NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XIX)
Charles Hodge follows a similar line of thinking by noting that even though the thing being done is right in itself, yet if indulging in it becomes injurious to a fellow Christian believer, that indulgence is a violation of the Law of Love. Following the Law of Love is one of the firsts things the Apostle Paul urges the congregation in Rome to consider. They should always be careful not to put a stumbling block in their fellow believer’s pathway. Paul’s use of the Greek verb lypeō (“grieved” in KJV), which means: “to make someone feel sad or heartbroken at what they see being done.” It causes them grief because it offends their conscience. Therefore, if a fellow believer becomes emboldened by another believer’s example and is led into doing what they think is wrong by their standards, it will end up making them feel sad and miserable. This is caused by the fact that this person’s conscience was injured by letting this other person lead them astray, and they didn’t care.1
In his notes, Albert Barnes touches on this sensitive subject that has plagued the Church throughout its history with embarrassing blood stains for all the world to see. There have been times when one branch of Christianity has used their Christian liberty to speak out against and make unkind remarks about one another so that it produced contention and strife. This gave the Church’s opponents all the ammunition they needed to fire off shots at the “holier than thou” branch who had the tendency of preaching love but practicing loathing. They circulated rumors containing damming reports for the world to read about such behavior. How much strife both in and outside the Church could have been avoided if all Christians had high regard for the Law of Love in relation to their spiritual and moral standards in the church? While one group may consider their view to be right, they should not by any hardheaded enforcement on others only give rise to contention and angry discussions.2
Charles Ellicott also addresses an insight that Henry Alford mentions. Alford says that by Paul first speaking of offending and then destroying, he is making a big difference between a small offence and the great damage that can result. For Alford, even a tiny act that causes grief to a brother or sister in Christ is an offence against love. How much greater is the offence then if this grieving ends up destroying the faith they already had?3 Ellicott further explains that there are two stages implied in the words “grieve” and “destroy.” When a weak believer sees a strong believer do that which their own conscience condemns, it causes them anxiety, but when they are further led on from this to do it themselves, their conscience condemns them and they are in danger of a worse fate. This can lead to their being morally and spiritually crippled. The work of redemption that Christ has wrought for them is in danger of being canceled, and all those great and beneficial promises taken out of their hands by an act of thoughtlessness or lack of consideration on the part of a fellow Christian.4
In his Bible Study, H. A. Ironside advises believers that are weak in faith, that is, those whose immature or uninstructed consciences cause them to be troubled by things that may seem small to others, are to be welcomed and embraced as being a genuine Christian. They should not be judged for their questionings or doubtful thoughts. This principle is a most far-reaching one and indicates the breadth of Christian love that should prevail over the spirit of legality into which it is so easy to fall. Some believers find it hard to explore the Christian privileges provided in the Gospel. Nevertheless, all those who are children of God are to be recognized as fellow-members of the Body, and unless living in open wickedness, to be accorded their blood-bought place in the Christian family. Wickedness and weakness are not to be confused. The wicked person is to be shunned,5 but the weak believer is to be received and protected.6
Karl Barth gives this very eloquent paraphrase for us to always keep in mind of what Paul is saying here: “By forgetting the brother in my fellow men, the One in the other, Christ in the neighbor, in the weakness of the neighbor – I walk no longer in love, I am justified neither by the possibility that they may be right nor by the fact that God is right… Christ died for him, and I – [eat what distresses him!] This is the ridiculous impossibility of my most possible possibility: this is the wrong of my supreme right. No triumphant freedom of conscience, no triumphant faith to eat all things justifies me, if, at the moment of my triumph, I have seated myself upon the throne of God and am myself preparing stumbling-blocks and occasions of falling instead of making room for God’s action. Gone then are my faith and my freedom, and all my knowledge is as though I knew nothing.”7
John Stott poses some questions that we all need to ask ourselves whenever a lesser informed believer finds something we are doing objectionable because it goes against their conscience. We should begin with the fact that since Christ loved them enough to die for them, should we not love them enough to refrain from wounding their conscience? Another thing to consider is since Christ sacrificed Himself for their well-being, should we then assert ourselves and do them harm? Furthermore, since Christ died to save them, should we not be careful not to do something that may end up losing them? But Stott is not finished. He has read and heard of many Bible scholars and teachers say that the destruction Paul speaks of here more or less means sending them to hell because of our unwillingness to come to an agreement for their sake.
Stott is not hesitant to object and states four reasons why he would disagree with such an attitude that one small offence against a believer would end up sending them to hell. First, are we really to believe that a Christian believer’s single act against their own conscience – which in many cases is not their fault but the fault of a strong who have misled them, and which is, therefore, it was an unintentional mistake, not a deliberate disobedience – will bring upon them eternal condemnation? No! A fiery hell is reserved only for the devil, his fallen angels, the stubborn, the unrepentant, and those individuals who willfully persist in sinning against God and His Word. Secondly, such a view (the eternal destruction of a fellow believer) is inconsistent with the doctrine of final perseverance, which the Apostle Paul has eloquently expressed here in Romans,8 affirming that absolutely nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. The hallmark of every authentic brother or sister in Christ is that he or she will, by God’s steadfast love, persevere to the end as long as they depend on Him as their Savior.
Thirdly, Paul writes, in verse 15, that the strong are capable of damaging a weak believer’s conscience, but Jesus said that God Himself is the only one who can and will damn people in hell.9 Fourthly, the context in what Paul says here in verses 15-16 demands a different interpretation of “destroy.” Paul uses the Greek verb apollymi which has a broad spectrum of meanings which range from “killing” to “abolishing”. Paul contrasts “destroy” with “edification,” which means to “build up”.10 Therefore, Paul warns the strong believer not to mislead the weak believer in going against their consciences because it may do serious damage to advancing their Christian walk with Christ. He urges the strong, do not allow what you consider good (namely, the liberty you have found in Christ) to be spoken evil of all because you flaunted it to the detriment of the weak.11
Jewish scholar David Stern points to the Jewish writings as a possible source for what Paul learned and what he is passing on here to the Romans, especially the Jewish members of the congregation. In the Talmud, we read where Rabbi Johanan was discussing with other Rabbis whether what the Written Law said could also apply to the oral laws written by the Rabbis? His conclusion was, “Yes. Even if something was taught as permissible, yet some treat them as prohibited, you must not allow them to be done in their presence because it is written, “he shall not break his vow”12.13 Stern says that when someone is in bondage to rules to the point that anything outside those restrictions would be considered bad, we should not flaunt our freedom to do as we wish.14
14:17 In God’s kingdom, what we eat and drink is not important. Here is what is important: a right way of living in peace and joy – all which come from the Holy Spirit.
Now Paul teaches the believers in Rome that they must prioritize what are the most important things in their lives, and this is not “self,” but “selflessness.” This was the main theme of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.15 It’s like a person driving on the highway where they must not only keep their eyes on the road but be very aware of those coming and going and those around them. They must be conscious of the fact that every turn they make has the potential of affecting them all, either for the good or for disaster. We all know there are few things that frustrate us any more than drivers who change lanes without signaling; pull out in front of us without looking left or right; who suddenly cross from the far left lane into the far right lane seconds before exiting, or race through a red light. So it is in life. There are people all around us, and what we say and do can have a positive or negative effect on them. This is especially true of our fellow believers.
These are not temporary tenets or ethics. Daniel was told: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed. And it will never be taken by another people. It will outlast and bring an end to all these nations because it will stand forever.”16 That’s why when John the Baptizer came he had this message: “Repent for your sins and turn from them! The Holy Kingdom of Heaven is near.”17 John the Baptizer went on to say that this new Kingdom of God would be established by Yeshua, the one spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah.18 And Jesus was not hesitant in letting it be known that people should reorganize their lives so that they put the Kingdom of God first in their thoughts and deeds.19 Yes, we are all on the Highway of Holiness,20 but we abide by God’s rules, not ours.
1 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 656-657
2 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 121
4 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 1 Corinthians 5:13
6 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Chapter 8:28–39
9 Matthew 10:28
10 See Romans 14:15 and 15:2
11 John Stott: On Romans op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Numbers 30:2
13 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim, Masekhet Nedarim, folio 15b
14 David Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Matthew 5-7
16 Daniel 2:44
17 Matthew 3:2
18 Isaiah 40:3
19 Matthew 6:31-33
20 Isaiah 35:8