By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor
Romans 14 is one of the most amazing chapters in the New Testament for its balance, its subtle handling of potentially conflicting themes. Not too long ago in a sermon, I spoke of the Great Blondin, the nineteenth century acrobat who perfected walking on a tightrope across the thundering Niagara Falls. His sense of balance was so pronounced he could perform a somersault or push a wheelbarrow or sit down 160 feet above the falls and make an omelet.
The Apostle Paul shows an even more pronounced sense of balance in this remarkable chapter.
Paul is dealing with “debatable issues,” matters left to our discretion in Christian freedom. The church at Rome was a mixed church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles. Some Jews had a hard time letting go of their previous way of life in Judaism, clinging to dietary restrictions and the observance of special religious days (perhaps the Sabbath) when these things had been fulfilled in Christ and were a shadow of the reality that is found in Christ.
Paul’s deepest concern is that the church of Jesus Christ be a powerfully united weapons for the advance of Christ’s Kingdom and the salvation of souls. A fractured, divided, bickering church would soon crumble and be useless for the gospel, useless for the conversion of Roman pagans in the capital city of the Roman Empire.
So Paul seeks to address three seemingly conflicting themes:
- Gospel Freedom
- Gospel Purity
- Gospel Unity
Gospel Freedom is at stake because Paul wants the Roman Christians (both Jew and Gentile) to understand salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, and not by works of the law. He wants these Christians to act like sons and daughters of the King, not slaves under a stern taskmaster. When Jesus declared all foods clean, He settled the matter. When Jesus’ shed His blood on the cross, he proved the inadequacy of the way of the legalist. Paul is deeply concerned that the Roman Christians live as free men and women. Connected with this, he wants to squash the censorious bickering legalism that has not comprehended the gospel of God’s grace. This spirit imbued the legalistic Judaizers that Paul fought in Galatians.
Gospel Purity: On the other hand, Paul wants to be sure the Christians understand the grave danger of sin, and do nothing that will lead themselves to violate their own consciences, or lead others to do the same. So Paul urges a constant vigilance over our own hearts, lest we do anything that is not from faith, “because anything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).
Gospel Unity: Finally, Paul is very concerned that Christians watch over one another in brotherly love, and that we take responsibility not only for our own consciences but also for those of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to care deeply about how our actions and freedoms are affecting others in the church. Unity in the Gospel is Paul’s deepest concern, and he proves it by calling on people to be willing to surrender freedoms rather than hurt another Christian.
As Paul is laboring for balance between these three theme in the church at Rome, so I desire to see that same balance here. I want a church that rejected legalism without veering over into lawless license, and yet one in which we are deeply concerned about other church members in their walks with Christ. As we face the onslaught of increasingly pagan America, it is vital we handle these three themes with the balance the Great Blondin showed across the Niagara Falls.