Don’t Be a Stumbling Block (1)
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Romans, chapter 14. As you do so I want to cover some ground that we’ve covered over the last couple of weeks again from verses 1 through 12. The chapter does divide into two parts; the first part of the chapter dealing with especially the stronger brethren, not harshly and unduly and unhelpfully judging weaker brethren. Paul doesn’t tell us exactly the context of these strengths and weaknesses. It may well be that the differences between types of people in this local congregation of Christians relates to the fact that the stronger brethren understand their freedoms in Christ to a degree and in a way that the weaker brethren do not yet understand them. Those things that are scruples in the mind of the weaker brethren may be things left over from the transition from old covenant to new covenant: old covenant forms, old covenant days and feasts and patterns of thinking which have passed away in the light of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. They may well be social conventions left over from Jewish ethics and practices. Paul doesn’t tell us, perhaps he doesn’t tell us on purpose, but the fact that he doesn’t tell us, at least initially, makes it harder to understand the direct application to these principles. In fact, after studying this chapter I’m convinced that somebody needs to write a book called “Romans 14 for Dummies,” and I’ll buy the first copy, because it’s harder to apply this chapter than you might think, as practical as the kinds of directives are in this chapter. It’s really difficult to be faithful in applying the principles without a real grasp of the context in which Paul is speaking.
So, I want us to see the big picture issues. We did that the first week we studied Romans 14:1-12. We’re going to do that this week in Romans 14, verses 13 through 23, and then Brister is going to sort out all the applications for you next week. So, what we’re going to do today is we’re going to try and look at some of the principles in Romans 14, 13 through 23. Again, let me say that first half of the chapter deals with judging your brothers; the second half of the chapter deals with causing your brother to stumble. Now you see immediately a logical divide. In the first half of the chapter Paul is concerned about believers attitudes to other believers, what we think of other believers, how we speak about other believers, how we speak to other believers, how we assess other believers, and he is simultaneously concerned that stronger believers will not look down on brethren who are less mature in the faith and simultaneously he is concerned for brethren who are less mature in the faith, not to judge stronger believers because they don’t have the same scruples and qualms that the weaker believers have.
In the second half of the chapter, he moves from our attitudes towards believers, our words and our assessment of them, to the issue of our behavior. Now he is desirous, not simply that we would refrain from harshly and inappropriately and unhelpfully and unedifyingly judging one another, the strong judging the weak, or weak judging the strong, whichever way, and he switches to the issue of behaving in such ways as to cause our brothers and sisters to stumble. Now it does seem, especially in this half of the chapter, that Paul’s concern is that the stronger brethren who realize their freedoms in Christ, not use those freedoms in Christ in such a way to harm the weaker brethren. And so it seems that the focus of his concerns is on the stronger brethren, especially in the second half of this chapter.
Now as you see from the outline, I am going to walk through 12 points that Paul makes, and again, that gives me roughly 2-minutes a point. And I hope that will give you an opportunity to see the flow of Paul’s arguments and the specific expression of his concerns.
I do have to pause to tell you that Derek Thomas often warns his students not to have too many points in sermons. So, students in the congregation, listen to Dr. Thomas. He is right and wise. And do not pay any attention methodologically to what I am about to do. In fact, Dr. Thomas often tells his students that he once read a sermon, was it by James Durham, or someone else, and he said he got to the end of it and he said, “and 68thly . . . “. And so a student not too long ago was in his class and had too many points in his sermon and Dr. Thomas got up to the chalkboard behind him and wrote, “and 68thly,” and let the chalk trail off of the chalkboard. So, if he were behind me right now, he’d be writing “and 68thly.” But Derek, I do have three less points this week than I had last week. So, I’m getting better.
Paul’s point in verse 13 is his grand theme for this portion of the chapter. In verse 13 he turns from talking about our refraining from judging one another to our positively making sure that we behave in such a way as not to tempt brothers and sisters into sin. He turns from our attitude towards one another to our behavior and a concern that our behavior not be such that would lead brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble. He says, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this – not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” It’s not enough for us to refrain from destructive judgment of one another. We need to refrain from producing snares by our choices and behavior. That’s what Paul is saying. He’s saying, don’t cause brothers to stumble by your use of your new covenant freedoms. The freedoms that we have in Christ are enormous. They are summarized in this chapter by the statement that Paul makes that “the kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” It’s a summary statement about some of the enormous things that God has brought through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We now are righteous in Him. We’re no longer guilty sinners under condemnation. We are freed from condemnation. We’re no longer enemies to God. We have peace with God. What enormous freedom to no longer be an enemy of the living God. We have joy in the Holy Spirit, not an expectation of judgment, but genuine joy because we know in Whom we have believed, and we are convinced that He is able to keep that which we’re committed to Him unto that day. And we have joy in the midst of the most difficult trials. Those are some of the enormous bedrock blessings of the New Covenant, some of the freedoms of the New Covenant. And the apostle is concerned that in the very realization of how free we are in Christ that we would not use that freedom in such a way to hurt one another. That we would not use that freedom in such a way to harm other brothers and sisters who themselves ought to be experiencing these freedoms in Christ.
Can I ask you take your hymnals out and turn all the way back to page 859. It’s not a hymn, it’s a page. Chapter 20 of The Westminster Confession of Faith is basically a meditation on Romans, chapter 14, especially the second half of Romans 14, along with other key Pauline principles. It is the chapter in The Confession, and isn’t it interesting that it follows the chapter on the Law of God. God’s law is not the restrictor of freedom, it’s a charter of freedom. It’s not a contradiction of freedom. And so this is the chapter in which The Confession outlines how we are free in Christ.
Let’s look at these words together. “The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged (notice how) (1), in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law (New Covenant believers are not burdened by the ceremonial law anymore) to which the Jewish church was subjected; (2) and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace.”
Did you know that you as a New Covenant believer in the wake of Christ’s entrance into the veil have a greater boldness of access into the throne room of God than did Moses and David? How tremendous our freedoms in Christ, that we can come before Him and say, “Abba, Father,” and He hears that voice through the cry of His Son. (3).” In fuller communications of the free Spirit of God.”
What is the era post-Pentecost? It is the era par-excellence of the work of the Sovereign, Holy Spirit. The Spirit was at work in the old covenant. Notice that next phrase, “than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of”.
The New Testament writers knew that the Holy Spirit was at work. When the New Testament writers talk about the inspiration of Old Testament Scriptures, they say it’s the Holy Spirit who inspired those Scriptures. But believers under the New Covenant experience fuller communications of the free Spirit of God. You can read the rest of the chapter for yourself, but it’s a meditation on some of these principles. Paul says, New Covenant Christians, in light of these enormous freedoms that you have in Christ, don’t use those freedoms in such a way to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.
A stumbling block is, of course, something that causes you to trip. Metaphorically, in Scripture, it’s something that tempts you into sin or leads you into sin. Sometimes it’s used in an absolute sense. Sometimes Jesus will talk about stumbling so as to fall. It’s not always used in that way but there’s always, in the back of one’s mind, the fear that a stumble can lead to a fall. And it’s of the utmost importance and so Jesus could say to His disciples, “Whoever causes one of the least of these little ones to stumble, it would be better if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were cast into the sea.” That’s how serious Jesus was about not leading little ones into stumbling, into sin, into temptation.
So, there’s the grand principle that Paul wants to address in the second half of the chapter. The second point he comes to in verse 14 is this: “I know and I am convinced in the Lord Jesus Christ that nothing is unclean in and of itself. Paul is saying that we must be cognizant of the grand freedoms brought about by the work of Jesus Christ in the New Covenant. He’s given us enormous freedoms. Among those are freedoms from the ceremonial law. All foods are clean to us. This is an emphasis in several places in the New Testament. If we were turn to Mark, chapter 7, we’d find Mark telling us, in passing, that Jesus had declared all foods clean. If we were to turn to the story of Peter and Cornelius in the Book of Acts, we’d find God teaching Peter that He had made all things clean now. Those old ceremonial provisions are passed away. There is no longer any unclean food. The old ceremonial code has been abolished and so there are absolutely no longer any unclean foods. We have that freedom in Christ. We can partake of those things. And Paul doesn’t want to raise by doubt about that. He’s not calling into question the freedoms – the freedoms are absolute, they’re there.
The question is, how are we going to use them? Is our first concern going to be, “Hey, I have a right to that freedom. That’s MY freedom . Nobody’s going to get in my way, in the exercise of my freedom.” Or is there going to be another controlling concern? And the apostle is concerned there would be indeed another controlling concern, so that our first issue is not the exercise of our freedom – when and where and how we wish – but that there is another agenda on the table.
Thirdly, he says in verse 14 again, second half of that verse, “But to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” Aha, he raises a problem. Though our freedom in Christ is absolute, should a brother have a scruple, a qualm, a doubt, about whether or not something is ethical for him; whether or not something is the will of God; whether or not something is allowable to him in Jesus Christ; whether or not something is appropriate for him to do as a believer, then, it’s vital to recognize the importance and the significance of the conscience and to be exceedingly careful with it. Paul is saying, in spite of the certainty of the acceptability of all foods, a bound conscience needs to be taken seriously and so, though all foods are clean, if there is a brother who has a qualm: I’m not sure whether I should do this, I’m not sure whether I ought to do this, I’m not sure whether it’s right to do this, even though Paul would have him know that he is free, yet for him to go against his conscience is dangerous. A conscience is a dangerous thing and to self mutilate your conscience is to provide an opportunity for Satan to use that conscience against you somewhere else. And so the conscience needs to be treated carefully. Paul is extremely concerned about this. A bound conscience needs to be taken seriously. That’s the third thing that he says here.
Fourthly, in verse 15 he says “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love.” Now, having raised this issue of our freedom in Christ and yet the importance of being careful about the conscience, he raises this other controlling principle that has to be on our minds: Yes, we’re free. Yes, those foods are absolutely clean. But, what is the prime directive? To act in love. Verse 15: “. . . you are no longer walking in love.” He puts it in the negative mode. We are to act in love at all times. That is a non-negotiable of Christian ethics. And to fail to be concerned about our brethren’s welfare is to fail to act in love. And so, the apostle is telling us here that to use one’s new covenant freedoms, and this instance regarding foods, and to harm a brother, is to fail to act in love. And neighbor love, as John will tell us later in his little book of I John, is the evidence of love to God. Loving your neighbor is the evidence of love to God. Loving your brother, especially, is the love to God. And so the apostle is saying that it is possible for a Christian to use his freedom in such a way as to harm a brother and that is a violation of another inviolable principle, the principle of loving the brethren. Paul is elaborating on a point that Jesus spoke to His disciples about on the night in which He was betrayed, and you’ll find those words in John 13.
Verse 15, second half, we see a fifth point. “Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.” Paul is saying you are your brother’s keeper. You do have a responsibility to look out for him. We cannot afford to do soul harm to our brethren just because we want to exercise our freedoms. We must be ever mindful that our actions can have eternally destructive results for our brethren. And so, he says, don’t use your freedom to destroy. Your freedom is not there for destruction. Your freedom is there to build up.
Sixthly, in verse 16, he says, “Therefore, do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil.” Don’t let your use of freedom undercut your testimony. Don’t let your use of freedom cause someone to question the rightness, the “oughtness,” the goodness of what you’re doing. We must be concerned that our freedom in the enjoyment of good things is not perceived as evil. And again, you will notice the whole direction of Paul’s thought here is that our behavior, as always, has as one of its components a concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is a concern for unity here, for peace, for harmony, for mutual edification so that one of the things I ask about a particular course of action is not simply is this in accord with God’s Word, is this something that will bring glory to Christ, is this something consistent with my responsibilities to family and others, but is this edifying for my brethren? Will this help the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace as expressed in the life of the congregation? You see again, how this shows the interconnectedness of life in the body of Christ? I can’t make a decision that doesn’t have an impact on you. You’re my brother, you’re my sister, what I do, even in a closet, impacts you. The apostle Paul is concerned that we’re always thinking about one another because we love one another. And that we are careful not to take an action that will offend a brother.
You know, when you’re in a neighborhood, things that you do can either help or hurt the harmony in the neighborhood. If your neighbors have beautiful yards, try not mowing yours. See how that helps the harmony in the neighborhood. Or if you have a neighbor and there’s a dispute over the fence, send him a letter from your attorney and see how that helps the harmony in your relationship. Don’t even talk with him, don’t bother talking with him and trying to work it out. Go right to the law. Or maybe you could just invite some children in the neighborhood over to your house, but tell others that they’re not welcome. And see what sort of harmony results in the neighborhood in the same way, friends, harmony and mutual edification must be thoughtfully cultivated in the Body of Christ. And that’s what the apostle is talking about. Thinking about one another.
We move on to verse 17, where he says, seventhly (not sixty-eighthly!), “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul is making a distinction between kinds of freedoms. Yes, Paul says, you have the freedom to eat, whether that means meats which were once ceremoniously unclean or whether that means meats that had been sacrificed or dedicated to idols, as he talks about in 1 Corinthians, I don’t know, but whatever it is we have a freedom to that. You’ve got that freedom, he says. But, that’s not the best kind of freedom that you have. The greatest, the highest, the deepest freedom that you have is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. And he’s telling us here that the Kingdom of God is not about lesser freedoms but about greater freedoms. And so, He’s saying, don’t get so excited about the lesser freedoms that you ignore the greater freedoms or that you cease to care about your brothers themselves enjoying the greater freedoms. Righteousness and peace and joy – they are the real and highest freedoms of the New Covenant. Not the ceremonial freedoms or the food and the meat and the eat freedoms. He’s asking you to exercise some discretion in realizing the depth of these particular freedoms that we have in Christ, and get excited about them rather than about some freedoms that you may have to give up for the sake of your brethren.
Eight - in verse 18 he says, “For who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” In other words, our careful concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ is a reflection of real service to Christ, and it ends up doing two things: it’s pleasing to Christ and it’s pleasing to men. Paul is concerned wherever he can, to be all things to all men. And that’s part of the principle that’s being laid out here. And he says when you act with this kind of concern for your brothers and sisters, Jesus is pleased, and lo and behold, you know what, so are your neighbors and your brothers and sisters in Christ. They see the equity of it. They see the rightness of it. And so we ought to aim to please God by real love and by concern for His people.
In verse 19 we see a 9th thing: “So then, let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another”. Here’s the positive expression, here’s what you aim for, Paul says. You pursue those things that result in (1) harmony and (2) mutual edification. As part of your ethical norm, you ask, “Will this bring harmony, and will it mutually edify?” There are times in the Christian life where you have to stop and think about that. You’ve been dealt with summarily by another Christian, perhaps, and you’re preparing your retort. And you’ve thought, in a split second, of some of the most cutting remarks in response that could ever have been delivered. And you stop and you think, “Will my response promote harmony and mutual edification?” Paul says that’s a controlling concern for believers. We’re to pursue those things that result in harmony and mutual edification. We’re to look for and follow courses of action that promote peace and mutual growth. We’re concerned about the growth of the brethren. We want to see them built up in Christ. We realize that courses of action and choices that we make could hinder that and so we’re concerned in what we do to help, not to hinder.
Ten. In verse 20 we read, “Don’t tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things are indeed clean but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.” In other words, even though all foods are clean to us in our freedom in Christ, if they are used wrongly it is an evil thing. If they are used in such a way as to harm, as to tear down what God has built up, if we use good things to tear down our brothers and sisters, then it’s wrong. No freedom should be used for destruction. Freedom is for construction. Spiritual construction. Spiritual growth. Spiritual edification. And so Paul concludes in verse 21: “It’s good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything which causes your brother to stumble.” If someone causes your brother to stumble, forgo it, because doing it would fail the test of goodness. It’s not good to do something that causes your brother to stumble.
And finally, in verses 22 and 23, he says, “On the one hand, to you brethren, who are confident in your freedoms in Christ, be confident in them, but to those of you who are in doubt, here’s the rule: If in doubt, don’t. If your conscience isn’t clear to do it, don’t.” To those of you whose conscience is clear, he’s saying, “Good. Make sure it’s clear, grounded in God’s Word, grounded in your understanding of new covenant freedoms, but realize that just because you have a freedom and a clear conscience, doesn’t mean that you have to do it.” That’s what he’s saying to one group.
And to the other group, he’s saying this: If you’re not sure yet, if you’re not sure if you ought to do it, if you’re not sure if you should do it, if you’re not sure whether it’s allowable to do it, then here’s your rule: When in doubt, don’t. Why? Because the conscience is a very, very precious thing which once wounded, can become an instrument for stumbling. And therefore, the stronger brother must protect the conscience of the weaker brother. And the weaker brother must seek to have that conscience informed by Scripture and by those new freedoms in Christ. Let’s pray:
Our Lord and our God, we thank you for this, Your Word. Teach us by it we pray and more than this, help us to love one another actively, practically and tangibly in accordance with these principles. In Jesus’ Name we ask it. Amen.