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(Romans 14:22–23) Living On Three Levels

(Romans 14:22–23) Living On Three Levels

Ref: Romans 14:22–23

Contrary to popular belief, Christian liberty does not say, "I have the freedom to do anything that makes my life better." Instead, Christian liberty says, "I now have the freedom to do whatever Christ wants me to do." So many people get this wrong today. Don't be one of them!

The other messages in this series are available here: Grey Matters


“Living On Three Levels”

Romans 14:22-23

A staff member sent me this a couple of days ago . . . it seems that there was a major problem in a small Texas town where there were three country churches: 

Each church had the same problem – they were over run with pesky squirrels.

One of the churches called a meeting to decide what to do about the squirrels. After much prayer and consideration they determined that the squirrels were evidently predestined by God to be there . . . so they refused to interfere.

Over at the second church, the squirrels had built their nest in the baptistery.  So the deacons got together and decided to put a cover on the baptistery and drown the squirrels in it.  Can you believe that?  (Given my love for animals I would never have decided to do that!)  But the squirrels escaped and there were twice as many in church the following week.

The last church however came up with the only effective solution that worked.  They voted unanimously to welcome all the squirrels into the membership of the church.  That did it!  Now they only come to church at Christmas and Easter. 

Have you ever asked yourself, “Just why do you go to church . . . beyond Christmas and Easter, that is?”

In fact, have you ever asked yourself, “Why do I do many of the things I do and do not do the things I do not do?”

Do you do what you do or don’t do, not because of reasoned thought, but in order to keep alongside of the status quo?

Now, I’m not suggesting you go and tear down all the fences that have been built around your life . . . I believe it was Mark Twain who wrote that a man should never take a fence away until he found out why it was put there in the first place.

But why do you believe what you believe?  Why do you live the way you live?  Why are the fences laid out the way they are around the pastureland of your life?

One author told of attending a wedding and hearing the vows.  The couple had evidently rewritten the traditional vows so that, instead of saying, “I will cherish you as long as life shall last” they said, “I will cherish you as long as love shall last.”

Is it any wonder then, that you can now lease wedding rings one year at a time.

What is it that you promised . . . and believe?  Why have you chosen to live and work and dress and entertain and read and play the way you do?

Is any of it a matter of principle . . . or simply your past?

Why is it that a large number of college students abandon the faith of their fathers during their freshmen year – as soon as they get out of the family corral?

The answer is simply that – it was the faith of their fathers.

Is your life based on conviction . . . or conditioning?

Is it the faith of your parents – or your past?  Or has it become personal?!

In Romans chapter 14 and verse 5, Paul challenged each believer to be “fully convinced in his own mind.”

In other words, make it personal!

Stay alert . . . think it through.

I read just this past week the rather humorous story of two elderly women who were out driving.  Cruising along, they came to an intersection.  The stoplight was red, but the driver kept going.  Alarmed, the passenger thought, I must be losing my mind, I could have sworn we just went through a red light!  They came to another red light and once again they drove right through it.  The passenger really began to question her own sanity, but kept quiet.  Still, she was getting rather nervous. At the 3rd intersection, sure enough, it happened again.  The woman couldn’t let it go this time so she turned to her friend and said, “Millie, did you know that we just ran 3 red lights in a row?  You could have killed us both!”  Millie said, “Oh my!  Am I driving?!”

Hey . . . wake up . . . you’re at the wheel . . . and your about to drive into some really deep fog . . . stay alert – grey matters straight ahead.

So far, in our study through Romans chapter 14 and the issue of grey matters, we have uncovered the Principle of Protection.  Accepting and encouraging weaker and younger believers in the faith.

I find it fascinating and somewhat surprising that the way to find your way through the fog of grey issues – where the Bible is neither clear nor conclusive – is not to look out for your own safety, but the safety and well being of other Christians.  This is the principle of protection.

We also uncovered the Principle of Reputation.  That what others see in us should be nothing less than the stamp of Christ’s holy character.  

In our last session of study we discovered the Principle of Consideration  where Paul encouraged us not to be on a demolition team – tearing down the lives of people around us, but to become a member of a construction crew – building up the lives of your brothers and sisters in this household of faith.

Now, Paul bores in a little deeper as he provides another insight in how to drive through the fog . . . alert and alive.  It is the Principle of Conviction.

Paul writes in verse 22, “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction, before God. 

Before we unpack the idea of developing convictions, I want you to notice that this text is a plea for humility and deference.  The strong are not to go around setting everyone straight – removing specks from the eyes of other believers.

In Paul’s day the strong would have been considered to be the Pharisees – strict observers of the law.

The trouble was, by the 1st century, public shows of religious piety had turned into a theatrical production and the Pharisees were giving weekly performances.

Whether is was giving, fasting, or even praying – it was all a matter of public performance by the religious crowd. 

In our Lord’s sermon on the mount, he very clearly warned the believer, (paraphrased) to beware of practicing righteousness before men to be noticed by them . . . when you give money, don’t do it to be seen by men; when you pray, don’t pray like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners in order to be seen by men . . . when you fast, don’t put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. (Matthew 6:1-16)

In other words, some things which can be seen by men are not to be done for that purpose.

The problem with public piety is that it needs new rules – it needs more complex external symbols to try and keep everyone convinced of personal holiness.

So the scribes and Pharisees who studied the law of Moses, ended up tacking on several hundred additions to the regulation of the Old Testament.

The rabbis allowed for a man to ride a donkey on the Sabbath, but if he carried a switch to speed up the donkey he would be guilty of laying a burden on it and that would be sin.  A woman was not allowed to look in the mirror on the Sabbath lest she see a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it out and that would be tantamount to work.

They took the simple commandment to avoid adultery and added the specifications that you should never talk to a woman in public who was not your wife nor ever even look around you lest you see a woman.  So when the Pharisees went out in public, they were probably almost comical to watch.  Some of them came to be known as “bleeding Pharisees”, because they kept their heads so lowered for fear of seeing a woman that they constantly bumped their heads into walls and posts and wagons.  But they wore their bruises as badges of holiness.

Adapted from Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Zondervan, 1997), p. 198

Like the monks of the 4th century who wore fabric that purposefully included thorns; they slept in compartments so small they had to double up to sleep on their cots.

Or leaders from the more recent past like Charles Finney, the mystical evangelist who refrained from coffee and tea and demanded that Oberlin College, the school he founded, forbid tea and coffee and other stimulant such as pepper, mustard, oil and vinegar.

Ibid, p. 199

Paul is saying to these Roman believers, don’t put on a performance of piety to those around you.  You see, for these believers – in the first century – it would have been natural to follow the leadership of the Pharisee . . . they were the spiritual ones

But Paul is reminding them, “Don’t press your opinions . . . don’t flaunt your piety . . . in fact, some things should be a matter of private discipline and personal holiness.

You could literally render this first phrase in verse 22, “You, the faith that you have, keep to yourself before God.”

Now obviously, Paul isn’t saying that we should never share our faith with others.

He’s already made that clear when he wrote, “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”  How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?  And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher – a messenger?  Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:13-17)

You have to understand then, Paul’s statement in Romans 14 to “keep your faith to yourself,” comes wrapped in the context of doubtful things.  Things that you may believe, as it relates to matters of grey, where the Bible isn’t conclusive or clear, be careful . . . don’t brag about them . . . don’t impose them on others . . . don’t hold them up as everyone else’s standard . . . don’t require them of younger believers . . . in fact, unless you’re asked about some of your personal convictions, you might even keep some of them to yourselves.

Let me break down this idea of personal convictions – I believe it will clear some of this up as we discover that there are at least three levels of personal belief – with each level becoming more clearly defined in Scripture.

Level one is a personal preference.

I would define a personal preference as a choice based on personal feelings, background and taste. 

Even though the word is silent, you are confident as you talk with the Lord and read the word that what you are choosing is the right thing.  You don’t know of any scripture that forbids the things you’re doing, but there isn’t a verse that clearly tells you one way or another.

You might even change your mind . . . but at this point, with what you know and what you sense and how you feel, this is the way to go.

This is the first level of developing convictions: the level of personal preference.

The second level is the level of personal certainty.

This could be defined also as an application – but not of your feelings or background or tastes, but an application of scripture to your walk with Christ.

But be careful.  On this second level, the Bible still doesn’t explicitly address the very issue you’re deciding on, but you believe the weight of Biblical instruction in general is in favor of a decision you’re making.

In the last few years I’ve talked to a number of parents about the educational choices of their children.

I have talked with parents who use different parts of scripture to defend their choice in sending their kids to a public school; or to Christian school or to home-school them.

Three different camps within any given church – all armed and dangerous.

What I like is the fact that people are digging into the application of scripture to settle their minds and hearts on the issue.  What I believe is unfortunate is when sides are taken and anybody who disagrees with someone else’s rather nebulous application of scripture is wrong – and accusations begin to fly.

Listen, there are plenty of verses that challenge us to evangelize our world and one set of parents will argue, how can you do that if you are separated from the world? 

The problem is there aren’t any verses that directly speak to children doing that in middle school.

There are plenty of verses in the Bible that place the responsibility of teaching children the truth of scripture upon the parents.  But even then, the Bible never specifically says it is the sole responsibility of the parents, for why would God’s spirit give believers the gifts of teaching and exhortation and evangelism within the church.

And there are those in a third camp who believe strongly that formal education should have a Christian world-view and be taught from that perspective – although there is not one verse directly addressing the issue of formal education.

Not one verse on how a child should learn math, where a child should learn math, or even if a child has to learn math – which I take as great consolation since I never really learned it anyway.

My wife and I have had the privilege of seeing our children in a public school setting, leading kids to Christ as early as first grade; we’ve home-schooled them for several years.  And we’ve had them in Christian school for several years.

And I can say with great authority that none of them work – let me add the word, perfectly.

So . . . now that I’ve made everyone upset with me, what are we to do?  Talk it out . . . pray it through . . . discuss it as husbands and wives . . . ask others their opinion and experience . . . consider your own children and their particular needs and bent.  Are there verses of scripture that the Spirit of God is impressing on your heart related to this issue?

This is an area of Christian liberty – an issue colored over in grey.

And I am deeply concerned as I watch differing opinions stockpiling ammunition for future battles.

And all the while, the world is more than happy to take a ringside seat and watch the fight.

One author told the story of two congregations that were located only a few blocks away from each other in a small community.  They agreed on all the major doctrines of the Bible and so they thought it might be better if they merged and became one larger, more effective body rather than two struggling congregations.  Good idea . . . but they were not able to pull it off.  The problem?  They could not agree on how they would recite “The Lord’s Prayer.”  One group preferred “forgive us our trespasses,” while the other group demanded “forgive us our debts.”  After much squabbling, the deal fell through.  And the local newspaper

reported, “One church went back to its trespasses while the other returned to its debts.”

R Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Crossway, 1991), p. 279

Paul goes on to say, in the latter part of verse 22, Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.”

You could translate this, “Happy is the believer who doesn’t feel guilty when he does something that he’s thought through and judged to be right.”

These are not doctrinal issues . . . these are not matters of heaven or hell.

But that isn’t an excuse for apathy . . . for sloppy thinking . . . for never praying . . . think!  Dream . . . plan.  Stay awake at the wheel.

Paul was convinced that he was supposed to go to Spain.  He writes in the next chapter, “I’m coming to see you in Rome as I travel on to Spain.

Paul was certain the will of God would take him to Spain!  He never went.

Why would God put him through the exercise?

  • Perhaps it kept him fresh and visionary;
  • Perhaps it developed his growing excitement about the expansion of the gospel;
  • Perhaps it encouraged a global vision for the Roman believers.
  • Perhaps it challenged the believers in Spain to prepare for Paul’s arrival;

More than likely it did what God wants to do in our own lives as we seek His Spirit and His word for direction.

It keeps us seeing His Spirit and His word for direction.

Grey matters can drive us to our knees!

Is there a better place to be than searching after the heart and mind of God?! 

What you choose to do might be different than anybody else – but your sense of certainty and confidence in the Lord gives you the freedom, in some particular area of grey matters, to decide.

You’re arriving at this second level of personal certainty.

Hudson Taylor was the pioneer missionary to China during the late 1800’s.   After being there for some time he realized that his respect among the people and his ability to be revered as a religious teacher were being hindered by his Western apparel.

He decided to do something no other missionary had dared to do.  He decided to wear the customary robe of a teacher and, more dramatically, he chose to wear the pigtail or the Chinese queue, as it was called.

He wrote his sister the rather shocking details; “I had better tell you at once that on Thursday last at 11 p.m. I resigned my locks to the barber, dyed my hair a good black, and in the morning had a proper queue woven into my [the back of my] own hair . . . then, in Chinese dress, I set out.”

Adapted from Frederick Taylor, J. Hudson Taylor: God’s Man in China (Moody Press, 1965), p. 99

The reaction back in England was to be expected.  He lost support without ever being contacted . . . he eventually began his own mission board, calling it the China Inland Mission.

By the time Hudson Taylor passed away in 1905, there were 800 missionaries under his leadership and more than 1,000 mission stations throughout China.   Hudson Taylor opened China for the gospel.

Taylor had become convinced that an application of Paul’s own personal testimony would be fitting for him to change his dress.

He would become all things to all men – specifically, he would become more like the Chinese – in order that he might win some (1 Corinthians 9:22)

The first level in developing convictions is personal preferences by means of an application of feelings and background; the second level is personal certainty by means of the application of some passage of scripture; 

The third level of conviction is based on personal commands: these are decisions based on clear interpretation of scripture to your walk with Christ.

The Bible speaks directly to some issue!  And there is no doubt.

It isn’t a matter of confusion . . . it is a matter of submission. 

  • “This is the will of God that you abstain from immorality – that is sexual relations outside of marriage.” (I Corinthians 6:18)

You don’t have to pray one moment about this.  It’s clear!

  • Do not murder someone – James 2:11

You never have to ask the Lord during your devotions if you can bump off your boss – it’s clear . . . you can’t.

  • Have a thankful spirit (Philippians 4:6)
  • Give financially with joy as God prospers you (I Corinthians 16:2)
  • Let not the sun go down on your wrath (Ephesians 4:26)
  • Don’t be greedy (Ephesians 5:3)
  • Walk honestly (Romans 13:12)
  • Don’t murmur or complain (I Corinthians 10:10)
  • Don’t envy one another (Galatians 5:26)
  • Don’t be absent when the assembly meets for worship (Hebrews 10:25)
  • Love your enemies (Matthew 5:44)
  • But don’t love the world (1 John 2:15)
  • Put away bitterness and wrath and anger and evil speaking and malice (Ephesians 4:31)

You never have to pray about God’s will concerning these and a thousand more commands in the New Testament.

The implication is obvious – perhaps if we spent more time obeying what the Bible clearly says, we would spend less time agonizing over things the Bible doesn’t clearly say.

But maybe you’re asking, does this mean I can do anything the Bible doesn’t specifically address?

That’s Paul’s warning in verse 23.  But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

That’s a rule of thumb . . . when in doubt – don’t!

When doubtful to you as to whether or not it will uphold your faith in the glory and righteousness of Christ, don’t do it!

If your conscience is filled with guilt . . . don’t go there!

In other words, as you work through the three levels of decision making – preferences, confidences, commands, if it comes down to the fact that you are at liberty to do something but at the end of the day, your conscience troubles you about it, which means you can’t do it to the glory of God, then don’t . . . stop!

Don’t allow your liberty to drag your conscience through the mud of doubt and guilt.

And watch out for others around you, Paul charges us; use your influence to promote, not questionable living, but holy living.

But Stephen . . . some have said to me over the years – doesn’t this make you a legalist?  If you feel guilty about doing something you have the liberty to do . . . you just need to get over it!

Let me give you three key words as you pursue balance in this area of grey issues.

The first word is the word liberty.

I have defined Christian liberty this way: choosing to make lifestyle choices out of love for Christ and others.

You have the liberty to make choices in life:

  • What are you going to do about your children’s education?
  • What are you going to wear?
  • What are you going to do for entertainment – leisure – sports – reading material – and diet.

Liberty does not say, “I now have the freedom to do whatever I want to do!”  No, liberty says, “I now have the freedom to do whatever Jesus Christ wants me to do.”

Liberty does not say, “I have the freedom to do anything that makes my life better – but, I have the liberty to make my brother and sister’s life better.

That’s true Christian liberty.

Now there are two extremes to true biblical liberty – there are two other words to be aware of.

One extreme is known as legalism.

I would define legalism as the belief that by choosing to mimic external codes, you earn the favor of God and others.

The tragic flaw in legalism is the belief that we must win God’s approval by following a list of rules in areas where He never clearly spoke to begin with.

But you need to understand that what makes legalism wrong is not a set of rules. 

I can guarantee you that your job has a set of rules for you to follow – in fact, you probably have to show up at a certain time and you can only take off so many vacation days.

That’s not legalism.

After church today some of you are going to McDonalds for a wholesome meal – because that’s where you’re 5 year old wants to go, right? When you get up to the counter that guy standing behind it is not wearing that shirt because he likes it. He is not wearing that cap because he thinks he looks good in it.

If he had his choice he’d be wearing a UNC cap, or an NC State hat . .  or a Duke hat!

He doesn’t decide what he wears to work – it’s been decided for him by his company.

McDonalds isn’t riddled with legalism.

Legalism is the belief that if you wear that shirt, you become more righteous before God.  Legalism is the rule that hats are necessary for holiness.

It’s the belief that if you never take vacation days and you always clock in at the right time – that you are now acceptable to God.

That’s legalism.    

So the Jewish man in an Israeli hotel yesterday got on the special “Shabbat” elevators which are programmed to stop at every floor so the orthodox Jew can avoid working on the Sabbath by not having to push any buttons.

The young evangelical believer in South Africa was told it is wrong to pray with hands in their pockets – and so he makes sure his hands are not in his pockets so God will hear his prayer.

All of these have one thing in common – legalism.  The belief that God’s grace and attention and love is earned.

There’s another extreme to avoid and that is libertinism.

Libertinism is when a person chooses to manipulate whatever necessary to please himself without any regard for God or anybody else.

It is nothing less than a license to sin.

Paul wrote, “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 

In other words, since we are accepted by God, independently of following a list of rules, what do you say we throw all the rules and every restraint out the window?  And Paul responded, “May it never be!” (Romans 6:1-2)

Peter wrote, “Don’t use your liberty as a covering for evil. (I Peter 2:16)

Paul warned the Galatians to not use their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh (Galatians 5:13)

While Liberty is concerned with influence;

and legalism with impersonation;

libertinism is interested most in indulgence.

This person frankly doesn’t care what people think . . . he doesn’t even care what God thinks . . . he only cares for himself.

It is the height of arrogance and pride . . . it destroys lives . . . it hinders the testimony of Christ . . . it can just as easily ruin the purity of the church as the church takes on the appearance and character of the pagan world.

So . . . as you make your way through grey matters, avoid the extremes of legalism and libertinism . . . enjoying your liberty in Christ that seeks His glory and the advancement of His Cause above all things.

Will your allegiance to Christ be obvious to those around you by the convictions and certainties and preferences that you choose?

Oh you better believe it . . . the world will see and know you by your convictions . . . or the lack thereof.

I read recently the story of a missionary who had served in Laos a number of years ago.  Before the national boundaries were set, the kings of Laos and Vietnam reached an agreement on taxation in the border areas where it was hard to tell “who was who.”  But choices the people made actually made it easy.  The Laotians ate short-grained rice, built their houses on stilts and decorated them with Indian style serpents.  The Vietnamese, on the other hand, ate long-grain rice, built their houses on the ground and decorated their homes with Chinese-style dragons.  So, for taxation purposes, the location of a person’s house was not what determined their nationality. Instead, each person was taxed by the country whose values they had adopted as a way of life.

Kenneth Boa & William Kruidenier, Holman New Testament Commentary: Romans (Holman Reference, 2000), p. 427

It’s so true for us as well.

Your choices reflect the values you hold dear.

So stay alert at the wheel . . . your convictions happen to be revealing the kingdom to which your heart truly belongs.

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