Romans 14 - 15:1-7.
It is very evident that there were, in the early days of Christianity, many serious difficulties in the way of Christian fellowship. Some of the saints had been Jews and some had been Gentiles, and in both cases their former habits and teachings coloured their lives, and often hindered their full acceptance of the truth as it is in Jesus. Brought up as we have been in a land where the facts of redemption are common property, we have but little conception of the almost insuperable obstacles to fellowship which existed between Jew and Gentile in the Church of God. Questions of what might or might not be eaten, of sacred days which had in the past been held in reverence, were constantly arising; and it was to meet this state of things that the apostle was led of the Spirit to pen the scripture at the head of this paper. But let no one think that, together with the special features of the assembly at Rome, the need for this instruction has passed away. The principles here enunciated are of abiding importance; and there is scarcely an assembly of God's people in the world where their application is not required. Comprising, almost in every case, some with greater and some with less light, some with more liberty of soul than others, some in the enjoyment of deliverance, and some who are more or less in a state of legality, the necessity for consideration one for another never ceases.
Let us then trace out the various pleas which the apostle urges for this mutual consideration. One, he tells us, believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Well, shall these two dear believers fall out with one another on this account? No, says the apostle, for he that eateth must not despise the abstainer, nor must the one that does not eat judge him that eateth, for God has received him. The weak in the faith is to be received by the strong, and the strong by the weak, on the ground that both alike are debtors to grace. This principle shows us how very tender we should be in dealing with the scruples of a fellow-believer; and also how very slow we should be to judge one who allows himself a larger liberty than we are accustomed to permit to ourselves. Hence it is that the apostle passes on to maintain individual responsibility, so that no one may judge another man's servant. This is not to say, it must be carefully remembered, that we must not pronounce judgment upon unscriptural things, but only that we must refrain from condemning one another, either for the exercise of Christian liberty, or for refusing to do that which conscience, for want of fuller light, will not allow. In both instances alike they stand or fall to their own Master; and acting before God each shall be holden up, for God is able to make him to stand.
Another consideration follows in connection with the observance of days. As to this (and in saying se much we learn the tenderness of God for His people) let every man, Paul writes, be fully persuaded in his own mind. The point is to maintain a good conscience, and doing this, whether in eating, or in the observance of days, it may be done unto the Lord. One might have a mistaken conviction, and yet if it is really carried out as unto and before the Lord, it would be so far acceptable to Him. From this the apostle takes occasion to widen his survey, and to affirm that we neither live to ourselves, nor die to ourselves, but that it is to the Lord we live and die; and, more than this, whether we live or die we are the Lord's. Blessed principle of fullest liberty, to have the Lord's yoke upon us in every detail of our lives! But to enter upon this supposes deliverance known and enjoyed, such deliverance as that which Paul speaks of concerning himself when he says, "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death" (Chap. 8:2.) And the ground of it all lies in the death and resurrection of Christ to the end that He might be Lord both of the dead and living. He is, therefore, absolutely supreme; and in His supremacy He claims our subjection, and claims it in virtue of His love, and thus lays it upon our heart to do everything as unto Him. Doing this will not only draw us closer to Himself, but also closer one to another, inasmuch as He will thus become the bond of our fellowship, and so remove from our hearts even the tendency to judge one another.
Moreover, it is urged, the day of rectification has not yet arrived. The apostle thus proceeds: "But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ."* To remember this would prevent our passing judgment upon one another, and make us willing to leave all such questions to be decided by the infallible Judge. It was in view of this that the apostle himself said, when judged by others, "It is a very small thing that I should be judged of you. . . . He that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time." (1 Cor. 4:3-5.) Whether thus, on the one side, when we are tempted to judge, or, on the other, when we are judged by our fellow-believers, we may well possess our souls in patience, in the assurance that we all alike shall be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ, when everyone will receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
*It would seem that this should read the judgment seat of "God." It is true that all judgment is committed to the Son, but here it is simply the general affirmation of our personal accountability to God.
Having thus laid the ground on which our mutual relationships should proceed, the apostle passes on to indicate our responsibility to care for, and to guard one another from occasions of stumbling or being ensnared. We may have full liberty, for example, to eat anything, for there is nothing unclean of itself; but if we persist in using our liberty before a brother who is not in the enjoyment of this liberty, and wound his conscience, or encourage him to violate it, we do not walk according to love. The importance of this principle cannot be over-estimated: and it is put in the strongest possible way when the apostle adds, "Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died"; and again, "For meat destroy not the work of God." It is not the apostle's meaning that we can accomplish the destruction of a brother, but rather it is that, as far as we are concerned, we act by asserting our liberty in a way that would tend to damage him eternally. Now love to our brother, walking in love, would shelter him from every possible cause of offence, would consider his weakness and bear with it, and at the same time would seek his edification by leading him on as he might be able to bear it.
We are taught, also, that the kingdom of God is not meat or drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. It is so easy to fall into externalism, and to lose sight of the state of our souls, and even be zealous for Christian liberty when our souls are withered up from want of divine nourishment. The truth is that if we cultivate the enjoyment of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, our hearts will overflow with love to our brethren, and then we should instinctively act with due regard for their weakness. As we read in this same epistle, "Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law"; that is, as another has said, "By the conduct which flows from love the law is already fulfilled before its requirement is applied." In this state of soul, instead of claiming our liberty, or even asserting our judgment, we should be ever on the watch for the welfare of our brethren. Fuller light we may have, but, if we have, we shall show it in increasing humility and in seeking opportunities of serving one another in love. And "he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men." (v. 18.) What a motive to follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another!
It is really marvellous to see the energy of the Spirit of God in dealing with this subject through the apostle. Again guarding the conscience of the weak, Paul says, "All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence." What then is the conclusion drawn? "It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak." If we were all but governed by this divine principle, the whole face of Christian fellowship would be changed. All harshness, censoriousness, and uncharitable judgments would be displaced by gentle forbearance, tender consideration, and bearing with one another in love. "Are we then never to exercise our undoubted liberty?" Yes, says the apostle, if you have faith, faith to use it, have it to thyself before God; use it in private, but not publicly, when its exercise might stumble a weak brother. It must, however, when maintained in private, be before God, and hence the apostle adds a caution. "Happy is he that condemneth [judgeth] not himself in that which he alloweth." Be sure that it is Christian liberty and exercised before God in faith; for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. Even liberty may degenerate into licence and indulgence, and will, when the conscience is not in exercise, and we are not acting in faith under the eye of God.
Lastly, the apostle draws the conclusion of the whole matter in the beginning of chapter 15 - a conclusion which needs to be earnestly pondered by us all. First of all, they that are strong ought (the word is remarkable) to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please themselves; but everyone should strive to please his neighbour for his good to edification. Blessed principle! It involves the absence of all self-pleasing, and entire devotedness to Christ in ministry to His people in communion with His own heart. Hence it is that the example of Christ is introduced, both to encourage us to follow in His steps and to rebuke the selfishness which is so common even amongst the people of God. If He pleased not Himself, but endured everything - reproaches, shame, and persecution - in His lowly pathway, wherein He learned obedience by the things which He suffered, we shall best approve ourselves as His disciples by acting in the same spirit. Then, after pointing out the continuous application of the scripture cited, together with its object, the apostle prays that the God of patience and consolation may grant us to be like-minded one toward another, according to Christ Jesus: that we "may with one mind, [and] one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." How intensely the apostle desired to heal breaches in the assembly, and to secure displayed unity, that God might be glorified by oneness of heart in their praise and adoration! His final word, and surely after such arguments it is an irresistible one, is, "Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God." May we all lay this exhortation to heart, remembering that "the glory of God" is to determine the limits of our fellowship. It is simply that we are to maintain toward one another the attitude which Christ maintains towards ourselves.