Scripture Text: Romans 14:13-23
Are you destroying the work of God? That sounds like a pretty serious question, and it is. It assumes that God is working, and He is. God is at work calling the world to Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ. Within the Church, God is working within each of us in order to re-create us in the likeness of Jesus. The Church is God’s workshop in which He works on us. Within this chapter of Romans, Paul wrote about us coexisting peacefully within a church congregation so that we can be the people God desires for us to be. Living peacefully with one another within the same church must have been difficult in Paul’s day as it is in our day. Part of living peacefully is that we need to agree on the essential things of our faith, but on the nonessentials things, we have freedom. This freedom is not without limits, though. Christians belong to the Lord. Each of us will give an account for how we used our gifts, our opportunities, and our responsibilities. God will hold each one of us accountable for how lived out our faith. To that effect, Paul wrote in this passage that we are to not put a stumbling block in the way of another person. While we do have Christian liberty, that liberty does not exclude the lordship of Jesus Christ and that liberty should never hinder the peace and health of a church.
Everything is Good…Except What Violates Our Conscience
In the beginning, God created everything, and everything was good. Of course, our ancestors made a bad decision and fouled up God’s perfect creation. Since then, God has allowed us to be stewards of His creation. He gave us His Law, but He also allowed us to have opinions about various things. What is not explicitly forbidden by God is permitted for us to do. However, we do not always agree about those things, which is ok. What we should avoid is making a general rule based on conviction and not clearly supported in scripture that we then impose on all Christians or use as a sign of Christian godliness. Paul exhorts the church in Rome to not pass judgment on others for things that are not essential, because nothing is bad in of itself. Look at the following verses.
Romans 14:13–14 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.
Regarding what was unclean, Paul was most likely referring to the old Jewish dietary laws. There were people in the first century church who were upset over other Christians eating meat that had been offered to idols in pagan religious services. After the service was over the meat would be sold in the market, and some Christians thought that the meat had been desecrated by its use in a pagan environment. Here and again in verse twenty, Paul said, “Everything is indeed clean.” Christians are no longer under the old covenant, hence Paul no longer accepts the view that some foods are unclean. To Timothy, Paul wrote, “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). Jesus also taught that it is not what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean but what comes out (Matthew 15:10–11, 16–20). Therefore, the church is free to eat or not eat something considered unclean. Paul essentially said, “If you want to eat that meat, you can eat it; if you do not want to eat that meat, you do not have to eat it.” The choice is yours.
While eating meat offered to idols is not really an issue for the Church today, there are other things which believers have strong convictions. For instance, some may think drinking alcohol is bad. Others may think it is not so bad. Who is right? What does God’s Word say about the matter? Many think scripture absolutely forbids the use of alcohol. They consider it is an evil drink. Some people will even go to lengthy hermeneutical gymnastics in an attempt to show that the Bible forbids the use of wine. They may say that it was not real wine that Jesus made at the wedding feast at Cana, or that the disciples used in the upper room at the last supper, and so on. Are they right? There is no question that the Bible clearly prohibits drunkenness, but the use of wine is not absolutely forbidden. I know that may be shocking to some, but it is true! Should you go have a drink, though? Maybe, or maybe not. It really depends.
Paul wrote that whatever God had created is good, and is only bad if it violates your conscience. Paul was certain about this, just like he was certain that nothing would separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Although no food is unclean in itself, if someone regards it as unclean, then for that person it is. If a man believes something is wrong then it becomes wrong for him. But only because he believes it to be, not because in and of itself it is bad. We must be careful not to carry this principle further than Paul intended, however. Paul was not saying that sin is a matter of personal opinion. Paul was not teaching that as long as we think something is okay it is okay for us. Some people have the opinion that scripture may say something is wrong, but it is right for them. That is not what Paul was saying here. Scripture clearly teaches that certain things are sinful and when it does, we need to obey God. There are other matters about which we may have legitimate differences of opinion, but they are secondary issues about which Christians may disagree.
Do Not Hinder Another Person’s Walk
In verse thirteen, Paul mentioned about putting a stumbling block or a hinderance in the way of another person in the church. Stumbling blocks are things that can cause one to lose his or her footing. Think of it as an obstacle on a rough road. Certainly we should not cause someone to stumble, like tripping them as they walk by. But, Paul had something else in mind. We ought to never cause another believer grief or put a temptation in another believer’s way. Paul gave three exhortations in this passage: Do not grieve your church family; Do not destroy the one for whom Christ died; Do not let someone else blaspheme what you consider is good. Look at the following verses.
Romans 14:15–16 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.
When does my “right” or “opinion” become a stumbling block? Maybe you think that something you are doing is not wrong. Maybe there is nothing in scripture to forbid what you are doing. But what if what you are doing becomes a hinderance to others? For instance, if my brother thinks that drinking wine is a sin, how could I make him stumble? I could make him stumble by doing everything in my power to encourage him to drink wine. If I try to get him to drink wine when he thinks it is wrong to do so, I am really trying to persuade him to sin. It is one thing for me to try to get someone to do something he believes is evil, it is another for me to say, “I disagree with you and think it is permissible to drink wine.” It is one thing to talk about it theologically, but it is another to actually convince someone to drink wine and violate his or her conscience.
We have a responsibility to care for our brothers and sisters in the church. We also have a duty to put aside our freedom for love of others. If someone in the church is grieved by what you do, and you continue doing it, knowing that it is hurting that person, then you are not acting in love. Do not let someone else speak evil about what you consider to be good. While our opinions about many things will vary, what does not vary is the gospel mandate that we love each another. Do not force God’s expectations for you onto someone else. You are not loving the other by hurting someone else with what you do. If someone else in the church is unable to enjoy the freedom you have, is troubled by what you eat, what you drink, or anything else, and you persist in doing it, you are no longer acting in the spirit of love. Paul’s instruction is clear: Do not allow your own freedom of conscience to destroy your brother or sister for whom Christ died.
Do Not Destroy the Work of God
Another thing Paul mentioned in this passage was in regard to God’s work. It is one thing to do something that might hurt someone or hinder that person from serving God, but it is quite another thing to actually destroy the work of God. That is exactly what Paul mentioned in this passage. Look at the following verses.
Romans 14:20–21 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.
To not cause someone else to stumble or to not hinder their walk with God is closely related to not destroying the work of God. Paul emphasized a greater duty here than just what happens between members of a church. Here, Paul mentioned that exerting our freedom with no care for how it might affect others is to jeopardize God’s work. The gospel does “the work of God” in His people’s lives. Believers should not interfere with that. Paul urged the church to not destroy God’s work in each other by eating food they considered unclean. He assured us that all food is clean, but even those who have no convictions against eating such food fall into sin when others stumble and fall away from Christ upon observing how they behave. Elsewhere, Paul discussed the same issue and added that if a weak believer is destroyed by your “knowledge”, your sin is not only against that person but also against Christ. Look at the following passage.
1 Corinthians 8:9–13 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Like in Rome, Paul exhorted the church in Corinth to not let their freedom become a stumbling block for others. Paul called it sinning against other members in the church by harming their conscience. Not only is it sinning against the church, it is sinning against Christ; but then again, all sin is against God. Paul concluded that passage by caring more for his brother in Christ than the temporary pleasures and freedom of this world. While freedom is a Christian right, it should not guide our conduct. Freedom is not what dictates our actions, love serves that purpose. We should lay aside our rights and our freedom to do certain things, for the sake of love. Jesus firmly established that principle, when He put aside His rights because He love us so much. Likewise, we should avoid hindering someone else’s spiritual growth, and realize that what we consider good may not be appropriate for others in a church. Are there things you consider good but are not so good for someone else? Are there things you do that are a stumbling block to others, or maybe that are harmful in some way to others? Are you destroying God’s work in others? What should you do about that? Let us look at the rest of this passage.
Pursue Peace and Mutual Encouragement
It was time for the believers in Rome to stop criticizing one another, to stop judging one another and to stop despising one another. They were also not to place a stumbling block or an occasion to sin in the path of a weaker brother in Christ. So, what were they supposed to do? There is a far more important thing for us to do, a far higher purpose and priority for the church to have than to enjoy the temporary freedom in eating, drinking or whatever we may choose to do. Let us look back at the passage in Romans.
Romans 14:17–19 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.
The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but rather righteous living. If you thought God’s kingdom was all about partying and doing whatever you want, then think again. God’s kingdom is not about our personal freedom, but about peace, joy and righteousness. For us to insist on doing whatever we want just because we have the freedom to do so is to reduce God’s kingdom to nonessential issues. It is to reduce God’s kingdom to trivial matters. The kingdom of God is about so much more! It is about righteous living. Living in love is more important than exercising our right to enjoy some freedom. If we do not act in love towards one another, it contradicts Christ’s love for us. How can we disregard the concerns of others, even if we have the right to do something, when Jesus left heaven and gave up so much for us? We should sacrifice our desires for the sake of others because that is precisely what Jesus did for us.
God’s kingdom centers on the gifts of righteousness, peace, and joy granted by the Holy Spirit. Our preference for certain things are secondary and do not really matter when compared to the greater kingdom of God. All Christians are summoned to edify each other and to strive for peace in the church. Those who serve Christ in this way, by recognizing their preference and opinions are secondary matters, bring pleasure to God and are accepted by others. The history of the Church, unfortunately, is replete with many examples of people who are completely earnest about nonessentials, who have felt at liberty to break the unity of the Church for the sake of their particular, selfish, want. Paul’s exhortation in this passage is that we are not to destroy what God is doing by insisting on our right to do whatever we want. We are, however, to pursue peace and put the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:3-4).
Follow Your Convictions Faithfully
It may seem with our duty for mutual upbuilding, there is no room for convictions, if they are contrary to others in the church. That is not necessarily so. Consider the following.
Romans 14:22–23 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.
We ought not to act against our consciences. Such issues as eating certain food and drinking certain drinks, however, are best kept as private matters between a person and God. It is between you and God. If you want to drink wine, it is between you and God. Drink wine to the glory of God. Eat meat to the glory of God. But do not let that become a matter of injuring other people. It would be wrong for me to exercise my liberty in such a way as to hurt people’s feelings. Paul did not ask certain Christians to surrender their convictions, but they should not behave in a way that injures the faith of others and thereby brings judgment on themselves.
On the other hand, we ought to make sure we follow our convictions from faith. Let us go back to the issue of eating unclean foods. If I believe that to eat meat is a sin, and then I go ahead and eat the meat, I have sinned. I have not sinned because eating meat is a sin, but it is a sin to do it if I believe it is evil. If I think that something is evil and then I do it, then I have acted against my conscience, and that is a sin. For example, no one should drink alcohol if he or she has doubts about doing so. This is not because the Bible forbids it, but because anything you do apart from faith is sin. God has called us to a life of faith. We are to trust God and put all of life before Him for His approval. Any doubt concerning an action automatically removes that action from what is acceptable. This is especially true in what is sometimes called the “gray area.” If it is gray to you, it is wrong—not in itself necessarily but for the one who is considering it.
In closing, is everything that God created good? Yes. Do you have a freedom to do those things that are not explicitly forbidden by God? Yes. Should you always exercise your freedom even when it may cause another harm? Absolutely not! There is a more important issue, and greater good, a bigger picture that God wants us to see. Jesus died to bring us together as His people, as His Bride, and whatever we need to do to maintain the love, peace and unity of His Body, we ought to do that. We are to follow the rule of love, not the rule of freedom. Rather than pursue freedom to do whatever we think is good, let us pursue those things that build up the church and which edify one another. Let us consider each other as more important and seek to love one another as Christ has loved us. That is good news. Thanks be to God. Amen!
This sermon was delivered at Good Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC. More information about Good Hope may be found at the following site: www.GoodHopeBC.org.