NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XXVII)
John Calvin really hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the important thing Paul is aiming at here is to get the Romans to believe that they “must” be persuaded by their conscience and their right standing before God that what they are doing is right. There is nothing more disturbing about a believer’s behavior than when they are constantly vacillating. Later, scholars noted that Calvin is interpreting the Greek verb diakrinō which means “to make a distinction, discriminate, try to decide,” and by using the Latin verb dijudicat which means “to make a judicial decision,” or “to judge between things, to discern,” in his commentary, it leaves no room for being undecided. This is why some English translations read: “He that doubts,”1 or “He who is undecided,” may give the reader the wrong impression. I like the way Edgar Goodspeed translates it: “…is not following his convictions,” The believer must be fully convinced of what their conscience is telling them, otherwise, they will be stuck in a quandary trying to decide whether they should listen to what their conscience is telling them to do or not do.
John Bengel makes the point that the reason why the strong Christian ought to be careful about offending a weak brother or sister is because though it may start with one question about whether something they are doing is permitted or not, if it doesn’t matter to them what their weak Christian brother or sister thinks, then they will continue offending them even after being informed that they feel hurt by their actions. A true believer is one can stand firmly on the foundation of their faith while at the same time being conscious of the standards other believers have on the subject.2 When seen this way, again we can confirm what Jesus said: That true believers first live for God, and then live for others before they live for themselves..3
Adam Clarke takes note of the fact that there are some who believe such discernment on the part of a believer can lead to sin if it does not proceed from a pure motive. Clarke points to one of the “Articles of Religion” in the Anglican Church that teaches that any charitable works a person did before they were saved are not acceptable to God as are the works they do now by the grace of Christ and the Inspiration of His Holy Spirit. And because they were not done as part of their faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make the doer eligible to receive grace, or deserve the grace of being united in Him. Furthermore, because they did not follow the guidelines laid down by God on what grounds these works should be done, there is every reason to believe that pride was behind what they were doing4.5 This is another way of saying that once a person becomes a true believer in Christ, their lifestyle and manner of conducting themselves must change from doing their will to doing God’s will.
Robert Haldane offers his conclusion on what Paul said about the Apostle’s doubts whether or not a person who eats foods which their conscience is unwilling to accept should feel condemned even though such foods are not forbidden by the law? For Haldane, it all boils down to the question of whether eating such foods only offends them, or do they also offend God? The first thing an individual must be certain of is that anything that offends God is off-limits to all believers because it is sinful. But when a believer starts questioning whether or not God’s command to abstain from such things should be followed or not, that’s the real sin.
A believer must obey what God says about staying away from certain things of this world. Only when a believer is convicted by their conscience that something they thought of doing is wrong, even though it is alright with God, it is still wrong to them. On the other hand, if someone persuades them that it is alright with God, if they then go ahead and do it with a guilty conscience, that is also a sin. Haldane says that this principle does not merely apply to food and drink but to the everything in a believer’s life. When a believer discovers that something is acceptable to God, their decision of whether or not it is acceptable to them means that it is not God who is judging them, it is they who are judging themselves.6
Charles Hodge gives a doctrinal summary of what he believes Paul is saying here. To him, when a believer does something that does not harmonize with their faith in the Gospel, it’s a sin to them. But it is also true that only after one puts their faith in Christ, it can be considered a sin. For instance, before Paul’s conversion to Christ, he thought that it was right to persecute Christians; the Jews thought they did God a great service by throwing Christ’s disciples out of the Temple and forbid them to preach that Jesus was the Messiah. None of these things were forbidden in God’s Word, so they did not feel that they were guilty of going against God’s will.
It wasn’t until some of them were converted, including Paul, they realize how wrong they had been because they were showing contempt for the divine authority that inspired the disciples to preach that Jesus was the Messiah. Now, however, were they to continue persecuting Christians, they would already know ahead it is wrong. So it comes down to motive. Even when we do something that is in harmony with our faith and God’s Word, but it is done with ulterior motives, that makes it wrong.7
Albert Barnes has the same view that whatever is not done by a believer without being fully convinced that it is right, it is a sin against their sanctified conscience. But this does not simultaneously affirm that all or any of the actions of unregenerate and unbelieving people are sinful because to them and their conscience they are doing what’s right. So it is clear that Paul is not writing this for unconverted and unregenerate individuals. This pertains to the children of God. That puts everything on a higher spiritual level.
Barnes believes that what Paul is trying to point out here is that a believer should not do anything when they are doubting its correctness according to God’s Word or their own enlightened conscience. That’s why some people of this world are perplexed when a believer tells them they can’t participate with them because it goes against their conscience. Sinners just laugh because for them they have no such conviction, it is normal behavior. At the same time, when a believer does something they feel strongly persuaded is the right thing to do, sinners just shake their heads because to them it makes no sense.
For instance, after paying your bill at a restaurant or grocery store, you notice that the waiter or clerk failed to charge for one of the items served to you or was in your basket. So instead of considering this as good luck because it’s the restaurant or store’s fault, you take it back in and return it or pay for it. Sinners just don’t understand this kind of thinking. But even sinners agree that if you do something you know ahead of time is wrong, then you should be charged with a crime. Barnes says the same thing was true of many persecutors of the Apostles,8 and the murderers of the Son of God.9 Even though they may have been ignorant of the truth about Christ, yet there were judged as guilty of enormous crimes because their charges were made up with lies10.11
Charles Ellicott sees it another way. If a person is spiritually enlightened enough not to be inhibited by differences of opinion on such small things as food and drink, they still should not treat them lightly. Even though they can pick and choose, there are other believers whose faith is not that strong. So when they are convinced that a certain way is right but they chose a different way because it is something that strong believers do with ease, this will not excuse the weak believer being condemned by their own conscience.12 Ellicott also agrees with Paul that whatever goes against one’s faith, it is a sin to them. And where the conscience is in doubt, informed faith can help in choosing what is right even though before their conscience would not allow it. Nothing is said about those cases in which conscience is either not appealed to at all, or approve of what is being done.13
Charles Spurgeon also makes the point here that even though the thing you do is right as far as the law is concerned, if you do not believe it to be right it is not right for you. For instance, the Law says that when a person reaches the age of 21 they can enter a tavern and drink. But if that person is a Christian who believes in abstinence from alcohol, it’s the wrong thing to do. However, if they are persuaded to go in and have a drink anyhow – even though the law allows it, it is then a sin for them. But if they are with a friend who was also a Christian but they believe it was alright to have a drink now and then, the abstainer should not condemn the imbiber for going in and having a sip as being wrong, especially since it is allowed by law. That means the “law” is not the deciding factor here, it’s their conscience.
Therefore, the person who believes it is wrong must refrain and the person who believes it is okay may go ahead, but keep in mind that what is right for one is not necessarily right for another. This is where the real test comes in. The strong or more liberal-minded believer is the one that can show real maturity by not trying to persuade the abstainer to just have one drink but instead decides to not to go in and drink for their friends’ sake. In Paul’s day in the Roman church, it wasn’t about taverns and drinking age but about foods and drink offered at meals. Paul had already made the decision that since an idol is involved it’s nothing to worry about.14
After all, whatever is sold in the marketplace that was often used as sacrifices to these meaningless idols, he asked no questions of whether or not he should eat that food because his conscience didn’t bother him.15 But if others had not yet reached that level of freedom in their thinking, Paul would refrain eating it for their sake. He would not be doing anything good just because it was right for him, if it wasn’t right for others, that’s what takes precedent in such cases. That’s why Paul cautions the Romans that if the Scriptures confirm that this is something God permits and they can do it because He allows it,16 it is alright to go ahead. But even if the Scriptures do not say that it is good or bad if it goes against their conscience anyhow, then don’t go ahead and do it.17
1 Romans 14:23 – 21st Century King James Version, American Standard Version, et. al.
2 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 355
3 Matthew 22:37-38
4 Anglican Church, Articles of Religion, Article 13 – Of Works before Justification
5 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 276
6 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 606-607
7 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 664-665
8 John 16:2; Acts of the Apostles 26:9
9 Acts of the Apostles 3:17; 1 Corinthians 2:8
10 Luke 11:50-51; Acts of the Apostles 2:23, 37
11 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 See James 4:17
13 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 1 Corinthians 8:4
15 1 Corinthians 10:25
16 Hebrews 6:3
17 Charles Spurgeon: Sermon titled: “Facing the Wind,” Text: 2 Thessalonians 3:13, delivered at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, England on Thursday evening, September 28, 1876