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Navigating Christian Liberty - Part 3

Tom Pennington • Romans 14:1-15:13

  • 2020-10-18 AM
  • Romans
  • Sermons


It's amazing, when you think about it, how quickly we become accustomed to technological advance. It was just back in 1973 that the U.S. Defense Department started the Global Positioning Satellite program or GPS. The first prototype satellite launched in 1978, and the full constellation of 24 satellites became operational just in 1993. It was on May 1, in the year 2000, that then President Clinton issued an executive order allowing the accuracy of consumer satellite receivers to increase from one-hundred yards of accuracy which isn't really helpful, to ten yards of accuracy. So, major consumer use of GPS is really only about twenty years old because of that Executive Order.

Now, for many of us, GPS is a great help. We don't have to map out our directions anymore; we can do several other things while our GPS is taking us where we need to go. But, let's also admit that it's definitely had some growing pains, and you've read some of those examples on the Internet of people who have followed their GPS to their own destruction.

One of my favorites, by the way, happened in Switzerland. Against his better judgment, when commercial van driver Robert Ziegler's GPS told him to turn on the what looked like a hiking trail in the Swiss Alps, he did! Turns out, it really was a hiking trail, and so he drove and followed the trail as his GPS told him to, obediently following the little commands of the voice on the GPS and he drove up, and up, and he became increasingly uncomfortable as he continued to go up, and the trail didn't improve, and you can understand this if you ever had this happen. He told authorities after it all was done, he said, "Look, I thought, I kept going because I thought, at any moment, I was going to make a little turn and get back onto the main road; that's really where it was taking me." Well, that didn't happen, and by the time the GPS had instructed him to turn around, he couldn't. It was too late! He actually got this delivery van stuck near the peak of this mountain in Switzerland. And this is really embarrassing, but authorities had to actually call in a helicopter to lift Ziegler and his van off the peak to safety.

Now, maybe you have your own version of Rob's experience. I won't ask you to come up and share it with us, but it's a problem. Navigating with GPS can be a challenge. But let me tell you, if you think navigating with GPS is a problem, try navigating the typical issues of Christian liberty in the context of a church like ours. That's exactly what Paul is helping us to learn how to navigate here in Romans, chapter 14.

In fact, let me put it to you this way. Think of Romans 14 as your GPS for Christian liberty, how you need to navigate through all of the problems that arise. Now, if I had to summarize this section, and I did this for you last week, I would do so in this way. Christian liberty is a liberty to be wisely used, not a license to be abused. How exactly can we use our liberty wisely?

Well, in Romans 14, Paul lays down several foundational principles concerning the biblical exercise of Christian liberty. The first principle we saw last week for exercising your liberty is expect legitimate differences when it comes to issues of conscience.

There are two first century examples here in this text, two issues on which there was huge disagreement in the Roman churches. One of those was eating unclean foods, and the other was observing the Old Testament holy days, the Jewish holy days on the calendar. In response to those two issues, there were two categories of Christians. On issues of conscience, there are, verse 1, the weak in faith; and verse 2, those who have faith, or it's described in chapter 15, verse 1, as those who have strong faith.

Now, weak and strong are used in this passage of a person's level of understanding, believing, and applying the truth and the sufficiency of Scripture. The Christian with a weak conscience is convinced that he must not do what Scripture does not explicitly forbid. And, he is also convinced that he must do what Scripture does not explicitly command. The strong believer, that is the believer with strong faith, is convinced that the Scripture is sufficient; and if the Bible doesn't command or forbid it, then or she has liberty to make decisions in those issues following the principles laid down in the Word of God. Those are the two categories. We must expect those differences in the church, expect there to be differences on issues of conscience, and expect there always to be the weaker and the stronger brothers in every church including ours.

A second principle of Christian liberty is accept those differences in a spirit of unity; accept those differences in a spirit of unity. The principal factors in disunity we discovered are those legitimate differences in each church; those differences will be present, and they will have a potential for division and disunity. But, for those differences to descend into disunity and division, there has to be a second factor, and that is sinful conflict. Sinful conflict develops over these legitimate differences in two ways.

First of all, initiated by the stronger brother. The stronger brother does something to make these differences become points of sinful conflict. Verse 1, he passes judgment on the opinion of the one who is weak in faith. In other words, he basically criticizes, argues with, tries to convince that person how ridiculous his views are. Verse 3, "The one who eats," this is the stronger brother who's willing to eat all the meat sold in the marketplace, "is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat." That means 'to look down upon, to belittle, to think less of;' when those attitudes are present among the stronger believers in a church on issues of conscience, conflict results.

But conflict can also be initiated by the weaker brother. How does that happen? Look at the second half of verse 3, "…the one who does not eat (Who thinks they have to eat their arugula and brussels sprouts and not eat meat for fear it's not clean.) is not to judge (is not to condemn) the one who eats, for God has accepted him." This happens all the time as well. The weaker brother says, "Oh man! If that guy is even a Christian at all, he's certainly not living in obedience; he doesn't have a very strong set of convictions." As John Murray describes it, "The strong must avoid, "The smile of disdainful contempt," and the weak must avoid, "The frown of condemnatory judgment." That's what Paul is saying, "Don't let there be disunity."

Well, how can we prevent disunity? What is the Biblical cure for disunity in the church, when there are these legitimate differences? Well, Paul sets out, in verses 1 through 12, to cure the disunity by correcting our thinking.

Now, last week we looked at just the first three verses and we saw that we must remember, if we're going to prevent disunity over these things, we must remember that we do not decide our brother's acceptance, Christ does. We are to accept each other because Christ has accepted us both, regardless of our differences on these issues of conscience.

Now, that brings us today to a second key corrective to our thinking if we're going to dwell in unity on these issues. We must not only remember that we don't decide our brother's acceptance, but we are not our brother's Lord, Christ is. That's the message of verses 4 through 9. We are not our brother's Lord. Look at verse 4, "Who are you to judge the servant of another?"

Now, the word 'servant' is the Greek word for household slave. Paul is making a very clear point. In the first century, there was a system of slavery; it was not identical to American slavery, and we've talked about that before, but there was a system of slavery, and he's using that as an analogy. He says, "Listen, one slave has no right to judge a fellow slave." He goes on, verse 4, to say, "To his own master he stands or falls;" his master determines if he stands or falls.

Now, what does that mean, stands or falls? It's like our expression, 'to stand in the favor of, or to fall out of the favor of.' That's what he means. In other words, his master either approves of him or disapproves of him, and that's the master's business, not the fellow slave's business. The point is, both slaves worked for the same master; one slave doesn't have the right to evaluate another of his master's slaves. The master determines whether a slave stands or falls, that is, is approved or disapproved. Verse 4, and I love this, "…he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand."

Compare Paul's amazingly gracious statement here with our typical ungracious response. I mean, let's just be honest with ourselves, there are times when there are differences over issues of conscience that we feel so passionately about it and so disdainful of those who take a different position, that we sort of secretly hope for their downfall. You know, and if something happens in their life, we sort of go, "Well, there you go! I knew that was going to happen; they were on the slippery slope. I predicted this." But Paul isn't like that. Paul expected that God will fully approve even those who disagree with us. Don't miss this point, this is so important. Paul says, "God will end up approving the choices of both the weak brother and the strong brother. He approves them both. Both can have His approval whether they have ours or not."

Verse 5, "One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike." As I've noted, this refers to the Jewish holy days, those days in the Jewish calendar that were set apart like Colossians 2:16, the weekly Sabbaths, the New Moon Festivals, and the annual Feasts. Jewish Christians had observed these their whole lives before Christ; and they were convinced that after Christ, they still needed to observe these days even though the New Testament was clear they didn't. The Gentiles, on the other hand, had not been into that system, and they learned early on that that wasn't something they needed to do as Gentiles, and so there was this legitimate difference over these issues. "One person regards the day, the other doesn't."

Verse 5, goes on to say, "Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind." Now notice, convinced where? Not in your emotions! You know, there are people I talk to, and it's like, you know, you're talking about issues of conscience and, "Well, I just don't feel like that's something I ought to do." Well, who cares? Be convinced in your mind! What does Scripture teach? What is your mind convinced that the Scripture teaches about this issue? "Each one is to be fully convinced in his mind." But notice, you're to be fully convinced. Convinced of what? Convinced that the Lord is pleased with your decision regarding that issue of conscience. You're to be fully convinced that this honors the Lord.

Verse 6, "He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord." You see, when Christians make decisions about issues of conscience, they must always do so with the Lord in mind. Whether they treat a particular day as holy or not, whether they eat meat or don't eat meat, whether they send their kids to public school or private school, or home school, and on and on it goes, their motive must be to honor their Lord!

He goes on to say in verse 6, "…and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God." This is the person, you remember, in context, this is the person who's convinced they can eat the meat sold in the marketplace, "It doesn't matter that it's not clean, it doesn't matter it wasn't slaughtered in the right way to be kosher, it doesn't even matter if it sacrificed to idols, it's okay; I can eat this meat, it's meat, it's good meat. I'm going to enjoy it." Jesus declared it clean in Mark 7; Peter the apostle had the same experience in Acts 10, it's good. So, he eats, he does so for the Lord. He gives thanks to God, "God thank you that you have made all these things available for me."

"He who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and (he) gives thanks to God." As he is sitting there with his little meager feast of arugula and brussels sprouts, he says, "God, thank you that I have something to eat. Thank you that you have made something possible for me in this pagan environment to eat." And he's convinced that this is for the Lord, and he gives thanks to the Lord.

Now, that expression in verse 6, "for the Lord," means 'in the interest of' or 'for the benefit of the Lord.' Whether they eat meat or vegetables only, they give thanks to God, and they make that decision for the benefit of the Lord. Now, this is so important folks. When it comes to issues of conscience, don't ever ask yourself, "What do I want?" That's not the issue! What do you believe will honor and benefit the Lord?

In fact, let me give you, there are two great tests right here in these verses of whether or not, whether you should or weather you shouldn't partake of that issue of conscience, take of that issue. Here are two tests. One, can you do that thing and genuinely give thanks to God? And number two, can you do that thing as to the Lord? If you can't, don't do it; if you can, then enjoy that freedom and do it. Paul's point, in this text, is that the weaker and the stronger brothers are both motivated by (What?) a desire to please the Lord, and so don't treat either of them as evil.

Now, verses 7 through 9, build on verse 6. Here's why we do what we do for Christ; it's because He is our Lord. Verse 7, "For not one of us lives for himself, and not one of us dies for himself." Now, that's interesting, I mean, why would Paul say that? What do you mean, "You don't die for yourself?" Paul uses these two words, 'lives and dies,' to make the comprehensive point that nothing a Christian does in life or in death, is done solely with reference to himself, or for his own benefit. He goes on in verse 8, to say, "For if we live, we live for the Lord." Every part of our lives must be lived with the ambition of pleasing Christ; it's for Him! How we think, our attitudes, our words, our actions, our motives, and, by the way, our decisions about issues of conscience. It's for the Lord. We live for Him.

Now, if you're aware of the rest of the New Testament, there should be a passage popping into your head about now. It's the Apostle Paul in Philippians, chapter 1, verse 21, where he says, "To me, to live is Christ." That's what he's saying. "If we live, we live for the Lord."

Verse 8, goes on to say, "for if we die, we die for the Lord." You see, even the timing and circumstances of our death is not based on our benefit and our interest, but on Christ's. In Acts 13:36, I love, Paul is preaching a sermon there, and just kind of is a throwaway comment, he makes this profound statement. He says, "…David, after he had served…(God's)…purpose…in his own generation, fell asleep."

You see, we die for the Lord. This should be an encouragement and comfort to those of you who have recently lost people you love, or maybe you're in the throes right now of seeing someone you love in the process of dying. Listen, remind yourself that your Lord is sovereign over all of those things and that person you love, who died in Christ, or whose dying in Christ, it's for the Lord.

Verse 8 goes on to say, "…therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's." In life or in death, we always belong to Jesus Christ. You remember to the Corinthians, Paul said, "Listen, you are not your own." Now, let that sink into your mind for just a moment. "You are not your own!" You don't belong to you; you don't belong to you! Why? Because, you were bought with a price, "Therefore, glorify God in your body," because it's Christ's. It belongs to Him. Pleasing Him, therefore, must be our chief ambition whether we live or whether we die. Philippians 1:20, Paul says it's "my earnest expectation and hope…that…Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death." Whatever He chooses, I just want Him to be exalted!

You see, regardless of which decision a person makes on a matter of Christian liberty, he can do it with a desire to please Christ, to live by God's will. And in so doing, he identifies himself as a true Christian and should be treated as such even if his decision differs from mine.

Verse 9, "For to this end (for this reason or this purpose) Christ died and lived again, (or rose again is the idea)." Here's why Jesus died and here's why He was resurrected, "(In order) that He might be (The form of the Greek verb there can be translated, "might become, in order) that He might become Lord both of the dead and of the living." You see, Jesus is our Lord because He earned that right by His death and resurrection.

2 Corinthians 5:15 says, "…He died for all, (that is, all who were His own) so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf." Do you understand that it is our Lord's death and resurrection together that establish His Lordship over His people, His right to be Lord? Christ established His right to be your Lord, Christian, by His redemptive work on your behalf.

In Matthew 28, you remember Jesus, about two weeks after the resurrection, assembles with His disciples, some 500 of them, probably in Galilee, and Jesus walks up to them and He says this, think about this for a moment, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth, the Father has given Me all authority." Now, think about that statement, as God's eternal Son, He had always possessed this supreme authority; but after the resurrection, the Father gave Him as the God-man, all-encompassing, absolute authority as a reward for His perfect obedience. "All authority has been given to Me."

Turn over to Philippians, chapter 2. You remember this passage in verses 7 and 8, we have described for us Jesus's kenosis, His self-emptying, His willingness to become one of us, His willingness, in verse 8, even to die on the cross and the death of a common criminal. Now notice verse 9:

For this reason also, (because of His humble submission to death on the cross) God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name. (What is the name above every name? It's not the name 'Jesus.' You have people in your life who are named Jesus. No! He goes on to say what it is.), "…so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus (the Messiah) is (Here it is; the name above all names.) Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

You see, through Jesus's redemptive work, through His death and resurrection, He earned the right to be Lord of those who believe in Him. In context, back in our text, in context, Paul is saying, "Listen, Christian, you haven't earned the right to be your brother's Lord, Christ has!" He died for your brother's sins; He was raised for his justification, and He alone has the right to approve or disapprove of the decisions of those who belong to Him. It's not your right! One commentator puts it this way, "Because He is our Lord, we must live for Him; because He is also the Lord of our fellow Christians, we must respect their relationship to Him and mind our own business for He died and rose to be Lord." So, remember, you're not the one who accepts him, Christ is; you're not his Lord, Christ is.

There's a third cure to the disunity caused by Christian liberty, and it's we are not our brother's judge, Christ is. This is in verses 10 through 12. Notice verse 10, "But you (now referencing the weak), why do you judge your brother? (Why do you condemn your brother for eating, or for not keeping the holy days?) Or you again, why do you (the strong) regard your (weak) brother with contempt?" Why do you look down on him and ridicule him?

By the way, this doesn't mean you never call into question something a Christian does. You know, "Who am I to judge?" It doesn't mean you shouldn't confront sin in the life of a fellow believer; Matthew 18 tells us we should. It doesn't mean we don't confront error; the New Testament both commands and models that.

What Paul means here is that neither the strong nor the weak are to decide the morality of their brothers' and sisters' choices on issues of conscience. Why? Because we're all going to answer directly to Christ at the judgment. Verse 10 goes on to say:

For we will all stand (a word used, by the way, of standing before a judge) before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, "AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD."

Now, look at those words, "judgment seat." That's one Greek word, 'Bema.' Paul is writing this letter to the Romans during his ministry in Corinth. In that ancient city, in the Agora of Corinth, there was the 'bema,' or the judgment seat. I've been there; I've seen the ruins of it. It was an elevated platform where competitors in the Peloponnesian games were evaluated, and winners were awarded their wreaths. It was also a place where, on a daily basis, legal decisions were made and pronounced. For Paul, that earthly place of evaluation in Corinth was a perfect picture of what will happen someday to every Christian. Verse 10, "We will all stand before the 'bema' of God."

Listen, brothers and sisters, we are not the final judge of each other's choices; rather, we are all going to be judged; and to prove that God alone is the judge, Paul quotes from Isaiah 45:23. I want you to notice though, that this judgment that's described here in verses 10 to 12, will be first of all, universal. Notice verse 10, "…we will all stand before the judgment seat of God."

But it's also going to be individual, verse 12, "So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God." Christian, let it settle into your mind right now, you and you alone, not your parents, not your friend, not the person you disagree with; you will stand before Jesus Christ and give an account of yourself to Him. Here it says. "…the judgment seat of God," but in 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul calls it more specifically, the 'bema' of Christ, "…we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad." Listen, Christ alone has the right to judge His servants.

This is so contrary to 21st century thinking. I mean, our culture habitually feeds us the idea that we have the right to judge everything and everyone. If you doubt that, just go on social media; I am judge, jury, and executioner! But, Christian, Paul wants you to know that is not your right. Can you imagine standing at the judgment seat of Christ, standing there and you watch one of your Christian brothers here in this church, walk up to give an account of himself to God? Can you imagine how it would go if you interrupted Christ at that moment, and you said, "Lord, excuse me, sorry, excuse me a second. I know this guy; he went to my church and you know he had some views on issues of conscience that I just, I don't think they were right. You know, I saw him at Southlake Town Square, and he and his wife were having a glass of wine with their meal. Or, they sent their kids to public schools, or they home schooled their kids," or, you fill in the blank whatever all the issues are. Can you imagine then you're saying, "So Lord, let me handle this one?" When you sit in judgment on your fellow believer's choices in areas of conscience, that is exactly what you are doing. You are taking to yourself a prerogative that belongs only to Christ and Christ will judge. He'll judge your brother's choices regarding issues of conscience; He'll judge your choices, and He'll judge your attitude toward your brother's choices. So spend more time worrying about your attitude than your brother's choices.

Very quickly, there are a couple of important lessons here. Listen, if you find yourself saying or thinking that Christians should do this or shouldn't do that when it comes to things that aren't explicitly spelled out in Scripture, Paul says, "You are the weaker brother," I'm sorry, that's what he says, "You're the weaker brother." So, ask yourself, do you sit in judgment on those who arrive at different decisions? Do you condemn them? And understand that when Paul calls you the weaker brother, he doesn't do so to shame you, but to encourage you not to take pride in your positions, but to grow in your understanding of the Scripture, its sufficiency and the implications of justification.

If you're here this morning and you're strong in faith; you say, "Look, I get it, the Scripture is where things begin and end, and everything else is an issue conscience. That's where I am; that's what I understand." Do you spend your time arguing with your weaker brother; do you look down on them, hold them in contempt, keep them at arm's length, you don't want to invite them to the party. They, after all, believe . . . fill in the blank.

For all of us, we need to make sure that we don't let issues of Christian liberty cause division and disunity in the Body of Christ here at Countryside. Instead, we need to remember that we are not the one who decides his acceptance, we are not his Lord, we are not his judge, Christ is in every one of those situations. And it is our Lord and His right to be Lord, earned by His death and resurrection, that we celebrate together in the Lord's Table. Take a moment and prepare your heart as the men come.

Lord Jesus, we acknowledge that you are rightfully our Lord; that you earned that right in your death and resurrection, and that now that name above all names, the name, 'Lord,' has been given to you. And, Lord, we freely acknowledge you as Lord.

We want to follow you; we want to obey you; we want to live in a way that honors you. And as we come to this ordinance that you gave us, help us to do so with clean hands and pure hearts. Lord, forgive us for our sins against you; cleanse our hearts. Lord, help us to repurpose, to turn from the sin in our lives and to pursue obedience. Forgive and cleanse us, oh, Lord.

I pray that as we take of the Lord's Table, that you would receive it as our worship to you. Lord, it is our desire to remember you, to remember your death and resurrection, to remember your right to be the Lord of the living and the dead. Receive the worship we bring now, we pray in Jesus's name, Amen.