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Navigating Christian Liberty - Part 7

Tom Pennington • Romans 14:1-15:13

  • 2021-01-17 AM
  • Romans
  • Sermons


Well, take your Bibles and turn with me again to Romans, chapter 15, as we continue to make our way through this wonderful section of Paul's letter to the Romans. We're studying together Christian liberty or what's also known as issues of conscience. I've defined for you that an issue of conscience or Christian liberty is any issue with moral implications that is not explicitly commanded or explicitly forbidden in the Scripture. As we've learned, in Rome and the churches there, it was about the Jewish Ceremonial Law, what you ate, the days that you celebrated in the Jewish festivals and feasts. In Corinth, the issue was meat sacrificed to idols and how to respond to that reality in the culture.

The question is what are the main issues of Christian liberty that divide Christians today? I've given you a little list along the way and I've considered those, but as I thought about this week, I think, if I'm honest at this moment in history in our country, I think there are two issues primarily, two issues of conscience that are especially divisive in the Christian world at large and could even threaten our unity here. Those two issues are views on the virus and response to that, and views on politics and the election.

Now, those are like the other things I've discussed, issues of conscience. But we have to be very careful in deciding where we land on these questions because our motives can be all wrong in terms of where we land.

On the issue of the election for example, someone in our church called my attention yesterday, Sheila and my attention, to a section in Martin Lloyd-Jones's book on The Sermon on the Mount book. It's a book I've read a couple times and thoroughly enjoyed, recommend it to you, but I'd forgotten this section. I want to share it with you for a moment because, while generally these issues are matters of conscience, we have to be so careful about our motives. Now the context, Lloyd-Jones is dealing in the Sermon on the Mount with treasures of the heart, that is not laying up your treasures on earth, but laying them up in heaven. He's not talking purely about financial treasures; he's talking about the things that matter to you, the things that you're passionate about. Listen to what he writes.

We might digress here for a moment and look at this subject from the standpoint of the general election. What is the real thing that people on both sides and all sides are concerned about? They are interested in treasures upon earth; whether they be people who have treasures or whether they be people who would like to have them. To be very practical, there is a very simple test which we can apply to ourselves. When, at the time of a general or local election, we are called on to make a choice of candidates, do we find ourselves believing that one political point of view is altogether right and the other altogether wrong? If we do, I suggest that we are laying up for ourselves treasures on earth if we say that the truth is altogether on one side or the other. Then if we analyze our motives, we shall discover it is because we are either protecting something or we are anxious to have something.

Another way of testing ourselves is to ask ourselves quite simply and honestly why we hold our particular views? What is really at the back of all these particular political views that we hold? I suggest that most people will find that there are some treasures upon earth about which they are concerned and in which they are interested.

The next test is this; to what extent are our feelings engaged in this matter? How much bitterness is there? How much of violence? How much anger and scorn and passion? Apply that test and again we shall find that the feeling is aroused almost invariably by the concern about laying up treasures upon earth.

The last test is this; are we viewing these things with a kind of detachment and objectivity or not? Do we instinctively think of ourselves as pilgrims and mere sojourners in this world, who of course have to be interested in these things while we're here? Such an interest is certainly right; it's our duty. But what is our ultimate attitude? Are we controlled by it, or do we stand apart and regard it objectively as something which does not really belong to the essence of our life and being; something with which we are concerned only for a while as we are passing through this life?

(Lloyd-Jones finishes.) Those are some of the ways in which we can find out very simply whether we are or are not guilty of laying up for ourselves treasures upon earth and not laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven.

Now, don't miss the point Lloyd-Jones is making. It's essentially this, we have to be so careful about our motives even when we are making decisions about things like issues of conscience. That's really the very same issue that Paul raises in our text today here in Romans 15.

We're learning, in these two chapters, that Christian liberty is a liberty to be wisely used, not a license to be abused. And so, in these two chapters, Paul lays out for us several foundational principles concerning the biblical use of Christian liberty. We examined already the first five of them, let me remind you of them briefly. First of all, we must expect legitimate differences on issues of conscience. It's just a reality; it's true in the churches in the New Testament, it's true in our church, it's true wherever God's people are.

Secondly, accept those differences in a spirit of unity; accept those differences. Recognize they're going to be there and accept those issues, those differences, and those people in a spirit of unity.

Thirdly, never allow your liberty to cause others to sin. You have to be always making sure that your choices are not going to cause of fellow brother or sister to stumble into sin and make sinful choices for themselves.

Number four, never allow your liberty to cause you to sin, either by violating your own conscience or by using liberty as an excuse for what is really just outright sin.

And last time, we discovered a fifth foundational principle of Christian liberty and that is this; limit your liberty for the spiritual good of others. That's the message of Romans 15:1 to 6. Christian liberty becomes sin when you make it all about you, when I make it all about me.

Instead, we should choose to limit our Christian liberty for several reasons. We discovered two of them last time. We should limit our Christian liberty for the sake of believers and their edification. That's the message of the first four verses of chapter 15. You ought to be concerned about how your choices in these areas affect your brothers and sisters in Christ. And you shouldn't make the choice if you're doing so is tearing them down in any way. It should instead be to build them up.

Secondly, we discovered in 1 Corinthians 10, last time, another reason to limit our Christian liberty and that is for the sake of unbelievers and their salvation. You see, the unbelievers around you have, they have their own views about how Christians should act and what they should do and shouldn't do. And sometimes their views go beyond the Scripture itself, and Paul said, "Sometimes I will sacrifice what is really my liberty to do for the sake of those unbelievers around me so that I can see them come to faith in Christ." He says, "I'm willing to sacrifice my liberty for the sake of the gospel."

Today, we learn a third reason to limit your Christian liberty and that is, for the sake of God and His exultation, for the sake of God and His exultation. Look at Romans 15, verses 5 and 6. Paul writes:

Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, you'll notice that these two verses are really a kind of benediction, a kind of prayer-wish. Notice how he puts it, "May God do this for you?" Paul wasn't technically praying at this point; he is writing them a letter. But he wanted them to know that when he prayed regarding this issue of Christian liberty, this was his prayer, for them and for us. When it comes to how we interact with one another on issues of conscience, this is what Paul wanted above all else.

What was it? What drove Paul on this issue? What did he want us to arrive at? It was a spirit of unity, that we would be of the same mind with one another. That's the essence of these two verses. But let's take this prayer-wish that Paul makes here in these two verses apart. Let's look at each part so that we can understand Paul's heart and his prayer, his prayer for unity regarding issues of conscience; and then understanding it, we can put it back together and we can seek to make his heart and his prayer our own. So, let's look at this together.

As you contemplate this benediction, this prayer-wish, it first teaches us, Paul's example here first teaches us to pray for unity because of the gracious nature of God, pray for unity because of the gracious nature of God. Look at verse 5, "Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you." Why did Paul express this desire to God? Why did he pray this prayer for the people in the Roman churches? Because, back of it all, Paul understood that it is God's nature to hear and answer prayer. You see this in how often we have recorded prayers of the Apostle Paul in his letters. He understood that this is who God is. You see this, of course, throughout Scripture; you see it with the Psalmists. Again and again, the writers of the Psalms, you see them reflecting this understanding that this is. God, this is who we worship.

There are so many examples; let me just give you one. Psalm 54, verse 2, this is one of a myriad I could give you, "Hear my prayer O God; Give ear to the words of my mouth." How often do you find people in the Scriptures crying out like that to God? Why? How can the Psalmist, and how can the Apostle Paul, and how can we have so much hope that the Lord will actually hear us? Do you believe that the Lord hears you when you pray, I mean, really? I'm not asking you what you sign on a line somewhere; I'm asking you in your heart of hearts, when you pray, do you believe God hears you? Why do we have that assurance? Because it is the very nature of God to hear. That's who God is!

I've seen this in a number of places, but recently I came across a passage in a Psalm of David that just struck me in a new and fresh way. It's Psalm 65, verse 2, listen to David. He's talking to God and he says, "O You who hear prayer, To You all men come." You see what David's doing? David actually gives a name; he gives a title to God. And what is His name? You who hear prayer! That's who God is; you're the one who hears prayer. Our God is, by nature, a prayer-hearing God.

Now, if you're a Christian here this morning you understand that because your Christian life began this way. When you heard the gospel; I'm talking about the time you really heard the gospel, and you believed that gospel. What was the immediate response of your heart? It's what Paul says in Romans 10, "You called upon the name of the Lord."

You know, this has been oversimplified by some into this sort of rote prayer that sinners ought to pray. But at the same time, there is a reality that when your faith lands in the gospel and in the person of Jesus Christ, what do you automatically do? You call upon the name of the Lord; you cry out to Him for the forgiveness that He alone can offer. It's like the publican in Jesus's story who beats on his chest and says, "God, be merciful to me the sinner."

So, your Christian life began this way, and if you're here this morning, I want you to understand if you're not a follower of Jesus Christ, that this is who God is, this is His nature. He's never ever turned a truly repentant heart away. If you are willing to humble yourself before Him to acknowledge your sin, if you're willing to put your trust in Jesus Christ, His Son, the eternal Son of God who became man, lived among us, lived a life of perfection for thirty-three years, perfect obedience, and then went to the cross, and in those hours, endured God's eternal judgment against the sin of everyone who would ever believe, against your sin if you're willing to believe in Him. If you will turn from your sin and you will put your faith in Christ, and you will call upon the name of the Lord, if you will cry out for forgiveness like that publican, then I promise you God will hear because He is a God who hears.

Paul's heart was always a heartbeat away from prayer because he understood the generous nature of God. He is a God who hears prayer, but God doesn't just hear, He then gives generously! Notice what He gives in this passage. Verse 5, He gives us endurance. It's translated here that He is "the God who gives perseverance" or endurance is the word. Notice there's a marginal note in our Bibles and it says, literally, He's the God of perseverance; He's the God of endurance. What is that? I love this word. Again, it's the word 'endurance.' It's also here translated 'perseverance,' but it's a Greek word that's composed of two parts. It means literally 'to remain under.'

My favorite illustration of this has to be Olympic weightlifters. This summer, Lord willing, there's going to be the Olympics; we'll get to see that unfold. And there will be, probably not a favorite event for most of us, there will be these massive human beings who approach this bar that's loaded with more weight than me, and they will grab that bar, thrust it above their head; and for a specified period of time, they'll hold that bar at full arms' extension; and as they do that, their entire massive body will begin to shake and to tremble beneath the load of that weight. They are remaining under that weight until the signal is given and they can drop it; that's this word. It's the ability to endure; it's the ability to remain under the weight. Of what?

How do we get endurance? Well, I've got some good news for you and some bad news. The good news is God gives endurance; the bad news is He gives it through trials. Romans, chapter 5, verse 3 says, "…we…exult in our tribulations, (in the pressures of this life) knowing that (pressure) tribulation brings about perseverance," endurance, brings about the ability to remain under.

Some of you, right now, find yourself under a really heavy load, and you know what? You just want to be out from under it. But understand this, God is using your time, remaining under that weight, under those trials, to build your spiritual endurance; it's serving a good purpose. God gives endurance; He gives it by sustaining us through the trials of this life.

Notice, He also is generous in that He gives us encouragement, verse 5 says. Again, literally, He's the God of encouragement. How does He give us encouragement? Verse 4, we saw this last week, the encouragement of the Scriptures. God encourages you to sustain your faith, to continue following Christ, by what you learned in the Scriptures. You see the life of faithfulness, you see what Christ did, you see all kinds of things that sustain you through encouragement in the Scriptures. God gives endurance through the pressure of trials; He gives encouragement through His Word.

Verse 4 says He also gives us hope. How? Well, we learned last time He gives us hope by mixing together the endurance He gives us with trials and the encouragement He gives us with Scripture, and as we live through all of that, our hope grows. As we'll see in verse 6, God also generously gives us unity. So, what Paul is saying here as he models for us how to pray for unity, he says pray for unity because of the generous nature of God. He hears, and He gives and He gives and He gives!

Secondly, like Paul, we should pray for unity as one of the gracious gifts of God, we should pray for unity is one of the gracious gifts of God. Notice how verse 5 goes on, "Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another." God gives endurance, He gives encouragement, He gives hope, and He also gives unity. Notice how he words it here, "May God grant." That word literally means, according to the leading Greek lexicon, 'to give as an expression of generosity, to give as an expression of generosity.'

Paul understood that prayer was a request of God for what we don't have, what we desperately need, but what we will never deserve. In prayer, we're asking God to give us something, to grant us something, out of His generosity, something solely that is an expression of His grace, that is an expression of His own generous heart.

Now, what was Paul asking God to generously give or grant when it comes to issues of conscience? What should we ask of this God who hears prayer, who is naturally generous and gracious, to do, when it comes to the exercise of our Christian liberty? Notice what he prays, "That God would grant you (You here is plural; we could say it this way, that God would grant all of you.) to be of the same mind." He says, when it comes to issues of conscience, I am praying that you would think alike, that you would have the same opinion.

Now, don't misunderstand what Paul is saying here. He is not saying that we should all come to complete agreement on all the different issues of conscience, that we should have the same view of entertainment, that we should have the same view of the use of alcohol, that we should have the same view of the response to the virus, or politics. He's not saying, "I want you all have exactly the same view."

No, he's praying that we will have unity in two ways. First of all, that we will have unity in the essentials of the Christian faith. I know that because he's said that elsewhere. Go over to Ephesians, chapter 4; Ephesians, chapter 4, as Paul begins the practical ramifications of the gospel here in Ephesians 4. Verse 1, he says, "Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you've been called." God has called you through the gospel to Himself; that's the effectual call. In light of that, you need to walk worthy of that, you need to walk in a way that reflects well on what God has done in your life.

And do so, verse 2, "with all humility and gentleness." Wow! This verse needs to be like placarded on our political scene. "With all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love." But watch verse 3, "being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." How do we preserve the unity God has created among us, by immersing us into the Body of Christ at the moment of salvation? How do we preserve that unity? By focusing on the main things! Look at verse 4, "…one body…one Spirit, just as…you were called in one hope of your calling." There's, "one Lord, one faith, (That is one body of essential doctrine we believe.) one baptism, one God and Father of all who is overall and through all." He says, "Listen, you want to preserve the unity? Focus on the main things that we as Christians embrace, unity in the essentials of the faith."

But I don't think that's all Paul is praying for when it comes to unity. Go back to Romans, chapter 15. I think in context, Paul is not only praying that we would be united on the essentials of the faith, we would be of one mind on those things, but that also we would have unity in how to handle the legitimate differences of conscience, that we would be of one mind on this--how to respond to each other when there are differences. Notice he says, "I want you to be of the same mind." The question is, "Whose mind?"

You know, I think the solution here, we could have unity in this church if you would all be of my mind, okay? If all of you would just think like I think, we would have unity. Or, maybe you're thinking, "No, Tom, my mind! If everybody just thought like I think, we could have unity in this way." Whose mind? Verse 5, "…may the God…grant you to be of the same mind with one another (Notice this phrase.) according to Jesus…Christ." Paul is praying that we'll be of one mind, not my mind, not your mind, but the mind of Christ.

So, how in the world do I get the mind of Christ? I wish I had time to take you to 1 Corinthians 2. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul is talking about the Scripture; and in that passage, he talks about the inspiration of Scripture, how we got it, how the Spirit gave it to us, gave us even the words through the writers of Scripture, tells us about illumination, how we come to understand it, it's all about Scripture. And then he ends that chapter, 1 Corinthians, chapter 2, verse 16, with these words, he says, "…WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ." If you're a Christian, you have the mind of Christ. You say, "How did I get it? Where do I get it? You get it right here (Showing the Bible)! That's his point in 1 Corinthian's 2. It's all about the Scripture and he says, "In the Scripture, you have the mind of Christ!"

Do you want to know how Christ thinks about everything that matters? It's right here (showing the Bible); you have the mind of Christ. Paul is praying and wants us to pray that with issues of conscience, we will all have the mind of Christ as it's revealed on the pages of Scripture. In other words, that we will each fully embrace what Christ tells us about this in Romans 14 and 15. That's where the unity comes from. When we hear Christ, we understand His mind in Romans 14 and 15; and when it comes to issues of conscience, we treat each other the way it's laid out here. Wow! That's unity! Then we're really acting in keeping with the mind of Christ. So, pray for unity because of the generous nature of God. Pray for unity as one of the gracious gifts of God, He would grant it to us.

Thirdly, pray for unity in light of the great goal of God. Notice verse 6, and this is really where Paul has been building, "…so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Notice, "so that," this means he's introducing us now to the goal that he had in praying for unity when it comes to issues of conscience, here was his goal, "…with one accord (That means we should pray, not for superficial unity, but for real unity, that we would really be of one heart, one mind, and then he adds) …with one voice." That means that we should pray not only for real unity, but for outward unity, for unity that's obvious to others, where the world looks and says, "Look how those Christians love one another, look how they defer to one another, look how they care for one another, look how they treat one another."

But, notice the goal, in verse 6, is not unity; or to say it another way, unity is not the ultimate goal for which Paul prays. He prays for unity, but that isn't the ultimate thing he prays for. So, what is the ultimate goal? Well, take out the supporting clauses in verse 6 and you get the main point, look at it and read it with me, "…so that…you may…glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." That's the real goal, that's the great goal, that's God's goal, in all things including even issues of conscience.

Now, first of all, notice the title Paul uses in verse 6 for God. It's a bit unusual, "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." That title speaks of the two natures of Christ; it clearly speaks of His deity. He enjoys a unique relationship to God. God is His Father in a way that is true of no one else. That's why Jesus said in John 10:30, "I and the Father are (What?) one," unique relationship. So unique, He was claiming to be God; they would pick up stones to stone Him. "You know, God is my Father, but I would never say, 'I and the Father are one.'" Jesus has a unique relationship to God, and so He is His Father.

But this title also speaks of Jesus's humanity because notice here it says that, "God is Jesus's God." Jesus didn't have any problem saying that. You remember on the cross in Matthew 27, verse 46, He cried out from the cross, "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?" And in John 20, verse 17, after the resurrection, he says to Mary Magdalene, "I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God." Paul, in Ephesians 1:17, calls God, "…the God of our Lord Jesus Christ." This underscores His humanity; He is both deity and fully human at the same time. He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; that's to whom all of this flows.

Notice then what Paul is saying in verse 6; the goal of unity, when it comes to how we relate to one another on issues of conscience, is not unity. The goal of unity is not unity; the goal of unity is the glory of God, the glory of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, how does that happen? How can God get glory from these decisions you make about whether to do this or not to do that? Well, God gets the glory when we follow the principles that we've learned in Romans 14 and 15, when we act in keeping with the mind of Christ revealed in these chapters, when we, look at verse 7, when we "accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us (Notice the result.) to the glory of God." When we follow the principles regarding issues of conscience that we've learned in these two chapters, and when we accept one another as Christ has accepted us, it brings glory to God. Why? Because it reflects the heart of Christ who accepted us.

Can you imagine, I mean, think about this for moment when it comes to these issues of conscience, can you imagine saying, "You know Christ has accepted me, brother and sister in Christ, He's accepted you, but I don't accept you because of the view you hold on that." No, it brings glory to God when we accept one another on these issues that aren't clearly spelled out in the Scripture.

Paul makes this same point with the Corinthians. In fact, I won't have you turn there, but you're familiar with it. In 1 Corinthians 10:31, it says, "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." You know that verse, but we almost never quote that verse in its context. It's in the context of Christian liberty. Paul is saying we should never exercise our Christian liberty based on what we want, but based solely on the choice that will bring God the greatest glory. It's like everything else in life. Your Christian liberty is not about you, it's about God. When you decide whether or not to use your Christian liberty, can you honestly say you ever stop to think, which of these decisions will bring the greatest glory to God?

Douglas Moo writes:

Only when Christians are united, only when Christians connect with one accord and speak with one voice, will they be able to glorify God in the way that He deserves to be glorified. (And then, listen to this.) Divisions in the church over nonessentials divert precious time and energy from its basic mission, the proclamation of the gospel and the glorifying of God.

So, let's just bring this down to brass tacks; how are you doing, personally, in praying for and working at preserving the unity with other Christians when it comes to today's major issues of conscience? How are you doing when it comes to entertainment choices, use of alcohol, schooling choices, response to the virus, response to politics? Are you more passionate or more personally committed to issues that the Bible doesn't even directly address, or are you more passionate about what He's passionate about in the Scripture? If you wonder, just look at how many conversations you have, look at what you post. Are you thinking about other Christians when you take these positions, when you champion these things? Are you thinking about unbelievers and their salvation? Are you thinking about the glory of God?

Paul says, "Limit your liberty for the spiritual good of others, for the sake of believers, and their edification, for the sake of unbelievers and their salvation, for the sake of God and His exultation; "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God."

Let's pray together. Father, thank you for this incredibly practical and especially relevant study for us this morning. Lord, we live in divisive times, and we confess that we are all too often carried along with that spirit of division, even with our brothers and sisters in Christ over things that are not clearly addressed in Scripture. Father, forgive us; help us to have the mind of Christ as it's revealed in this very passage. Help us to respond to each other as we've learned, and in so doing, bring you glory.

And Father, now as we turn our attention to the Lord's Table, I pray that you would prepare our hearts. Lord, help us to respond even as we saw in John 13. Lord, you have bathed our souls; but as we walk through this world, we gather the dust of the world on our feet and we need to confess our sins to you, not as judge, but as Father. Lord, we take time now to do that, to thank you for Christ, and to individually confess our sins to you.