Dr. Richard L. Strauss
September 22, 1991
Purpose: To help to limit the use of our Christian liberty to keep other Christians from falling into sin, and to help build them up in Christ.
There we were, my guest and I, enjoying our lunch at my private club at a local hotel to which I had been given a membership by someone in my church. The man across the table was a pastor from a neighboring town whom I had been encouraged to befriend. So I invited him for lunch and we were sitting by the window overlooking the beautiful swimming pool. I was telling him about the friend from my church who had bought me a membership to this place. And I told him about the privileges that were mine as a member, including the use of the pool. He looked rather shocked. "Do you believe in mixed bathing?" he asked. "No," I replied with a smile on my face, "but I don't have any problem with mixed swimming." I thought it was pretty funny, but he never cracked a smile.
"What are those large cages over there?" he asked. "Well, I would never come here during the evening hours," I replied, "but I understand that in the evening go-go dancers get in those cages, are hoisted up where everyone can see them and perform for the patrons of the club." Needless to say, the rest of the lunch hour was extremely quiet. Conversation was rather strained. I could tell that my Christian brother was offended at being taken to such an establishment for lunch. I didn't see anything wrong with eating lunch there when the go-go cages were empty. And yet, I never went back to that place and never used my membership again. Because although I felt perfect liberty to do it, the Bible teaches that I am to limit my liberty on the basis of love for my Christian brothers and sisters.
Many of us would rather not hear that. We want to do what we feel free to do, and we don't want anybody telling us that we have any responsibility for the other guy. That started all the way back in Genesis when God asked Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" and he answered, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9). People have been expressing that sentiment ever since. "What I do is my business, and what he does is his business. Don't blame me for his actions. I'm not accountable for him. Am I my brother's keeper?"
God's answer to that question today is basically the same as it was in Cain's day: "YES, YOU ARE!" While we are not to judge our Christian brothers and sisters, because they answer to God and not to us (Romans 14:12), we are responsible for the way our conduct affects their lives. Yes, we are responsible. And that's the next major point Paul wants to make in his discussion of the gray areas of life, what the Bible calls "doubtful things" in Romans 14:1. Those are questionable activities about which different Christians have doubts and disagreements. They are things not specifically spoken about in the Word of God.
The first point, which he developed in the first twelve verses of this discourse, he sums up in 14:13a: "Therefore let us not judge one another anymore." It isn't our place to criticize one another in these matters that God doesn't specifically address in His Word. But then he launches immediately into the next point: "...but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way" (Romans 14:13b). That's the issue before us here.
Don't Cause Others to Fall
He uses two different words. The first, "stumbling block" (proskomma), pictures a path strewn with stones. It's almost impossible to walk the path and not trip over a stone and take a bad fall. We're talking about things that we have freedom to do with a clear conscience before God and to the glory of Christ, but which would trip up a weaker Christian and cause him to fall into sin. The second word, "cause to fall" (skandalon) pictures a trap designed to catch an animal out in the woods. When he goes for the bait he trips the wire which springs the trap, and he either falls into a pit or a net drops over him. There may be activities that we can freely engage in to the glory of God, but if practiced by a weaker Christian would ensnare him in a pit of sin from which he could not escape.
That's important to understand. When we talk about limiting our liberty for the sake of weaker Christians, the problem we're concerned about is the possibility of causing them to sin. Paul is not saying that we should refrain from doing anything that any other Christians disapprove of, anything that would bother them or upset their sense of propriety. Unfortunately there are legalistic Christians who construct lists of do's and don'ts and who think spirituality is a matter of observing their particular taboos. They usually try to insist that everybody else in the church follow their repressive and negativistic lifestyle. We have no obligation to cave in to their demands. But we do have an obligation to refrain from doing anything that would cause another Christian to sin.
Let me illustrate that. Suppose you have the liberty to drink a glass of wine with your meal, so you serve it to the guests you have invited for dinner. One is a relatively new Christian. He hesitates when you come to pour his glass, but you assure him that it's alright: "One little glass won't hurt you." What you don't know is that alcohol was a serious problem to him before he came to know Christ and he doesn't feel at liberty to have even one glass. But he views you as a godly Christian, and you're encouraging him to do it, so he thinks it must be alright. That one glass whets his appetite for more and it's only a matter of weeks before he is hopelessly addicted again. God views that as a very serious matter. You have caused that Christian to trip, to fall into a trap, and God is going to hold you responsible.
That same general scenario may be repeated with any number of things. Maybe you have the freedom to dance. It doesn't turn you on sexually. It doesn't dominate your life. So you exercise your Christian liberty and invite some friends over to your home to dance. But what you don't know is that one of them was once addicted to the night-club scene. He literally loved it and spent most all of his free time and money on it. And a night of dancing was usually the prelude to getting some woman into bed with him. When he became a Christian he put all that behind him--until the dance at your house. And after that, the temptation was too much for him to handle. You have caused him to trip, to fall into a trap, and God is going to hold you responsible for that.
The Apostle Paul says, "Don't do it. Don't do anything that would put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in another Christian's way." And he gives us three reasons why.
Our Love Requires It (Romans 14:14-15)
Romans 14:14-15. "I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died."
As you remember, one of the major issues in the church at Rome was eating meat. For some, it was that the meat was forbidden by the Old Testament law. For others, the problem was that it had not been prepared as the law required. And for still others, it was that the meat bought in the market place had probably been dedicated to a pagan idol. Paul assures them that nothing is ceremonially unclean in and of itself. Jesus Himself had taught that (refer to Mark 7:15-23). All foods are good and acceptable. But not everyone has learned to enjoy that freedom. And if a person feels that certain things would be unclean for him, then he needs to avoid them. He should not violate his conscience.
And Christian love would dictate that those of us who have the freedom to indulge should not do anything that might cause that weaker Christian to do what for him would be sin--what might "grieve" him (that is, cause distressing harm to his spiritual life), or what might eventually "destroy" him (that is, do irreparable damage to his walk with God). Jesus loved him enough to bear the penalty of his sin on Calvary's cross. The least we can do is love him enough to avoid doing things that would lead him back into sin.
Our Testimony Requires It (Romans 14:16)
Romans 14:16. "Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil."
The "good" Paul mentions is probably our Christian liberty. If insisting on exercising our liberty causes another Christian to sin, outsiders are going see that lack of concern for one another and use it as an excuse to bad-mouth us. And if our insistence on exercising our liberty gets us into an argument with other Christians about what is right or wrong, outsiders are going to be confused about the meaning of the gospel and use that as an excuse to reject it.
Ray Stedman tells of a church that got not an argument over whether they should have a Christmas tree at their Christmas program. Some thought it was acceptable, while others insisted it was a pagan practice and had no place in the church. One group dragged the tree out, and the other group dragged it back in. They got so angry at each other that they actually got into a fistfight over it and ended up suing each other in court. And the non-Christians in town concluded that the gospel consisted of whether or not you believed in Christmas trees (Romans, II, 154). Their good was spoken of as evil.
And that leads to the fourth reason for limiting our liberty.
The Gospel Requires It (Romans 14:17-18)
Romans 14:17. "For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
The reality of the Christian faith is not demonstrated by insisting on our right to eat certain foods, or go certain places, or do certain things. It is demonstrated primarily by three things:
- Righteousness--the assurance that we have been granted a right standing before God freely because we have admitted our sin and put our faith in Christ as Savior.
- Peace--the assurance that we have peace with God on the basis of Christ's death at Calvary, resulting in an inner calmness and quiet assurance that God is in control of every circumstance of our lives.
- Joy in the Holy Spirit--not joy in pleasant circumstances, but in the assurance that God is with us, and loves us, and will care for us.
Then Paul adds, "For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men" (Romans 14:18).
"Acceptable" means "well-pleasing." God is delighted with that kind of life, and people will see it and be attracted by it. So maybe you feel the freedom to engage in some things that other Christians feel would be sin for them. You also have the freedom to limit your freedom to keep others from falling into them to sin. And that, in the final analysis, is true freedom.
But our responsibility to our fellow-Christians goes beyond the negative, beyond "Don't cause others to sin." There is a positive side as well.
Do Help Others to Grow
And again, there are three major elements to this side of our responsibility.
Be a Builder, not a Breaker (Romans 14:19-21)
Romans 14:19. "Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another."
The word edify originally referred to erecting a building, but came to refer to building up people. And people are built up best in an atmosphere of peace and harmony. If we get to wrangling with one another about trivialities, nobody is going to be built up. On the contrary, the work of God may be destroyed. What a sad thing that would be.
Romans 14:20. "Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense." "Eats with offense" means causing another Christian to fall into sin by the food he eats. And it isn't just a matter of the food we eat, but anything that may cause a fellow-believer to trip up and fall into sin.
Romans 14:21. "It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak." God wants us to build people up, not break them down.
Did you ever walk along a beach and watch the kids playing in the sand. There are basically two kinds--the builders and the breakers. Some take great pleasure in building elaborate and enchanting sand castles with moats, bridges, stairs and towers. Others take great pleasure in jumping on top of them and leveling them to the ground.
I'm afraid there are also two kinds of Christians: the builders--those who are willing to look out for the good of others, even if it means limiting their own freedom; and the breakers--those who are going to insist on doing what they want to do, no matter how much damage it might do to other believers or to the work of God. God considers that to be serious business.
Remember what Jesus said about it: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:6). So be a builder, not a breaker.
Helping others grow would also require you to be discreet with your liberty.
Be Discreet with your Liberty (Romans 14:22)
Romans 14:22a. "Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God."
In other words, don't flaunt your liberty. It is perfectly proper to teach the weaker brother the truth of the liberty he has in Christ. He needs to know that spirituality is not measured by a list of man-made taboos, but by the positive control of the Holy Spirit over his total being. But there is no reason to dangle your liberty before him and rub his nose in it. That isn't going to help him. It's just going to irritate him and cause conflict. So it would be best for you to enjoy your liberty privately before God.
When our kids were growing up, the older ones got privileges the younger ones could not yet enjoy, like staying up later. But we would encourage them to keep quiet about it and not parade it in front of the younger ones. If they stuck their heads in the younger kid's bedroom and said, "Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah--I get to stay up and you have to go to bed," it would just cause trouble and we were all in for an unpleasant evening. Everybody was happier if they just enjoyed their privileges quietly.
And that's what Paul says about the privileges of Christian liberty as well. Romans 14:22b. "Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves."
The Apostle mentions one more thing...
Be Sensitive to the Presence of Doubts (Romans 14:23)
Romans 14:23. "But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin."
That is a truth that all of us need to heed. If a person has an inner conviction that a certain behavior is wrong for him, and he goes ahead and does it anyway, possibly because he saw some other Christian do it, he is acting against his conscience. There are doubts in his mind. It's not an act of Biblical conviction. Paul says that is sin. Isn't that interesting? One thing could be sin for one person but not for another. So teach the Biblical basis for freedom in Christ, but at the same time be sensitive to people's doubts. Don't try to get them to do things they don't feel comfortable doing.
This verse could also apply to the person who is practicing his liberty. He may be acting as he is, not because he has thought an issue through prayerfully and believes he can glorify God in that activity, but simply because he wants to indulge himself. If so, he probably feels a little troubled about what he is doing, even if he hasn't been willing to admit it. Do you see what Paul is saying here? That is sin. Whatever does not come from firm Biblical convictions is sin. If you have doubts, then don't do it. That's the Biblical principle.
So let's go back to my private club membership again for a moment. I didn't refrain from using it simply because my pastor friend thought it was wrong. He turned out to be rather legalistic and I had no obligation to live my life by his list of taboos. That's not why I stopped. Rather, I refrained for two basic reasons. For one thing, just being in that room made it clear to me that there was a strong possibility that my presence there could cause other Christians who might see me to fall into sin, and I didn't want to have to answer to God for that. But for another thing, to be perfectly honest about it, I didn't really feel very comfortable there. It got my mind on things that distracted me from my walk with God--even without the go-go girls in their cages.
Now I don't know what it is in your life, but there are probably some things that fall into this category. Let's talk about the challenge to our lives as we close.
Are you allowing something that could cause another Christians to fall into sin? You can do it, but he can't. Are you willing to forego that pleasure for the good of others? I don't mean you ought to be sneaky about it, but if this is something you truly believe glorifies the Lord, can you practice your liberty without flaunting it before them?
To talk about the other side to that coin: Could there be some things in your life that you are allowing with which you really don't feel comfortable? You've been trying to stifle the voice of your conscience. Others are doing it and yet, you really don't feel good about it. Maybe God is trying to tell you something from His Word today. Are you willing to listen and obey? Are you willing to submit yourself to the will of God? Maybe that is the will of God for your life: that you would restrict yourself in that area, whatever it is. That's between you and Him. I'm not your judge and you're not mine. We don't judge each other in these matters, but someday we're going to answer to the Lord.
Has your will been submissive to His will? That's the basic issue. Is your one desire to glorify Him? Are you doing what you're doing to bring honor to Jesus Christ? That's the way the Christian life is to be lived.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
We've got a good example, you know. The Lord Jesus set a great example for us. He was willing to put our well-being before His own. He was willing to go to a cross and suffer one of the most agonizing deaths known to mankind--crucifixion--and not only suffer the physical pain of crucifixion, but allow His Father in heaven to lay on Him the eternal, infinite punishment that our sins deserved, that the whole world's sins deserved. And He did that because He loved us and He cared more about us than Himself. What an example. If He did that for us, the least we can do for one another is to look out for each other's spiritual welfare and recognize that, yes, in a very real sense of the word, we are our brother's keeper.
Of course, there may be some this morning that have never understood clearly that the only way to heaven is to acknowledge our need, our sinfulness, our separation from God, and put our faith in the Lord Jesus and what He did at Calvary's cross, when He bore in His own body the guilt and punishment of our sins. Oh, there's forgiveness--full and free forgiveness--by God's grace for those who will acknowledge their sin and turn from it in faith to Jesus Christ. Will you receive Him as your Savior from sin?
Let's bow together before Him. With our heads bowed reverently before God, let's talk about that issue first, shall we? Do you know Christ as your Savior? Have you admitted your sin? Have you put your faith in Him? If you're not certain, would you settle it right now? You say, "You mean I can settle this just in a moment's time?" Yes, that's all it takes if you mean business with God. Just in the quiet of your own heart and mind right now you pray:
"God, I'm a sinner. I believe Jesus died for my sin. Come into my life and save me, Lord Jesus."
Save you. Do you know what that means? Deliver you from the guilt and punishment that your sin deserves. All of us deserve eternal punishment. The reason we can be saved, or delivered from it, is because Jesus paid for it. He suffered what we deserved. Will you put your faith in His shed blood--His sacrificial death on Calvary's cross?
For those who have done that, are you willing to examine your life before God? And if there are things there that are causing other Christians to sin, are you willing to relinquish those things? Do you care that much about others? Maybe you've never thought through some of the activities in your life, as to whether it is glorifying to the Lord. Are you willing to examine your life and your heart before God? Then do the will of God.
Father, I pray that You will work in our lives as we need Your work. And You know that even better than we do. Just keep working, Father, until we're brought to submissiveness to Your will. I pray for those who made a decision today to trust Christ as their Savior. May it be a glorious new beginning as they become new creations in Christ Jesus. And for those who committed themselves to seriously examining their lives before Your Word and submit to the control of Your Spirit, God, use them with new power, I pray, to bring blessing and joy to the lives of others. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Continue to ROM 33: Dealing with Differences