that fall in category number three. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. And we're studying together Romans 14 and I invite you to turn there with me this morning. In Romans 14, Paul teaches us when to exercise our Christian liberty and when not to exercise it. Now, remember, Romans 14 was written in the first century to a specific church, the church in Rome, and about issues that were related to life in the first century. About their liberty from the Old Testament ceremonial law. There aren't many Christians today that struggle with that. So the specific examples Paul uses are from the first century, but the principles that he teaches us are timeless, and very much as applicable today as they were when he wrote them in the first century under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. Now, in the church in Rome, as we saw last week, there were recently converted Jewish Christians who were deeply disturbed about the choices their Gentile brothers in the church were making. There were a couple of key issues that divided them, the Jewish Christians in the church in Rome from the Gentile Christians, by and large, that was the division.

Two issues. We find the first issue in chapter 14 verse 2. It had to do with eating unclean foods. The problem, you see, was that the Jewish Christians in the church were convinced that they still needed to obey the Mosaic Law, including all of those food and dietary restrictions. So the meat sold in the markets there in Rome presented these Jewish Christians with a huge problem. Was that meat from a clean animal? And if it was from a clean animal, was it properly slaughtered? Was all the blood drained as the Old Testament dietary laws required? And was it sacrificed before idols? Those were huge issues that mattered to them. But there was another issue that was really a source of division there in Rome; you find it in Romans 14 verse 5. It had to do with keeping certain Old Testament special days. These same Jewish Christians were convinced that all Christians, Jewish and Gentile alike, should keep all of those high and holy days that were on the Jewish calendar. After all, I mean hadn't the Old Testament commanded those things—the annual feasts, the New Moon festivals, the weekly Sabbaths? Hadn't those things been commanded by God?

So on both of these issues, the Jewish Christians were settled and their Gentile brothers took exactly the opposite position. Paul calls one of the positions the position of the weak brother, and the other position the position of the strong brother. And as we saw last week, in Romans 14 the weak Christians were those Jewish Christians who would not eat the meat and who believed they must keep all of those Old Testament special events. So then, if we principle-ize off of that, the weak believer, or the weak conscience is one that will not do, on religious grounds, something that the Scripture does not forbid, and who feels he must do, on religious grounds, something that the Scriptures do not require or command. The strong brother, on the other hand, understood that he had liberty. He had liberty to make these choices before God. And it's true, we do. That's the wonderful joy of what we have in Christ as we've already studied together. If the Scriptures do not speak to the issue, we have liberty. Paul says, in Romans 14, however, we do have genuine liberty, but there are some very real dangers that come with Christian liberty. If you use your liberty in the wrong way, it can be dangerous to your own soul, as well as, it can become a danger to the souls of others. So we need help. We need help in deciding when to exercise that liberty that's ours in Christ, and when not to exercise it. And in Romans 14, Paul provides us with several foundational principles concerning the wise and Biblical exercise of Christian liberty. Last week we looked at the first principle.

The first principle is this. It's found in the first 12 verses of Romans 14. You must never allow your Christian liberty to cause disunity. You must never allow your Christian liberty and the exercise of it, to cause disunity in the church. And we saw how that happens. The weaker brother, the ones in Rome that were called weaker brothers, those who feel compelled to add to the Scripture with their convictions, they can be tempted to sit in judgment on the stronger Christians. They can be tempted to say, "if that person were really spiritual, they would see this in the Bible, and they would do what I'm doing." The stronger brother, on the other hand, can be tempted to look down with contempt on the weaker brother, and to say "how ridiculous that they're still hanging on to that. If they really understood justification, if they really understood their theology, then they wouldn't be hung up on those external things." Paul says, with those attitudes, you're both wrong, because it should never create division. And if we want to keep these issues of conscience from becoming points of contention, as you go through the first 12 verses, as we saw last week, Paul says you must remember that we are not the one who accepts our brother, Christ is. You must remember that you are not the Lord of your brother,. Christ is. And you must remember that you will not be his judge, Christ will.

Now, today, that brings us to the second principle that Paul wants us to see in this passage. The first principle of using your Christian liberty is, you must never allow your Christian liberty to cause disunity. Today, we come to number two. You must never allow your Christian liberty to cause others to sin. You must never allow your Christian liberty to cause others to sin. Paul develops this in chapter 14 beginning in verse 13. Let me read this paragraph for you. You follow along, as Paul makes this great point—don't let it cause others to sin. Verse 13:

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.

Here, Paul makes it so explicitly clear that you and I are to use our Christian liberty in such a way that it does not cause others to sin. Notice how he begins in verse 13 with a sort of transition. The first half of the verse summarizes what Paul taught us in verses 1 through 12—don't sit in judgment on each other. But the second half of verse 13 looks ahead to the next major issue that he wants to develop in this paragraph I've just read. And Paul makes his transition with a word play that isn't quite as easy to see in the English as it is in the Greek text. He uses the same Greek word in verse 13 but he uses it in two different senses. It's the word "judge" in the first part of verse 13. The same Greek word is used for the word "determine" in the second half of verse 13. We could translate it something like this. "Therefore let us not judge one another any more, on the other hand, if you really want to judge, judge this—how not to cause others to sin through the exercise of your liberty." How not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way. And with that comment, Paul takes us to the next major concern that he has. His first concern—disunity over Christian liberty. His second concern is letting Christian liberty cause others to sin. And he shows this with two powerful word pictures. Look at verse 13. The first word picture is "obstacle." He says don't put an obstacle in a brother's way. The Greek word "obstacle" here, was used literally to refer to a rock, or something that literally, physically caused someone to trip. You're walking down a path, you come to a rock in the way, you're not looking where you're going, and literally that rock causes you to trip and to fall. That's the word. So metaphorically, it came to describe something that tripped you up. Something that caused you to fall into sin. Paul is saying, don't do even those things that your Christian liberty allows you to do if doing it will be like a rock in front of your brother that will trip him up and cause him to sin.

There's a second word picture that he uses here in verse 13. The word "stumbling block." Don't put a stumbling block in a brother's way. Now, in English, that looks similar, and it is similar in some ways, but the Greek word translated "stumbling block" is a fascinating word. You'll recognize it because it's a word that's brought right over into English. The Greek word is the word "scandalon." Scandalon, from which we get the English word scandal. Literally, the Greek word that's used here, the word scandalon, referred to the bait stick or the trigger on an animal trap. And if you were growing up like I did, kind of out in the country, occasionally I would play around with setting a little trap. Often it was nothing more sophisticated than a cardboard box or a little wooden box with a stick holding it up on one end. And there was a little string that was tied to the bait and the idea was that the animal either pushed past that stick and knock it over causing the trap to fall on the animal, or play with the bait in some way, and as he played with the bait, would pull that stick out from under the box and the box would come down, collapsing on the animal and trapping him. Well, the Greek word scandalon that's used here as a cause of stumbling, is literally the word for that stick, that bait stick that is the trigger to the trap. So, metaphorically, eventually, this word came to be used of a moral trap—something that causes another person to sin. Paul is saying, don't let your Christian liberty and the exercise of it be like the bait stick on a trap that allows another Christian brother to be trapped in sin. He's saying we must voluntarily limit our Christian liberty rather than exercise it and cause another brother to sin.

Now, there's an important question you ought to be thinking about here—you ought to be asking in your own mind. How could exercising my Christian liberty cause someone else to sin? After all, those things are morally neutral aren't they? It's not expressly commanded by God. It's not expressly forbidden. So my not doing it is sin. How could someone else doing it because of me be sin? Well, Paul explains this over in 1 Corinthians chapter 8. Turn there with me. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is developing this same idea. Different problem—offering meat sacrificed to idols in the church in Corinth. But same basic idea, or eating I should say, meat sacrificed to idols. And same basic idea though, and he's dealing with it in chapter 8—this same concern about causing others to sin, but he becomes a little more descriptive of how this happens. Look at verse 7.

First Corinthians 8 verse 7. He's just been talking about the fact that idols don't exist, there's only one true God, so whatever's offered to those idols hasn't really been offered to gods at all, because they don't exist. "However, [verse 7] not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to [a real] idol; [to a real God] and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat; nor the better if we do eat; But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become (here's our word) a stumbling block to the weak." How's it happen? Verse 10, for, because, here's how it works, "if someone [your brother] sees you who have knowledge dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died." Now, what's Paul saying here? He's saying, "Here's how it works. You exercise your liberty. A weaker brother who doesn't believe that's allowed for Christians sees you exercise that liberty, and follows your example even though he's not convinced that it's right to do. You have led that brother into sin. He is sinning against his conscience."

Now, go back to Romans 14. Verse 13 of Romans 14 sets forth the theme of this paragraph. You must never allow your Christian liberty to cause others to sin. The question is, how can I do that? How can I keep my liberty from causing others to sin? How can I practically put this principle into practice in my own life? Well, the rest of the paragraph that I read for you describes how I can fulfill this basic command. The rest of the paragraph is broken into three sections. Verses 13 through 15 is one section. Verses 16 to 18 is section number two. And verses 19 to 21, section number three. In those three sections we learn three ways to keep our Christian liberty from becoming a cause of sin in our brother's life. You should want to do what verse 13 commands. How? Well, here, Paul lays it out for us. If you will do these three things—if you will follow these three steps, or walk down these three paths, you will keep from causing others to sin with your liberty.

Number one: Love your brother. Love your brother. You see, if you truly love the Christians around you, you will not allow your Christian liberty to be a spiritual trap in their lives. Let's look at how Paul develops this. The command comes in verse 13 and then, in verse 14, notice what he says, "I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean." Paul is saying, here, nothing is unclean in itself. Obviously he's referring to those Old Testament kosher laws that were the matter of disagreement in the church in Rome. Clean animals—unclean animals. Kosher, non-kosher. And Paul was convinced through the statements of Christ in Mark 7 , we've seen together, as well as the revelation to Peter in Acts 10 which we've also examined, that no kind of food was inherently sinful or unacceptable—except for maybe fried Twinkies that you get over at the State Fair; that might cross that line. But no other kind of food is inherently sinful or unacceptable. Pork was no less clean than beef. So, let's take Paul's point and apply it to all matters of Christian liberty. Here's what Paul was saying, "In those things the Bible doesn't clearly address, as long as you do not think a choice is sinful, it's not sinful But if you are convinced it is unclean or it is sinful, to you, it would be sinful to do it." You say wait a minute. I'm not following you here. If the moral choice we're talking about is an issue of conscience, that means the Bible doesn't clearly address it. It doesn't command it, it doesn't forbid it—then why would it be sin for anybody to do it? Well, Paul explains down in verse 23. He says "he who doubts is condemned if he eats [why?] because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin." Let's say you have a conviction that—without the lyrics again—a certain style of music is unacceptable for Christians to listen to. First of all, it's important for you to know that it's not inherently wrong or sinful because the Bible doesn't address it. It's an issue of conscience or Christian liberty. However, as long as you believe it's morally wrong, Paul is saying, it would be sinful for you to do it. Why? Because you would be deliberately choosing to do something that you believe God forbids. Now, we understand this even on a human level, don't we? I mean, think for a moment about some children. I'm speaking hypothetically here of course, and not about your children. But imagine for a moment that your children—one of your children—you happen to catch and oversee and watch sneaking around as they sometimes can do. Again hypothetically speaking. And they're sneaking around trying to do something. They're obviously trying to keep you out of it, to deceive you, to do it clandestinely, but it's something that you have not forbidden them from doing. That happens from time to time. Now, what would be your attitude? What would be your spirit about that? Well, you would be deeply concerned, or you should be deeply concerned. Why? Not because of what they're doing; that isn't the point. You didn't care if they did that thing. It was the attitude of, "I'm going to get away with something that my parents don't want me to do"; that's the problem. And that's what Paul is saying here. He's saying, that's how it is for us as Christians. If you are sneaking around, trying to do it, as it were, behind your Father's back, even if He hasn't forbidden it, it's sin to you. Because of the spirit—because of the attitude. You think it's wrong and you're still doing it.

So, in verse 13 Paul says don't let your Christian liberty cause another to sin. In verse 14 there's kind of a parenthesis where he explains how it is that something that isn't sinful can be sinful, and then in verse 15 he comes back and continues the thought that he began in verse 13. You kind of have to put verse 13 and verse 15 together. Let me just read it that way. He says don't put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way for, because—here's why you shouldn't do it. If, because of food, your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Here's the real issue. If you really love others, you're not going to let food trip him up or be a spiritual trap for him. You aren't going to let any of your choices of Christian liberty be a cause for sin. You're not going to decide what to do based solely on yourself. If you truly love others, then you will never let your Christian liberty hurt them. Look at the second half of verse 15, "Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died." Is a bite of meat really worthy of being compared with the value of that soul? William Hendriksen writes, "you, by means of your unbrotherly conduct. are treating your brother in a manner which, were it not for God's irresistible grace would destroy him. Immediately, stop doing what you're doing and do the very opposite." That's what Paul is saying here. But did you catch Paul's implication in verse 15? He says Christ sacrificed everything for your brother. And are you really telling me you aren't willing to give us that bite of meat for your brother? Are you really unwilling to sacrifice a kind of food for your brother? Christ died for him. Will you destroy the one for whom Christ died to satisfy your body? Think about it for a moment. Is there any Christian liberty that you would be unwilling to give up in order to protect a fellow Christian from sin? If it's true, then you don't have a heart that loves him. That's what Paul is saying. You're not walking in love. You don't really love him. And we've already been commanded to love back in chapter 13. Chapter 13 of Romans, verse 8, Paul says "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law." All of these commands—any commandment—is summed up in this saying, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." If you really love your neighbor, then you're doing everything you ought to do for that neighbor. "Love does no wrong to a neighbor," verse 10, "therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." So Paul says, love your neighbor and you'll be doing everything towards your neighbor you need to do. Then he comes to chapter 14, and he says, if you insist on following through with your Christian liberty even if it hurts your brother, you are not loving him. You are not walking in love. You are what? Sinning. You're commanded to love, and if you're not taking your brother into account as you're doing this, you're not loving him - you're sinning. You may not have a conscience problem, but you have a sin problem because you don't love the one for whom Christ died. If you and I will work at loving others we will gladly limit our own freedom in order to protect them from sin.

There's a second way to insure that we don't let our Christian liberty cause others to sin. It's in verses 16 to 18, Live for kingdom priorities. Live for kingdom priorities. Love your brother and live for kingdom priorities. Verse 16, "Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil." Now what does Paul mean, "what is for you a good thing"? Remember, he's talking, here, to the stronger brother. Here's basically what he's saying. He's saying, listen, you have an accurate, precise understanding of theology. You understand the nature of saving faith. You understand the freedom that you have in Christ. You have a clear Biblical understanding that it's not necessary to continue keeping all that Old Testament ceremonial law, and that's good. But it's not good if it destroys a weak brother. If that happens, then your exercise of your Christian liberty, a good thing, will be spoken of as an evil thing. Literally, in the Greek text it says, will be blasphemed—by the weaker brothers as well as perhaps by Christians outside the church watching this conflict go on. Either way, Paul says, don't let that happen. Why? Verse 17. "for, [because] the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." Paul is saying, the priorities of Christ's kingdom are not about what you eat and what you drink. You know what? It doesn't matter what kind of music—the kingdom of God is bigger than the style of music you listen to, or whether or not you go to movies. Or whether or not you drink a glass of wine. Get over it, Paul is saying. See what God's spiritual priorities are—His kingdom priorities. It's about the fruit of the Spirit. Notice here, "righteousness, peace, joy."

Now, there's some discussion among commentators and theologians about whether this is talking about the theological meanings behind these words, or the practical expression of these words and the interactions with each other. I think both are implied. He says the kingdom of God—the kingdom you're a part of—is about righteousness. That is, the gift of righteousness you've received from God by faith in Jesus Christ. And the righteous interaction with each other—where you treat each other fairly. It's about peace, the peace you have with God. The war's over. But also the peace and tranquility we enjoy within the community of Christ. It's about joy. The joy of God because your sins are forgiven, and the joy that we have together as we live together and serve each other as we ought to. Listen, the most important thing about Christ's kingdom in the New Testament is not your Christian liberty. It's not so you can eat what you want. It's not so you can do any of those things that we normally think of as Christian liberty. Paul is saying here, keep your liberty in perspective. It's not the most important thing in your life or in God's agenda. Instead of living for your Christian liberties, grow up and live for God's priorities. Live for kingdom priorities. Verse 18, "For he who in this way serves Christ…" (and by the way, the word for "serves" here is the verb form of "doulos." You remember that Greek word we learned—slave?) "the one who serves Christ as a slave in this way is acceptable to God and approved by men." If you can keep this kind of kingdom perspective—if you can keep the main things the main things, then you will be serving Christ in a way that will be acceptable to God and approved by men. Your master will approve, and your fellow slaves will approve as well. F.F. Bruce writes, "It's good to be strong in faith. It's good to be emancipated in conscience. But Christians are not isolated individuals, each living to himself, but members of a fellowship. And it is the responsibility of all, and especially the stronger and more mature members to promote the well-being of the fellowship." And I can add, to live for kingdom priorities.

So you and I must never allow our Christian liberty to cause others to sin. And there are three ways we can keep that from happening. We can love our brother. We can live for kingdom priorities. And thirdly, we can limit our Christian liberty. Limit our Christian liberty. In verses 19 to 21, Paul just comes out and says it. He says I want you to voluntarily choose to limit your Christian liberty for the sake of others. Verse 19, "So then [here's the conclusion] we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another." We are going to pursue—we're going to make choices that will bring peace among brothers and will be what builds others up in their faith. He says it positively in verse 19. He says it negatively in verse 20, "Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food." Why are you making these decisions? Is it all about you? Or is it to see others built up? And then, Paul makes this direct and startling comment at the end of verse 20, "All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and give offense." You see, the strong brother can get cocky, and he can say something like this. Look, all of these things—all of these areas of Christian liberty—all of these issues of conscience—are clean. That's what the Bible teaches. They're clean. And I can do whatever I want, so don't you try to stand in my way. I'm going to make every choice I want to make regardless of what anybody around me—how they may be affected by it. If that's your attitude, then Paul says, not so fast. It's true. All those things in category number three hat are issues of conscience, are clean in and of themselves. They are inherently acceptable to God. But, and Paul here uses in this word "but"—there are two Greek words for "but"; he uses the strongest one. It's like, "but on the other hand, keep this in mind. They, [that is, those issues of conscience] are evil—that means clearly sinful—for the man who eats and gives offense. They may be clean but they are sinful, they are evil, for the one who eats and gives offense." Now, before I explain what it means, let me tell you what it doesn't mean. That word "offend" has sometimes been misused. It was also present in the King James translation, and so, some people have taken this to mean what we mean when we use the English word "offend." When I say, that offends me, what do I mean? That upset me emotionally. I wish you wouldn't do that. That's how we use the word "offend." Sometimes, in my experience, a weaker brother with a sensitive conscience will say to a stronger brother, what you're doing offends me. That's not what this passage is saying. That's not what Paul is saying. Because the bottom line isn't whether you do or whether you don't, you're going to offend somebody in that sense of the word. We do not have to be held captive by the emotional reaction our choices make on others. They may be upset. They may be offended in the English sense of the word, but that's not what Paul's talking about. Rather, Paul is warning against things which cause the brother to sin. In other words, what verse 20 is saying is this: What God normally allows you to do becomes sin if, in doing it, you cause someone else to trip up and fall into sin. I don't care what the issue is or how insignificant it may be to you or how insignificant it may be. If your doing it will cause another Christian to violate his or her conscience, then that choice becomes a sin not only for the one who violates his conscience, but for you, who led them down that path.

First Corinthians chapter 8, Paul puts it very clearly. Notice what he says; I read a portion of this to you. I stopped before verse 12. First Corinthians 8 verse 12, "And so, when you by your knowledge cause another brother to sin you sin against the brethren and you wound their conscience when it's weak and you sin against Christ." Folks, this isn't a little thing. It's not just sin for the weak conscienced brother who does it even when he thinks it's wrong. If you're part of that process, you are sinning. You're sinning against that brother, and Paul says you're sinning against Christ. If you exercise your Christian liberty, and in so doing cause another Christian to sin, it is not only sin for him—listen carefully—it's sin for you. So there's only one perspective to have. Turn back to Romans 14, verse 21, "It is good [then] not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles." Paul says, don't ever exercise your legitimate Christian liberty if it's going to be the rock over which your brother trips into sin. And notice here, Paul reaches out way beyond the specific circumstances in Rome, and food and drink. He says it's good not to do anything—you fill in the blank—it's not good to do anything that will cause your brother to stumble. In other words, Paul's saying, be willing to limit your Christian liberty, whatever the issue might be.

I want you to think right now of that personal freedom in Christ that you most enjoy relishing in, whatever that may be. Are you willing not to exercise that liberty when your weaker brothers are around and might be tempted to follow you, and in so doing, to sin? Are you willing to give that think up entirely if those brothers live in your home, and there's really never a way for you to enjoy that liberty without being a negative influence on them? The bottom line folks, in this passage is, you cannot go around using your Christian liberty like a bull in a china shop. You better stop and think carefully about who is around and who might be affected by your choices. Start here: Consider the Christians in your life. What are the areas of conscience on which you disagree with them? What is it? What are the issues? Be careful then, not to use your liberty in those areas around them if you think there's some chance they might be caused to sin. By the way, this is especially important for both parents and those in positions of leadership otherwise, because of the influence we wield on those under our charge. Don't ever try to persuade someone to do something if their conscience is telling them it's wrong, even if you know it's okay. And young people, you can have this as a particular problem, I should say. You can say, look, really, no, come on, it's not a big deal, come on, it won't hurt you. If you do that, and you cause that brother to sin, you are sinning against Christ. That's what Paul says. And don't argue with them. But gently and graciously try to educate the weaker brother's conscience with the Scripture. But don't ever try to get them to do something that they are still convinced is wrong before the Lord for them to do.

Now, as we finish our time this morning, I want to show you how important this is to Christ. Turn over the Matthew 18. This is not a little thing, folks. Christ issues a frightening warning about this very thing. In Matthew 18, He brings a child in front of him, and He uses that child as a kind of object lesson. He first of all says, you've got to become like this child in order to enter the kingdom. In other words, you've got to let go of everything. You have no accomplishments. You have nothing which to put yourself forward. You come in without anything. And then, He says, He begins in verse 6 to use that child as a picture of the little ones who believe in Me. Notice what He says. I'm now talking, in verse 6, about the little ones who believe in Me. Whether we're talking about children who come to faith, or whether we're talking about adults, we're talking about Christians now. Okay, Verse 6, "whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." Wow. Have you ever seen a millstone? We just got back from Israel in July. They're huge. They weigh far more than any person they would be tied to. They would absolutely sink you like a rock to the bottom of the sea. Jesus said, if you're going to cause somebody else to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for you that a millstone were tied around your neck and you were drowned in the sea. It's a very serious thing to Christ.

Martin Luther was a great defender of Christian liberty. The liberties that had been mostly obscured and lost by the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century. You remember his famous statement at Worms in which he said, "unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the word of God." That's the liberty we enjoy. Our consciences only bound by the Scripture. And so, it's not a surprise that Luther begins one of his famous works on the freedom of a Christian man with these words. "A Christian man is a most free lord of all, subject to none." That's our Christian liberty. Lord of all, subject to none. But then, in the next sentence, Luther adds this balancing Biblical comment, "A Christian man is a most dutiful servant of all, subject to all." That's the spirit of this second great principle governing our Christian liberty. We are free to do everything that the Bible allows. But we are first and foremost servants, slaves of Jesus Christ, and of our brothers and sisters. We must never allow our Christian liberty to cause disunity, and we must never allow it to cause others to sin.

There's one more great principle that we need to examine, but that's for another day. Let's pray together.

Our Father, thank You for the clarity of Your word. Thank You for how eminently practical it is to the issues of our lives. And Lord, I pray that You would protect us from ourselves. We thank You for the liberty we enjoy in Christ. We thank You that whatever Your word allows—whatever is not explicitly forbidden or commanded, we have Christian liberty in. And yet, Father, protect us from the dangers that come with that liberty. Don't let it be a source of disunity in this church, among us as brothers and sisters in Christ. And Father, I pray that as we've learned today, we would wield it very carefully. We would always be aware of who's around us, and how they might be affected. Father, may we be as concerned for the little ones as our Lord was. And Father, I pray that you would help us to live with the mature freedom of loving our brothers, living for kingdom priorities, and voluntarily limiting our Christian liberty for their good. Father, I pray that You would help us to learn and grasp these things. And Father, I pray as well for the person here this morning who doesn't enjoy any Christian liberty at all; they're still in slavery to their sin and they know it. Lord, I pray that this morning, even though this message is not primarily for them, that Your Spirit would bring deep conviction and hope in Jesus Christ, the only one who can free them. May they find grace and forgiveness, righteousness, peace, and joy in Him today. We pray it in His name and for His sake. Amen.