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The apostle spends quite a bit of time and energy on this question, and this is why we are doing the same thing. What will distract us from the those things on which God places great value? It will be those things on which we try to place high value, and all on our own authority or in our own name. But we are creatures—we need to submit to God’s set of values, and stop trying to generate our own.
“Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. 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. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:16-23).
Summary of the Text
Do you believe that “this thing” of yours is the greatest? Then don’t behave in a way that makes people speak ill of it (v. 16). The reason is that the heart of kingdom values can be found in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (v. 17). The kingdom is not about food and drink—God doesn’t care what you eat. In these things— whether eating or not, drinking or not—a man who serves Christ is acceptable to God, and is not a pain in the neck to other men (v. 18). So, then, let us adjust our values, and follow the things which make for peace, and things which build up our brothers and sisters (v. 19). Important note: your particular hobby horse is not what Paul is referring to. You calling it “edifying” doesn’t make it edifying. The work of God is not to be destroyed for the sake of meat (v. 20). This means that your brother is the work of God, and not your dinner fetishes. Paul reiterates the correct position again (all things are pure), but another man can still stumble in his conscience (v. 20). Should his conscience be stronger? Sure. So give it some time to get stronger. Stop kicking it. Don’t swing your liberty around on the end of a rope (v. 21). Are you the strong-faith-boy? Great. Prove it by shutting up about it (v. 22). The man is happy who does not choke on his own liberty (v. 22). And the weaker brother should be careful not to try to rush how quickly he grows stronger (v. 23). Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (v. 23). The Christian life can be described by rule, but it is lived by faith—not by rule.
A Deeper Right
We have already noted that there is a deeper right than being right. Paul is teaching this principle here, but he is also taking it a step or two further. Often those who are in “the right” are that right’s greatest and most tenacious adversaries. Who better to give sabbath keeping a bad name than gnat-strangling sabbatarians? Who better to give sexual decency a bad name than censorious prigs? Who better to give liberty a bad name than the libertines? Pretended friends are often far worse than staunch adversaries. Do not let your good be evil spoken of. We can misrepresent in this way our own standards of good, and we can do the same thing slanderously to God’s standards of good.
A Deeper Wrong
When someone is in the right, and is willing to destroy a weaker brother for the sake of that right, then not only is he missing the deeper right, he is embracing a deeper wrong. “Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.” Do you allow it? Well and good. Are you correct to allow it? Good, even better. Allow away. But to stop there is to condemn yourself, and to condemn yourself with something that is perfectly fine in itself. There are a great many twists and turns involved when the righteous ones choke on righteousness. It is a terrible thing to choke on.
Righteousness, Peace, and Joy
What is the kingdom about? It is not about food and drink. God doesn’t care. It is not about robes and candles. God doesn’t care. It is not about music with a back beat. God doesn’t care. It is not about buying things from corporations or not. God doesn’t care. It is not about meat offered to idols. God doesn’t care. It is about your brother and sister—God does care.
The center of kingdom life is righteousness, peace, and joy. This triad of blessings is not something that we gin up to present to God. It is God’s work in us—note that Paul says righteousness, peace, and joy “in the Holy Ghost.” This is the environment that the Holy Spirit creates in order to work in. If it is any other kind of environment, the Holy Spirit’s work is limited to conviction of sin—sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).
God is the only one who gets to define righteousness. Righteousness is an expression of His holy character, and is described in His law. Sin is therefore lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4, and nothing else. We don’t get to take away, like the libertines, and we don’t get to add or substitute like the legalist. When we let God define what sin is (righteousness), and we pursue peace, just as He instructed here (v. 19), the end result is joy.
This joy is the work of God. It is not the joy of “being right.” It is not the joy of persuading people to adopt your dietary regimen. It is not the joy of seeing others proven wrong. It the joy of your salvation—your citizenship papers in the kingdom of God.
Whatever Is Not of Faith
Paul concludes this section by noting that if it doesn’t proceed from faith, then it is a sin. It is sin to eat, and it is a sin to not eat. Faith relates to a person. We cannot stay out of sin by relating all our behavior to an external rule alone. Live in the presence of God.