Through the letter to the Romans – Part 20. The answer is Love and Faith

We are in the middle of the discussion on disputable matters in Romans 14. But, before going on, I need to come back and ask the question: Did Paul contradict the Holy Spirit there in 1 Corinthians when he told them that, since idols are nothing, there was nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols? Remember, James said in Acts that the instruction they were sending seemed “good to the Holy Spirit and to us”.

This is a fascinating question. In fact, I have read a commentary by David E. Garland that argues that Paul – in his letter to the Corinthians – truly was condemning eating meat sacrificed to idols. But that the only way he could convince the Corinthians of this was to use a “sideways” argument, bringing up first how their actions were making their fellow Christians stumble, and then building up the argument from there until culminating in:

1 Corinthians 10:19-24 What then do I say? that what is sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? But that what [the nations] sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God. Now I do not wish you to be in communion with demons. Ye cannot drink [the] Lord’s cup, and [the] cup of demons: ye cannot partake of [the] Lord’s table, and of [the] table of demons. Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?

      All things are lawful, but all are not profitable; all things are lawful, but all do not edify. Let no one seek his own [advantage], but that of the other.

This certainly makes it look like Paul is absolutely condemning eating food sacrificed to idols. But if you read to the end of that chapter, again we get an argument that is very much in line with Paul’s instruction in Romans:

1 Corinthians 10:25-29 Everything sold in the shambles {meat market} eat, making no inquiry for conscience sake. For the earth [is] the Lord’s and its fulness. But if any one of the unbelievers invite you, and ye are minded to go, all that is set before you eat, making no inquiry for conscience sake. But if any one say to you, This is offered to holy purposes, do not eat, for his sake that pointed it out, and conscience sake; but conscience, I mean, not thine own, but that of the other: for why is my liberty judged by another conscience?

We would have to take verses 19-24 of 1 Corinthians as Paul being very clear that it is never a good idea for Christians to get involved again with the sins of their past; especially idolatry. So, participating in the worship of those idols had to be absolutely out of bounds. As a Christian, I can never argue that being a believer makes me “immune” to sin and all its temptations. No, I have to exercise my will to ‘reckon’ that old body dead. I have been called to walk away from that old life.

However, there were other contexts in which meat sacrificed to idols might come up in the life of a Christian of those days. It wasn’t only during the offering of the sacrifices to that god. The leftover meat could be taken home by the people there or perhaps even eaten in the premises as part of a family or village celebration (or sold in the market place). In those cases, the Christian had not actually participated in the worship of the idol.

So, as Paul acknowledged in chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, a Christian might choose to have dinner with unbelievers even at an idol-house! And he says: As long as this is not a violation of your conscience as a Christian, as long as you know there is nothing at all to these gods and you do not partake in the sins associated with their worship, you can do this. BUT if someone says, ‘this was sacrificed to an idol’, a different dynamic ensues.

Who is this hypothetical person that points this out to you? Well, if you are actually at an idol-house, everyone there knows this was meat sacrificed already. So, in that case, that hypothetical person is most likely another Christian who happens to see you there and is scandalized by your presence there. Yet, it could very well be another unbeliever there, who wants to disparage your apparently weak faith or to foment dissension among Christians, and chooses to call you out on it at the last minute. Either way, Paul is saying that the safest thing to do is excuse yourself – maybe even with apologies to your host – and leave. Why? Because as Christians we cannot afford to let our rights and our freedoms be used by the devil to destroy another Christian, not even a future Christian (that unbeliever in the example above.)

painting of love heart as a parachute

This is a delicate question. But Paul makes perfectly clear that there is ONE right answer: My choices are judged by the Holy Spirit in me, not by anybody else. Nevertheless, Love trumps everything, even my rights: 

1 Corinthians 10:30-33 If *I* partake with thanksgiving, why am I spoken evil of for what *I* give thanks for? Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatever ye do, do all things to God’s glory. Give no occasion to stumbling, whether to Jews, or Greeks, or the assembly of God. Even as *I* also please all in all things; not seeking my own profit, but that of the many, that they may be saved.

But we haven’t answered the opening question of this blog yet. Is Paul contradicting the Council of Jerusalem?

Whose side would Jesus take?

Mark 7:14-19 (NASB) After He {Jesus} called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the person which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which come out of the person are what defile the person.”

     And when He later entered a house, away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him about the parable. And He *said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding as well? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the person from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thereby He declared all foods clean.)

Fascinating as the question is of whether or not Paul is disagreeing with the Jerusalem Council, this is not the time to address it. I think we can defuse it by asking the question a different way, Did the Jerusalem Council disagree with Jesus (in Mark 7) when they gave those guidelines for the Gentiles? Did they go too far? Is this perhaps what is indicated by the way they said it: It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us

I have always respected Paul for his precision when he gives advice to his audience. Pay attention next time you read one of his letters to when he says, ‘this is what the Lord wants’ versus when he says ‘this is what I think is best’.

The work of Love is self-sacrifice

Pauls’ approach to settling these disputable matters is to place the dispute in the light of the big picture. What are we here for? Why were we saved?

Romans 14:8-13 For both if we should live, [it is] to the Lord we live; and if we should die, [it is] to the Lord we die: both if we should live then, and if we should die, we are the Lord’s. For to this [end] Christ has died and lived [again], that he might rule over both dead and living.

     But thou, why judgest thou thy brother? or again, thou, why dost thou make little of thy brother? for we shall all be placed before the judgment-seat of God. For it is written, *I* live, saith [the] Lord, that to me shall bow every knee, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then each of us shall give an account concerning himself to God. Let us no longer therefore judge one another; but judge ye this rather, not to put a stumbling-block or a fall-trap before his brother.

Jesus warned us severely (in the Sermon on the Mount) not to judge unless we ourselves want to be judged. And thinking little of someone, holding them in disdain, is another form of judging. And so, Paul points out, there is only One Judge, and that is God. Furthermore, Jesus had dire warnings against any who would make “one of these little ones to stumble.” (Matthew 18:6)

The bottom line is that we are here in the service of Jesus. And when Jesus commanded us, John 13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all know that ye are disciples of mine, if ye have love amongst yourselves, He meant it.

To love like Jesus loved is to take the way of self-sacrifice. My duty to love as Jesus loved, trumps all my “rights”.

Romans 14:14-21 I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean of itself; except to him who reckons anything to be unclean, to that man [it is] unclean. For if on account of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer according to love. Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ has died.

     Let not then your good be evil spoken of; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in [the] Holy Spirit. For he that in this serves the Christ [is] acceptable to God and approved of men. So then let us pursue the things which tend to peace, and things whereby one shall build up another. For the sake of meat do not destroy the work of God.

     All things indeed [are] pure; but [it is] evil to that man who eats while stumbling [in doing so]. [It is] right not to eat meat, nor drink wine, nor [do anything] in which thy brother stumbles, or is offended, or is weak.

With great freedom comes great responsibility

Paul’s answer is then based on two principles: Love and Faith:

Don’t do anything that might make a brother stumble.”

Don’t go any place where faith is not leading you.”

Did you notice how Paul said that if I believe it is wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols, then it is a sin for me if I do it? This might sound surprising if we are still stuck on the mindset of the Law. Because it appears to say that sin is relative! Something that is a sin to me may not be a sin to you. That sounds alarming.

photo of police line do not cross tape

Does this mean that there is no master list of “don’ts” that I can use to determine whether or not I need to avoid doing something? If that is so, wouldn’t we be left with anarchy? I mean, yes, we have freedom, but wouldn’t that kind of freedom lead to licentiousness?

This is precisely the tack Paul’s detractors used to ridicule Christianity. It goes right along with, “let us sin all the more so that God may be even more glorified.” What was Paul’s answer to that claim? You know better than that. In fact, all mankind knows better than that. That was the point of starting this letter the way he did. Anyone who chooses to commit a sin and then says, ‘my faith tells me this is not a sin’, is lying to you and to himself. Because we all know what sin is. The Jews know because the written Law tells them, the Gentiles know because the Natural Law (written in their hearts by God) tells them. And all believers know because the Holy Spirit certainly tells them.

Faith and Love are acts of the will, and that will is always guided by our conscience. And the Spirit of God has opened the eyes of our conscience to see the glory of Christ (Ephesians 1:18). Of all people on this earth, believers absolutely know what is right and what is wrong because our spirit (the seat of our conscience) has been set free to communicate with the Spirit in whose image we were made.

This freedom may seem scary because it puts all the responsibility on me. But, remember, Jesus said He would be with us to the end of the age. God the Father said He would never leave us nor forsake us.

Yes, for some people it would be easier, more comforting, to live by Law: ‘Give me a check list of dos and don’ts, and as long as I have that, I can live my life.’ But the problem with that is precisely the problem the people of Jesus’ time had: A written law becomes rigid and lifeless. A written law eventually ties itself in knots as we (consciously or unconsciously) try to find loopholes. (“Who then is my neighbor?”, asked the Scribe.) And while we are busy doing that, we will miss all the opportunities to do the works of love that happen right before our eyes.

A written law is only meant to point to the Spirit of the Law. And if we let that Spirit guide us then we know we will be doing our Father’s will.

Salvation sets us free to use our free will to do what God put us here to do in the first place.

All things are lawful but all are not profitable

The answer Paul gives to the Romans is exactly what Paul says in the follow-up passage in 1 Corinthians 10, but when you read those passages in 1 Corinthians again, notice how he uses the word conscience.

Paul makes it perfectly clear that we cannot use our freedom in Christ to claim we can live (without injury) the old life we left. If I am tempted to go and hang out with my old crowd, I really need to examine my own conscience and ask, why am I thinking about doing this? What good is going to come out of that? I am now free to “hang out” with the Living God, why would I want to hang out where demons have the upper hand?

Yes, my freedom is real but it was given to me for a purpose. My freedom has been given to me so I can do the work I was originally made to do (John 15:16). Its main purpose is not for my enjoyment. This world is not my home. I wasn’t saved so I could parteeee! I was saved to do a job. Just ask Jesus:

man plowing field with yoked oxen

Luke 17:7-10 But which of you [is there] who, having a bondman ploughing or shepherding, when he comes in out of the field, will say, Come and lie down immediately to table? But will he not say to him, Prepare what I shall sup on, and gird thyself and serve me that I may eat and drink; and after that *thou* shalt eat and drink? Is he thankful to the bondman because he has done what was ordered? I judge not. Thus *ye* also, when ye shall have done all things that have been ordered you, say, We are unprofitable bondmen; we have done what it was our duty to do.

Faith as our guide, is the bottom line:

Romans 14:22-23 Hast *thou* faith? have [it] to thyself before God. Blessed [is] he who does not judge himself in what he allows. But he that doubts, if he eat, is condemned; because [it is] not of faith; but whatever [is] not of faith is sin.

And Faith is manifested by living in Love, like Jesus did:

Romans 15:1-3 But *we* ought, we that are strong, to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbour with a view to what is good, to edification. For the Christ also did not please himself; but according as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproach thee have fallen upon me.

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