Growing in Christ - Meditation

Faith and Freedom

November 2017

Romans 14:1-15:13

Romans 14:1: Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters (NIV).

The discussion about faith in verses 14:1 to 15:13 is a wide-ranging discussion. The first few verses appear to be all about nuances of meaning in the law, rather than basic principles. We will see, however, that a discussion of ethical issues or "disputable matters" leads inevitably to a rediscovery of the essential elements of what it means to have Christian faith. This will lead in turn to a refreshing new sense of freedom as well as direction.

Verses 14:1-14:6 talk about two issues: firstly the question of food and secondly the question of holy days. Regarding food, Paul seems to oversimplify the issue by saying some people have faith that allows them to eat anything, but others, of a weaker faith, eat only vegetables. What about Deuteronomy 14, which seems to treat the matter quite seriously as to what foods are fit for eating? Paul is asking a lot of people who may consider food laws to be a deeply engrained part of their culture and indeed their ancient religion, a religion which they may practice as a mixture of legalism and fear. Paul has previously discussed also the eating of food sacrificed to idols in 1Corinthians8. Food hardly seems like a minor matter when it merits so much discussion.

Paul is also rather brisk in dealing with the issue of holy days. "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike (14:5)." Is this really so secondary - after all, how are people ever going to get together if they can't agree on which day to meet? We expect Paul to be an "all-or-nothing" kind of guy - after all, he was once the chief persecutor of Christians, and now he is the great champion of the Christian faith. We expect him to be decisive, not waffling on whether something is right or wrong. But there is a remarkable change in tone when we read 14:8: "If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord." All of a sudden we are no longer talking about holy days or about  lunch, but about life and death, and implicitly, about where our faith takes us.

Scholar F.F. Bruce writes:

Paul enjoyed his Christian liberty to the full. Never was a Christian more thoroughly emancipated than he from un-Christian inhibitions and taboos. So completely was he emancipated from spiritual bondage that he was not even in bondage to his emancipation. He conformed to the Jewish way of life when he was in Jewish society as cheerfully as he went along with Gentile ways when he was living with Gentiles. The interests of the gospel and the highest well-being of men and women were paramount considerations with him; to these he subordinated everything else.[1]

So we think we understand. If we have a weak faith, we will be concerned with secondary matters, hoping to please God by, for example eating in the right way or by seizing upon holy days as an important aspect of worship. These issues could be spoken of generally as personal habits or worship style matters. Even more generally, we could say they are ethical issues. What ethical issues do Christians face in the modern world?

There really are too many controversial ethical issues to count. Christians will have different ideas about politics, morality and social justice. They will have different ideas about worship style, missionary objectives and church growth. They will have different ideas about what it means to love one's neighbor. What is it that keeps us from exploding into a chaos of controversy?

Looking at 14:8 again, Paul says "so, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord." We belong to the Lord. This is what we have in common. What does this mean? In Exodus 6:7, God says to Moses: "I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians." God was bonded to us, and we are to him, right from the beginning. Again, in Psalm 94:14: "For the Lord will not reject his people, he will never forsake his inheritance."Could it be that the Lord . . . loves us?

Yes. Go figure. We might have trouble understanding this because we are, after all, a sinful people. Our senior pastor discussed this in a previous sermon, and there was that helpful image that, while we love to point to other people as being more sinful than we are, we are all ". . . walking on the same ground. We cannot touch the stars." That is how far away we are from the righteousness of God. We won't talk any more about sin in this sermon since we have already covered it, and because, after all, part of being a sinner is that you really don't like to talk about it much.

But when we talk about the love of God we must talk about John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." For God so loved the world. . . this is what we must remember. This is the great answer to the "why" of Jesus. Almighty God loves you and he loves me and to solve the problem of sin he gave us Jesus.  Whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have eternal life. What doesn't it say? John 3:16 does not say "whoever accomplishes great things for me will not perish". It does not say "whoever lives a clean and healthy lifestyle will not perish". It does not say "whoever speculates wisely in real estate will not perish". No. It says whoever believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life. We are saved by our faith. And the reward, the goal is heaven. Not a life of ease, now, but a life in eternity. In heaven.

Heaven is such a wonderful thing that that I think sometimes we are embarrassed to talk about it. Just a reminder: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". If we believe in God, we believe in heaven. This is where God lives. This is what matters!

Let's pause for a moment and just enjoy the idea that God loves us. It is not something that we just read in a book. It is something we can experience. He loved his people in ancient times, and he loves us today, right here and now. Let's have a moment of quiet peace.

In Romans 3:22 Paul explains again how God solves the problem of sin: "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." The idea of righteousness was previously discussed by our senior pastor. One minute we are talking about our sinfulness; the next minute we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. This righteousness comes from faith. This is all that God asks of us. Paul continues : "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.(Romans 3:28)." If we summon up all of our human reasoning power, will we finally understand this - why God should have to sacrifice his son to solve the problem of our sin? No. This plan for our salvation is not a product of the human mind, but of the heavenly mind and power.  We cannot really understand it; we can only rejoice in it.

This idea of being justified by faith and not by observing the law, or works, has been controversial in the history of the Christian church. In the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was selling "indulgences." This meant that money given to the church could have a precise measurable effect on someone's salvation, or the time they might spend in purgatory. A friar called Martin Luther was offended by this unbiblical practice and posted 95 theses or suggestions for reform to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This started the Great Protestant Reformation which had enormous theological, political and social consequences.[2]

Martin Luther - most people have heard about him, I think. He had a beautiful, stubborn faith. He was the kind of man, who, if you put him in front of a herd of stampeding buffalo, would say "Here I stand; I can do no other." For that was precisely what he is thought to have said when pressured by the authorities to recant his opinions.

Martin Luther wrote a great deal. He translated the Bible into common German. He wrote commentaries. He wrote essays and sermons.  I like to imagine him as having a joyful as well as a courageous life, for he did manage, after all, to get married, have children and compose hymns like "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."[3] Not everything Martin Luther wrote was good, and indeed one or two things were deplorable, but his essay entitled "On Christian Liberty" stands out as a classic of Christian theology.

Luther was interested in the things that Paul had to say to early Christians about this new kind of faith, this new way of looking at things. If we are justified by faith, then the sale of indulgences - as a work of the law, or simply a "work" - was obviously wrong. But that raised many other questions - is everything that the church does a "work?" Is everything that people do in the course of their daily lives considered works? Where is the incentive for people to lead good lives, to help their neighbours? Luther begins his essay as follows:

To make the way smoother for the unlearned - for only them do I serve - I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. [4]

Contradictory as they may seem, Luther then points out that these are Paul's own statements: in 1 Corinthians 9:19 - Paul says "for though I am free from all men I have made myself a slave to all" and in Romans 13:8 - "owe no one anything except to love one another." 

Luther goes on to affirm the importance of faith by quoting Romans 10:9: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Also in Romans 10:4: "Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified." He then says: "Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the word, and consequently it would not need faith."[5]

Not need faith? Let's think about this. Suppose you thought that something you were doing - say, an act of charity, or volunteer activity, or studying to become a doctor - was really important. You might think, well, this should please God. Consciously or unconsciously you might think, if there is a God, this should ensure I go to heaven.  You might then think, well, why do I need to worship God, or pray? Do I even need to struggle with my doubts?"Funny how a good work can give rise to pride and vanity. No, that whole way of thinking won't do. God wants you in relationship. Why? Because he loves you, and he wants your faith. Bring yourself to God in prayer. Bring your gifts if you wish but above all else, bring your doubts. Your seed of doubt proves that you have freedom. You are free to enter into relationship with God through Christ. But works are no substitute for faith.

Here's another example - suppose you thought that both faith and works were necessary for salvation. This might lead you to think something like this: "This afternoon I lent my lawnmower to the guy next door. That's a good work. So that, combined with the fact that Jesus died for me should get me into heaven." You see how ridiculous that sounds? Jesus dying on the cross is a matter of the heavenly realm; it is absurd to compare it, or to pair it, with a human work.

But Luther goes on in his essay to affirm that of course works do have a place in the life of a Christian. Of course we should love and serve our neighbor. Luther says that a Christian ought to think as follows:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. . ."[6].

We see that Luther, the great champion of faith, also saw the place for works in a Christian's life. It flowed smoothly as a result of faith, not as a substitute for faith.

Luther goes on to say:

Who then can comprehend the riches and the glory of the Christian life? It can do all things and has all things and lacks nothing. It is lord over sin, death and hell, and yet at the same time it serves, ministers to, and benefits all men. [7]

Yes, friends, this is our life today, too, here at new Life Community Church. Perhaps we will never wholly comprehend the miraculous nature of our faith, but we can rejoice in it and experience it.

If we look once again at our verses today, Romans 14:1-14:5 - perhaps we can see now why Paul was so earnestly trying to protect the faith of his new followers. Let them be free to eat meat or not, let them worship on this day or that day, but above all else, let them have a genuine faith relationship with God through Christ. With that faith we are equipped to handle the myriad of issues and choices and dilemmas we will face in this life. With that faith we have confidence in our eternal salvation. With that faith we have the freedom and the strength to serve our neighbours. Isn't it interesting that all this discussion of faith and works is entirely consistent with the Greatest Commandment, spoken by Jesus: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)."

Finally friends let me pray for you just as Paul prayed in Romans 15:13: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Holy Spirit.


Patrick McKitrick

Outreach Canada Ministries

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, revised edition, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 1989, p.230.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez The Story of Christianity Vol.2. (New York: Harper) 1985, p.21.

[3] For fascinating insights into the life and lifestyle of Luther, see Michelle DeRusha, Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk (Grand Rapids: Baker Books) 2017.

[4]Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 2003, p.2.

[5] Luther, pp.7-8.

[6] Luther, p.52.

[7] Luther, p.54.