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Navigating Christian Liberty - Part 5

Tom Pennington • Romans 14:1-15:13

  • 2020-11-15 AM
  • Romans
  • Sermons


We're studying Romans 14 and the issue of Christian liberty. Let me begin by just giving you a definition of Christian liberty; you don't have to write this down, but I hope you'll consider it and think about it. Christian liberty is the God-given freedom to make our own decisions before the Lord about moral decisions not explicitly addressed in Scripture. Let me say that again, Christian liberty is the God-given freedom to make our own decisions before the Lord about those moral decisions not explicitly addressed in Scripture.

We're learning here, in Romans 14, that we need to be careful with the practice of that liberty; that it is a liberty that is to be wisely used, not a license to be abused. There are real dangers. So, how is it that we can know when to use our Christian liberty? Well, here in this passage, Paul provides us with several foundational principles concerning the wise and biblical use of our Christian liberty. We've already examined the first three of those principles.

First of all, we learned that we are to expect legitimate differences on issues of conscience. They were in the churches in Rome, these differences were; these differences were in the church in Corinth, as we will see this morning; and the differences are in every church. They're in this church and every church of Jesus Christ. So don't be surprised when you start talking with someone and you discover that you're on a different page with them on these issues of conscience; that's to be expected.

Secondly, we learned to accept those differences in a spirit of unity. We need to think rightly about our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we learned that in the first 12 verses of Romans 14. Accept those differences, accept one another in a spirit of unity.

Last week, we learned a third principle, and that is, never allow your liberty to cause others to sin; that's Romans 14, verses 13 to 21.

Now, today we come to a fourth crucial principle of Christian liberty and it's this, never allow your liberty to cause you to sin; never allow your liberty to cause you to sin. This is the message of verses 22 and 23. You see, if we're not careful, exercising our Christian liberty can easily cause us to sin. In fact, there are two ways that liberty can become a source of sin in our lives. Paul explains one of those ways here in Romans 14, and the other one he explains in 1 Corinthians, where we'll also go before the morning is over. So let's consider, then, how make sure that our liberty doesn't become a trap for us.

The first way using your Christian liberty can cause you to sin is this, by violating your own conscience, by violating your own conscience. Look at verses 22 and 23:

The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

Paul says even though the Bible allows you freedom to make certain choices, it will still be sin for you if in doing that thing you violate your own conscience.

Paul begins in verse 22, by addressing the stronger brother. He says, "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God." The emphasis here in the Greek text is on the pronoun 'you, for you,' the one who is strong, strong in your understanding and application of the sufficiency of Scripture. He says use and enjoy your Christian liberty; but have it as your own conviction before the Lord. That is, keep it to yourself, keep it private, don't trump it about where you've landed on these issues; keep it to yourself.

Now, Paul doesn't mean by that that you never mention your views on these things. I mean, Paul just did that back in verse 14. He says, "I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself." So, he took his own stand on the issues in the churches in Rome. So he's not saying that it's inappropriate to ever mention these things, and he doesn't mean that no one should teach about the biblical truth and the freedom that we have in Jesus Christ. That's what he's doing in this text; that's what I'm doing this morning. There's an appropriate person, an appropriate time, and appropriate motive for instructing the weaker brother.

But his point is discussions about these issues should never be a point of conflict; they shouldn't be the main thing between Christians. So, have it as your own conviction before the Lord; move on. Paul here says, "Exercise your liberty quietly; don't blow a trumpet, don't parade it, and for goodness sake, don't try to convince others of your view."

Verse 22 goes on to say, "Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. Paul pronounces here a blessing, 'happy.' It's the same word Jesus uses in the Beatitudes, 'blessed.' "How blessed is the one who does not condemn himself in what he approves." Paul pronounces a blessing on the stronger brother who can exercise his liberty in Christ and feel absolutely no guilt in doing so because he is convinced that Christ approves of that decision.

Now, in verse 23, Paul comes back to the weak brother. He says, "But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith." Now, just to remind you or for those who weren't here, one of the key issues of liberty in the churches in Rome had to do with newly converted Jewish believers who were still convinced they needed to keep the Old Testament dietary laws, the kosher laws of the Old Testament. And because of that, these brothers doubted if it was okay to eat meat that was sold in the meat markets there in Rome. Why? Because if they bought that meat, it could be from an unclean animal, it could have been slaughtered improperly, or it could have been offered to idols, and so should we eat? And they didn't believe they should. Paul says if one of those weak brothers goes ahead and eats while he still wonders of its morally acceptable to God, he is condemned.

Now, the word 'condemned' is used in two different ways in these two verses. Back in verse 22, he's talking about self-condemnation; don't condemn yourself by what you choose, you don't feel guilty, you don't condemn yourself.

But in verse 23, Paul is not talking about self-condemnation because the other four times he uses this particular verb, the verb in verse 23, 'condemn,' it always refers to God's condemnation. The point is this, if you do anything while you're still doubting if it is morally right to do, then God condemns that decision. That is, God says you're guilty of sin; it's a sin. Why? Verse 23 goes on to say, "(For) whatever is not from faith is sin."

Now the word 'faith' here, is used in the sense of a sense of conviction about what's right that flows out of your faith in Christ. Douglas Moo, in his commentary on Romans, writes this, "Any act (Listen carefully.) any act that does not match our sincerely held convictions about what our Christian faith allows us to do and prohibits us from doing is sin." So, in other words, if if you act and that action is not what you sincerely believe your Christian faith allows you to do, it's sin. He goes to say, "Violation of the dictates of conscience even when the conscience does not conform perfectly with God's will, is still sinful." So, even if the Bible doesn't directly address it, if you do it and in so doing violate your conscience, to you it is sin. Remember, Paul's here only addressing those decisions that are not explicitly spelled out in Scripture and when something isn't expressly dictated in the Scripture, then we are to respond to the prompting of our conscience when the Scriptures isn't clear. You must never violate your conscience.

What does it mean to 'violate your conscience?' That's the expression that I've used; what does that mean? Here's what it means; it means that you are not convinced from Scripture that God allows you to make that choice, but you decide to go ahead and do it anyway. If you do, that thing, whatever it is, it will violate your conscience and for you it will be sin. If it's doubtful, for you, it's dirty. It doesn't mean it universally is, but for you it is. Why? Because you will be deliberately choosing to do what you believe God has not allowed you to do.

I used the illustration last week of a parent who tells a child that they can have as many cookies as they want from the cookie jar; and then later catches that child sneaking around, trying to get away with something, getting cookies from the very jar that you permitted. That would trouble you as a parent, why? Not because of what they're doing, that's fine. You told them they could have as many cookies as they wanted. It's the attitude, it's the desire to get away with something, to disregard your authority; that's what would trouble you and that's what troubles God as well. Because, if you do that thing, believing God hasn't permitted it, then what you're really saying is, "I don't really care what God has said, I'm a going to do what I want anyway!" That's a problem. So, if your conscience tells you it's sinful, don't do it.

Now having said that, let me also hasten to say this, it is important for you to grow in your understanding of these things. Remember, Paul calls the one who struggles, using his Christian liberty, the weak brother. That's not done to somehow insult the Christians in the churches in Rome or the Christians here, but he is making this point, the implication is weak is not a good place to be. He wants you to grow strong, and so the implication here is the weak brother is to mature and eventually have a strong conscience. That ought to be your goal. So don't violate your conscience, but be committed to growing.

How do you do that? Over time, you have to reeducate your conscience. You'll remember when I began this series several weeks ago now, I made the point that conscience, the word itself, means 'with, or according to knowledge.' What that means is, your conscience is only as effective as the knowledge that informs it. So you can reeducate or retrain your conscience with the Scripture. Now, how you do that?

Let me just briefly give you a couple of practical steps to reeducate or retrain your conscience, three practical steps. Number one, meditate on those biblical texts that teach the sufficiency of Scripture. Read, study, meditate on those texts that underscore that the Bible is enough, and you don't need to add to what God has said. A couple years ago, I did a series called, "Hold Fast," those truths to which we're to hold fast. One of the first messages I did in that series was entitled, "The Bible is Enough." Go back and listen to that and work through those texts in your own mind and meditate on those truths. You don't need to add to what God has said, it's enough!

Secondly, study what the Scripture says about Christian liberty. Go back over these texts we're studying together, go through 1 Corinthians 8 to 10, go through Romans 14 and 15, and understand what the Bible says about Christian liberty.

And, then thirdly, study what the Scripture says about that particular issue of conscience in which you're struggling. Inform your conscience with what God says and doesn't say about that particular issue in His Word. When you do that, you will begin to retrain and reeducate your conscience, and you will grow gradually from being a weak brother to a strong brother.

Now, looking at verse 23 again, make sure you understand an important distinction here. A lot of Christians get hung up on this; how can I go from, you know, not sinning against my conscience to ever-changing? Verse 23 does not mean that you have to wait until your emotions catch up before you can exercise your Christian liberty. No, the key issue is what you think.

Look at verse 14, Paul says, "…to him who (Underline this word.) thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean;" talking about now the kosher food laws. So, in other words, an issue of Christian liberty, an issue of conscience, it's what you think, you must be convinced in your mind about what the Scriptures teach. Then, you can legitimately exercise your liberty even if the first few times you exercise your liberty your emotions are uncomfortable, because that's going to happen.

You know, I've used the illustration, and there are a couple people here today in pink shirts, let's say you were raised in a home where you were taught your entire life that wearing pink shirts with sinful. But as you grow in Christ, you see what the Scripture says, you look at the sufficiency of God's Word, you look to see if there's anything anywhere about pink shirts in Scripture, and you discover there's nothing; you have that freedom in Christ and so you decide next Sunday you're wearing a pink shirt. What happens the first time you put on a pink shirt? Your emotions are pretty uncomfortable with that; you may even feel a false sense of guilt, a little bit. But if your mind is convinced from Scripture that it's acceptable, then go ahead; but if your mind isn't convinced, then don't. That's what he's saying. You can legitimately exercise your liberty even if the first few times your emotions aren't caught up, if they're uncomfortable. But you must never exercise your Christian liberty if you doubt, in your mind, that the Bible allows it because then you are violating your conscience; for you, it will be sin.

Now, there's a second way that your Christian liberty can cause you to sin. Not only by violating your own conscience, but secondly, by using your liberty as an excuse for sin, by using your liberty as an excuse for sin.

Now, for this part of this principle, turn with me to 1 Corinthians, chapters 8 through 10; 1 Corinthians 8 through 10. In these chapters, Paul is dealing with exactly the same issues, issues of conscience, Christian liberty. But in 1 Corinthians, the issue is different than it was in Rome. In the Roman church, you remember, the weak brothers were primarily Jewish believers and the issues of conscience were about the Old Testament ceremonial laws, about eating kosher foods or not eating them, about keeping holy days or not keeping them. In Corinth, the weak brothers were primarily Gentile Christians who had been immersed their whole lives in an idolatrous, pagan culture; that's how they grew up and that's how they lived before Christ. And the conscience issues in the church in Corinth were about food sacrificed to idols.

Now, when we put together the letter to the Corinthians, it becomes fairly clear that the Corinthians had sent Paul three questions about these issues that they wanted him to address. Let me just give you the questions. The first question was, "May we buy and eat meat sold in the marketplace, knowing that it's likely been sacrificed to idols? Can we go to the meat market and by a good cut of meat even though we know what's happened to that before; it's been offered to idols?" Second question, "May we eat that same meat if it's served to us in the home of an unbeliever?" And then the third question was, "May we attend the feast held in the idol temples and eat that same meat there?"

Now, as Paul responds to those three questions, he's very concerned about several issues. Let me just give you a brief outline of what Paul does with Christian liberty here in 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. First of all, in 1 Corinthians 8, he covers the very same concern we saw last week in Romans 14 and that is not allowing your liberty to cause your brother to sin. Beginning in 1 Corinthians, chapter 9, verses 1 to 23, Paul gives his own example. That is, his own use of Christian liberty, how he's exercised his liberty. In 1 Corinthians, chapter 9, verse 24 and running all the way through the end of chapter 10, Paul warns about the danger of allowing Christian liberty to become an excuse for sin; the very thing we're seeing in Romans 14.

Now, let me break down this last section for you because this is where I want us to focus. In chapter 9, verses 24 to 27, Paul begins dealing with this danger by highlighting the risk of losing our reward and even losing our usefulness in this life because of what we do with this. Notice 1 Corinthians 9, verse 24, "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win." He says, "Listen, you're in a race, the Christian life is like a race, run to win." How you do that? Verse 25, "Everyone who competes in the games (the Isthmian games there in Corinth) exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable." He says, "Look, you can't just give in to your body, you can't give into your wants and everything you want to do and expect to win in the race that is the Christian life, even if it's something that is permissible. You've got to use self-control just like the athletes do." Verse 26:

Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air. (Here's the key.) …I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I preach to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

He says, "I don't want to be disqualified from the race I'm running. I don't want to become useless to Christ in this life and lose the reward in the future." And how does that happen? He says, "This happens when, in the name of Christian liberty, we give in to our bodies, we let them control us, we give them whatever they want." That's letting your liberty become an excuse for sin.

Now, that brings us to chapter 10; chapter 10, verses on1 through 10, Paul cites the example of the Israelites who came out of Egypt (Doing what?) misusing their new liberty and freedom. And he says, "Look what happened to them; it can happen to you too if you misuse your new liberty and freedom in Christ." (paraphrased) Verses 11 through 13 of chapter 10, he exhorts us not to follow that example. "Don't do that," he says.

And then beginning in verse 14 of chapter 10 and running down to verse 22, Paul addresses the specific problem that was there in Corinth. Paul introduces us here to a first century example of allowing your Christian liberty to become an excuse for sin. And it relates to one of the questions of the Corinthians had asked him. Remember, one of the questions was this, "May we go to the idol temple feasts and eat the meat offered to idols?" Now as you're sitting here in the 21st century in Dallas, you're thinking, "How in the world could one of those pagan converts in Corinth ever come to that conclusion, that that would be okay?" Well, you don't have to wonder about how they processed this because Paul tells us their logic in this text; track with me. Here's how they reasoned. An idol doesn't actually exist, true or false? True, no such thing; there's one God and the rest of the gods of the nations are idols. "So, idols don't even really exist," they said. "So, we can then eat meat that's sacrificed to idols, and let's take it a step further, since idols don't really exist and since there's nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols, then there must be nothing wrong with our attending the idol feasts and eating the same meat there." This was their thinking; this was their logic.

Paul's answer to their question, "Was this okay?" was, "No! That's ridiculous. You should never attend the idol feast." To do so was clearly sin. Verse 21, "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord (That is the Lord's Table; you can't commune with Christ in the Lord's Table.) and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table the Lord and the table of demons." What's he saying? He's saying, "Yes it's true, an idol is nothing. There are no other gods but one. But, the gods of the nations are energized by, the religions of the nations are prompted by demons." Do you understand that? Whether you're talking about Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam, demons have energized those religions to lead people away from the one true and living God. Paul says, "Because of that, don't even think for a moment about going there. You can't commune with the Lord at the Lord's Table and then go commune with demons at the idol temple." Or, "Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?" Paul says, "You should never attend the idol feast because it's active participation in idolatry and idolatry is clearly forbidden." Go back to verse 14, "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry."

Now, I suspect nobody here has been tempted to attend an idol feast, so what's the point? Don't miss the large point Paul is making. He is helping us see the very real temptation to use the guise of Christian liberty as an excuse for doing what is clearly biblically wrong. And folks, we are tempted do this all the time. So, don't let the example get in the way of the truth he's teaching and that is, we can have every bit as twisted, a set of logical ideas, that help lead us to use what we call our Christian liberty when, in reality, it's just sin; it's just sin.

In fact, go back 1 Corinthians, chapter 6. Paul illustrates this with how they thought about sexual sin. They did the same thing when it came to sex. 1 Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 12, he quotes a saying that was popular in Corinth, in fact, you can put quotation marks around it, "All things are lawful for me." They loved saying that. "Hey, I can do whatever I want!" Paul says, "…but not all things are profitable." Again, he quotes them, "All things are lawful for me," and then he says, "…but I will not be mastered by anything." I'm not going to do anything that's going to control me, that's going to enslave me. Verse 13, again put quotation marks; here's another one of their sayings, "Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food." They said, "Look, you know, the physical is the physical, it's just the body, has nothing to do with my spiritual life, I can do what I want, it's not really going to impact me." Paul says, "…but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body." You see what they were doing? They were claiming Christian liberty and doing that which was clearly forbidden in Scripture. And you and I can be tempted to do exactly the same thing.

One of my favorite books is a riveting book written by John Krakauer called, Into Thin Air. Krakauer describes the ill-fated 1996 attempt to ascend to the summit of Mount Everest. During that climb, a record twelve climbers were killed. He recounts several of the compelling poignant stories from that ill-fated climb. In one case, a climber realized that he was soon to die and he literally sat on the side of Mount Everest, took out his satellite phone and called and said goodbye to his wife and died.

I think one of the most tragic stories in the book is of a climber who became severely disoriented because of extreme oxygen deprivation at that altitude; the brain simply wasn't getting enough oxygen to function. And so, this climber, who had managed to climb all of those incredible crevices and cracks and canyons, literally walked off the side of the mountain and fell a thousand feet to his death. I think that's a graphic picture of what can happen with Christian liberty. We can become disoriented; think we're still on solid ground, and before we know it, we're falling into sin.

Now, I know there may be somebody here going, "Tom, look I got this. Don't worry about me; not going to happen to me." Look at 1 Corinthians 10, verse 12, "…let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall." Did you ever realize that was the context of that statement? It's about your Christian liberty. Don't you think for a moment that you're going to be immune from being tempted to use your Christian liberty and to plummet to your own destruction.

Now, let me show you how we can be tempted to use our Christian liberty as an excuse for sin. Let me just consider a couple of issues, issues of conscience that I've already mentioned. I'm not picking on these issues; I just want you to see an illustration of what this looks like. Let's take alcohol, for example. Having alcohol in moderation is an issue of Christian liberty; we've already talked about that because the Bible doesn't forbid it. But you have to be so careful because you can be tempted because it falls within your liberty to fall into sin in how you use alcohol. How does that happen? Well, you can sin by drinking in excess. The Bible clearly forbids drunkenness, being under the control of alcohol. Ephesians 5:18, "…do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit." Paul says, "Listen, if you're going to be under the control or influence of anything, let it be the Holy Spirit and not alcohol."

Now I know there's an easy way for us to talk ourselves into, "Well, I'm not one of those people." Okay, well, let's just talk about a more objective standard than your impressions. In the state of Texas, there is a legal standard of being under the influence of alcohol. For most people in this room, if you consume two drinks in an hour, you're likely impaired; if you consume three drinks an hour, you are almost certainly legally intoxicated. Order three drinks, well, that would amount to more than three ounces of liquor, more than two beers, and more than two five-ounce glasses of wine. If you consume more than that of those substances within an hour, then don't kid yourself. If even the government considers you to be legally under the influence, then understand this, you have crossed the line, and you are no longer exercising your Christian liberty; you have turned your liberty into license. So, don't deceive yourself.

You can also, when it comes to alcohol, sin by drinking high alcohol content beverages. It's interesting when you look at it, the highest alcohol content possible in biblical times was fifteen to sixteen percent alcohol by volume. And wine was often mixed with water; that's not a debatable item. Homer, in the Odyssey, or I should say Homer who wrote the Odyssey, makes the point that twenty-parts water to one-part wine was not uncommon. Pliny, the historian, says that the norm in Roman culture was eight-parts water to one-part wine; so even with their alcohol rate, that was often severely diluted. The Bible forbids drinking wine or other beverages that are in a state in which they can easily intoxicate. Such drinks are typically called strong drinks in the Bible, and any lack of moderation with strong drink was strongly condemned. Proverbs 20, verse 1, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, And whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise." Isaiah 5:11, "Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink, Who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them!" Listen, you can use your Christian liberty and it easily become sin.

You can also sin with alcohol by drinking that leads to other sins. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul says, "…do not get drunk…for that (leads to) dissipation," or reckless abandon is the meaning of that word, and we all have sadly witnessed that in the lives of others. Drinking can lead to anger, it can lead to indecency, to sexual sin, to a variety of other sins.

Let me use another example. You have the Christian liberty to enjoy various forms of entertainment and we all exercise that liberty. But if you watch movies or programs with explicit sexual content, you have crossed the line between liberty and license. Ephesians 5 says, "Be careful what you imbibe sexually," and of course, Philippians 4 says, "Be careful what you think about," Philippians 4:8. You are simply using your liberty as an excuse to sin. If there's, think of this way, if there's no way you'd be comfortable watching that if Jesus Christ were seated next to you, if there's no way you can finish that movie or TV program and give thanks to God for it, Romans 14:6, if the lyrics of that song glorify things that God condemns, if that video game is explicit enough that you would never consider playing it with Jesus Christ, if you would be embarrassed to allow Christ to see the pictures you posted of yourself on Instagram because of what you're wearing or not wearing, stop telling yourself it's your Christian liberty, it's not! Your liberty has become an excuse for clear-cut sin.

Just like the Israelites, we can push our liberty over the edge, and we can fall into sin and still be claiming, "It's my Christian liberty." Paul says, "Be careful, don't ever allow your Christian liberty to cause you to sin by violating your own conscience, or by using your liberty as an excuse for clear sin."

As you prepare your heart for the Lord's Table this morning, let me encourage you to search your own heart. Ask yourself this question, "Am I allowing my Christian liberty to become an excuse for sin?" If so, confess it to Christ; tell Him, "I've sinned against you in this way." Seek His forgiveness and tell Him that you're going to resolve to walk in a way that would please Him.

Take a moment now and prepare your heart before we take of the Lord's Table.

Our Father, we confess to you our great temptation to excuse our sin, to sin under the guise of Christian liberty, to rationalize like the Corinthians did, to convince ourselves that whatever it is, is really okay. Father, forgive us. Help us to say about our sin what you say, help us to recognize how evil it is. Lord, help us to see how bad our sin is by looking at what the eating of one piece of fruit cost the entire human race. Father, remind us of how bad our sin is by looking at the cross and seeing what it would cost for that sin to be atoned for, the death of your one and only eternal Son.

Father, help us to take our sin seriously and to confess it. Lord, help us even as we prayed a few minutes ago, to confess our sin to you individually, all of the sin that we are aware of that you bring to mind. And Lord, if there are sins in our lives that we are committing under the guise of Christian liberty, help us to be honest before you to ask your forgiveness, to resolve to put that sin out of our lives, to consider ourselves lest we also fall.

And Father, there are many other sins in our lives that aren't about Christian liberty, help us to confess those now to you so that we can take of the Lord's Table in a way that honors His sacrifice for sin. Lord, don't let us hold on to sin, the very thing for which He died even as we are commemorating His death for sin. Forgive us, oh, God, for the sake of Jesus Christ who paid for every sin, and may we celebrate His death with clean hands and pure hearts. We pray in Jesus's name, Amen.