This morning I want to address the young people in our church once again. Our topic is Christian liberty.
Several hundred years before the Lord Jesus Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah announced that his mission would be, in part, to proclaim liberty to the captives (Isa. 61:1). This does not mean merely that he would make a verbal declaration of liberty, but that he would declare a liberty that he himself would procure.
The Jews of Jesus’ day, having been under the domination of foreign powers off and on for the previous six hundred years, could conceive of this liberty only in political terms. When Jesus said to some of the Jews who had believed on him that they shall know the truth and that the truth shall set them free, their response was that they, being the seed of Abraham, had never been in bondage to any man. Otherwise, what would have been the point of the adoption, the covenants and the promises of the Old Testament (Rom. 9:4)? Why would God have brought them near to himself only to turn them over to others?
The Jews’ denial of their own history, of course, did not change the fact of their bondage to Rome. But this was only a minor irritation compared to the bondage that Jesus had in mind. He meant the bondage of sin. He said, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. That is, whoever practices sin as a way of life, letting it have dominion over him, has become its slave. While a slave may occasionally have certain privileges in the house, such privileges are only temporary. Sooner or later he will have to yield to his position. This contrasts with true and lasting freedom that the Son has and gives to his people.
And it’s not just that the Son makes us free, but that he makes us free indeed, i.e., he certainly makes us free. In the Greek, the primary emphasis in verse 36 falls on the adverb indeed and secondary emphasis is on the adjective free.
What is Christian Liberty?
One of the best statements on Christian liberty is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The first paragraph of chapter 20 reads as follows:
The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the Gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.
The main idea here is that Christian liberty means that we are no longer in bondage to sin and its consequences, but have been given unfettered access to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
A specific application of Christian liberty involves the Christian’s use of things that do not involve sin. In such matters, the believer must learn to use his freedom from sin in the service of Christ. Christian liberty never means that we are left completely to ourselves or to our own ways. As Paul wrote, For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s (I Cor. 6:20).
The truth is that we are all slaves and we will always be slaves. But what are we slaves to? According to the apostle Paul, there are only two choices. Either we are slaves of obedience or we are slaves of sin. Romans 6:16 says, Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? Christian liberty, then, is not the casting off of slavery, but rather an exchange of masters. When we put our trust in Christ, we rid ourselves of a cruel and vicious master called sin, one whose service leads only to death, and we embrace a kind and generous master named Jesus Christ, who leads us in the paths of righteousness and, by the merits of his own obedience unto death, gives us everlasting life.
In fact, this change is so drastic that Jesus described our new servitude as a rest. He said, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30). We must take up Christ’s yoke, but it will be an easy yoke — a restful yoke.
The Weak and the Strong
In principle the idea of using things that do not involve sin seems easy. However, the practice of this principle is another story. The difficulty comes because our practice often brings us into contact with other people, who often have different understandings and convictions than we do. We may believe that we have liberty in a certain area, but they might see our “liberty” as nothing more than an excuse for sin. Our Christian brothers may even be offended by our behavior.
How should we deal with this kind of situation? Should our lives be regulated by their tender consciences of others, or should they yield their judgment to ours and perhaps even violate their own consciences in doing so? What does the Word of God say about this?
The apostle Paul dealt with this subject at length in two passages of the New Testament: Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8. The situations that these two churches faced were not exactly identical. In Corinth, the meat that some of the brethren were refusing to eat had been sacrificed to idols. Those who refused to eat this meat assumed that doing so would implicate them in idolatry. The situation in Rome, however, is not as clear. John Murray listed four possibilities: Jewish converts objecting to the use of meats declared unclean in Mosaic law; Jewish and Gentile believers rejecting meat offered to idols (similar to the situation in Corinth); an ascetic philosophy that abstained from meat and wine, perhaps on the basis of the first eight chapters of Genesis; and, the influence of the Essenes. He argued that none of these by itself could account for the problem as Paul describes and concludes that the church at Rome probably a rather strange mixture of differing opinions that all ended up in about the same place.
In any case, the situations in Rome and Corinth are similar enough that we can consider them together. It’s not my purpose to give a detailed exegesis of either passage (I’ll leave that to Pastor West in his series of sermons on Romans), but rather to state the obvious principles given in these passages and make application to our congregation.
To begin with, the situation that Paul confronted in both church did not involve sin per se. It was not a sin for the Corinthians to eat meat sacrificed to idols, as long as they had not participated in the sacrifice itself. Nor was it a sin for others to refrain from eating this meat. And if it was not wrong for the Corinthians to eat or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols, then it certainly was not sinful for the Romans to eat meat that had not been sacrificed to idols. The issue, rather, is one of conscience. Paul stated this very clearly in these words: I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean (Rom. 14:14; cf. also v. 23).
It is also evident that those who chose to eat meat as well as those who chose not to eat it did so on religious grounds. Again, this is clearly what Paul meant when he wrote, He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks (Rom. 14:6). Those who ate believed that God had approved of their diets and that their eating of the meat, therefore, glorified him. Those who did not eat the meat also believedthat their devotion to God required abstinence.
Nonetheless, there is a distinction to be made between eating and not eating. In both passages, Paul referred to those who abstain as weak. They were weak because they had not yet come to a mature faith that understands that evil is not an characteristic of things. Thus, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled (I Cor. 8:7). And to the Romans: For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs (Rom. 14:2). By implication, then, those who eat are strong. In fact, this is what Paul called them in Romans 15:1 — We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves (Rom. 15:1).
We should note also that in Rome as well as in Corinth, it was the weak who abstained from certain things, believing that the things they avoided would interfere with their devotion to Christ. Modern commentators, especially those who advocate teetotalism, tend to misapply this particular principle. In their view it is the weak who consume alcohol, and they do so not because of religious convictions but because they lack adequate self-government. The strong, on the other hand, are those who refrain from alcohol.
But this is a complete misrepresentation of the text. If teetotalers are correct, then drinking alcohol is not a weakness at all, but a sin. To be consistent, they would have to apply what Paul said elsewhere about drunkards to anyone who drinks beer, wine or a strong drink. For example, in I Corinthians 5:11 he instructed the church not to keep company with a brother who is a drunkard, and in the next chapter he gave the reason, viz., that drunkards are not brothers at all, since it is impossible for them, as long as they allow this sin to control them, to inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:10).
But Paul encouraged a completely different attitude toward the weak. Romans 14:1 says, Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, i.e., welcome him with open arms into your fellowship. You must welcome the weak because his weakness is one of knowledge, faith and conscience, but not resolve to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. The weak need instruction from the Word of God to mold their thinking. They need the Spirit of God to convict them that righteousness is defined exclusively by God’s law and not by the opinions and commandments of men.
And, finally, the apostle is very clear in Romans and I Corinthians that both the weak and the strong have mutual obligations to each other. Both are free to act according to the dictates of their consciences, and neither is free to injure the other in doing so. This principle is stated by Paul in these words: Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him (Rom. 14:3). Here the underlying idea is that Christ alone is Lord of each man’s conscience; and therefore we must use our freedom to serve him, not to lord it over other men.
One thing that concerned Paul in both epistles is the possibility that the strong might put what he calls a stumblingblock in the way of the weak. To one church he wrote, But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak (I Cor. 8:9). And to the other he said: Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way (Rom. 14:13).
The question at this point is, What is this stumblingblock? We’re not supposed to put a stumblingblock in our brother’s way. In order to do that we have to know what one is. And we also have to know it would cause the weak to fall?
From my conversations with many Christians from many different backgrounds over the years, it seems that the most common opinion is that a stumblingblock is the grief of mind that a believer experiences when he sees another believer doing something that he believes is wrong. Romans 14:15 seems to support this. Paul wrote, But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. The first three verses of the next chapter can be cited as well. If this is the correct interpretation, then the only way to avoid setting a stumblingblock before a weak brother is to stop doing whatever he objects to.
However, there are several reasons for rejecting the idea that a stumblingblock is a weak brother’s grief of mind.
The first and most obvious is that it would allow the weak to determine all matters of conscience for the whole church. The weakest conscience in the church would set the rules for everyone else, which would thereby weaken the entire congregation. No wonder, then, that Paul wrote, Let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth (Rom. 14:3).
Second, in Romans 14:13 Paul seems to define a stumblingblock as an occasion [or we might say a provocation] to fall. The grief of mind that a godly man has toward his own sins and the sins of others can be very powerful. In Psalm 119 David wrote, Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law (v. 136). Yet, as great as David’s grief was, it was never a provocation for him to sin. But remember here that Christian liberty is never a license to sin. So, the weak would not be grieved by actual violations of God’s law, as much as by violations of their own standards. But if actual sin cannot occasion their fall, then the judicious use of Christian liberty cannot do so either.
Third, both Romans and I Corinthians make it clear that the strong set a stumblingblock before the weak when they, by an injudicious use of Christian liberty, embolden the weak to do things contrary to their own convictions. There are several statements in both of these chapters that suggest that this is so. In Romans 14 Paul wrote, To him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean (v. 14); All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence (v. 20); and again, He that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin (v. 23). And in I Corinthians 8 we find these statements: Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled (v. 7); and, For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols (v. 10).
And fourth, the grief mentioned in Romans 14:15 cannot be a grief of mind, but must be rather the grief of a self-violated conscience. How do we know this? It’s because of the injunction that immediately follows. Why should we not grieve our brother? Because his grief threatens his destruction. The word translated destroy (ἀπόλλυε) here literally means to kill, to put out of the way. In other words, it’s a soul-jeopardizing problem. Witnessing a brother do something that we believe to be sin cannot hurt us. Yes, we have a responsibility to warn that brother not to offend God, but God will not hold us accountable for what he does. But were the weak to engage in the same behavior, believing it to be sinful, he would vex his own conscience. One of the verses that I read just a minute ago says, He that doubteth is damned if he eat. This means that he would condemn himself and subjected himself to God’s judgment because he acted not in faith.
And fifth, note that nowhere are the strong condemned for doing what their weaker brothers objected to. That’s because the strong were not sinning, but exercising their liberty in Christ.
Liberty in Christ
Now, in terms of a practical application what does this mean? What is the appropriate use of Christian liberty in a situation involving the weak and the strong?
In his book The Freedom of the Christian Man Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” In other words, although our consciences are not bound by the religious scruples of others, we nonetheless have a responsibility to everyone who professes the name of Christ.
Does this mean, then, that we must refrain from everything that displeases a weaker brother? Not necessarily. When Paul wrote, Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died (Rom. 14:15), we have to remember that it is impossible for a weaker brother to be destroyed merely by watching us. Rather, our behavior has to be such that emboldens the weaker brother to do something that he conscientiously believes is wrong. It involves a censorship or judgment that pressures the weaker brother to conform to the expectations of the stronger. When this is the case, Paul says that it is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak (Rom. 14:21). What he wrote to the church at Corinth is even stronger: But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend (I Cor. 8:12–13).
Here’s the problem, though: what is the point at which a strong brother exercising his Christian liberty becomes a provocation to fall for a weaker brother? How do we know when we’ve reached that point?
I’m not sure that I can give a hard and fast, universally-binding rule that answers this question because there are too many variables to consider. What I can say by the authority of the Word of God is this: if we believe that we are getting close to the point where our behavior is enticing the weaker brother to violate his conscience, then we need to back off. Our liberty to do anything — even eating meat if that occasions our brother’s fall — is not worth the price of a weak brother’s broken conscience. In this situation, it is true that what the law allows, wisdom and discretion sometimes disallow. Or we can say that love should take precedence over liberty.
As Luther said, we are lords of all and subject to none in the sense that we are free to serve Jesus Christ with a clear conscience in matters where no sin is involved. But we are also servants of every Christian in the sense that we must sometimes voluntarily forego our liberty in situations where our behavior is likely to be the occasion of a brother’s fall.
Beloved, Christ came to make us free, and the fact is that he made us truly free. We are free indeed because of his finished work.
When you’re tempted to complain that you have to restrict the exercise of your liberty because of a weaker brother, you need to remember two things. First, no man ever gave up as much in the service of others as our Savior did. He had no place to lay his head. His own family believed him to be insane. Men mocked and scorned him throughout his life until finally they nailed him to the tree. He suffered under the just judgment of God for you. He gave his life for your sins and mine. No one took his life from him. He voluntarily surrendered it for us. He said, No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again (John 10:18). Your freedom was bought by his sacrifice. Don’t ever forget that! And second, Christ did not die for you alone. He died for everyone who puts his trust in him, even for those precious brothers who, by his sovereign decree, would be subject to weak consciences. If Christ died for these brothers, then you have no right to cause them harm.
The liberty that we have as Christians is a wonderful gift. We are no longer in bondage to sin. Satan and the kingdom of darkness have been defeated once and for all. But your liberty is not a license to sin. Nor is it a warrant to harm others for whom Christ died. We have to be circumspect in our enjoyment of Christian liberty, using it only as a means to glorify and magnify the one who died to make all of his people free. Amen.