Sermon preached on Romans 14:13-23 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/19/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“For the Kingdom of God is not Eating and Drinking”
Last week we talked about the common situation where there is conflict in the church over what were called “doubtful things” in verse 1 of this chapter. We described these doubtful things as not salvation issues. They are non-essentials, things ultimately of moral indifference. In light of verse 17, you could say these are things that the kingdom of God is not really about. And yet for some people these issues were held to be of great importance. Some people believed that such issues were issues of morality. In other words, in these “doubtful things” or “disputed things”, there were different moral convictions in the church. And so we saw Paul identify the two sides as the strong and the weak. The strong did not feel compelled on such doubtful things to constrain their behavior one way or another. The weak did feel compelled to such constraint. Each group had to be careful in how they lived their convictions out. The strong had to make sure they did not despise their weaker brethren. The weak had to make sure they did not judgingly condemn their stronger brethren. The examples listed were of whether Christians should eat meat or not, and whether Christians should observance certain special days or not — likely referring to the various Jewish Old Testament festivals and new moon days. And yet we also mentioned that these were just examples; we can identify today various such “doubtful things” that cause conflict in the church.
Today’s passage, and next week’s passage continue to deal with this overall subject. But today’s passage particularly deals with how the strong brother can cause the weaker brother to stumble. The stronger brother can commit sin through an undue exercise of their liberty. Specifically, the stronger brother can do something that is morally legitimate but if they do it in such a way that it causers their weaker brother to stumble into sin, then the stronger brother is guilty too of sinning. Verse 21, tells us not to eat the meat or drink the wine or anything else, if it causes your brother to stumble. This is the sin of an offense given. Now to be fair, this teaching actually speaks to both sides. Sometimes the stronger person can sin by giving an offense — by causing someone to stumble into sin. Other times the weaker person can sin by taking an offense unnecessarily. For example, in Matthew 13:57 it says that the people of Jesus’ home town took offense at Jesus’ teachings. Well, Jesus wasn’t wrong in that case. Such people took offense when they should not have. Our passage from last week really honed in on this challenge to both sides. The strong should not give offense with their Christian liberty. The weak should be careful not to take offense either when no offense is actually given. This passage today, however, hones in on the obligation of the strong to not give offense. That will be our primary study for today.
Let’s begin then with our first point in verse 14. Our first point is to observe that Paul says that nothing is unclean of itself. This is a bit of theological truth that the strong got; the weak did not. Paul affirms this. This should encourage the stronger brother that there position is right. As verse 17 says, the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking. In other words, life as a Christian in God’s kingdom is not really about external things like eating and drinking. It’s not really about ceremonial, outward, externals. It’s something far deeper than that.
To be fair to the weak, we can understand some of the difficulty here for them, particularly Jewish converts. In the Old Testament, there were all kinds of ceremonial laws. Many of them dealt with what you could eat or drink, for example. It called various foods “unclean.” And yet with the light of Christ, Jesus helped us to see the real intention of these kosher food laws and the other ceremonial laws. They were dealing with purity, but ultimately were calling us to seek internal purity. When Jesus came, this is the light of revelation he brought. You might recall, for example, that he said in Mark 7 that it’s not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out of a man. In Luke 11 he taught something very similar and said that if what comes out of you is clean, then everything is clean for you. Paul teaches this in other passages too, and you see here that he bases this assertion on Jesus too. Because he says in verse 14 that he’s been convinced that all such things are clean by the Lord Jesus. That’s the authority for applying the Old Testament ceremonial laws in this way. Because the Lord Jesus Christ had brought the light of this new revelation. Paul can then apply this in varying ways to these various controversies among these different so called “doubtful things”. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul can describe how the strong can eat a food previously sacrificed to an idol because we know that such an idol doesn’t even exist. But for some weak people, they might not be able to in good conscience do that. They would think they are sinning the whole time. For that weak person, it would be sinning in that case, Paul says.
And so Paul says that these outward things don’t really make someone unclean. This reminds us by the way, that it’s in Christ that someone is really made clean. And without Christ, they are unclean. But staying on point here, Paul makes the case that the strong really are right in their liberty on these particular points of controversy between the strong and the weak. That being said, Paul then goes on to say that even though the strong is right in terms of their liberty, they have to make sure they don’t still sin in their liberty. This is then Paul’s exhortation to the strong. It’s the exhortation of verse 15. Don’t destroy the work of God with your food. He says it again in verse 20. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. You see, this all comes back to verse 17 again. The kingdom of God is not about eating or drinking. And so since the kingdom of God is not about such things, don’t let your eating or drinking work against what the kingdom of God is really all about. A Christian has the freedom to eat meat or drink wine (in moderation), but don’t exercise that freedom in such a way as to give offense to a weaker brother. So as to bring about injury to them spiritually.
Well, it’s important here to understand what we are talking about. We mentioned earlier that there is a difference between an offense given and an offense taken. A strong brother should not give offense. A weak brother should not take offense if none is actually given. We’re focusing on the strong brother here. What does it mean to give offense according to this passage? In what way can a strong brother “destroy the work of God” in someone? Someone for whom Christ even died, it says in verse 15? Well, remember what verse 17 says the kingdom of God is about. It’s about righteousness, peace, and joy. These are things you can affect negatively in your weaker brother if you don’t exercise some prudence. Think of the peace in the church, for example. We saw last week and again here, that these matters can breed conflict. You can bring unnecessary conflicts in your church if you unwisely exercise your freedom in how you eat or drink or whatever the specific issue of liberty may be. Verse 15 says that you can cause grief in your weaker brother if you exercise your liberty in the wrong way. That’s the opposite of the joy which belongs to the kingdom. By the way, the grief there in verse 15 is likely the grief occasioned by the weaker brother’s sin. That when you exercise your liberty in front of your weaker brother, if you in some way put a stumbling block in front of him and he stumbles over this, then your actions caused his sin unnecessarily. This then injures the cause of righteousness in your brother, as you’ve helped cause him to do something unrighteous.
Let me explain this another way. If we are talking about destroying the work of God in someone, it may be helpful to point out that in verse 20, this word of destroying means to tear down. To dismantle. This is in contrast to verse 19 that says we should be looking to edify our brothers. Edifying is about building up. You see, there is a construction theme here going on. Either your actions will help to build up your brother in their spiritual walk with Christ. Or your actions will help to tear down your brother in their spiritual walk with Christ. So when it says here that you can destroy the work of God in someone, it doesn’t mean that your action can annihilate someone’s true faith. Don’t think yourself that powerful. But remember that God is at work in the lives of every true believer. Personally, you can work in line with God’s work, or you can struggle and work against it. The same is true in how you help your brothers and sisters in Christ. God is at work in their life too. You can either be used to help them grow. Or you can actually work against their growth by putting a stumbling block in their way.
Take for example, alcohol. You as a stronger Christian might know that drinking alcohol, in moderation, is not a sin. But let’s say someone who’s struggled with drunkenness and addiction to alcohol has just become a Christian. They have had a fierce struggle with this for many years, but finally repented of this sin, and turned to Christ, and found forgiveness and grace and eternal life through the cross of Jesus Christ. Praise God. You then come along and see that they refuse to drink any alcohol now. You in your strength of faith begin to sinfully berate them and tell them that they can drink alcohol still as a Christian, but of course only in moderation.
So let’s say because of your pressure and flaunting of your drinking in front of them, that they end up having a beer with you. Let’s say they in turn can’t control themselves and end up drinking too much. Well, you’ve heard their struggle. You’ve known their temptation and weakness, and you’ve put their most common stumbling block right there in front of them for them to trip over. That has not been loving to your brother. You are working against their sanctification at that point. To work against someone’s sanctification is to work against the work of God in their life.
But actually this passage takes this one step further. It’s not envisioning the strong brother getting a weak brother to commit that which is inherently sinful. It’s actually about a strong brother getting a weak brother to commit something that is not inherently sinful, but it is sinful to the weaker brother. Sound confusing? Well, don’t worry, I will explain. This is now leading us to our third point for today. The last verse in this passage says that whatever is not of faith is sin. You see, this is what the strong person can do to the weak person. They can cause them to stumble by so exercising their freedom in a way that induces a weaker brother to do the same thing, while the whole time the weaker brother still thinks it is something morally wrong to do. So, take my example from a moment ago about drinking alcohol. Let’s assume that the weaker brother’s weakness is that he thought drinking was wrong altogether, even in moderation. Let’s say the stronger brother pressured that weaker brother into drinking nonetheless, even though the weaker brother thought that it would be sinful. Let’s say the weaker brother didn’t get drunk at all, and only drank in moderation. Well, this passage says that such a weaker brother did in fact sin. Not because drinking in moderation is sinful inherently. But because the weaker brother (wrongly) thought it was sinful and did it anyways. And so then the stronger brother was guilty too for causing that brother to stumble into that sin.
You see this is the point of verse 23. Whatever is not from faith is sin. This is the point of verse 14 too. Paul had said nothing was inherently unclean, but if someone considers it unclean, then for him it is unclean. Or verse 20. There Paul acknowledges that all foods are pure, but it is evil for someone to eat with offense. It’s evil, a sin, if you do some action that you think is wrong. Even if that action is actually not wrong; if God thinks that action is morally neutral, you are still guilty of sin if you do that action and incorrectly think it is wrong. Because that means your motivation was not one where you thought you were doing a good but actually you thought you were doing an evil. But you still did it! Remember, what is the kingdom of God about, per verse 17? It’s about righteousness, peace, and joy! So, this is why someone should not do something they think is unrighteous. And this is why someone who knows that it is not actually unrighteous should not induce a weaker brother to commits such action if they know that other person will still believe it to be wrong. Why? Again, because the kingdom of God is about righteousness, peace, and joy. We should all want to pursue what we believe to be godly behavior. And so this means a weak brother should not commit an action with doubt. And it means that a strong brother should not stumble a weak brother.
This then is an important truth about what makes something a good deed or a bad deed. It’s this category of faith. A good deed must be according to God’s standard. But even a morally neutral deed can become bad if you do it while thinking it’s bad. By extension, if you do something that’s morally good, but you think it’s bad, then that too is a sin for you. It doesn’t work the other way, however. You can’t do something that’s morally bad according to God’s standard, while honestly thinking it is morally right, and have that to be a good. We’re not talking moral relativism here. We are just saying that God’s absolute standard of righteousness must be lived out with personal conviction as well that agrees with what God’s standard is.
What’s implied then here too is a call for us to come to convictions. Look at verse 22. It says that we are blessed when we do not have reason to pass judgment on ourselves about a matter. That verse also says that for these convictions about these doubtful things that could cause your brother to stumble — to just keep them between you and God. The point is that we will need to come to some conclusions about these doubtful matters. Otherwise, we’ll sin by doing one thing or another with doubt. You will either need to eat meat or not. You’ll either need to drink wine or not. You’ll need to know what to do when you go into a restaurant and see a small Buddha idol in the front and decide if you feel you can eat there still in good conscience. You’ll need to think through these thins and come to some conclusions. Inform your decisions on these matters with the word. Come to a conclusion. And then act in accordance with your conscience.
So then, we’ve learned some important truths in this passage. We saw that the strong is right when they find Christian liberty in areas of moral indifference. But we saw that the strong must not cause a weak brother to stumble into sin by how they live out their Christian liberty. The concern here is that a weak brother might be induced into doing what the strong brother can do without sinning, but for the weak brother he would be sinning because he thinks that action is an evil. And so then what should the strong brother do for their weak brother? Well, we see a few things mentioned here for them to pursue. Because the kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but about righteousness, peace, and joy, there are things the strong brother should be doing. Exercising their liberty in matters such as eating and drinking should be secondary, and frankly given up, if it works against these things which are truly of the kingdom of God.
Instead, we should act with love toward our weaker brothers. That’s what verse 15 says. It says if we cause our brother to stumble, then we’ve not acted in love. This means that the contrast is to act in love toward them. If you know they struggle with some weakness of faith, love them in that weakness. Yes, you might have gentle times of discussion when you look to educate them on that faith and inform their convictions. But nonetheless let love rule in how you interact with them on the matter. Because of someone’s past, they might never get past their particular weakness. A former drunk, might never be able to drink alcohol at all without sinning again, for example. Love them in that weakness by understanding where they are at, and acting accordingly. Similarly, verse 19 calls us then to pursue with them what makes for peace and for their edification. This is how our love is expressed. We want to build up our weaker brethren, not tear them down. We want to help them to grow, not lead them into something that would be sinful for them. Whenever you encounter situations like this, the strong among us must examine themselves and see if they are laying any stumbling block in front of a weaker brother. And the strong must ask how can they work to advance their weaker brother’s sanctification and not work against God’s work in their life. Seek that both you and your brother would grow together in the righteousness, peace, and joy which is yours in God’s kingdom.
We’ve mentioned already how the weak could abuse this. Sometimes churches have been held hostage essentially by the scruples of a few. Again, we have to make the distinction of an offense given or an offense taken. The weak should not take offense where none is given. And today’s passage tells us that the strong should not give offense either. Both must be maintained. Wisdom is required. Humility is required. Love is required.
And for the strong, sacrifice will be required at times. If a strong brother sees that some ways in which they exercise their liberty will cause their brother to sin, then they must sacrifice that liberty. At least to some degree. They may find times to not exercise their liberty as they otherwise could, because of the weakness of a brother. This can be inconvenient to say the least. Yet, it is so what the kingdom of God is all about. This is how we’ve been able to come into this glorious kingdom. Because Jesus didn’t say it was too inconvenient for him to leave the liberty of heaven to come down here and take on cursed human flesh. No, Jesus saw our weaknesses. He saw our uncleanness. As verse 15 says, he then died for us. See the individual reference there of verse 15. It’s not said in universal terms, as in Christ died for the world or for all the elect, though that’s true. It’s put so personally, so individually. It sees how Christ’s death was done for each individual Christian. In all of our varying weaknesses. This is what each of us needed. Christ had the liberty to remain in heaven in the enjoyment of all that glory. But that is not what he did. He sacrificed that liberty for a time to give himself as a sacrifice for us. To make us strong. To make us clean. To bring us into his kingdom.
Let us then brothers and sisters live like Christ. He who loved us in our weaknesses, and sacrificed certain liberties to do so — let us love our weaker brethren the same way. For this is what the kingdom of God is all about. We’ve known this first hand ourselves, in Christ. Praise the Lord! Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.