Login to download lecture and curriculum
Paul's discussion of the ethics of the Christian life, a Christian's relationship to the government, and a final discussion of "weak" and "strong" Christians
A. Review of the Structure of Romans
B. Righteousness Lived Out (Rom. 12-15)
1. The Relationship Between Theology and Ethics
2. Responsibility to God: Be Transformed (Rom. 12:1-2)
3. Responsibility to the Church (Rom. 12:3-21)
4. Responsibility to the Government (Rom. 13:1-7)
5. Responsibility to Society (Rom. 13:8-14)
6. Responsibility of the Weak and the Strong (Rom. 14:1-15:13)
7. Epistolary Conclusion (Rom. 15:14-16:27)
Lecture: Romans 12-16
Review of the Structure of Romans
Let me rehearse again the overall structure of Romans. In 1:18-3:20 the basic purpose was for Paul to convince people that apart from Christ everyone is a sinner that there is no righteousness apart from Christ. Then at 3:21 through the end of chapter 4, he shows that there is righteousness; it is possible to be right with God, but it’s through the work of Jesus on the cross received by faith. The emphasis on that justification is through Christ in chapter 3 and then you have a description of that faith in chapter 4. Paul then starts Romans 5 with a therefore, saying, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,” as opposed to works, “we have peace with God,” and he continues to lay out all the benefits of our salvation. The peace there is in reconciliation, the peace there is in the sufficiency of the cross and the sufficiency of the sacrifice. He talks about sanctification and the role of ongoing sin in a believer’s life in chapter 7; He talks about the lack of condemnation of the law in chapter 7, and that even though we keep sinning, there’s no condemnation. In chapter 8, he gets into the Holy Spirit and how the Holy Spirit affects this new life. That’s the end of that block of teaching. In chapters 9-11, he’s dealing specifically with the question of the Jews and Gentiles.
Righteousness Lived Out (Rom. 12-15)
The Relationship Between Theology and Ethics
Then in chapter 12, he’s says, “I appeal to you therefore,” this therefore is just as significant as the therefore in chapter 5. He says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God,” and mercies of God is his summation of Romans 3:21 up through chapter 8. The mercies of God, all the things that God has done for us in his mercy is to motivate us, is to propel us into a certain life. When you look at the mercies of God, you realize that even as far back as chapter 2, God was patient in not punishing us and giving us time to repent. God’s mercies are that justification is available through faith through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, God mercies are the faith that he requires, the faith that simply believes that God can bring into being that which doesn’t exist and we have to be fully convinced that God is who is says he is, and will do what he says he will do. God’s mercies are the fact that we are reconciled that there no longer is enmity, hatred, or war between us and God. You can go all the way through chapter 8 and those are the mercies of God so Paul starts this section on ethics by saying “therefore, because of all that God has done for you and for me, not because we deserved it, but because he’s a merciful God, therefore I appeal to you,” and appeal is a very weak word, the Greek is much stronger, it’s something more like beg, the King James is beseech, it’s a strong word in Greek, “I implore you to present your bodies.” What I want you to see first of all is the connection between chapter 12 and the preceding.
In chapter 12 up through most of chapter 15, this is a discussion of what’s called ethics, of how we should live. How the theology that we believe (1:18 to chapter 8) should affect us in a practical way and how we live our lives, ethics, chapter 12 through the middle of chapter 15. This is a very common way that things get broken up in Paul. For example, Ephesians is broken in half this way—you have the theology in chapters 1-3, then all the ethical applications in 4-6. The structure is the same. I think it’s really important to understand this, because what happens if you have theology, but no ethics, is that you have Pharisaism. You have people thinking that knowledge is the end of product, that it’s the goal, and it’s not. The end goal is that our lives change, but what also happens if you have no theology and all ethics is a mess. This is Paul saying that I testify that my fellow Jews have fervency, but it’s not based on knowledge. You can have all this, “Oh I want to be like Jesus, but don’t ask me to study any theology. Don’t ask me to learn what he’s like.” So this connection of theology and ethics is so critical and that’s why all sermons for example should always have both. If I ever just give you theology and no ethics I have failed. You should rise up and say, “Okay, so what. I mean it’s really nice to know this about God, but what’s the point?” Sometimes just knowing the theology is the point, but usually there’s something more involved. There’s this combination of theology and ethics that’s so critical in all of this.
Responsibility to God: Be Transformed (Rom. 12:1-2)
I’m going to spend an inordinate amount of time on the first two verses because I think these are key verses. Do you know the area called spiritual formation? Is that a phrase you are familiar with? Spiritual formation is just a phrase we use to describe the whole process of growing in Christ, of sanctification, of being spiritually formed.
Our Motivation (v. 1a)
One of the really interesting questions in the whole topic of spiritual formation is, why? What’s the point? Why should my life change? Why should I be obedient? Why should I strive to learn? One of the two primary answers is most clearly expressed here in these first two verses so let me just read them and then we’re going to go back and pick them apart. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (1). Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (2).” In Romans 12, the first half of verse 1 is dealing with issues of motivation and I’ve already covered some of this. Why should we want to grow in our faith? Why must we grow in our faith? The answer is that we grow in response to the mercies of God. You and I as followers and disciples of Jesus Christ should be so aware theologically of who we are and what Christ has done for us that the only natural response (by natural I really mean supernatural because it’s the result of your conversion) to knowing who I was and what God did for me when he made me alive, is to behave in a certain way that my life should be lived in response to his goodness and his mercy. That’s one of the two primary themes for motivation in spiritual formation.
Do you know the hymn by Isaac Watts, love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all. How come love demands my soul? Well, he’s telling what Romans 12:1 says, that God’s love, his mercies are so amazing, not only his character, but his actions in making me righteous by faith, that that demands my soul, my life, my all. See there’s no compartmentalization in Isaac Watts, there’s none of this, God saved me so I’ll give an hour Sunday morning to him. See that’s really thumbing our nose at the mercies of God by saying, “What you did wasn’t that amazing so you only get an hour back a week.” That’s what we do sometimes, at least some people do, right? That’s one reason why anthropology precedes soteriology. If you know who you are and you know who God is, then you can understand the greatness of what he did and then you see how great his love for us, how wonderful his mercies are towards us and they demand my life, my all. Isaac Watts’s song is just right. One of the two primary motivations in spiritual formation is living a life in response to the mercies of God.
The other big one, and I’ve mentioned this in the past, is be who you are. Paul in Romans 6 says, “Wait a minute, why would you think it’s okay to live in sin? You died with Christ in your baptism; you’re raised to a new life, a new life in which sin has no ongoing role.” That’s the other motivation—look at who you are, look at what Christ made you and then behave in a way that is appropriate for who you are.
Those, at least in my mind, are the two largest motivating factors in growing as a Christian, in spiritual formation. Live in response to the mercies of God, and live in a way that is appropriate for who you have become. Now there are many other motivations out there, like fear, which can be good—1 Peter 1:17 says if you call upon God as Father who is going to judge you, live out your life in fear knowing that you are going to stand before him and give an account. There are lots of motivations for the spiritual walk, but I think these are the two big ones: live in response to the mercies of God and be who you are.
Present ALL of Yourself to God as a Sacrifice (v. 1b)
Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God,” there’s your motivation, and the second half of the verse says, present all you are to God as a sacrifice. That’s how you and I respond, we give all of ourselves to God, we give all of ourselves to God as a sacrifice, we give all of what we are sacrificially to God. What Paul is going to do in the second half of verse one is build a metaphor built on sacrifice, and you need to understand that otherwise you can misunderstand it. “Present your bodies,”–not my mind, so I can think whatever I want as long as I give my bodies to Christ? No. I had a college English teacher at state school named Dr. McKelvy and I loved him dearly and we had a good relationship, but we use to argue all the time, and he used to say the difference between Catholics and Protestants was Protestants think it’s okay to think wrong thoughts as long as you don’t do it, and Catholics think it’s wrong to think something is wrong, but that’s why they have confession. He’s saying, Protestants say it’s okay to think whatever you want. We argued a half hour in class once and Dr. McKelvy at the end, with a smile on his face said, “Bill, my head is blooded, bent and bowed, sit down,” because evidently I was standing at the time.
The reason Paul says bodies is he’s developing a sacrificial metaphor that we are to give all that we are, and so when you think about a sacrifice—taking a dead animal and putting its body on the altar—that’s why he talks about body. If you understand the sacrificial metaphor, you know that we are to give everything that we are: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Now the last time I checked most sacrifices don’t live, but you can see him working with this metaphor. You are a sacrifice you are going to be continually doing this, continually presenting your body as a living sacrifice, “holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual” or you can see in the footnote, rational, service. The word can go either way, spiritual or rational. If it’s translated spiritual, he’s making it very clear that this is a metaphor, although I don’t really think you need to make it that clear, it seems obvious that it’s a metaphor. I think that the word is better translated rational worship, in other words, this is the only thing that makes sense. When you look at the mercies of God and what he has done, the only thing that is rational, the only thing that makes sense is to give all that you are to God as an ongoing, living sacrifice.
You know that one of the things that bothers me the most is compartmentalization—when somebody thinks that they can turn their life into a patchwork quilt and I’ll give this square to God and this square to porn and do this thing that it’s okay. There are very few things that drive me nuts faster than that. This is probably my prime passage I would go to in discussing that issue with someone, that you are to give everything that we are. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “So, whether you eat or drink, you do, do all to the glory of God. There’s just no room for compartmentalization and for being a part-time disciple of Jesus Christ.
Refuse to Be Like the World (v. 2a)
Then what he’s going to do in verse 2 is start to put a little meat on it. Now it’s still not real practical, the real practical stuff starts at verse 3, but he’s going to start spelling out what it looks like to be a living sacrifice. He says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (2).” He starts in verse 2 by saying that a living sacrifice is someone who refuses to be like the world. This is the “no” of the Christian ethic. There’s a “no” to the Christian ethic and a “yes” to the Christian ethic. There are certain things that we don’t do and there are certain things that we do, not because we’re legalists, but because we are responding to merciful acts of God in our lives.
Paul starts in verse 2 with the “no’s” of the Christian ethics, the things that we are not supposed to do. “Do not be conformed to this world,” probably the greatest single stroke of the pen in all of the world is J. B. Philips translation, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold,” and I think that’s got to be one of the most powerful ways to state it. The world has a mold. It has a specific shape and it wants to squeeze us, it wants to press us, it wants to push us into the mold, and motivated by the merciful acts of God in our lives we are to resist. In other words, we are to be non-conformists. Christians are non-conformists.
Just a quick look at different verses where it talks about what the world wants us to look like: Galatians 1:4, “…who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age,” the mold that the world wants to squeeze us into is evil. The mold of the world is powerful mold; it seduces many people. Matthew 7:13: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” Does that verse bother any of you? That verse bothers me a lot, why would a good God create reality where most people would go to Hell? It just bothers me, but when you tie it in with the doctrine of the remnant, which is a minority, I think it’s safe to say that is what’s going on, but even if it’s not that, even if it’s many, I don’t know it’s just something that always struck me as one of the things I want to ask why he did it that way. It is the mold of the world that is powerful and it seduces many people. The mold of this world leads to death, Romans 8:6-7, “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace (6). For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot (7).” There’s a mold that this world wants to force us into and we are to be non-conformists, we are to fight it. There’s all kinds of imagery, we are to be salt and light right, we are to come out and be different. In 2 Corinthians 6:17 in Jesus’s highly priestly prayer he talks about being in the world, but not of the world, which is a very helpful way to say it to me that we are to be in the world. We’re not here to ignore the world we are here to be in the world, but we are not of the world. We are to be different from the world. There are a lot of metaphors that talk about that.
Insist on Following God’s Will (v. 2b)
Paul says, look at what God has done for you in his mercy, and understand that you are to give everything you are to him sacrificially. What that means is that there are some “no’s,” don’t be conformed to this world, don’t end up looking like this world, but then there are “yes’s” to the Christian ethic and this is the second half of verse 2, “be transformed, by the renewal of your mind.” We are into non-conformity and we are into internal transformation. Notice the verb is passive, “be renewed,” who is doing the renewing? Am I able make myself obey these rules? No, it’s the Holy Spirit isn’t it. We are being transformed, it starts inside; it’s the inner working of the Holy Spirit on our hearts. Another reason why legalism is wrong because it puts all the emphasis on what I do and what I don’t do, but really what we’re supposed to do is start on the inside and then the Holy Spirit is transforming our hearts and then our transformed hearts start affecting how we live. The roots of the tree start showing its fruit.
Ultimately this whole process is self validating and that is what’s going on at the end of the verse, “that by testing you may discern what is the will of God,” and the will of God “is good and acceptable and perfect.” The idea is that as you and I walk this journey of spiritual growth, saying “no” and saying “yes” and as the Holy Spirit is renewing our mind, then in the every day events of life we will be testing because we will be in a situation where the worlds says, “Do this,” the Spirit says, “Do that” we do that—that’s the testing. As we do that we start to realize that that was the right thing to do and the Christian ethic becomes self validating in a sense in that we see that when I do obey God, that really is the right thing to do. There’s a lot of stuff wrapped up in these first two verses, but when it comes to the issue of spiritual growth and spiritual formation, they are pivotal verses.
Responsibility to the Church (Rom. 12:3-21)
Paul sets the stage in Romans 12:1-2 and now at verse 3 and pretty much through the middle of verse 15, he’s going to start putting real flesh on Christian ethics. What does this look like; day-to-day what is sacrificial, non-conformist, inner renewal life look like. He starts off in verse 3 to end of the chapter, explaining how we act in community, what goes on in the Christian church. This is a great chapter, if you haven’t read it you need to.
This section is a call to humility and a call to unity. Those are the ideas that weave their way through the rest of chapter 12. It is a call to humility in the sense of not thinking more of myself and when I stop thinking too much of myself and I get preoccupied with you, then that’s where the unity comes from—that’s people putting other people first, functioning together, held together by love. It’s a lot about unity and a lot about humility.
He starts with a predominate note on humility in verses 3-8, “For by the grace given to me,” in other words, my apostolic call, “I say to everyone among you,” Paul didn’t really let anyone disagree with him at any level, have you noticed that? I was thinking back on our discussion of 2 Thessalonians that if anyone disagrees with anything that I say, ignore them, have nothing to do with them. Paul just didn’t brook any objections or any disagreements. Now Paul knew the Gospel, there were no interpretive issues for him, and so I don’t think that we can be quite as strong as he is. He’s not tolerant of people believing things differently than he does because God has revealed the truth to him at every level. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you,” no exceptions in other words, “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment (3).” Humility is really one of Paul’s cardinal virtues. In fact, if you go through some of the different sections on ethics you’ll find that it often occurs as the head term. This means that if you can understand humility upfront, everything else flows from it naturally. Again for Paul, humility is not letting people treat you like a doormat or wishy-washy. Humility for Paul is best expressed in Philippians 2:3,” Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” That’s the best statement for what I think humility is in the Bible. It doesn’t mean that we have to think that the other person is better or any of that stuff we often associate with humility. It’s saying treat them, count them more significant than yourself, put their needs ahead of your own. That’s what Jesus did and that is what is humility.
He starts with humility, then he goes through chapter 12 and he reflects on the fact that we are many members of the one body. We all have different gifts, but we are to use the gifts to treat the other person as more significant. Starting at verse 9, there is a whole series of commands and they are beautiful commands, “Let love be genuine (9).” That’s probably the head command here and what I mean by that is he is saying, "Let love be genuine, and let me tell you what genuine love looks like. It means ‘Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor (10).’” he goes on and he says this is what it’s like to live in Christian community, this is what love looks like. He talks about humility, acting in love, and living in harmony.
Responsibility to the Government (Rom. 13:1-7)
In chapter 13 then he picks up the issue of how Christians relate to the government. Remember Paul is writing to the Roman Church, so he’s writing to the church that’s in the ultimate seat of power in the ancient world. He wants to talk about how they relate to the government. This is a huge topic and I only have a few things I can say on it, but this is the primary passage when it comes to issues like civil disobedience. This is where people will go.
Let me just read the first part of it. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Now remember Nero is on the throne, right? He is not a good man. Everything we despise in sin, Nero encapsulates. Nero is on the throne; "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God,” Nero? Yes “and those that exist have been instituted by God. “Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment." Then he goes on and he explains what that means. It is a very strong passage that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesars and that we need to recognize whether it is a democrat or a republican in the Oval Office that authority is instituted by God. Sometimes as you can imagine, that’s pretty hard can’t you. What if the institutional power in Indonesia is Muslim and there’s genocide of all Christians. Well, that’s not far off from Rome. I have more questions than I have answers on this, but this is the primary passage that says that a Christian’s duty is to obey the civil authorities because God has put them there. If you do what is right, Paul says you have nothing to fear.
The Question of Civil Disobedience
The question obviously comes up, is there a place for civil disobedience? Is this an absolute mandate or is it conditional? Before we jump to the conclusion that it’s conditional, remember the language here is really strong. He doesn’t just say obey Caesar, he says, all authority is instituted by God, that is God’s decision who is there. It is very strong language, but the answer to the question of civil disobedience I think has to be yes, but the question is, when are we disobedient? Our tendency, my guess is, is to be disobedient more than we probably should. At least that’s mine, because we’re naturally rebellious, right? I don’t like to be told what to do. Especially from someone who lives in another state.
Jesus’s cleansing of the temple certainly was civil disobedience. He had no business from the authorities, the Sanhedrin’s viewpoint of disrupting commerce, of losing income, of attacking their way of doing things and so the cleansing of the temple is usually held up as an example of civil disobedience. One of the strongest verses of civil disobedience though is Acts 4:19-20, where Peter and John have just been brought before the Sanhedrin. They’ve been told to shut up, “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge,’” in other words, you can debate this topic until you are blue in the face, we really don’t care is what Peter says. “‘For we cannot, but speak of what we have seen and heard.’” that is one of the strongest statements in Scripture endorsing civil disobedience; there is a time in which we say no to the secular authorities.
How Do You Decide? Ethical Hierarchy
So the question is, how do you decide, how do you decide when to be civilly disobedient? People like Bonhoeffer really had a struggle with this. Bonhoeffer, one of the German theologians during the beginning of World War II was involved in an attempted assassination. Corrie Ten Boom who hid Jews, who lied to the police, struggled with this. There are some people that really made a stand for civil disobedience. At a more personal level, let’s say your husband wants you to do something illegal, let’s say your spouse lies on the income tax and says, “Oh, honey, you need to sign this form.” Most people understand that there is an ethical hierarchy and that some rules are more significant than others and we all have these rules. Some of them may not be justified. Do we speed on the freeways, but not in town? We have little ways that we do it, but we all have ethical hierarchies and we all understand that there are some things that just by the nature of things are more significant. Our allegiance to God comes before everything else, over our allegiance to our spouse, to our parents, to our family, to our job—I think most of us would say our ethical rules to our family come above that of the world, although there are some people who will argue on that. There are some people that will say you have no right to treat your children differently than other children. I don’t agree with that, but I’ve been in that argument.
Most people have ethical hierarchies where some rules just by their nature are more significant. There are 10 commandments, not 615. There is ethical hierarchy ordering of things. You’re Corrie Ten Boom and the Nazi’s come to your door and say, “Are you hiding any Jews?” You with a very straight face lie and say no because you have an ethical hierarchy that values human life above lying. That’s how it works. Now I’ve had discussions with seminary professors that say it’s always wrong to lie and if they were Corrie Ten Boom they would have found some way to word the answer so they weren’t lying. I said, “When you want to join to the real world, you come back and talk to me.” Because anyone who would not lie to preserve a life I have real problems with. He wanted the answer to be, “You know, look around if you like,” or “do you see any?” That’s all an attempt to deceive, which is the same thing as a lie. That’s one of the answers, “trust in God.” It’s easy to trust in God when it’s not your own ten-year old child’s life at stake. I think if somebody was going to give that answer then I think the answer has to be, “Okay that’s your child, your child is the Jew; now what are you going to do?”
Having said that, there certainly are going to be times where you may not know what the outcome is going to be, or you may think you know what it’s going to be and there is a call for trust. My sister has smuggled thousands of Bibles into China when you had to smuggle to get them in. They open up the suitcases and the suitcases are full of Bibles and the guard goes, “Okay” and doesn’t see them. There are going to be situations of trusting, but the basic answer is, we all understand there is an ethical hierarchy and we follow that hierarchy. What I would just add though, I think that most of our tendency is to dismiss Romans 13 and to think of all the excuses for not believing that the Oval Office is God ordained authority over this country. I think where I would err more is not giving enough respect to the governmental authorities. This is the struggle and Romans 13 is the primary place that people have to struggle.
Responsibility to Society (Rom. 13:8-14)
Paul goes on and he talks about how we relate to society in general. You have the golden rule in verse 9b-10, “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself (9).’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (10).” The whole purpose of the law in the Old Testament was to show people how you love God and how you love one another. That’s why Jesus is the fulfillment of the law because if we love Jesus, the law is covered, and that’s why the Golden Rule is a fulfillment of the law. It shows us that if you love your neighbor, you’re going to treat them properly. That’s what the law was all about.
I like verse 14 a lot, "But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Make no provision for the flesh, don’t even plan to be able to sin, don’t set yourself up in a situation to where you may be able to get away with sinning.
Responsibility of the Weak and the Strong (Rom. 14:1-15:13)
In Romans 14:1-15:13, we have this whole issue of weaker and stronger. There are some people in modern scholarship, Gordon Fee’s one of them, who thinks that this is what the whole Book of Romans is about—that the whole issue that Paul’s been striving toward is how do Jews and Gentiles relate. The standard position is that Paul’s tacking things on the end that might be helpful. The truth may be in the middle, but it’s hard, it’s just a controversy today, but it doesn’t really affect interpretations.
What we have in chapter 14 and the first part of 15 is this whole issue of weak and strong people and causing someone else to stumble. That’s the issue that is being dealt with. Theologically it’s the distinction between clean and unclean, and what is involved in that. It’s helpful a little to speculate what lies behind this chapter. Some of it certainly is Jewish ritualism, things that make you unclean so you can’t go into the Temple and worship or can’t approach God in prayer.
A lot of what lies behind this is the whole issue of pagan worship. Now we talked about this briefly in 1 Corinthians 8, but I want to talk a little more completely here. In Corinth especially, you have this form of pagan worship where you buy your meat that has been offered to idols and by eating the meat you are participating in eating the god basically. You are participating in the god and so eating the meat that was sold on the Temple premises where the money went to the Temple is a form of worship. The meat was offered to idols, that’s what that’s all about. It was a form of worship. The problem of course in Corinth was that when people became Christians they realized there were no other gods that this meat could be offered to, I don’t know if it was in jest or not, but I remember my teacher telling me that the best cuts of meat were at the Temple and it was a little cheaper because it had been given to the Temple so that’s the best meat market in town. I’ve never read that anywhere else, but it makes a good story, The problem was that the people became Christians and either they would shy away from eating meat that had been offered to idols because they used to do that as an act of pagan worship, or they would say there are no gods so let’s get a good deal on a T-Bone and cook it tonight, and so there was a conflict. There was a lot conflict over food in the first century.
Two Groups of People
You have these two groups of people questioning issues of ritual cleanliness/uncleanliness, eating or not eating the meat that had been offered to idols. It really is a Jew/Gentile discussion. The edges aren’t quite that firm, but the two groups of people are mostly Jewish and mostly Gentile we are assuming. There are two groups of people.
The first group of people are those that Paul says are weak in faith. Now I would like to someday ask, “Paul isn’t there a better way to explain it than that?” Because it automatically sounds like weak is bad. The whole point of the chapter is get along and it doesn’t really matter, so why make the situation worse by calling them weak? Anyway, he calls them weak and this is mostly Jews we would guess. These are people that are vegetarians, that won’t eat meat at all, Romans 14:2, “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.” Certainly this would include the people who would eat meat as long as it wasn’t meat offered to idols, which is the problem in Corinth. Also the people who are weak in their faith observe some days as special religious days, Romans 14:5, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.” This is the same issue that we have in the Colossian Church in Colossians 2:16, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” The people that he’s going to call weak are the people who won’t eat meat at all or won’t eat certain kinds of meat and they want to say certain days are special and we can’t do certain things on them.
The other category of people Paul calls the strong, which for the most part is going to be Gentiles, and Paul considers himself in this category. These are people who will eat meat since they know there are no other gods, and they view all days as the same.
I didn’t have time to mull over this, I’m really curious what ramifications this has on how we behave on Sunday and whether it is a day set apart, because Paul’s rules can’t overrule creation, right? Sabbath is not set in the Mosaic Law—Sabbath observance is woven into the fabric of creation, that on the seventh day God created and he rested. In other words, what we do every seventh day is not an issue of whether we do or don’t follow the Mosaic Law, that’s my personal belief, it’s something to do with creation and I’m not sure how this will affect that, but certainly they are talking here about the major festivals.
Opinion and Adiaphora
Okay, so you have the weak and you have strong. Now there are a couple of caveats I want to add and one is we’re dealing here with issues of conscience are we. We’re dealing here with issues of opinion, not theological necessities. In other words, there are certain things that all of us wants to believe are true and there are certain things that all of us must believe are false, because Scripture is very clear, but the issues that are being addressed here, the weak and strong, can’t be those because you have statements like, in 14:14, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself,” so Paul is making a theological axiom, “but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Now either that’s a post-modern insertion into the text, or Paul is saying we’re dealing here with things that do not necessarily have to be a certain way. In verse 1 he talks about opinions, "As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions." Words very specially chosen to emphasize that we are dealing here not with the do’s and don’ts of the Gospel, but opinions about secondary things.
The technical word for this, it is a fun word to use, it is adiaphora, it’s a Greek word and it means things that are secondary significance. Things that are outside of the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" of the Gospel. We’re dealing with adiaphora, we’re dealing with these issues of opinions and conscience not necessarily what is taught or what isn’t taught. The question of course is whatever topic you’re currently debating is it adiaphora or not. If somebody really believes that it is wrong to play pool, you’re not going to be able to convince them it’s adiaphora, that it’s a thing of secondary significance, a thing of conscience, a thing of opinion, because to them Christians don’t play pool, they don’t play cards, and there’s a whole long list we can put in.
So this really is the difficult part of this whole discussion, what is the adiaphora, what are issues of opinion? How do you behave on Sunday—do you mow your lawn or do you not mow your lawn on Sunday? Even something like circumcision can fit into this conversation; we know that circumcision, external circumcision, Paul says in Romans 2, means nothing. Circumcision is an issue of the heart, it’s not a thing done with hands if it’s real. We know that to be an absolute biblical principle, but Timothy is circumcised to see the Gospel go forward. Paul hasn’t changed on his view of circumcision and yet one’s circumcised and one’s not. In one context Paul thought it was best for the promulgation of the Gospel that Timothy be circumcised. For Titus it was necessary for the promulgation of the true Gospel that he not be circumcised, that Titus not be an example of bending to Jewish wishes. This is a difficult issue, more than probably right up front, but that’s one of the real issues—how do you know if it’s an adiaphora or not. Part of the answer is, are there in Scripture, either by precept or by principle, instructions related to this? Is there a specific statement or is there a specific principle that comes to apply?
Combined with this is another difficult issue. The reason I’m spending some time with this is we want to live in harmony with one another. If we’re going to be a biblical church, a biblically authentic community, then one of the areas that we need to know is how to get along with one another and that means how to learn to agree to disagree and even when it gets heated, and it generally does get heated about less important things, right? We generally don’t get heated about the deity of Christ because if someone doesn’t believe in the deity of Christ he’s a non-Christian so we try to evangelize him, it doesn’t cause any friction. How you baptize people and some of these other things tend to be what generates heat.
Causing Another to “Stumble”
The other issue is stumbling; that’s the word we use, don’t cause your brother to stumble. My experience is that’s used to beat me over the head to get me to do what anybody wants me to do. They look at something I do and if I’m mowing the lawn on Sunday they say, “You’re causing me to stumble.” That’s not what stumbling is. In 1 Corinthians 10:29 Paul says, "For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?" There’s this tendency in this whole stumbling business to get lowered to the lowest common denominator, to find whatever behavior won’t offend anyone and for everyone to reduce all their liberties in Christ so this person over here or that person over there won’t get mad at me. Stumbling doesn’t mean you bug them, that’s what I’m saying. Stumbling isn’t bugging someone, 1 Corinthians 10:29. Stumbling means that you’re leading someone to sin. 1 Corinthians 8:11-13, “so by your knowledge,” meaning you’re free to eat the meat offered to idols “this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” By stumbling we’re talking about doing significant damage to someone’s faith. In other words, destroying the work of Christ in their life—that’s what stumbling is, it’s not bugging the person.
My wife tells the story, I think she was in junior high and this was an important time for her spiritually. She was really challenged to grow and she grew in leaps and bounds and she went into a restaurant one day and a very well known Christian author who sold millions of books was sitting in the restaurant and drinking quite a bit. It did really significant damage to Robin because if you know Robin, she loves to look up to people, respecting Christian seniors is a big thing to her. You can see why the adiaphora is difficult isn’t it. Did he cause Robin to stumble? Well, in one sense, it probably made her rethink things pretty carefully and try to figure things out. On the other hand, because of who Robin is and because of who this person is, it did really damage her walk with Christ. Now I’m not saying therefore that means we shouldn’t drink, I’m just saying that’s why the situation is so hard, because so much is at stake. It’s one of the reason I don’t drink, among other reasons like I can’t stand the taste of it and I’m uninhibited quite enough without any chemical help. I could not explain why it would be so important for me to drink if it would really damage people’s walk as they look at me as their pastor. This is why I’ve chosen, among other reasons, not to drink. That and I’m too cheap. I’m judging it for myself. I believe it’s impossible to say that drinking wine is inherently evil, getting drunk is inherently evil. It is very interesting to read some papers where, some people will go so far with this particular example they will say that Jesus drank pasteurized wine that had no alcohol in it. One of my students was Dan Pedrezetti, Pedrezetti is a winery in Napa Valley, he grew up and he goes, “There’s no way.” But there are people that will violently object to any idea of Jesus drinking wine at the Wedding of Canaan, where’s it’s not grape juice. Obviously this is a very sensitive area, but this is why the stumbling thing is an important thing to think through and it can be a real divisive thing.
Instructions to the Weak and the Strong
Okay, what are the instructions then that are given in reference to stumbling? Paul gives pretty much the same set of instructions to both groups, the weak or the strong. He says things like don’t pass judgment or despise the other person. In 14:3, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” Verse 10 as well, that in these areas, the areas of the adiaphora, we have to agree to disagree and we cannot look down and pass judgment on the other person—the weak on the strong and the strong on the weak. We can’t allow something of secondary importance to destroy the work of God. Verse 20, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.” Both groups are not supposed to do anything to destroy the work of God.
Paul says follow your conscience in verse 14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” In other words, what Paul wants us to do on the adiaphora is make up your mind and then be consistent. Paul doesn’t want us to think, let’s take drinking as an example, he doesn’t want us to come to a conclusion that it’s wrong and then for us to go out and do it, because then we’re sinning against our conscience. I guess you can change your mind, but if you have decided that it’s wrong to play cards, that it’s wrong to drink wine then it’s wrong for you to do it because you are violating your conscience and conscience is a significant guide for Paul’s life.
He also says do what builds up the other person, 15:2, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” In other words, Paul is saying in the issues of adiaphora that it’s not worth the trouble and what’s more important is that we build one another up, that we treat one another in humility and to treat one another as more significant and to do things that build up the body of Christ. It’s out of proportion to take that strong position on a matter of opinion. Don’t pass judgment or despise the other person, don’t let something of secondary importance destroy the work of God, follow your conscience, and then be consistent. Do what helps the other person. Those are the instructions he gives to both groups.
Instructions Specifically for the Strong
But there’s also another set of instructions specifically for the strong, the carnivores, the meat eaters for the non-holiday people. It’s to the strong that he says, for example in 14:1, “welcome him,” the weak, “but not to quarrel over opinions.” He understands how the strong like to argue against the weak, well, I guess it goes both ways, but welcome the weak; that’s part of not despising the other person.
Then it’s to the strong that he says, do not anything to cause them to stumble, Romans 14:20-21, “20Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Don’t do anything to grieve them, verse 15, don’t do anything to destroy the work of God, verse 20. He has some extra admonitions to the strong among them.
The ultimate goal in all of this, for the strong at least, is voluntary limitations of our freedom for the sake of the church and the Glory of God. Just because we have the right to do things—we can eat meat offered to idols, we can drink wine there are a lot of things that we have freedom to do—but as we decide whether we are going to do it or not, there are times in which we must voluntarily limit our freedom for the sake of the church and for the Glory of God. Paul says pursue peace and what gives to mutual edification, put the Glory of God ahead of personal privilege. Paul wants them to get along and he wants them to agree on the majors and to agree to disagree on the minors, on the things where there are issues of conscience and opinions, but human nature being what it is, we want to take those little things and blow them up. I would just urge you to be aware of this tendency. Human beings love to have an opinion whether we have any basis for the opinion or not. I have to tell myself that all the time. Obviously I’m privy to a tremendous amount of private information and sometimes I’ll find myself thinking, I need to know this. I have to stop myself and say, “Why?” It’s not going to affect anything I do or say. Yes, we love to attach motives to things, we want to know, we want to have a judgment.
Epistolary Conclusion (Rom. 15:14-16:27)
Let’s close up Romans. From 15:14, Paul moves into his concluding comments as he tells them why he’s writing. He tells them about his upcoming travel plans, and then when you think he’s done, chapter 16 starts and he says hello to everyone he knows in Rome. Considering he’s never been there, he knows a lot of people in Rome. These are probably people that he met when they had traveled to Corinth or traveled to Ephesus and gone back to Rome. He’s trying to establish a base there and there are people he knows that will help him establish his base so he says hello. Then he has his final admonitions and doxology, and with that the Book of Romans ends.
That’s Romans. It’s a phenomenal Book. Even in three sessions, it feels like we’re skipping more than we’re covering, but hopefully it’s enough of the structure so that when you read it now, that you’ll be able to read the individual verses in context, which is the whole point.