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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Romans 14

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-23

Chapter 29

CHRISTIAN DUTY: MUTUAL TENDERNESS AND TOLERANCE: THE SACREDNESS OF EXAMPLE

Romans 14:1-23

BUT him who is weak-we might almost render, him who suffers from weakness, in his faith (in the sense here not of creed, a meaning of πίστις rare in St. Paul, but of reliance on his Lord; reliance not only for justification but, in this case, for holy liberty), welcome into fellowship-not for criticisms of his scruples, of his διαλογισμοί, the anxious internal debates of conscience. One man believes, has faith, issuing in a conviction of liberty, in such a mode and degree as to eat all kinds of food; but the man in weakness eats vegetables only; an extreme case, but doubtless not uncommon, where a convert, tired out by his own scruples between food and food, cut the knot by rejecting flesh meat altogether. The eater-let him not despise the non-eater; while the non-eater-let him not judge the eater: for our God welcomed him to fellowship, when he came to the feet of His Son for acceptance. You-who are you, thus judging Another’s domestic? To his own Lord, his own Master. he stands, in approval, -or, if that must be, falls under displeasure; but he shall be upheld in approval; for able is that Lord to set him so, to bid him "stand," under His sanctioning smile. One man distinguishes day above day; while another distinguishes every day; a phrase paradoxical but intelligible; it describes the thought of the man who, less anxious than his neighbour about stated "holy days," still aims not to "level down" but to "level up" his use of time; to count every day "holy," equally dedicated to the will and work of God. Let each be quite assured in his own mind; using the thinking power given him by his Master, let him reverently work the question out, and then live up to his ascertained convictions, while (this is intimated by the emphatic "his own mind") he respects the convictions of his neighbour. The man who "minds" the day, the "holy day" in question, in any given instance, to the Lord he "minds" it; (and the man who "minds" not the day, to the Lord he does not "mind" it); both parties, as Christians, in their convictions and their practice, stand related and responsible, directly and primarily to the Lord; that fact must always govern and qualify their mutual judgments. And the eater, the man who takes food indifferently without scruple, to the Lord he eats, for he gives thanks at his meal to God; and the non-eater, to the Lord he does not eat the scrupled food, and gives thanks to God for that of which his conscience allows him to partake.

The connection of the paragraph just traversed with what went before it is suggestive and instructive. There is a close connection between the two; it is marked expressly by the "but" ( δέ) of ver. 1 (Romans 14:1), a link strangely missed in the Authorised Version. The "but" indicates a difference of thought, however slight, between the two passages. And the differenced as we read it, is this. The close of the thirteenth chapter has gone all in the direction of Christian wakefulness, decision, and the battlefield of conquering faith. The Roman convert, roused by its trumpet strain, will be eager to be up and doing, against the enemy and for his Lord, armed from head to foot with Christ. He will bend his whole purpose upon a life of open and active holiness. He will be filled with a new sense at once of the seriousness and of the liberty of the Gospel. But then some "weak brother" will cross his path. It will be some recent convert, perhaps from Judaism itself, perhaps an ex-pagan, but influenced by the Jewish ideas so prevalent at the time in many Roman circles. This Christian, not untrustful, at least in theory, of the Lord alone for pardon and acceptance, is, however, quite full of scruples which, to the man fully "armed with Christ," may seem, and do seem, lamentably morbid, really serious mistakes and hindrances. The "weak brother" Spends much time in studying the traditional rules of fast and feast, and the code of permitted food. He is sure that the God who has accepted him will hide His face from him if he lets the new moon pass like a common day; or if the Sabbath is not kept by the rule, not of Scripture, but of the Rabbis. Every social meal gives him painful and frequent occasion for troubling himself, and others; he takes refuge perhaps in an anxious vegetarianism, in despair of otherwise keeping undefiled. And inevitably such scruples do not terminate in themselves. They infect the man’s whole tone of thinking and action. He questions and discusses everything, with himself, if not with others. He is on the way to let his view of acceptance in Christ grow fainter and more confused. He walks, he lives; but he moves like a man chained, and in a prison.

Such a case as this would be a sore temptation to the "strong" Christian. He would be greatly inclined, of himself, first to make a vigorous protest, and then, if the difficulty proved obstinate, to think hard thoughts of his narrow-minded friend; to doubt his right to the Christian name at all; to reproach him, or (worst of all) to satirise him. Meanwhile the "weak" Christian would have his harsh thoughts too. He would not, by any means for certain, show as much meekness as "weakness." He would let his neighbour see, in one way or other, that he thought him little better than a worldling, who made Christ an excuse for personal self-indulgence.

How does the Apostle meet the trying case, which must have crossed his own path so often, and sometimes in the form of a bitter opposition from those who were "suffering from weakness in their faith"? It is quite plain that his own convictions lay with "the strong," so far as principle was concerned. He "knew that nothing was unclean" (Romans 14:14). He knew that the Lord was not grieved, but pleased, by the temperate and thankful use, untroubled by morbid fears, of His natural bounties. He knew that the Jewish festival system had found its goal and end in the perpetual "let us keep the feast" [1 Corinthians 5:3] of the true believer’s happy and hallowed life. And accordingly he does, in passing, rebuke "the weak" for their harsh criticisms ( κρίνειν) of "the strong." But then, he throws all the more weight, the main weight, on his rebukes and warnings to "the strong." Their principle might be right on this great detail. But this left untouched the yet more stringent overruling principle, to "walk in love"; to take part against themselves; to live in this matter, as in everything else, for others. They were not to be at all ashamed of their special principles. But they were to be deeply ashamed of one hour’s unloving conduct. They were to be quietly convinced, in respect of private judgment. They were to be more than tolerant-they were to be loving-in respect of common life in the Lord.

Their "strength" in Christ was never to be ungentle; never to be "used like a giant’s." It was to be shown, first and most, by patience. It was to take the form of the calm, strong readiness to understand another’s point of view. It was to appear as reverence for another’s conscience, even when the conscience went astray for want of better light.

Let us take this apostolic principle out into modern religious life. There are times when we shall be specially bound to put it carefully in relation to other principles, of course. When St. Paul, some months earlier, wrote to Galatia, and had to deal with an error which darkened the whole truth of the sinner’s way to God as it lies straight through Christ, he did not say, "Let every man be quite assured in his own mind." He said [Romans 1:8] "If an angel from heaven preach any other Gospel, which is not another, let him be anathema." The question there was, Is Christ all, or is He not? Is faith all, or is it not, for our laying hold of Him? Even in Galatia, he warned the converts of the miserable and fatal mistake of "biting and devouring one another". [Galatians 5:15] But he adjured them not to wreck their peace with God upon a fundamental error. Here, at Rome, the question was different; it was secondary. It concerned certain details of Christian practice. Was an outworn and exaggerated ceremonialism a part of the will of God, in the justified believer’s life? It was not so, as a fact. Yet it was a matter on which the Lord, by His Apostle, rather counselled than commanded. It was not of the foundation. And the always overruling law for the discussion was-the tolerance born of love. Let us in our day remember this, whether our inmost sympathies are with "the strong" or with "the weak." In Jesus Christ, it is possible to realise the ideal of this paragraph even in our divided Christendom. It is possible to be convinced, yet sympathetic. It is possible to see the Lord for ourselves with glorious clearness, yet to understand the practical difficulties felt by others, and to love, and to respect, where there are even great divergences. No man works more for a final spiritual consensus than he who, in Christ, so lives.

Incidentally meantime, the Apostle, in this passage which so curbs "the strong," lets fall maxims which forever protect all that is good and true in that well-worn and often misused phrase, "the right of private judgment." No spiritual despot, no claimant to be the autocratic director of a conscience, could have written those words, "Let every man be quite certain in his own mind"; "Who art thou that judgest Another’s domestic?" Such sentences assert not the right so much as the duty, for the individual Christian, of a reverent "thinking for himself." They maintain a true and noble individualism. And there is a special need just now in the Church to remember, in its place, the value of Christian individualism. The idea of the community, the society, is just now so vastly prevalent (doubtless not without the providence of God) in human life, and also in the Church, that an assertion of the individual, which was once disproportionate, is now often necessary, lest the social idea in its turn should be exaggerated into a dangerous mistake. Coherence, mutuality, the truth of the Body and the Members; all this, in its place, is not only important, but divine. The individual must inevitably lose where individualism is his whole idea. But it is ill for the community, above all for the Church, where in the total the individual tends really to be merged and lost. Alas for the Church where the Church tries to take the individual’s place in the knowledge of God, in the love of Christ, in the power of the Spirit. The religious Community must indeed inevitably lose where religious communism is its whole idea. It can be perfectly strong only where individual consciences are tender and enlightened; where individual souls personally know God in Christ; where individual wills are ready, if the Lord call, to stand alone for known truth even against the religious Society; -if there also the individualism is not self-will, but Christian personal responsibility; if the man "thinks for himself" on his knees; if he reverences the individualism of others, and the relations of each to all.

The individualism of Romans 14:1-23, asserted in an argument full of the deepest secrets of cohesion, is the holy and healthful thing it is because it is Christian. It is developed not by the assertion of self, but by individual communion with Christ.

Now he goes on to further and still fuller statements in the same direction.

For none of us to himself lives, and none of us to himself dies. How, and wherefore? Is it merely that "we" live lives always, necessarily related to one another? He has this in his heart indeed. But he reaches it through the greater, deeper, antecedent truth of our relation to the Lord. The Christian is related to his brother Christian through Christ, not to Christ through his brother, or through the common Organism in which the brethren are "each other’s limbs." "To the Lord," with absolute directness, with a perfect and wonderful immediateness, each individual Christian is first related. His life and his death are "to others," but through him. The Master’s claim is eternally first; for it is based direct upon the redeeming work in which He bought us for Himself.

For whether we live, to the Lord we live; and whether we be dead, to the Lord we are dead; in the state of the departed, as before, "relation stands." Alike, therefore, whether we be dead, or whether we live, the Lord’s we are; His property, bound first and in everything to His possession. For to this end Christ both died and lived again, that He might become Lord of us both dead and living.

Here is the profound truth seen already in earlier passages in the Epistle. We have had it reasoned out, above all in the sixth chapter, in its revelation of the way of Holiness, that our only possible right relations with the Lord are clasped and governed by the fact that to Him we rightly and everlastingly belong. There, however, the thought was more of our surrender under his rights. Here it is of the mighty antecedent fact, under which our most absolute surrender is nothing more than the recognition of His indefeasible claim. What the Apostle says here, in this wonderful passage of mingled doctrine and duty, is that, whether or no we are owning our vassalage to Christ, we are nothing if not de jure His vassals. He has not only rescued us, but so rescued us as to buy us for His own. We may be true to the fact in our internal attitude; we may be oblivious of it; but we cannot get away from it. It looks us every hour in the face, whether we respond or not. It will still look us in the face through the endless life to come.

For manifestly it is this objective aspect of our "belonging" which is here in point. St. Paul, is not reasoning with the "weak" and the "strong" from their experience, from their conscious loyalty to the Lord. Rather, he is calling them to a new realisation of what such loyalty should be. It is in order to this that he reminds them of the eternal claim of the Lord, made good in His death and Resurrection; His claim to be so their Master, individually and altogether, that every thought about each other was to be governed by that claim of His on them all. "The Lord" must always interpose; with a right inalienable. Each Christian is annexed, by all the laws of Heaven, to Him. So each must-not make, but realise that annexation, in every thought about neighbour and about brother.

The passage invites us meantime to further remark, in another direction. It is one of those utterances which, luminous with light given by their context, shine also with a light of their own, giving us revelations independent of the surrounding matter. Here one such revelation appears; it affects our knowledge of the Intermediate State.

The Apostle, four times over in this short paragraph, makes mention of death, and of the dead. "No one of us dieth to Himself"; "Whether we die, we die unto the Lord"; "Whether we die, we are the Lord’s"; "That He might be the Lord of the dead." And this last sentence, with its mention not of the dying, but of the dead, reminds us that the reference in them all is to the Christian’s relation to his Lord, not only in the hour of death, but in the state after death. It is not only that Jesus Christ, as the slain One risen, is absolute Disposer of the time and manner of our dying. It is not only that when our death comes we are to accept it as an opportunity for the "glorifying of God" [John 21:19, Philippians 1:20] in the sight and in the memory of those who know of it. It is that when we have "passed through death," and come out upon the other side,

"When we enter yonder regions, When we touch the sacred shore," our relation to the slain One risen, to Him who, as such, "hath the keys of Hades and of death," [Revelation 1:18] is perfectly continuous and the same. He is our absolute Master, there as well as here. And we, by consequence and correlation, are vassals, servants, bondservants to Him, there as well as here.

Here is a truth which, we cannot but think, richly repays the Christian’s repeated remembrance and reflection; and that not only in the way of asserting the eternal rights of our blessed Redeemer over us, but in the way of shedding light, and peace, and the sense of reality and expectation, on both the prospect of our own passage into eternity and the thoughts we entertain of the present life of our holy beloved ones who have entered into it before us.

Everything is precious which really assists the soul in such thoughts, and at the same time keeps it fully and practically alive to the realities of faith, patience, and obedience here below, here in the present hour. While the indulgence of unauthorised imagination in that direction is almost always enervating and disturbing to the present action of Scriptural faith, the least help to a solid realisation and anticipation, supplied by the Word that cannot lie, is in its nature both hallowing and strengthening. Such a help we have assuredly here.

He who died and rose again is at this hour, in holy might and right, "the Lord" of the blessed dead. Then, the blessed dead are vassals and servants of Him who died and rose again. And all our thought of them, as they are now, at this hour, "in those heavenly habitations, where the souls of them that sleep in the Lord Jesus enjoy perpetual rest and felicity," gains indefinitely in life, in reality, in strength and glory, as we see them, through this narrow but bright "door in heaven," [Revelation 5:1] not resting only but serving also before their Lord, who has bought them for His use, and who holds them in His use quite as truly now as when we had the joy of their presence with us, and He was seen by us living and working in them and through them here.

True it is that the leading and essential character of their present state is rest, as that of their resurrection state will be action. But the two states overflow into each other. In one glorious passage the Apostle describes the resurrection bliss as also "rest". [2 Thessalonians 1:7] And here we have it indicated that the heavenly intermediate rest is also service. What the precise nature of that service is we cannot tell. "Our knowledge of that life is small." Most certainly, "in vain our fancy strives to paint" its blessedness, both of repose and of occupation. This is part of our normal and God-chosen lot here, which is to "walk by faith, not by sight," {2 Corinthians 5:7} ού διά είδους, "not by Object seen," not by objects seen. But blessed is the spiritual assistance in such a walk as we recollect, step by step, as we draw nearer to that happy assembly above, that, whatever be the manner and exercise of their holy life, it is life indeed; power, not weakness; service, not inaction. He who died and revived is Lord, not of us only, but of them.

But from this excursion into the sacred Unseen we must return. St. Paul is intent now upon the believer’s walk of loving large heartedness in this life, not the next. But you-why do you judge your brother? (he takes up the verb, κρίνειν, used in his former appeal to the "weak," Romans 14:3). Or you too (he turns to the "strong"; see again Romans 14:3)-why do you despise your brother? For we shall stand, all of us, on one level, whatever were our mutual sentiments on earth, whatever claim we made here to sit as judges on our brethren, before the tribunal of our God. For it stands written, [Isaiah 45:23] "As I live, saith the Lord, sure it is as My eternal Being, that to Me, not to another, shall bend every knee; and every tongue shall confess, shall ascribe all sovereignty, to God," not to the creature. So then each of us, about himself, not about the faults or errors of his brother, shall give account to God.

We have here, as in 2 Corinthians 5:10, and again, under other imagery, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, a glimpse of that heart-searching prospect for the Christian, his summons hereafter, as a Christian, to the tribunal of his Lord. In all the three passages, and now particularly in this, the language, though it lends itself freely to the universal Assize, is limited by context, as to its direct purport, to the Master’s scrutiny of His own servants as such. The question to be tried and decided (speaking after the manner of men) at His "tribunal," in this reference, is not that of glory or perdition; the persons of the examined are accepted; the inquiry is in the domestic court of the Palace, so to speak; it regards the award of the King as to the issues and value of His accepted servants’ labour and conduct, as His representatives, in their mortal life. "The Lord of the servants cometh, and reckoneth with them". [Matthew 25:19] They have been justified by faith. They have been united to their glorious Head. They "shall be saved," [1 Corinthians 3:15] whatever be the fate of their "work." But what will their Lord say of their work? What have they done for Him, in labour, in witness, and above all in character? He will tell them what He thinks. He will be infinitely kind; but He will not flatter. And somehow, surely, -"it doth not yet appear" how, but somehow-eternity, even the eternity of salvation, will bear the impress of that award, the impress of the past of service, estimated by the King. "What shall the harvest be?"

And all this shall take place (this is the special emphasis of the prospect here) with a solemn individuality of inquiry. "Every one of us-for himself-shall give account." We reflected, a little above, on the true place of "individualism" in the life of grace. We see here that there will indeed be a place for it in the experiences of eternity. The scrutiny of "the tribunal" will concern not the Society, the Organism, the total, but the member, the man. Each will stand in a solemn solitude there, before his divine Examiner. What he was, as the Lord’s member, that will be the question. What he shall be, as such, in the functions of the endless state, that will be the result.

Let us not be troubled over that prospect with the trouble of the worldling, as if we did not know Him who will scrutinise us, and did not love Him. Around the thought of His "tribunal," in that aspect, there are cast no exterminating terrors. But it is a prospect fit to make grave and full of purpose the life which yet "is hid with Christ in God," and which is life indeed through grace. It is a deep reminder that the beloved Saviour is also, and in no figure of speech, but in an eternal earnest, the Master too. We would not have Him not to be this. He would not be all He is to us as Saviour, were He not this also, and forever.

St. Paul hastens to further appeals, after this solemn forecast. And now all his stress is laid on the duty of the "strong" to use their "strength" not for self-assertion, not for even spiritual selfishness, but all for Christ, all for others, all in love.

No more therefore let us judge one another; but judge, decide, this rather-not to set stumbling block for our brother, or trap. I know-he instances his own experience and principle-and am sure in the Lord Jesus, as one who is in union and communion with Him, seeing truth and life from that viewpoint, that nothing, nothing of the sort in question, no food, no time, is "unclean" of itself; literally, "by means of itself," by any inherent mischief; only to the man who counts anything "unclean," to him it is unclean. And therefore you, because you are not his conscience, must not tamper with his conscience. It is, in this case, mistaken; mistaken to his own loss, and to the loss of the Church. Yes, but what it wants is not your compulsion, but the Lord’s light. If you can do so, bring that light to bear, in a testimony made impressive by holy love and unselfish considerateness. But dare not, for Christ’s sake, compel a conscience. For conscience means the man’s best actual sight of the law of right and wrong. It may be a dim and distorted sight; but it is his best at this moment. He cannot violate it without sin, nor can you bid him do so without yourself sinning. Conscience may not always see aright. But to transgress conscience is always wrong.

For-the word takes up the argument at large, rather than the last detail of it-if for food’s sake your brother suffers pain, the pain of a moral struggle between his present convictions and your commanding example, you have given up walking ( ούκέτι περιπατεις) love wise. Do not not, with your food, (there is a searching point in the "your," touching to the quick the deep selfishness of the action,) work his ruin for whom Christ died.

Such sentences are too intensely and tenderly in earnest to be called sarcastic; otherwise, how fine and keen an edge they carry! "For food’s sake!" "With your food!" The man is shaken out of the sleep of what seemed an assertion of liberty, but was after all much rather a dull indulgence of-that is, a mere slavery to-himself. "I like this meat; I like this drink; I don’t like the worry of these scruples; they interrupt me, they annoy me." Unhappy man! It is better to be the slave of scruples than of self. In order to allow yourself another dish-you would slight an anxious friend’s conscience, and, so far as your conduct is concerned, push him to a violation of it. But that means, a push on the slope which leans towards spiritual ruin. The way to perdition is paved with violated consciences. The Lord may counteract your action, and save your injured brother from himself-and you. But your action is, none the less, calculated for his perdition. And all the while this soul, for which, in comparison with your dull and narrow "liberty"; you care so little, was so much cared for by the Lord that He-died for it.

Oh, consecrating thought, attached now, forever, for the Christian, to every human soul which he can influence: "For whom Christ died!"

Do not therefore let your good, your glorious creed of holy liberty in Christ, be railed at, as only a thinly-veiled self-indulgence after all; for the kingdom of our God is not feeding and drinking; He does not claim a throne in your soul, and in your Society, merely to enlarge your bill of fare, to make it your sacred privilege, as an end in itself, to take what you please at table; but righteousness, surely here, in the Roman Epistle, the "righteousness" of our divine acceptance, and peace, the peace of perfect relations with Him in Christ, and joy in the Holy Spirit, the pure strong gladness of the justified, as in their sanctuary of salvation they drink the "living water," and "rejoice always in the Lord." For he who in this way lives as bondservant to Christ, spending his spiritual talents not for himself, but for his Master, is pleasing to his God, and is genuine to his fellow men. Yes, he stands the test of their keen scrutiny. They can soon detect the counterfeit under spiritual assertions which really assert self. But their conscience affirms the genuineness of a life of unselfish and happy holiness; that life "reverbs no hollowness."

Accordingly, therefore, let us pursue the interests of peace, and the interests of an edification which is mutual; the "building up" which looks beyond the man to his brother, to his brethren, and tempers by that look even his plans for his own spiritual life.

Again he returns to the sorrowful grotesque of preferring personal comforts, and even the assertion of the principle of personal liberty, to the good of others. Do not for food’s sake be undoing the work of our God. "All things are pure"; he doubtless quotes a watchword often heard; and it was truth itself in the abstract, but capable of becoming a fatal fallacy in practice; but anything is bad to the man who is brought by a stumbling block to eat it. Yes, this is bad. What is good in contrast?

Good it is not to eat flesh, and not to drink wine (a word for our time and its conditions), and not to do anything in which your brother is stumbled, or entrapped, or weakened. Yes, this is Christian liberty; a liberation from the strong and subtle law of self; a freedom to live for others, independent of their evil, but the servant of their souls.

You-the faith you have, have it by yourself, in the presence of your God. You have believed; you are therefore in Christ; in Christ you are therefore free, by faith, from the preparatory restrictions of the past. Yes; but all this is not given you for personal display, but for divine communion. Its right issue is in a holy intimacy with your God, as in the confidence of your acceptance you know Him as your Father, "nothing between." But as regards human intercourse, you are emancipated not that you may disturb the neighbours with shouts of freedom and acts of license, but that you may be at leisure to serve them in love. Happy the man who does not judge himself, who does not, in effect, decide against his own soul, in that which he approves, δοκιμάζει, pronounces satisfactory to conscience. Unhappy he who says to himself, "This is lawful," when the verdict is all the while purchased by self-love, or otherwise by the feat: of man, and the soul knows in its depths that the thing is not as it should be. And the man who is doubtful, whose conscience is not really satisfied between the right and wrong of the matter, if he does eat, stands condemned, in the court of his own heart, and of his aggrieved Lord’s opinion, because it was not the result of faith; the action had not, for its basis, the holy conviction of the liberty of the justified. Now anything which is not the result of faith, is sin; that is to say, manifestly, "anything" in such a case as this; any indulgence, any obedience to example, which the man, in a state of inward ambiguity, decides for on a principle other than that of his union with Christ by faith.

Thus the Apostle of Justification, and of the Holy Spirit, is the Apostle of Conscience too. He is as urgent upon the awful sacredness of our sense of right and wrong, as upon the offer and the security, in Christ, of peace with God, and the holy Indwelling, and the hope of glory. Let our steps reverently follow his, as we walk with God, and with men. Let us "rejoice in Christ Jesus," with a "joy" which is "in the Holy Ghost." Let us reverence duty, let us reverence conscience, in our own life, and also in the lives around us.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Romans 14:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/romans-14.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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