Explain “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
This is a vital principle. At its broadest, it provides a guide for every aspect of Christian life. It demands obedience to the Scriptures. Faith means obeying God, and no act of disobedience to God’s Word can be anything other than sin. It doesn’t matter how much I might want to do it, or how much society tells me it’s ok: if the Bible forbids it, it is sin to do it, because it (whatever it may be) cannot be “of faith.”
But the principle is more broadly applicable. In Romans 14, Paul is applying it to issues that relate not to the commandments of Scripture but to the convictions of saints. In Rome the big issue was eating. Converted Jews brought with them a whole array of scruples about which foods could and could not be eaten. To believers from a Gentile background, this seemed to display a pitiable weakness, a failure to enjoy Christian liberty that needed to be assailed with “doubtful disputations” (Rom 14:1).
The effects of this situation were serious – the strong brethren, secure in their own robust consciences, were despising the weak. And the weak reciprocated by judging those who were stronger. These attitudes were – and are – toxic, and made – and still make – it impossible for believers to enjoy the “righteousness, and peace, and joy” that should have been theirs (v17).
Paul addresses this situation, not by providing a list of rules, but by calling for spiritual maturity guided by scriptural principles and priorities. He solemnly reminds the believers of their individual responsibility to God (vv3-9) and their inevitable appearance before the judgment seat of Christ, when, amongst other things, our attitude and behaviour towards our brethren will be evaluated. And he reminds them – and us – of the incalculable value of our fellow believers. Even the weakest brother is one “for whom Christ died” (v15). Finally, he emphasises the priorities of the kingdom – Christianity, after all, is not really about what you can or cannot eat but about serving God in the enjoyment of “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (v17).
Paul also addresses the ever-present danger that a weaker brother might succumb to peer pressure and, under the barrage of “doubtful disputations,” ignore the warnings of his conscience by eating something that he, in his heart of hearts, still believed would defile him. To do so would be to sin, for “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” If the weak brother could not eat with a clean conscience, to eat would be sin, even though he would not be disobeying any direct command of God’s Word.
This is not a relativization of right and wrong – Paul is not saying that anything goes. No amount of conviction can make something that is wrong right. But the smallest speck of doubt can make something that is right wrong, for “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” That is why we should keep our convictions to ourselves, and refrain from interfering with the convictions of others: “the faith you have, keep to yourself before God” (v22 ESV).
The truth of Romans 14 is just as challenging for us as it was for those to whom it was first written. But the maturity, love, and spiritual intelligence that it calls for are just as important and every bit as needful today as they were then.