NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson IX)
German scholar John Bengel comes to the conclusion that giving sincere thanks to God sanctifies all actions no matter how awkward or different. It certainly does not weaken them.1 Bengel then makes an interesting parsing of words by noting that where Paul says “For” he who eats has greater force than, “and” he who abstains. Bengel feels that giving thanks is more connected with eating than with not eating certain foods. For the person who sees no need to abstain from certain foods based this on their personal decision. This is a standard they have established to guide them, and the results are acceptable to them. We see where Paul sets this standard later on in verse 22 which involves having an assured conscience with respect to the person who does not eat.2 As confusing as this may sound to some, Bengel is making a good point when it comes to the fact that those who feel free to eat certain foods and those who are convinced to abstain, are both operating by the faith, standards, and actions that fit their beliefs and conscience for which they can give thanks.
Adam Clarke gives us his take on how we can understand what Paul is outlining here. He feels that Paul is offering believers a beautiful way to keep from mistaking the sincerity of the other person which may end up making a careless charge against that person’s behavior. That is, do not condemn the other person for something that is not an issue of salvation. If they keep certain festivals, their purpose was to honor God by observing such festivals in good faith. On the other hand, the person who finds that they cannot observe them as honoring God and that God does not approve of what they are doing is also doing so in good faith. At the same time, the person that eats any foods made by God which is wholesome and proper food gives thanks to God as the author of all good things. And those who cannot eat everything indiscriminately because they adhere to those things regulated by Mosaic Law relative to clean and unclean meats, also give God thanks. Both are sincere; both are upright; both act according to their understanding; God accepts both and they should accept each other’s decisions.3
Robert Haldane sees things this way: Paul is obviously saying that every person should give God thanks for whatever they are comfortable in eating or drinking. By doing so, they show that they eat or drink to honor God. This allows them to look at what they do consume as permissible for them even though for others it is unacceptable. In other words, they are thanking God for the liberty He has granted them to eat and drink with a clear conscience. There are other places in which Scripture writers exhort believers to grow in knowledge, and where they charge them as blamable if they are ignorant about any part of the Lord’s will. But here the Apostle Paul makes it clear that those who have a reverential regard for the authority of Christ and a true knowledge of His character can thereby call Him their Lord. So they ought to be welcomed and recognized by others as fellow disciples.4
Charles Hodge feels that we must keep telling ourselves that Paul is writing to those Jews who still regard the Mosaic distinction between clean and unclean meats as necessary for them to follow. The same goes for those who have by good conscience disregarded such practices as an effort to deserve salvation. This applies to the Gentiles as well who had no such restrictions. The Apostle advises them not to discriminate against each other. Let God through His Holy Spirit guide them into more enlightenment on the subject. Says Hodge: “The Lord is He who died and rose again that He might be Lord both of the living and the dead.” So it is to Him that believers are responsible as the Lord of their inner lives.5
Frédéric Godet makes the following observation: The Apostle Paul is giving his reasons why these two lines of thinking are equally admissible. It is because opposed as they are, they are inspired by one and the same desire, that of serving the Lord. The Apostle means that the person who, in their religious practice, keeps the Jewish feast-days, does so for the purpose of doing homage to the Lord by acknowledging Him as their Lord, as does the person who feels no need to observe them does so for the purpose of doing what God wants them to do. It has been concluded from these sayings of Paul that the obligation to observe Sunday as a day divinely instituted was not compatible with all Christian’s views in his day. The believer who observes Sunday does not do so with the intent of ascribing to this day a superior holiness than that of other days. To them, all days are, as the Apostle thinks, equal in holy consecration.6 In other words, a true Christian does not worship and celebrate their relationship with God only on Sunday, but every day of the week. At the same time, those who do treat Sunday as a special day for them do so to honor God not honor themselves.
Charles Spurgeon spoke out about such behavior among Christians during his time. In one of his sermons, Spurgeon introduced his message this way, “The doctrine of eternal judgment upon which I shall speak this morning is introduced to us for a certain reason.” He then points out that Paul saw among Christians in his day a common habit of judging one another. He supposed if Paul were to come among believers now he would not see any remarkable change on that behavior. Back in Paul’s day, the bulk of the early converts were Jews, and as such, they brought into the Christian faith their former religious habits – those who had devoutly kept the ceremonial Law because they felt as if they would violate their consciences if they did not continue to keep its more prominent precepts. And though they gave up some of its observances, which were evidently abolished by the Gospel, they kept up others, such as special days for religious fasts and feasts. Also, many true but weak believers were very scrupulous about what they ate, deciding to maintain the legal distinction between clean meats and unclean.
Spurgeon continues by noting that at the same time the church had in her midst people who said, and said correctly, “The coming of Christ has done away with the old dispensation; these holy days are all types and shadows whose substance is found in Christ.” He goes on to ask, did not the Lord show to Peter, who is the Apostle to the Jews, that from now on nothing is common or unclean? The people of strong faith blamed their weaker brethren of being superstitious, and by their superstition bringing a yoke of bondage upon themselves. But the weaker believers objected. They were not superstitious! They were conscientious! It was just that they were ready to go as far in their liberty as those who did not abstain.
Then says Spurgeon, while the strong looked down upon the weak, almost doubting whether they came into the liberty of Christ at all, the weak condemned the strong, almost charging them with turning their liberty into licentiousness! They were both wrong, for they were judging one another. Paul, who was himself most strongly opposed to the Judaizing party, and in every respect came out clear and straight on championing the bold lines of Christian liberty, was, nevertheless, so motivated by the spirit of his Master that he was ready to be all things to all men. He saw the grave danger of dissension arising where all should be loved. So he rushed into the breach and he said, “Do not judge one another: what have you to do with judging? Judgment Day is yet to come.’”
I like the way Spurgeon finishes this sermon. He encouraged everyone to take a second look at their God and Savior and confess that He is their Lord. They know He is their Judge, but they are also their Redeemer. They accept the fact that they were under condemnation, but they see that He did stand in on their behalf – the Just for the unjust, their Substitute sacrifice, bearing their sin and punishment. So every believer should say, “Blessed Lord, I accept You as my Substitute! I yield myself up to You! I stand now tried, condemned, punished, dead, raised again in You, and, therefore, pardoned, acquitted, justified, beloved, accepted for Jesus’ sake.” Spurgeon was happy to end his stern sermon with such a glorious blessing. He then quoted from an old hymn sung in that day: “Bold shall I stand in that great day, For who anything to my charge shall lay? While through Your blood absolved I am. From sin’s tremendous curse and shame.7”8
Karl Barth shares his insightful commentary by pointing out that the free-thinking believer has the responsibility of understanding the stricter person better than they understand themselves and of interpreting rigorous practices by generalizations. For that, they give God thanks whether an action is valid or invalid as long as it involves their relationship with God, By this standard, the precision of the strict person is judged by the same standard that the freedom of the stronger believer is critiqued. To the onlooker, however, the application of this basic principle remains wholly invisible. That means, believers have no alternative but to accept the claim of the weak that they do honor God when they obey their highly conservative rules, however much some may imagine that an idol has intervened between them and God. By invoking God it can mean that honorable significance can reside in their practices; their action can be a necessary demonstration offered to the glory of God. On the other hand, it cannot for one moment be admitted that in itself eating is more pleasing to God than not eating.9
Dr. F. F. Bruce gives his understanding of Paul’s teaching here. He finds it closely aligned with what Paul told the Colossians: “Do not let anyone tell you what you should or should not eat or drink. They have no right to say if it is right or wrong to eat certain foods or if you are to go to religious suppers. They have no right to say what you are to do at the time of the new moon or on the Day of Rest.”10 Paul says no more at present about the observance of special days, presumably because this was not a touchy issue at the time in the Christian community of Rome, as it had been some years before in the churches of Galatia.11 Therefore, don’t get involved in nitpicking what others do that is different from one’s own. If one person says grace for the food that their conscience permits them to eat, then the person who would not eat such food should say grace over what they do eat without being critical of the other. By doing so, what they both eat is then equally sanctified. In either case, their food is sanctified by the thanksgiving12.13
1 1 Corinthians 10:30; Colossians 2:7; 3:17; 1 Timothy 4:4.
2 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 351-352
3 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 269
4 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 598
5 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 652
6 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” based on 1 John 1:7, by Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), Translated by John Wesley, (1703-1791), Composer George J. Elvey, 1862, The Lutheran Hymnal, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1941, hymn #371, Stanza 2.
8 Charles Spurgeon: Sermon – “The Judgment Seat of God,” Delivered on Sunday, May 29, 1881, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, England
9 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Colossians 2:16
11 Galatians 4:10
12 Cf. 1 Corinthians 10:30; 1 Timothy 4:3–5
13 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 246