Paul’s letter to the Romans is his most systematic presentation of the gospel. He explains human sinfulness and the forgiveness that we have in Christ (chapters 1-8). Starting in chapter 12, he moves into the practical results of the gospel.
In chapter 14, he addresses at length a specific problem in the first-century Roman churches — namely, that people had disagreements about different customs and religious convictions. Even though Paul had never been to Rome, he had heard about the controversies.
“Accept the one whose faith is weak,” Paul begins, “without passing judgment in disputable matters” (14:1). Here, we learn several important things:
- Some Christians are weak in the faith and, as verse 2 explains, they are overly restrictive.
- Weak-faith Christians should be accepted, not ridiculed. People grow in faith through love and acceptance, not through ostracism.
- Christians who think they are strong are sometimes tempted to look down on others.
- Some matters are disputable. The beliefs and practices that some Christians think are important are unimportant to others.
Paul then addresses the dispute in Rome: “One person’s faith allows him to eat anything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables” (v. 2). Why did some people avoid meat? Perhaps they were influenced by ascetic philosophies, but more likely, the concerns came from Judaism. The terms “unclean” and “clean” (vv. 14, 20) were important in Judaism, and as we have seen, the letter to the Romans repeatedly addresses Jews and Gentiles as the most significant divisions in the church.
Some (but not all) Jews avoided meat because they could not be sure that the animals had been properly killed (see Dan. 1:8). Some Gentiles may have been just as cautious.
Let’s see how Paul dealt with this situation: “The one who eats everything must not look down on the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not condemn the one who does, for God has accepted them” (v. 3). The strong-faith Christian should not belittle the weak Christian, and the weak one should not condemn the more permissive Christian.
What shocking advice! Imagine that you believe it is wrong to eat meat. Paul is not only calling you “weak,” he is also telling you not to condemn people you believe are sinning! Why? Because God accepts people on the basis of faith, not on works.
Paul did not mean that we should accept idolaters, fornicators, thieves and drunkards (1 Cor. 5:11). The New Testament clearly tells us to avoid certain behaviors. But it doesn’t address every situation and every behavior, and because of that, there will be differences of opinion within Christianity.
For example, if we are convinced that wine is bad, we should avoid wine. But we should not call all wine-drinkers sinners, nor should we separate from them. Wine is a disputable matter, and so are days and foods. These are matters for tolerance, not division and criticism.
Paul asks: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? To their own master servants stand or fall” (v. 4). The Lord has called us to serve, not judge. If he has been so merciful as to include us, we must let him be merciful to them, too. He will manage his own servants. “They will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Be fully convinced
Paul then addresses another difference of opinion in the Roman churches: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (v. 5).
In a church composed of Jews and Gentiles, what days would be considered better than others? For some, it would mean weekly Sabbaths and annual festivals; for others, it might mean superstitions about other days. Paul describes it in such a way as to cover both situations. People should act from conviction, not from fear of what others might think.
Astonishing! Paul is asking fully convinced Sabbath-keepers to be tolerant of people who ignore the Sabbath. They thought that Sabbath-breakers were unbelievers, but Paul says that they should be accepted. The Sabbath-keepers thought the Sabbath was essential, but Paul is saying that it is not.
And on the other side, Paul tells those who are strong in faith to respect the weak. They do not have to adopt their restrictions or let them dictate church policy, but they should accept them.
“Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (v. 6). Sabbath-keepers are responding to God as best they know how. So are the others. Meat-eaters and vegetarians are both trying to obey God. When we are trying to please God, we must be gracious toward one another’s doctrinal errors.
Judged by Christ
Our lives belong to Christ: “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (vv. 7-8). On the day of judgment, after we die, we will belong to Christ — but we also belong to him now, while we live. A promise of salvation on the day of judgment does not mean that we can live selfishly in this age.
“Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (v. 9). He is our Master both now and in our future.
“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (v. 10). God will be the judge; we are not to usurp his role. We should not say, “They are too liberal to be real Christians”; nor should we say, “They are too legalistic to be real Christians.” We should let God decide that (see Matt. 7:1). We should not even look down on another believer.
Paul then quotes Isa. 45:23 to show that God will judge every person: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God’” (v. 11). And Paul concludes, “So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (v. 12).
Things to think about
- How can we know which matters are “disputable” and which are not? (v. 1)
- Some people don’t ever seem to be “fully convinced” about what they do (v. 5). What would Paul say to them?
- Peter withdrew from the Gentiles because he did not want to offend some Jewish believers, but Paul rebuked him for it (Gal. 2:11-14). How were those circumstances different from the Roman situation?
Author: Michael Morrison, 2004, 2011