When Christians Disagree is our title this morning as we carry on with our studies in Romans. We’ve reached chapter 14 and my headings are, first, A LESSON TO LEARN; secondly, A FACT TO FACE; and thirdly, A CULTURE TO CREATE. But by way of introduction I want to say something about the context of our passage.
We are now, of course, in the last five chapters of Romans and that are distinct from the first 11. In that first part of Romans Paul started with the question of sin - the more sordid sins of the godless world in chapter 1 and in chapter 2 the more respectable sins of the religious world. He was saying all that as a warning. For one day all sin will be judged as he explains in chapter 2. We should, therefore, take action now. For in Romans 3.23 he argues that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But the good news (or the gospel) is that there is a “righteousness from God” that comes, he tells us, “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe”. And Paul goes on:
“[we] are justified [or judged righteous] freely by his [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”
It is relatively straightforward. God has created this a moral universe. It is a result of his creating human beings in his own image. So you too are a creator in your own right and in your own way as you look after God’s world and make it productive and steward it for him. Inevitably you are a responsible and moral being, because you reap what you sow or create. However, sadly, since the Fall all of us have a moral deficit And it is always worse than you imagine because of your sins of omission – all the good you have failed to do, as well as the bad you have actually done. Therefore, to maintain justice, to preserve the moral order and, at the same time, to demonstrate supremely God’s love for guilty offenders, Jesus Christ on the cross bore the punishment, in your place, that you deserve. That is why Paul can write in Romans chapter 8 (verse 1): “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For by trusting in Christ and accepting his forgiveness you now can escape all those negative consequences of God’s judgment in this life and for eternity. You are “justified by faith”. And that is the foundation message of the first part of Romans.
But it is very important you understand what that really means; and that you understand the little words (or prepositions) Paul uses when talking about justification. They are the words “by” and “through” and “for”. You see, you are accepted by God not “because of” your faith. That is not what “by faith” means. God doesn’t see your faith and say, “It’s good you believe in me so I’m now going to reward you with forgiveness and new and eternal life because of your faith.” No! You are accepted or justified “by” (or “through”) your faith only because of Jesus’ death for you on the Cross, where he paid the price or penalty for your sin. By faith you simply accept that verdict of acquittal, thank God and act on it.
It is something like buying a brand new car. Then as you are writing a cheque, or filling in hire purchase forms, a letter falls on your mat. You open it to discover it is a receipt from the garage acknowledging the payment on your behalf of the entire cost of the car by a rich relative. Your subsequent joy and your gratitude in no way contribute to paying for the car. Nor does your later good use of the car for business or pleasure contribute in any way. It is all already paid for, and all yours, because of your rich relative.
You will not contribute anything to getting it, apart from going to the garage and driving the car away. Your job then is to use it sensibly. Otherwise it will have been a complete waste of money on the part of the donor and their “grace” (to use the biblical word) or their “giving” (to use the modern English equivalent). Well, that is something like justification by grace through faith - the foundation truth for the first part of Romans. And these last 5 chapters are more like using the car. They are about what we are to do, once justified. For while Paul teaches that we are not justified (or acquitted by God) for what we do – our doing good – but only by (or through) faith, nevertheless we are justified “for good works”. We are justified to do good. Paul says that Christ’s death on the Cross was (Romans 8.4) “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us”. Elsewhere in Ephesians 2 he puts it like this - verses 8-9:
“8it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - 9not by works, so that no one can boast.”
And that is a great “promise of God’s word” to “stand on”, as we have just sung. But he then immediately goes on in verse 10 to say this:
“For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
And these last chapters of Romans are about those “good works” that God has prepared for us and for which we are strengthened by his Holy Spirit.
Two weeks ago we considered what “good works” mean in terms of politics and public life. Last week we considered what “love” really means. And this morning we are considering what “good works” mean for unity in the church. Well, so much by way of introduction. Now chapter 14 and …
First, A LESSON TO LEARN
The basic issue behind our chapter is spelt out in verse 2:
“One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.”
The trouble is explained in verse 3. For “the man who eats everything” seems to “look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything” seems to “condemn the man who does”. And so there was disunity in the church.
The root problem was that both sides were ignoring the difference between primary and secondary issues. That is always serious. Verse 1 refers to “disputable matters” over which there can be legitimate disagreement. These are matters regarding belief and practice that are not as clear cut as you might like and so are secondary. On the other hand, some things are clear and non negotiable. These, therefore, are primary. Look at verse 17:
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
So what is primary is love for God and righteousness (the subject of the first part of Romans); love for others and peace (in the world and in the church); and, for ourselves, joy that comes by the Holy Spirit. But what we eat and drink is secondary. Therefore, says Paul in this chapter, those who eat meat and drink wine must not despise those who don’t. And those who don’t should not judge those who do – as was happening in Rome.
But you mustn’t get this wrong. This debate in Rome was not about being vegetarian or teetotal in a way that could be an issue today in churches. It was about, on the one hand, whether some Jewish background Christians could keep some of their Jewish traditions without being looked down on as conservative bigots by some non-Jewish Christians. And, on the other hand, it was about whether some Jewish Christians should think some non-Jewish members were raving liberals by showing no respect for what they considered good traditions. In today’s terms, it was more like whether or not you wear robes in church; or whether or not you like traditional or modern church music; and so on. Of course, all these sorts of things are secondary.
Yes, they can become primary, when things get out of proportion. If the Jewish background members had been insisting that to be a Christian it was essential for everyone to follow these traditions, Paul would have opposed them strongly as he opposed some such people in Antioch (you can read about that in Galatians 2). Similarly, if the non Jewish Christians rejection of the Jewish ceremonial law led them to a rejection of the Jewish moral law as well, Paul would have opposed them strongly as he opposed such people in Corinth.
So, a lesson to learn for unity is the distinction between non-negotiable primary issues, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, secondary issues, over which there can be differences of opinion.
Secondly, A FACT TO FACE
What was so wrong in the church at Rome was the judgmental attitudes both sides of the dispute were having with regard to one another. Of course, you must make judgments over, and discriminate about, what is truly right and wrong. But even then there should no wrong judgmentalism. Look at verse 4:
“Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls.”
God is the judge. And God has already judged every believer. God has already accepted him or her. He or she is a justified believer. So because God is our judge, we must not judge one another. Look at verses 10-12:
“10You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. 11It is written:
'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'
12So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Every Christian believer is to face the fact that (verse 10) one day “we will all [not some, but all] stand before God’s judgment seat.” And (verse 12) “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Paul is so clear about this.
In Romans 2.5 and 6 he has earlier written that there is going to be a “day of God’s wrath …”
“…when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done’.”
Also Paul in 2 Corinthians 5 writes:
“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Now some Christians react almost aggressively against these verses. They say, “does Paul really mean what he is saying? Can he one moment say that you are justified by faith for all eternity because of what Christ has done (and so have a free pardon); and can he the next moment say one day you will face the judgment for what you have done in this life?”
The answer is, “Yes!” For Paul (and in line with the rest of the New Testament) is saying that justification is, indeed, by faith. But judgment will be according to works. This is why there is no disagreement between the epistles of Paul and the epistle of James. Let me explain.
The day of judgment will be a public occasion. Its purpose seems not so much for God’s judgment to be made. Rather it is to declare a judgment already made. And that judgment relates to our response to Christ in this life. Are we for or against him? Do we trust or reject him? And genuine trust will certainly produce some fruit. But as we’ve just heard, Romans 2 verse 5 speaks of a day “when [God’s] righteous judgment will be revealed [literally, ‘uncovered’].” It is, therefore, a public occasion when the verdict and sentence will be given publicly.
So there needs to be public evidence to support the judgments. And the public evidence available are our works (and they include our words).
Of course, what is really important is the state of our hearts. Of course, our works will never be adequate to save us. As we’ve seen, only Christ’s death is adequate for that. But our works reveal our spiritual heart condition.
Yes, it was Jesus who said, as reported in John 5.24:
"I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
But Jesus also said, as reported in Matthew 16.27:
“the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.”
And in Matthew 12.34 he had said:
“out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks … But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."
Similarly, it was Paul himself who said earlier in Romans:
“38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.38-39).
And it is Paul who writes here (in chapter 14 verse 4) of a person being judged wrongly by other Christians who, he says, …
“… will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand”.
But it was also Paul who says in 1 Cor 10.12-13:
12So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! 13No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
And he had just written in 1 Corinthians 9.37:
“I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Is Paul confused? Did he doubt his eternal salvation? Certainly, not. Paul was confident that nothing would separate him from the love of God, for Christ had paid the penalty for his sin. But he never presumed that he was saved regardless of what he did. And here Paul wants the Romans (and he would want you and I) not to doubt their (or our) salvation but to face the fact that one day we will all have to stand before God’s judgment seat as we read in verse 10.
So, of course, we must treat one another with respect in the church fellowship and work for its unity and have as a priority in this life, righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. And when we fail, we must confess our sins – that, too, is a “good work”. That was the “good work” of the penitent thief on the Cross. Certainly we must not have arguments and conflicts over secondary matters.
So thirdly, and, finally, there is A CULTURE TO CREATE in the church.
I must be brief. This chapter has so much in it.
It teaches, by implication, about rights and how a Christian is to major on duties and not rights.
It teaches about the conscience and how someone with a sensitive conscience should be respected.
And this chapter confirms that the Old Testament ritual or ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ But the most important teaching in these last verses is in verse 19, and that you are to …
“… make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification [in the church]”.
Paul is talking about a culture of “peace and mutual edification [or building up and not pulling down one another]. Literally, he says, you are to “pursue” it – that is the word for “make every effort”. It is like pursuing a naughty little child that is running away from you. Their aim is to escape or not let you catch them. So it is with the things that lead “to peace and to mutual edification”. Unless you make the effort, things will get rough and ragged. Yes, it involves being sensitive to one another. But it also involves practical action – turning up on time so that others in your team are not inconvenienced; remembering to tidy up, if that needs doing, and not leaving it to the same faithful few every time; and so on.
But above all it involves being more concerned with Jesus Christ and what he thinks of us than with our criticisms of others – verses 7-8:
“7For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.”
To summarise and in conclusion -
Chapter 14 gives us: a lesson to learn - there are primary and secondary issues; a fact to face - we will all have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ; and, a culture to create – we are to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.”