Habits of Healthy Disciples: “Transformed Focus” – Romans 14

Recently, Dottie and I had the delight to travel to Ireland. When we arrived in Dublin, we got a rental car. I admit driving on the other side of the road is a bit of a challenge, so I insisted we get an automatic. I didn’t think I could shift with my left hand while driving on the left side of the road.

The hardest part of the driving were the one hundred and fifty “roundabouts” (or circles), because the driver must access them in the opposite direction from what we do here. It can be confusing. In order to drive effectively, we have to be able to re-train our focus. We have to look right when we would naturally think to look left. We cannot keep our old focus and drive effectively under the new rules.

In Romans 14, Paul moved into a set of instructions with the believers that pressed them to focus on a different way of looking at each other, and the traffic of believers merged into the church body. Here is the central truth of the passage…

Key Principle: Believers have to learn how to “stay in our assigned lane of conscience” while we offer great care to others around us.

As you may recall, the letter was designed to answer five big questions:

What happened to mankind? Why is sin rampant and why is the world full of troubles. Paul answered with essentially one word: mutiny. Man’s rebellion caused his troubles (cp. Romans 1-3).

What did God do about man’s rebellious and languishing state? The second question was answered by a single word as well: gift. God gave His Son to remedy sin’s hold on man (cp. Romans 4-5).

How can I cast off sin’s hold on my life as a follower of Jesus? Through Paul’s quill, God instructed Jesus followers that the prison doors of sinful behavior have been unlocked by God, and we can be free to walk in God’s Spirit (cp. Romans 6-8).

Is God really trustworthy in keeping His promises? A large part of the Epistle deals specifically with the history of God and His promises to Israel, as a case study in His trustworthiness (cp. Romans 9-11).

What should a healthy walk with Jesus look like in practical and daily lifestyle? This is the section we continue with in our study today.

We have spoken about care for and appreciation of other believers and their gifts (Romans 12), as well as submission to authorities outside the church (Romans 13), but now we turn our attention to a n issue of contention among believers:

How should we handle other believers with whom we may fundamentally disagree on some life practice?

Romans 14:1 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.

Because we are to be inspected by God and transformed in thinking, as well as the fact that we are to regard others as more important (whether brothers or authorities outside the church), we must seek to bring in those who, for reasons of their own, may be unable to handle a personal liberty to which we have subscribed. We must not be hard-hearted toward them when they cannot separate their own preferences from absolute truth. We must handle their opinions with care.

Paul offered two test cases:

Test One: Consumption – Some believe it acceptable to consume something that others believe would be wrong to consume.

Romans 14:2 One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.

Skip down a few verses and you will note a second test case issue…

Test Two: Celebration – Some believe following a certain calendar of celebration to be that which honors the Lord, while others find no reason to do so.

Romans 14:5 One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.

John attends a monthly cigar club. As a group, they get together each month to try out a new cigar as they sit about and talk. He doesn’t smoke as a rule, but doesn’t feel twelve cigars a year will hurt him, since he keeps good oral hygiene and doesn’t inhale. Suzie thinks that tobacco in any form was grown from the garden of Satan, but she drinks flavored coffee that contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar every morning. She struggles with her weight, but she can’t face the day without her coffee.

Alex drinks a beer with his lunch, while his friend Brian thinks that alcohol is intrinsically evil. He has searched the Scripture and acknowledges that alcohol wasn’t avoided by the ancients in the text, but he regards principles of purity in consumption to such a degree he honestly cannot see how it isn’t clear to Alex.

Lisa believes the celebration of the birth of Jesus has been terribly tainted with commercialism and overladen with ancient pagan practices like tree decorating and gift giving. She believes every aspect of the celebration of the season has been marred. When she showed up at church and saw a Christmas tree, she protested. She cannot be a part of a group that won’t follow Jesus with their whole heart! She is thinking she should leave and visit other churches, but all the other churches have them as well. She is hurt because she feels the church of her time is going apostate.

All of these people are believers. They are trying to follow Jesus as He has taught them. None of the issues is specifically commanded or forbidden in Scripture. They are trying to follow principles of the Word, but the way they see an issue is complicated by their personality, their experience and their perception of what is essential and important. None of them oppose any verse of Scripture openly to the best of their knowledge. Each has a strong view about what they do.

Let’s be clear: The issues under consideration are NOT a reference to things God carefully outlined in His Word.

Sabbath for Jewish believers is not in view in regards to celebration, because Jews were commanded by God specifically for “all their generations, forever” to celebrate that day. Those who came to Jesus from such a background learned the benefits of keeping the Sabbath as a Jewish Jesus follower. They experienced something wonderful. The problem was not their obedience to that command; it was the application to others who did not come to Christ from the same background. They carried their heartfelt celebration into the assembly and disdained those who didn’t follow suit. They assumed that anyone who didn’t keep Sabbath just wasn’t willing to give it all to Jesus. Sabbath, commanded to the Jewish believer, was never subscribed to by the believer from Gentile background. Some got on board and learned to keep it after they were saved, but others didn’t – because they didn’t see it as a necessary thing. They saw it as something God told the Jewish people to do.

Meat knowingly and publicly consumed that was offered to idols is not in view here since there was a specific command regarding that. Apparently, some concluded the best way to avoid the problem was to simply become a vegetarian. The problem is they carried that conviction into the assembly as the standard of truth, when the private consumption of such meats was not forbidden (see 1 Corinthians 10).

The point is, the issues of consumption and celebration were not issues of debate when the text of Scripture was clear. We aren’t talking about some who feel that lying to their boss may be acceptable. That isn’t a judgment call – it is simple sin. It is a violation of the text in its simplest terms. For instance, Jews were not allowed to eat pork – and that was specified. Coming to Jesus didn’t lift their restriction, despite some who have tried to say otherwise.

• In a debate in the Gospel of Mark over the washing of hands, some have read “by this Jesus made all foods clean” to mean that Jesus approved ham for Jews. That wasn’t the issue under discussion – the way to wash hands was the debate.

• There is another story in the New Testament where Simon Peter has a “vision of a sheet filled with edibles” dropping from Heaven in Acts 10. God told him, “Arise, kill and eat!” Peter objected because some of the sheet contained acceptable foods for Jews (called kosher) while other items were unacceptable animals that were commanded by God not to be consumed. Peter declined to eat what Scripture said was unclean. Some concluded that God was adjusting His Laws, given long before at Sinai, because Jesus had come. Yet, Jesus made clear He didn’t come to uproot the Law. The point of the story was about the men who were about to knock on the door down below the roof Peter was on – and he noted a lesson from the sheet that God showed him “PEOPLE God says are clean, are clean.” Peter was learning about people, not receiving a change of dietary restrictions.

By the way, Gentiles who came to Jesus never had such restrictions, and were not commanded to sign on to all of the restrictions that belonged to Jewish people when they came to Jesus. The differences between them, though one in Christ and saved by the identical way, still meant they lived out God’s Word differently.

Nothing in the teaching of Romans 14 is about undoing Scripture. If God commanded it specifically, it was not in view in this passage.

Add to that, the heart of the teaching is not to settle the issues on their face, since they are subjective matters of conviction and conscience and not objective matters of truth. Rather, the teaching is about how to get along in a divided atmosphere where all cannot agree and each has deep-seated reason.

Paul offered several essential instructions to the church:

Instruction One: It isn’t our job to make everyone agree with our view, but it is our job to regard each other with love and care.

Romans 14:3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.

Look closely at the verse. The central issue isn’t about who is right at all. The issue is how we treat one another – the one who consumes and the one who abstains. The consumer must not “regard with contempt” the abstainer, nor should the abstainer judge the consumer. God can and will work in the heart of both – if we don’t hinder Him by wounding another trying to help out God in the process.

Here are a couple questions: How do we disciple people if we can’t take deduction and application of passages of Scripture to help them know right from wrong? Since we are attempting to equip them, how can we do that if we don’t teach them to go beyond the letter of the Scripture to apply its principles? Those are fair and mature questions.

Paul isn’t silent about discipleship. His letters are filled with the application of Hebrew Scriptures to early church issues, and how to get the timeless principles into contemporary life. At the same time, he acknowledged that God gave each believer His own Spirit, and is willing to work within each of us to convict of sin, direct in lifestyle and work with each of us over the long haul of life.

The central teaching here shouldn’t get buried in detail: Don’t think that because you are certain you shouldn’t do something, that everyone else who doesn’t see it your way is somehow smaller in the eyes of God. You may be right – but your view may not take into account other things that go beyond your culture, your life experience and your personal connection to God.

God put you in the body, but reserved the right to run the lives of His people without your approval.

This idea leads right into the second instruction…

Instruction Two: It isn’t our job to decide if the other’s convictions are warranted for them, but it is our responsibility to recognize we all serve the same Master, Who alone is the proper judge of each of us.

Romans 14:4 Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Paul made clear a central truth we must re-emphasize and remember: We don’t work for one another. We all work for Jesus. He is the Judge,

When we make it our business to check out the liberty of others beyond the obedience to the text of Scripture, we set ourselves up to become haughty and judgmental. It is worth remembering this isn’t the only place Paul offers instruction on this (see 1 Corinthians 8-10) but it is the tenor of everything he taught.

There is a tendency in many of us as we mature to believe we have been placed in the lives of others as God’s interpreter of Law.

The fact is: Beyond living out the principles ourselves, many of us have had to learn to project those principles into decisions we made as a family. We may have decided our children couldn’t participate in some activities with some other children, because our conviction was solid on our lifestyle, and the other family did not regard the issue we felt strongly about in the same way. It was our responsibility to take the conviction of the Spirit and make a judgment for our children. That is called parenting.

Here is the caution, however.

While we should be open about why we concluded from the Word that participation is wrong for our family, we must also teach our children the principles of GRACE.

We must teach them that, even though it seems clear to us, it isn’t “the truth” as much as it is “our heartfelt conviction” with which others had the right to disagree. We wouldn’t attend the event, but we wouldn’t quietly condemn them in our hearts as “less than obedient” and whisper gossip about them to each other.

God will grow the people to whom we aren’t commanded to take responsibility. We have to offer grace and let Him do it.

Instruction Three: It isn’t our job to focus on what is right for others, but we are called to focus on Jesus’ ownership of us all.

Romans 14:6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. 7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; 8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or 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.

Don’t overlook two simple caveats:

• We aren’t talking about the expressed command of Scripture.
• We aren’t talking about someone in a leadership position of responsibility for others.

We made clear before that all the things in the passage regard subjective thinking: personal judgments. This ISN’T about whether pornography is “ok for me” since sexual purity is made clear in the text. It may regard how one looks at a Baroque nude sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in an art museum, but it certainly isn’t about porn.

In addition, the teaching here does not take into account one who is given charge of others to set standards for the whole group.

For instance, if a worship leader was given the directive to decide what standard of dress was appropriate for those in the team, they have the right to make a judgment regarding the dress of those on the team when they are participating. That isn’t being judgy; it is leading in a given setting. If they determine a certain length of dress is too short for those leading worship, they are to be heard because they were charged with leadership in that area.

At the same time, that doesn’t make them the “dress length sheriff” for the church. They don’t get to show up at the youth swim night and measure bathing suits. That isn’t their job.

What Paul made clear in verses six through nine are these three ideas:

• People may decide differently regarding personal issues of conscience, but the Lord will teach each of them individually to yield to Him (14:6).

• Believers grow to understand who the Lordship of Jesus affects our daily lives over time (14:7).

• Ultimately, our lives are in His hand, not in each other’s hands (14:8-9).

Instruction Four: It isn’t our job to become “life fruit inspectors” of one another, but rather we must learn to focus on the “gaze of Jesus” on our practices and behaviors.

Romans 14:10 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? 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 give praise to God.” 12 So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.

Scripture isn’t silent about the fact that even believers will answer for our choices when we stand before Jesus. Everyone faces two judgments: one over sin and one over works. For believers, sin was judged at the Cross of Jesus. Yet, our works will still be evaluated as Jesus gazes at what we bring Him as the prized accomplishments of this life.

The simple fact is that we live for Jesus, not for self. If that is true of each of us, we need to focus much more on living with Him and for Him – and spend less time figuring out His call to everyone else around us.

Paul offered this final analysis:

Stop trying to fix other people and start cleaning up things that can cause them to trip over in YOUR life. He said it this way:

Romans 14:13 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.

Stop worrying about being the teacher over those God didn’t give you responsibility and let other people grow and develop without playing Holy Spirit for them. Paul personalized this:

Romans 14:14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.

Paul recognized that God gave a conscience to each of us, and life experiences shape that conscience. We don’t see everything the same way, and we shouldn’t expect to. Let others have convictions in areas you don’t. Allow God to convict you about things others are allowed to do – but YOU aren’t.

In all things, keep your eye on whether your liberty and conviction will lead another to walk away from obedience and intimacy with Jesus. Don’t deliberately do what will offend and hurt them, because it hinders their walk. Love them enough to be careful as God leads you. Don’t let your testimony take a beating out of your own carelessness.

Romans 14:15 For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.

To those who are tempted to judge everyone, stop making trouble. Stop the gossip. Grow up and be truly mature. You don’t know everything, and your judgmental spirit isn’t helping to equip people. Maybe you believe something strongly, but the other person doesn’t. God will grow him in His time. He will grow YOU as well…

Romans 14:19 So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. 20 Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.

Ultimately, don’t do what will cause another to fall into sin. He doesn’t say, “Don’t do anything other people won’t like.” Rather, he restricts his comment to those who are so deeply impressionable that your participation will license their wrong choices. He wrote:

Romans 14:21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. 22 The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God.

Finally, Paul said, “Make your choices wisely and honestly.”

Romans 14:22b “…Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. 23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

Let me be clear here: Some of us have chosen to participate in things that violate our conscience. We have a nagging sense gnawing inside that we are engaged in something we shouldn’t be, but we hide it under the liberty bell. If that is you, drop the pretense and remember that you will give a report to Jesus concerning that thing.

Believers have to learn how to “stay in our assigned lane of conscience” while we offer great care to others around us.

John can have his monthly cigar. I don’t smoke them and I don’t like them. I have had two in my life, and enjoyed neither. I don’t need the distraction, but I am not going to tell him he can’t because it will harm him unless I am willing to cut all the sugar out of my diet.

Suzie can think that tobacco is rolled sin. She just needs to live according to that and still show care to John.

Alex can drink his beer with his lunch if Jesus said to him it is ok. I won’t join him, because I cannot afford the calories. Brian’s objections about alcohol should be taught in his home to his children, but he should also teach them to have grace to those who see it another way.

Lisa must stop believing she is the only one with the Spirit at work in her. She needs to get off Facebook and stop condemning others over whom God has not placed her. She should promote Christmas celebrations that offer a way to magnify Jesus, rather than trying to correct the rest of us with long diatribes on the history of the Christmas tree. The rest of us need to hear her heart. She loves Jesus, and she doesn’t want Him disrespected in our methods of celebration.

In the end, believers have to learn how to “stay in our assigned lane of conscience” while we offer great care to others around us.