How do you react when you feel like your rights have been violated? I’m talking here about folks in the church. How should church people respond when their “rights” have been threatened? Well, the overall attitude of the Bible is that we should always be willing to forgo our rights for the sake of others. You see this even in the case of the Corinthians, who were taking each other to court. Paul reprimands them and tells them they should rather be willing to be defrauded than take brothers to court. Now that does not mean that we should be careless when it comes to injustice. The point is that believers are always to put the needs and concerns of others and of God’s kingdom before their own. We don’t insist on our rights because to do that would mean that we are pursuing our own agendas rather than God’s. And we must not do that.
This is what was happening in the church at Rome. The problem was that the strong were putting their rights and liberty before the needs of the weak. That is what the apostle is addressing here, and as we look at how he deals with this issue – though the context is very different perhaps from our own – we will learn some important and valuable lessons on why we should be willing to put the needs of other believers before our own perceived rights. And we need to learn this lesson because if we don’t, we are going to end up with churches that are as divided as the church at Rome had been.
Whereas the first part of this chapter (ver. 1-12) is addressed to both the strong and the weak, these verses (13-23) are addressed primarily to the strong. Remember that the strong are those in the Roman church who are strong in faith in the sense that they understand more fully the implications of the gospel as respects Mosaic rituals. The weak, on the other hand, are those who haven’t fully grasped these implications, and as a result still feel compelled to keep certain aspects of the Mosaic Law which had passed away with the coming of Christ. So there were those in the Roman church who still felt compelled to observe the Mosaic dietary restrictions and the keeping of Mosaic religious calendar (the weak) and those who didn’t feel so compelled (the strong). And this had apparently caused no little amount of disagreement and dissension in the church of Rome. The apostle Paul is therefore addressing this issue.
Why do I say that these verses are addressed to the strong rather than to the weak? I say that because of what Paul says in verses 20-21: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble [or be hindered or be weakened].” Who is Paul addressing here? He is clearly addressing those who are causing others to sin by what they are eating. Now it was the strong who were eating – the weak were those who were abstaining. The weak would not eat certain things because they were forbidden to eat them by the Law of Moses but the strong had no such scruples.
But why does Paul address the strong rather than the weak? Well, it seems clear that the weak were those who were in danger of sinning on account of the actions of the strong. Now this might seem strange to us because the strong were those who had the issue right here. They understood the gospel more clearly and acted accordingly. And Paul agrees with them on the theological issue here: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14; cf. 1 Cor. 10:26; Mk. 7:15, 19; 1 Tim. 4:4-5). Nevertheless, Paul is concerned that the actions of the strong will cause the weak to stumble and be destroyed. That is why he is addressing them. Even though the weak are not quite right on this and their lack of faith makes them vulnerable to sinning because of the actions of the strong, he does not address the weak on this, he addresses the strong. He is clearly more concerned about guarding the spiritual well-being of the weak than he is the liberty of the strong. In other words, the apostle addresses the strong because when our actions cause someone else to sin, those actions are wrong – even if they are technically correct on a certain level.
How the strong caused the weak to sin.
How could the strong cause the weak to stumble though? The strong caused the weak to sin when they caused them to eat food the weak thought were unclean. “Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. . . . But whoever doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (20-21, 23). Here’s how it probably happened. The strong and the weak are in the same church, and so in the closest bonds of fellowship. They share at each other’s tables. When the strong have the weak over to table fellowship, they have no qualms serving up food that the weak find objectionable. The weak, though their consciences protest, don’t want to seem ungrateful, and so they eat what is set before them. But in so doing they are doing something they think is wrong, and so sin. Now they have sinned, but it was the strong that put them in that position, and so they have caused them to sin and so bear part of the blame for this.
Or maybe the strong didn’t even put objectionable food in front of the weak. Maybe it wasn’t so blatant at that. Perhaps all they did was just to flaunt their liberty in front of the weak, day in and day out. But in flaunting their liberty, they were inevitably putting pressure on the weak to join them, without first convincing them that this was right. And when the weak partook of this food, their consciences protested and they sinned.
Note that the uncleanness of the foods did not reside in the food itself. That is not what caused the weak to sin. The foods were clean by the decree of God. But the weak did not know that. They still believed it was obligatory on them to abstain from certain foods the strong had no problem eating. So as John Piper points out in his sermon on this text, the uncleanness did not reside in the food itself but in the conscience and the motive in the one partaking of the food. They weren’t off the hook because God allowed them to participate in the eating of these foods. They weren’t off the hook because of what the apostle says in verse 23: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” If you think it is wrong and do it anyway, you have sinned. Because the attitude in that action is an attitude of rebellion. And that is sin.
This is where faith, or the lack of it, comes in. Faith is more than just the assurance that something is right; it is a part of our trust in God. When we do something we know is not right and violate our conscience, we are not acting in confidence that God’s way is the best way – we are not believing that God is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). We are saying that God is not our all-sufficient portion but that we need something else, like the approval of men or some physical pleasure. And that is sin: whatever is not of faith is sin.
What happens when the weak stumble and sin?
What was the result of their sinning? Paul puts it in the strongest possible terms. He says that when the weak stumble and sin (14. 20, 21), they are grieved and destroyed (15, 20). There are two words in the Greek that Paul uses which are translated “destroy” (apollumi and kataluo), and these words have caused many interpreters to say that the apostle is saying that by causing someone to sin you are causing them to do something which will lead to their eternal destruction.
Now that is a possible interpretation, and I think it is true to a point. We must never back away from the Biblical insistence that those who live in unrepentant sin will perish forever. We must not take the Bible doctrine of the security of the believer and make it sound like you can live any way you want and still go to heaven. Not true. This is what the apostle says: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:5-6). Our Lord and the apostle use one of these words for “perish” (apollumi) to refer to perishing in hell (cf. Mt. 10:28; Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor 1:18). It is true that if you sin and don’t repent, you will not be saved. We must never underestimate the seriousness of sin and its consequences.
But I’m not sure that’s what the apostle is saying here for two reasons. First, the way the apostle refers to those who perish: he describes them as “the one for whom Christ died” (15) and “the work of God” (20). These descriptors seem to point to the fact that the apostle considered these people to be truly saved (and not just speaking at the level of appearances, as some say). Second, we know that the apostle in this very epistle has underlined the security of the believer in the strongest terms, especially in chapter 8. All whom God has foreknown will be glorified. Those who are justified by faith (and so converted) will be finally saved. Since all who are saved will be finally saved, it seems unlikely that the apostle is referring here to people who perish in hell, for that would mean that the saved could lose their salvation – and that is a concept utterly foreign to the apostle’s thought.
So what does he mean? The word Paul uses here (15) can mean physical death (Mt. 8:25), to be ruined and useless as in the case of wineskins (Mt. 9:17), or to be lost (Mt. 10:42). In 2 Cor. 4:9, the apostle says that they are “struck down, but not destroyed” – it’s the same word, but it’s pretty clear that destruction in that context doesn’t mean eternal death. In other words, there is a range of meaning which this word can take, and it does not have to mean eternal destruction. More importantly, the apostle contrasts being destroyed with begin built up (Rom. 14:19). It is the result of stumbling (and, in some manuscripts, with being hindered and weakened; see ver. 21, KJV). When you put all this together, what I think the apostle is saying is that when you cause someone to sin by violating and hardening their conscience, you are undoing the sanctifying work that God is doing in their heart and soul. Though God will not allow his elect to perish eternally, that is still a very serious thing you are doing. Think about it; to undo God’s work in a soul is a frightening thought. It doesn’t mean they will finally perish, since God will intervene and rescue his lost sheep. But we must not think that God will think lightly of it, and we must not think that there are not serious consequences both for the one who sinned and the one who caused them to sin.
And this leads to our next point, and what I want to emphasize from our text.
Why the strong must help the weak.
I think it’s important that we see that the apostle does not lean on the weak – he leans on the strong. Do you understand the significance of that? I think a lot of us would have made the argument – “But I’m right and they are wrong! Why should I have to do things differently when I know what I’m doing is right? I can defend what I’m doing by the Bible! They are the ones who are wrong and they need to change. I shouldn’t have to do things differently because of people who don’t understand the gospel correctly.” That’s how a lot of us would have argued. But that is not what the apostle urges the strong to do. And he doesn’t because this way of thinking is not how people who are motivated by love act. When we act according to the principle of love, we won’t be thinking of ourselves, we will be thinking of others.
Note what the apostle says in verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer waking in love.” Thus the apostle is tying this text back to the previous chapters, which are all about how the saint is to walk in love to others (12:1-13:14). The strong are to help the weak by not flaunting their liberty (22) before the weak. They are to deny themselves of the public exercise of some of their liberties for the sake of their weaker brethren.
We are to be motivated by love as well as by the principle that the church is not about our kingdom and our agendas. It is about serving Christ, and serving him by serving others: “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (16-19).
And so the apostle presents the strong with incentives to help the weak. They are incentives that ought to motivate us to help our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and to put their needs before our own. Beware of defending your attitude toward a brother or a sister by appealing to your rights. Instead, by looking to love we will willingly give up our rights in order to serve others. So what incentives does the apostle give here? I see at least three.
We ought to be motivated to give up our rights for the sake of others because their souls are at stake.
Another way to put this is that I am not on the look out for ways to make my life (spiritual or otherwise) more comfortable but rather I am constantly looking out for the spiritual well-being of others, and I am willing to give up some things in order to achieve their betterment. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (15:1). For example, if someone has a drinking problem and you insist on drinking alcohol in front of them because you are at liberty to do so, then shame on you. It is true that the Bible does not condemn drinking alcohol per se, but it does condemn drunkenness and if my actions (which may be right in themselves) cause someone else to sin, then I am in the wrong. I am in the wrong because I am looking out for myself and not for my brother, and that is wrong. That is unloving and un-Christlike. There are a million ways this principle could be worked out, but the principle is what is important: we are to put the needs of others before our own because when we don’t we put them in real spiritual danger.
When we recklessly insist on our rights without considering our brothers and sisters around us, we are going to end up hurting them. At Rome, the strong were causing the weak to sin. The weak were stumbling over the liberty of the strong and sinned against their conscience as a result. This is not a neutral thing: it led to their destruction. Again, I don’t think this means necessarily that they were going to hell when they died; but it does mean that the strong were undoing the work that God had done in their souls – and a lot of good ground was lost as a result.
What this teaches me is that we have be very careful about invoking the argument that I am not responsible for the choices of others. There are limits to that argument. The fact of the matter is that our actions and words and attitudes can and do affect others, and when they affect others in a way that leads them into sin, we are partly responsible for that. We can’t simply shrug off their sin onto their choices. Yes, they chose to sin and will be held accountable (the weak were destroyed by their actions), but that does not mean we don’t bear some of the blame (otherwise, why would Paul address the strong?). Do you remember what the apostle said to the Jews in chapter 2? “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (2:23-24). Their actions caused others to sin. Paul says something similar here: “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil” (14:16). What was good was their grasp of the gospel. Paul is saying, don’t let the gospel be blasphemed because you have put yourself before the needs of others. If you do that, then you bear part of the blame for what has happened.
We ought to be motivated to give up our rights for the sake of others because God’s love is at stake.
When we consider that our fellow brothers and sisters are those for whom Christ died, when we consider that they are the work of God – how then can we not love them and live in a way towards them that is consistent with love? How can we say that we love God and not love those who are the objects of his love? This is exactly the argument that the apostle John uses again and again in his epistle. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love god whom he has not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 Jn. 5:1).
In particular, if Christ died for them – how can we not be willing to give up some things for the sake of their souls, even they are things that we like? Our Lord surely did not have to give up his right to the Father’s presence and joy, but he did it, and became poor beyond our wildest imagination for our sakes. If we claim to be his people and to follow his example, then we ought to be willing to give up certain rights for the well-being of others.
We ought to be motivated to give up our rights for the sake of others because God’s kingdom is at stake.
This is the apostle’s point in verse 16-19, isn’t it? Our first consideration should always be the interests of our Lord and his kingdom (7-9). We are servants, not lords, in his kingdom. When we have this attitude it will cause us to put the needs of our fellow servants before our own. When we see that we are not to be about creating our own little kingdoms, but to advance God’s cause in this world. The great sin of the strong was their selfishness and a failure to consider the bigger picture of God’s purposes in the church.
There is no greater cause, though, than that of the gospel’s. If we live for ourselves, we are living for something which is limited to our own selves and to our own fleeting time here on earth. But when we live for the kingdom of God, we are laboring for an eternal kingdom, for a kingdom filled with rich blessings which can satisfy the souls of untold millions. Why would we not seek first the kingdom of God? But if we do so, we cannot do so without putting the needs of God’s people before our own.
We must remember, in closing, what it means when we insist on our rights. What are our rights, anyway? Nothing is truly right unless it is given to us by God. But God does not give us any rights that allow us to put others at a spiritual disadvantage. The Lord does not give us any rights if those rights are going to cause us to trample over someone who is weak. And at the end of the day, the reality is that we have no absolute rights! Only God has absolute rights and any rights we possess we possess in virtue of his liberality. Whatever liberties we possess we possess at God’s good pleasure and they are to be exercised under his Lordship and in submission to his ends and purposes. His purpose is a saving purpose, a purpose to save and sanctify his elect. And therefore our purposes and our lives ought to reflect our commitment to God’s sovereignty over our lives. And that means loving our brothers and sisters, and that means putting them first, even before our so-called rights.