Making Our List and Checking It Twice
Scripture: Romans 14:1–15:13
I want to talk with you today about lists. Lists often play an important part in our lives, don’t they? We make shopping lists and to-do lists, and packing lists. This time of year, many people are making lists associated with Christmas – presents we would like to receive or people we need to get presents for…
I want to talk about a particular kind of list. It is an internal list that we carry around in our hearts and minds. I suppose it is a kind of “to do” list, although in most cases it is more of a “not to do” list. I will explain what I mean in just a moment.
How shall we then live? That is the broad topic that Paul is addressing in the last 5 chapters of the Book of Romans. In light of our justification by faith; in light of what Christ did for us on the cross by offering himself as the atoning sacrifice for our sins (which is the topic of the first 11 chapters of Romans) how shall we now live? What is a Christian lifestyle? How shall we behave?
Paul has already given us some very clear and solid instructions. We are to present our bodies to God as living sacrifices. Paul has instructed us to use our gifts to serve the body of Christ. He has told us how to respond to our enemies. He has shown us how to relate to governing authorities, and told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In summary, we are told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So we have already received a wealth of instruction to digest and apply. But there is still much left unsaid about the details of daily life. How should a Christian dress? What should he eat or drink? What leisure activities are permitted and which ones excluded? What occupations are permissible and which ones taboo?
As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we all make a multitude of decisions daily which are simply not covered in the Bible. To help us sort through that daily maze, most of us carry within us a sort of internal list of things which we believe are right or wrong; things we do and things we will not do, based on our convictions. This list is not written down, but it is there in our minds and in our consciences, and it wields a large influence over our daily behavior.
That is the list we are going to talk about this morning. The passage we are considering is found in Romans 14:1 through 15:13. We are actually going to spend two weeks on this passage and this topic; a kind of Part 1 and Part 2. Today we are going to talk about Making Our Lists. Then next week we will talk about What Happens When Our Lists Collide.
We need to think clearly about our lists and how we arrive at them. As we begin to define the list we are talking about, I need to make one thing abundantly clear at the outset. We are not including in our discussion those matters about which God has clearly spoken. I believe every Christian should carry in their hearts and consciences another list; a list of God’s clear instructions or commands. About these, there should be no debate. We are not given discretion in these areas. When the Bible says clearly, “Thou shalt not steal,” we are not left to make up our own minds about whether or not we should shop-lift to fill our Christmas gift list. When the Bible tells us to stop lying and speak the truth, we are not at liberty to decide whether this applies to us or not. When the Scripture clearly spells out God’s standards on matters of sexual morality, that is not an invitation to debate, but a command to be obeyed. Where God, through the Scriptures, has clearly spoken, we have only two choices; obey or disobey. We are not free to alter, ignore or delete God’s clear instructions.
But as I said before, there are a host of other matters about which Scripture is silent, there are no specific guidelines, or the guidelines are ambiguous and open to different interpretations. Let me give you two examples of these kinds of issues from the passage in front of us this morning.
Let’s read Romans 14:2: One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.
Meat versus vegetables. To eat or not to eat, that is the question. What is a Christian diet? Why was this an issue in the early church? First, let me say that this was not a question of health or nutrition. It was a religious question, and scholars believe that this issue may have arisen from two possible sources.
First, Paul may have been addressing Jewish concerns about food that was clean or unclean, kosher or not kosher. Remember, in Paul’s day, strict observant Jews refused to even eat with Gentiles, in part to preserve their dietary, old covenant standards of purity. Now there were Gentiles and Jews together in the church of Jesus Christ. Imagine a shared meal, a kind of first century potluck. What was kosher? What wasn’t? What could a strictly raised Jew who was now a follower of Christ eat or not eat? Since many of the dietary distinctions applied to types of animals and meat, the safest path for a Jewish believer who wanted to remain kosher would have been to eat vegetables only.
But there is another issue which Paul may have had in mind. This is one he also addresses in his first letter to the Corinthians, and it relates to animals or meat that had been offered to the pagan idols of the day. Such animals were often given to the pagan priests, who would slaughter the animal ceremonially, burn part of it, keep part of it, and then the rest might show up for sale in the local meat market. Was it OK to eat such meat or not? Once again, the safest route was to stick to the vegetables.
Another issue is brought up by Paul in the first part of verse 5: One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. This is most probably a reference to Sabbath keeping or to the Jewish feast days or festivals. Should these be observed or not? There were differences of opinion in the early church.
What are some modern examples of such issues? I have lived over 60 years in the context of Christian communities, and I can think of a long list of issues which have been debated during that time period; women wearing head coverings in church, wearing jewelry or make-up, going to movies (especially in the cinema), dancing, drinking alcohol, using tobacco in any form, allowable activities on Sunday. Gambling was clearly off-limits, but what about using dice or playing cards in games, or even going to the horse races. Dress standards and standards of hair and personal grooming were often a lively topic of discussion, and now of course there is the question of tattoos or body piercing. The list is more or less endless. What I have found fascinating is that the list often differed dramatically from one denomination to another, and from one part of the US to another, and even more so (as I have discovered living here in the UAE) among Christians from different countries.
So, in this maze of conflicting voices and opinions, how shall we proceed? Let me share four points with you as a starting point for our discussion.
1. There is no divinely mandated list.
Many of us carry the presupposition that even if it is not revealed in Scripture, there is still a list somewhere in the heart and mind of God and that if we have the mind of Christ, we will know what is on that list and what is not and that it will be the same list for every true follower of Christ.
Once again, let me say plainly. Where God has spoken, yes, his command applies to all. But where he has not spoken or where the Bible is unclear, then there is no universal list. Within this domain, something can truly be right for one person and wrong for another.
I base this on a couple of verses here in this text.
In Romans 14:14 we read: I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
In other words, Paul is saying that there are things he can eat with a clear conscience, but if another Christian were to eat the same thing, for him it would be wrong.
Romans 14:23 continues in a similar vein. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
There is no divinely mandated list. Certain things can be wrong for one believer and right for another. I have found that this can be particularly difficult for some people to accept. They want everything to be in black and white without debate.
I was once counseling a young woman who had served as a missionary among a particular tribe of people. She came to me one day with a very finely made, small leather pouch someone had given her as a gift. She treasured it, not only because of its workmanship, but because of the friendship of the person who gave it to her. But another missionary had seen it and told her that it was an article attached to the animistic charms practiced by the tribe, and that if she kept it, she was inviting a demonic influence into her life. She brought it to me and asked me what she should do. I attempted to lead her into a discussion of the object’s meaning to her. But she became upset. She did not want a discussion. She was very black and white in her thinking. She wanted me to give her a clear answer and label it right or wrong and tell her what to do. She did not want to live with any ambiguity. In her case, I believe she probably needed to destroy the article because of the doubt that had been raised in her mind. But I do not think that same answer would apply to everyone.
What are some of the reasons for the differences? I believe they are based on the differences of the meaning of certain objects and actions and that can vary from person to person. For a converted idol worshipper, meat offered to idols had a certain meaning. For a converted Jew, to eat pork still didn’t feel right. There are differences in culture and religious backgrounds. There are also differences in experience; for a recovering alcoholic or for someone raised in an alcoholic home, taking a drink takes on a different meaning than it does for someone else. So, because of that diversity of our backgrounds and experiences, there is no divinely mandated list.
2. There is no direct correlation between the strength of one’s faith and the length of one’s list.
Does a longer list of taboos or “not to dos” make a person more spiritual and Christ-like? The Pharisees would certainly have endorsed this kind of thinking. But Paul makes it clear that this is not the case.
Let’s look at verse 2 again: One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Here it is clearly the person with the longer list (“I don’t eat meat.”) who is regarded as the weaker brother.
On the other hand, I would certainly not advocate that we swing to the other extreme and conclude that it is the believer with the shortest list who has the strongest faith. This would send us in the wrong direction as well. I do not believe there is a direct correlation between the strength of one’s faith and the length of one’s list.
3. The believer’s list may change over time.
I will confess that I do not have a particular verse for this, but I think the implication is clear. Certainly, Paul would have gone through some evolution as his understanding of Scripture and the new covenant grew. I believe we must remain open to evaluating our lists as we gain new light from Scripture and from interaction with believers and cultures. I would suggest that we need to be willing to add items to our list as well as to delete them as we grow in faith and in our sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit in all areas of life.
While it is important to have a list, I also believe it is necessary and healthy to check our lists from time to time. Be willing to step back from it on occasion and analyze your convictions. Where did they come from? What is cultural and what is Scriptural? Are there Biblical principles involved or is it simply a matter of social norms in the Christian sub-culture?
4. Strength of faith is demonstrated by living in a manner that is consistent with one’s personal convictions.
I believe this is the most important principle to be found in this section. Let’s read Romans 14:5-8.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
Whatever we do or don’t do should be for the Lord and in his honor. These verses represent a beautiful summary of the attitude of a living sacrifice. Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord and we should be doing what he do for him. And if we abstain from doing something, we should abstain for the Lord and for his honor. And in both cases, we should do so giving thanks to God.
In verse 14, Paul says, I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
The NIV translates that “fully convinced.” As one who is “fully convinced” that he can eat anything he was ready and able to live by that conviction. But for the one who is convinced that something is unclean he needs to live by his conviction and not eat.
Verse 22-23 summarizes the matter plainly. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Live by your own faith and convictions before God. You are blessed if you do not condemn yourself for what you allow yourself to do. Keep a clear conscience between yourself and God – and that means living by the convictions of your own experience and conscience.
There is a powerful example of this kind of faith and testimony which is recounted in the film “Chariots of Fire”. Eric Liddell, the son of Scottish missionaries, spent his early years in China. As a university student in Scotland, he blossomed into a world class runner and began training for the 100 meter dash in the 1924 Olympics. Several months before the Games, the schedule of events was released, showing that the heats for the 100 meter race were to take place on a Sunday. As a committed Christian, Eric held a strong conviction that there were certain activities that were appropriate on a Sunday and certain activities that were not. Running in a race was not among the list of appropriate activities. Eric made up his mind. Because of his convictions, he withdrew his name from the 100 meter event, his strongest. He decided instead to train for the 400 meter event, a race which did not favor his raw speed and in which he had little experience – but he would not be required to run on Sunday. As Eric lined up for the final race, someone pressed a slip of paper into his hands. On it were written the words from 1 Samuel 2:30, "Those who honour me I will honour." Liddell ran with that piece of paper in his hand and not only won the race but broke the existing world record with a time of 47.6 seconds. We may or may not agree with Eric’s list or share his convictions regarding Sabbath keeping. But he was a man with the courage of his convictions. He did what he did for the glory of God and God honored him for it. I don’t know about you, but I want to live like that.
Let me conclude briefly. I hope no one is going away with the idea that having a “not to do” list is a bad thing. You need a list, just like I need a list. And we need to live according to our lists. We are desperately vulnerable and defenseless if we go through life without convictions, making every decision based on what people around us are doing. Without such a list, every behavioral decision can become an exhausting crisis of conscience. It is wise to have a clear sense of conviction of what you will do and what you won’t, of where you will go and where you will not. Make your list, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, based on where you are right now in your walk with God. And live by those convictions. That is the path of blessing. That is the path to a clear conscience before God.
And then, of course, there is always the question: What happens when your list differs from my list? What happens when lists collide? That will be the topic of next week’s sermon.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
1. In this message, Pastor Cam discusses our internal list of “not to dos”: types of activities or behaviors that we choose not to engage in. But he distinguishes between matters on which God has clearly spoken and what he calls “opinions” in Romans 14:1. Give some examples of matters about which the Bible is clear.
2. In the passage Paul gives two examples of “matters of opinion” in verse 2 and verse 5. What are they? Why do you think there were differences of opinion on these matters? How can the same behavior be sin for one Christian but not for another? Is this an example of situation ethics?
3. Give examples of “matters of opinion” which come from your upbringing and Christian background. How have attitudes in general changed toward these matters within the Christian community during your lifetime? Do you think these changes are good or bad? How have your opinions changed or evolved (if they have).
4. One of the points in this sermon states that “There is no divinely mandated list.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
5. Should we discard our lists altogether? Discuss the value (and dangers) of having a list based on personal convictions.
There is lots more food for thought and discussion on this passage (Romans 14:1-15:13). Read it through carefully again during the week and come back next week to discuss what to do When Lists Collide.