In Romans 1-11, Paul explained the gospel in all its glory. In chapters 12 and 13, he shifted from gospel doctrine to gospel culture. Then, in chapter 14 he took all he’s explained already and applied it to one specific case to show how the gospel transforms the individual and the community at the same time. Paul shows how gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture.
1 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 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. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
There is more than one reason Paul is writing this letter to the Roman church. One of those reasons is to explain to them how Christians of all backgrounds live with one another in unity. Specifically, he writes to help the Jews and Gentiles understand how to live in peace with one another while holding the truth of the gospel as of first importance. He wants to be sure the gospel isn’t mistaken for something less than what it is, and that the gospel creates a community that can expand to fit all kinds of backgrounds.
The issue here in Romans 14 is centered around the observance of the Torah. Some background makes this chapter clearer. The gospel spread to Rome after Jesus’ resurrection. Many Jews and Gentiles heard and believed. But we see in Acts 18:2 that the message of the gospel caused such a great disturbance in the synagogues that Claudius kicked the Jews out of Rome in A.D. 49. When the Jews returned to Rome in A.D. 54, they entered a church that was all Gentile. The Torah dietary laws were no longer observed, and that caused a problem for the Jews. So, Paul writes this letter to pastor them from afar.
Paul is bringing the gospel to bear on this disagreement between the “strong” (Gentile) and “weak” (Jew). The Jews are holding onto the food laws, while the Gentiles are ignoring them, as they’ve always done. Like so many other disagreements between Jew and Gentile in the Bible, the question is whether or not the Gentiles must become Jews in order to become Christians. His call is a call to welcome and to not quarrel over opinions. In the Kingdom of God, our opinions no longer matter. What God says matters. Ultimately, Romans, like the rest of the Bible, is about the lordship of Christ. He sets all the rules. We follow.
The argument is simple enough: since God has welcomed both parties, they should welcome one another. But we all know that simple solutions never work for sinful people. We always find a way to create a mountain out of a molehill. The danger, in this situation, is that the weak would pass judgment over the strong because the strong didn’t obey the Jewish food laws, and the strong would pass judgment over the weak because they were obeying an obsolete law.
Paul uses God’s justifying act of grace as the litmus test. Those whom God has welcomed, that is, those who are truly Christians, are to be welcomed by all. Disagreements over non-primary issues should be set aside for the sake of unity. After all, it is before God that each person will stand or fall, and the Lord alone is able to make him stand. In other words, on those non-primary issues we can live in peace and leave the matter of the conscience up to God. He is far more powerful to change a mind than we are, if he sees fit to do so.
“Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” This is the great hope of peaceful community. Each Christian has entrusted himself to the Lord. Therefore, every other Christian can do the same. Each person must be fully convinced, following his own conscience before God. For secondary and tertiary issues, what matters in the end is less the conclusion one comes to as the heart toward God as one decides. Is the purpose the glory of oneself or the glory of God?
As Douglas Moo says, “Divisions in the church over nonessentials diverts precious time and energy from its basic mission: the proclamation of the gospel and the glorifying of God.” Therefore, Christians are not to argue over every small thing but to give themselves wholly to God, showing how their life together displays Jesus’ preeminence. Jesus alone has the power to take a group of different people and unify them so deeply that they become one family. What God has joined together, let no man separate.
We see so clearly here how gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. An understanding of the gospel leads to a change in the way we relate to one another. The order is important. Gospel doctrine comes first. If we don’t have gospel doctrine, we won’t have a gospel culture. We will have another culture, founded differently, with different values and meaning. And the gospel doctrine must be preached and taught and discussed at length all the time. There’s a reason Paul spends 11 chapters on the gospel and only 5 on culture in Romans. As Martin Luther said, “The gospel cannot be beaten into our ears enough or too much. Yes, though we learn it and understand it well, yet there is no one who takes hold of it perfectly or believes it with all his heart, so frail a thing is our flesh and disobedient to the Spirit.”
Ray Ortlund helps us understand how gospel doctrine leads to a gospel culture in his book, The Gospel.
A gospel culture is harder to lay hold of than gospel doctrine. It requires more relational wisdom and finesse. It involves stepping into a kind of community unlike anything we’ve experienced, where we happily live together on a love we can’t create. A gospel culture requires us not to bank on our own importance or virtues, but to forsake self-assurance and exult together in Christ alone…
The primary barrier to displaying the beauty of Jesus in our churches comes from the way we re-insert ourselves into that sacred center that belongs to him alone. Exalting ourselves always diminishes his visibility. That is why cultivating a gospel culture requires a profound, moment by moment “unselfing” by every one of us. It is personally costly, even painful…So much is set against us, within and without. But the triumph of the gospel in our churches is still possible, as we look to Christ alone. He will help us.
So many of our problems show up not at the level of doctrine but at the level of culture. We unsay with our culture what we say we believe with our doctrine. We have a personal fear, and we let that fear speak louder in our heart than the freedom found in Christ. So we make a choice to judge another over a small issue and separate ourselves from them as we sit and read Calvin’s Institutes. It’s very easy to have good doctrine and a bad culture because we never let the doctrine infect how we relate to others culturally. We short-circuit the power of the gospel when we refuse to welcome one another with the love of Christ.
And not one single bit of this is softness. Paul is not asking anyone to become lenient on the matter of doctrine. Doctrine matters! But he is asking all of us not to let our personal preferences overshadow the rock-solid truth of the gospel. It’s not that we need to adjust the gospel. We all need to adjust to the gospel. As Ray Ortlund says, “Jesus is all the Savior anyone will ever need. He is our tree of Life. He is enough to keep us alive forever, and he is freely available to everyone on the same basis.”
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 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. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
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. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Foregoing judgment on non-primary issues is serving Christ because in doing so you are serving his people. We all have so many stumbling blocks in coming to the gospel. We trip over our own feet as we approach the altar. The more hindrances others place in front of us along the way, the harder it will be to get to Jesus. What we must do is not build new obstacles but to take a sledge hammer to the existing ones. The goal of Christian community should be to destroy anything that would stand in the way of another brother or sister in Christ from getting to Jesus. We do not have to agree on everything to create this loving environment. We only have to agree on one thing: the truth of the gospel. Andrew Wilson recently made an observation on Twitter that helps us understand this passage. He pointed out that we see Paul write elsewhere on two occasions the phrase, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” First, in Galatians 5:9, Paul uses this phrase for people saying something is essential when it isn’t. Second, in 1 Corinthians 5:6, he uses it for people denying something is essential when it is. Both cases are problematic. So, we must be sure we know what is essential, and what isn’t. We need to be able to do theological triage to discern what we should hold with a closed hand and what we should hold with an open hand.
So, here we must remember the gospel that Paul preached in Romans 1-11. We must remember that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that everyone in Christ has been freely justified by his work, not our own. It is the grace of God that saves. If grace, then it cannot be by works, otherwise grace would not be grace. Only then can we all seek to stand firmly in the grace of the gospel every time we meet. Let us not judge one another over nonessentials. Let us welcome. If we are to judge at all, let us judge whether we are placing a stumbling block in another’s way.
But how can we do theological triage? A good starting place is the Bible itself. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you read, to give you insight to behold the gospel. We can also look to the historic creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, where the essential doctrines are laid out for us. We should also look to our church doctrinal statement, or statement of belief.
Michael Bird helps us by giving five helpful principles. First, learn to differentiate between areas of conviction and areas of command. Second, don’t major on minor doctrines or minor on major doctrines. Third, exercise your convictions to build others up, not to tear them down. Fourth, do not exchange freedom in Christ for slavery to human tradition. Fifth, in all times act in love and carry each other’s burdens.
The goal is to walk in love, as Paul outlines in verse 15. If another is grieved by what you eat, you are not walking in love. That means we should care what the other person feels when we do something that we know is against their conscience. Even if our conscience is free, we set aside our desires for the good of the other person. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us? He set aside his glory to humble himself in the form of a servant. He took on skin to veil his radiance and live the life we should have lived to die the death we don’t want to die and save us from our sins. If Jesus was willing to do that, can we not give up one meal for the sake of another? Must we always win, even in the small things?
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul’s words here are so clarifying. He’s gospel-centered through and through. He lets nothing get in the way of the gospel mission they’re all on. We love to argue. We love to set up tribes, or camps, or factions, separating ourselves from those with different opinions over small matters. But Jesus did not come and die for such nonsense. He came and died to save sinners and unify his people. How were you brought into the kingdom? By eating the right thing and observing the right day? Or by the shed blood of Christ on the cross, re-coagulated in the risen King? If you were brought in by his grace, welcome others brought in the same door. Welcome, and do not cast out. Whoever does this serves Christ and finds approval from other men (v. 18).
Splitting over small matters destroys the work of God (v. 20). We are given the stewardship from God to either create a beautiful community of unity or to establish pillars of our own self-righteousness. God is an includer. We are excluders. But Christ can change us into includers. He can re-direct our hearts. He can change us. But if he doesn’t change our convictions over what we eat or drink (or our view of baptism or any other non-primary issue), we must do what is in accordance with our conscience before God. We must be men who walk in faith because faith matters above all. The heart with which we approach God matters to God, and he will accept us or reject us based on the way in which we come to him.
We see this most clearly in verse 23. “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This is such a sweeping statement. Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin in that whatever is not done out of a willing heart submitted openly to God is sin for the person doing it. How can we then know if what we’re doing is sin? When so many freedoms are available, how can we be sure we’re doing the right thing? Here’s how. How do you feel before God about it? Can you partake with joy, or do you feel guilt or shame as a result? If you can’t thank God for the goodness of it out of a heart devoted to him, then you should not do it. Find something else to do. In sum, we all have our differences, but one thing remains above all: do everything you do with an open heart to God. He will fill it up. Remove the barrier and let his grace fall in.