NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XXVI)
Albert Barnes also has something to say about maintaining a clear conscience. Many people indulged in practices which their conscience condemns, and in many acts which leave their conscience in doubt. Barnes points out quite clearly, the best way to be content and happy is to have a “clear conscience” in what one says or does. In other words, if a person has doubts about a certain type of conduct, it is not safe to even dabble in it. Leave it alone until a better understanding is achieved. Many people are engaged in “businesses” or “work” about which they are unsure of the ethics involved. Many Christians are uncertain about various career paths that are available. When in doubt, choose the one about which there is no doubt of whether it is proper for a Christian or not.
Sometimes, a single inquiry can settle all debate in regard to these things. During Dr. Barnes’ lifetime (1872-1951), there were still slave-dealers, makers of moonshine, or hard liquor, and theaters that featured burlesque shows and other forms of erotic entertainment. So Barnes asks how could anyone be involved in these things and still believe that they were imitating their Lord Jesus Christ, or that it was being done with any desire to honor Him and His Kingdom? In today’s world Barnes might ask, how could anyone be a porn star and proclaim, like some professional football and baseball players have rightly done, that they want to thank their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the opportunity of being so successful in their job? But the Apostle Paul already has the answer: “Happy is the person who feels no condemnation of conscience when they choose to do something.”1 In other words, never go with the crowd if it will cloud your clear conscience.2
Frédéric Godet focuses on how a person should understand being happy with a clear conscience. For him, it is a feeling of gratitude and not of pride with which a person ought to be inspired by the degree of faith, and the level of liberty in faith they have reached. Godet says that here in verse 22, as elsewhere, the Greek verb krinō (“condemneth” KJV) should be translated as “judge.” For a person to condemn themselves in what they feel is alright with them would be contradictory. The subject in question is a simple inquiry on whether a course of action which the person has decided to make a part of their spiritual lifestyle given them peace of mind? The person who no longer feels any qualms in their heart or has any doubts in their mind can be a happy Christian.3
Charles Spurgeon shares his feelings on what Paul is saying here. For him, any child of God must have noticed a difference between any sins they may commit as a believer and the sins they committed as an unbeliever. Also, one cannot help but observe, day by day, if they look within, that divine grace has made a change in how they now understand those sins which their sinful tendencies struggle with the most. Still, the best thing any believer can do is to stay as far away from giving in to their sinful tendencies as long as possible. Spurgeon warns those who go around saying “I may be a child of God, yet I can do so-and-so.” No! Any believer who is a co-heir with Jesus of heaven’s riches will have no interest in even thinking about doing anything that is sinful and jeopardizes their future with Him.
Spurgeon goes on to admit that many believers are still wanting to know if this or that is right or wrong? He says the best thing to do when questions about the propriety of this or that is to leave it alone. Does not the Apostle Paul next in verse 23, that anything that does not harmonize with one’s faith is a sin? In other words, whatever a believer cannot do with full confidence that what they are doing is right will feel as though they have sinned. Though the deed may be right to other people, if they have any doubt about it themselves, it is wrong to them.4
Spurgeon goes on to illustrate by asking that if there was a leper colony anywhere in England, would he want to want to build his house next door? No! Or would he send for a physician and ask him, “Hey Doctor, how far do you think the effect of this disease might spread? I would like to get as near as I can without actually catching the disease.” No, no! He would look for a plot of land for sale where there is no disease prevalent in the neighborhood. Likewise, it is best to get as far away as possible from unholy living. Just like leprosy, it can be contagious if you get too close. Then Spurgeon prays, “O may God separate us from evil in this world, as we hope to be separated from it in the world to come! There will be a great gulf fixed between it and us in the next world, may there be a wide demarcation now.”5
Douglas Moo echoes many of the same truths that we have read in the writings of the early church and Reformation scholars. He, too, sees the Apostle Paul urging the strong to keep their convictions about the matters in dispute to themselves. There is no need for them to broadcast their views or to be continually trying to convince unsure fellow believers how right these things are. He notes that the words at the end of verse 22 should be every believer’s guideline. They should live and act in such a way that they have no reason to condemn themselves with respect to the practices that they feel comfortable in doing. Paul wants those, who like himself, to internalize the truth about the freedom of conscience a Christian has about the way they use their freedom. It should be done out of love and concern for the edification of the spiritual community.6
14:23 But anyone who eats something, without being convinced that it is right, is doing wrong. That is because they now do not believe it is right. If you go ahead and do anything that you know for sure is not right, that is a sin.
The Apostle Paul, having stated unequivocally that if a person is content and their conscience controlled by the Holy Spirit does not convict them that something they are eating, drinking, or participating in is wrong, then go ahead and enjoy yourself but don’t be braggadocios about it. Do it in moderation and without taking any chances that it might offend someone who doesn’t see things your way. However, if you do, either through instruction and by enlightenment began to feel that what you once accepted as being fine now bothers you, then, by all means, drop it fast. Don’t do it now just because you didn’t have any problems with it before.
Paul explained to the Corinthians that by being belligerent and unwilling to change could actually affect your eligibility to participate in the Lord’s Supper: “Anyone who eats the bread or drinks from the cup, if his spirit is not right with the Lord, will be guilty of sinning against the body and the blood of the Lord. This is why a man should look into his own heart and life before eating the bread and drinking from the cup. Anyone who eats the bread and drinks from the cup, if his spirit is not right with the Lord, will be guilty as he goes ahead and participates. It shows that he does not understand the meaning of the Lord’s body.”7 Paul goes on to say that if a person is willing to judge themselves first, then there will be no need for the Lord to judge them. This is a vital factor in one’s spiritual growth and becoming more mature in Christ.
This verse was very controversial even in the early church and spawned several comments among early church scholars. For instance, we read where Bishop Basil declares that if all that is not of faith is sin, and since faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God, then everything done outside what’s written in Holy Scripture is sin.8 Then Bishop Gregory announces that every word or deed or thought which does not honor and lift up Christ, honors and lifts up the ideas of those who oppose Christ – which are Satan-like ideas. Since it is not possible for anything removed from any source of light to exist in anything except utter darkness. In the same way when a person who by what they think, do, or say runs from the righteous light of Christ, will be lost in the darkness of lies and deceit.9
Ambrosiaster agrees that if someone thinks it is wrong to eat certain foods but does so anyway, they are rightly condemned. For they make themselves guilty when they do what they think they ought not to.10 If someone acts against their better judgment in a matter of conscience, then Paul knows from personal experience that it is a sin to them.11 This is followed by Chrysostom who preached that once again Paul shows what greater harm some people will cause if they force other people to do things which goes against their conscience. When a person does not feel sure that something is scripturally allowed or prohibited, yet goes ahead and does it anyhow, they have committed a sin.12
Then we have Constantius who accepts that if one believer has doubts about another believer’s actions and charges them as having eaten something that is forbidden by Scripture and should be condemned, obviously have little or no faith. For it is not someone’s faith that should be condemned just because they have different opinions about what should or should not be eaten.13 This is followed by Pelagius who points out that when one believer destroys another believer’s confidence in their decisions, that should also be considered a sin.14
Martin Luther notes a situation that may involve a believer having qualms about something they are still doing even after becoming a born-again Christian. Their fear is that even though it didn’t bother them before, now they are afraid that their actions may offend Christ their Savior. For Luther, everything done that is contrary to a person’s belief is a sin because it goes counter to their spiritual ethics and conscience. That’s why everyone must be aware with all possible zeal that we may not violate our conscience. As a result, notes Luther, we must be even more diligent in seeing that our actions do not cause a weaker brother or sister to join us by going against their own conscience. Rather, we must strengthen them and build them up in order that they may grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ15.16
As British theologian Gerald Bray says his summary of this section: “By offending the weak we condemn ourselves. Do nothing that would cause another to stumble. Let all that you do be for the neighbor’s upbuilding. Do not judge harshly. Let your actions proceed from the premise of faith, not sin.”17
1 Romans 14:22
2 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Romans 12:2
5 Charles Spurgeon: Sermon titled – “The Secret Spot,” on the Text: Deuteronomy 32:5, Delivered on Sunday morning, November 10, 1867, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, England
6 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 1 Corinthians 11:27-29
8 Basil the Great: The Morals 80.22
9 Gregory of Nyssa: in his book, On Perfection
10 See Romans 7:19
11 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 26
13 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 See 2 Peter 3:18
16 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 206
17 Gerald Bray, G. (Ed.). (1998). Romans (Revised) (p. 337). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.