Romans (Part 15) - Chapters 13b-15: Life with Love and Reason
Romans 13:8-14 provides us not only with a conclusion to chapters 12 and 13, but also the armament with which to tackle Romans 14. The section is divided into two paragraphs, each offering one prong of our two-pronged approach. The first prong reiterates the benefit of love.
Love, remember, is the uncoerced desire for the benefit of another that outweighs all other desires, including those for self. This desire for the benefit of others is the New Covenant answer to the legalism of the old covenant. Paul tells us that those commands of the old covenant—those incorporated in the Ten Commandments—are not the focus for New Covenant living. We no longer go about with our list, trying to determine Godly living. Remember Christ’s emphasis in the Gospels—the greatest commandments are to love God and to love others (Matthew 22:37-39). And why so? Because, as Matt 22:40 goes on to say, all the other commandments hinge on these. This is exactly what Paul is telling us here in Romans 13. Our practical outworking of the great salvation Paul discussed through the first 11 chapters of Romans comes together in 13:8—“the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
But there is a second point or prong that must accompany the law of love. That is the requirement that Paul has been arguing since the beginning of Romans 12. We must renew our minds; or put another way, we must review and evaluate—that is, reason—in light of Christ. Christ is our Savior. He is Lord. Our conduct must be in light of His Lordship. But again, we cannot forget that this is not just a new rulebook Paul is handing out. It is an emphasis of devotion. If my point in life is to see Christ honored, I look for ways in which to do so. I don’t religiously pull out the list and blindly go through the motions of acceptable living. My heart’s passion is the honor of my Christ. This is the point of 13:11-14.
Paul says the night is gone (13:12). This night is the fuzzy, unclear, thinking of the world and of self. Paul says the day is at hand—a clear reference to the mind renewal of 12:1-2. We are to put on the armor of light (reason). And we are to steer clear of the works of darkness. Notice these couplets that we are to avoid in verse 13—orgies and drunkenness, sexual immorality and sensuality, quarreling and jealousy. Why these sins? What about murder, lying, stealing, unthankfulness, and the rest of the usual list we see Paul specify? I think Paul mentions these because these are sins that sweep the emotions. They are sins that create passions prohibiting clear thinking. That fits in with his emphasis to rid ourselves of the dark, unclear, worldly thinking, and to renew our minds with Christ.
So, then, having laid aside the legalistic rulebook and now armed with the first prong of love—the desire for the benefit of others—and the second prong of reasoning clearly in light of Christ and His gospel, His righteousness, His sovereignty, His salvation and adoption given to us, we approach chapter 14.
Two major issues present themselves in Romans 14. The first is the practical matter of the stumbling block. A stumbling block is the present-time participation in and urging of an activity on another Christian who may believe it to be wrong. Paul uses a contrast between someone strong in faith and someone weak in faith. The strong and weak characteristics, I believe, relate to that prong of reasoning in light of Christ. Being strong in faith or belief speaks of someone who has correctly reasoned based on the principles learned through Christ and has become fully persuaded. In contrast, the person weak in belief has not spent the time in renewing his/her mind or has allowed false reasoning to come through, not grasping the full implication of biblical principle.
Now, let’s assume (as Paul does) that the person of strong faith is together with the person of weak faith. They approach an activity together of which the weak one is hesitant while the strong is fully persuaded to engage. Paul’s point in this chapter is for the strong in faith to use both prongs of his/her armament. The strong should act not only based on the right Christ-centered reasoning of which he/she is persuaded, but also based on the prong of love—the desire for the benefit of the other. If the strong, based on his/her full persuasion, urges the weak toward activity which the weak perceives as wrong or at least doubtful, sin results—not only in the weak but in the strong as well. The weak sins by violating his/her faith. The strong sins by encouraging the weak to violate his/her faith.
Along with the care not to cause this stumbling block, Paul warns the strong not to despise the weak. The weak one is also warned not to judge the strong. But notice that we are talking of matters that are biblically deduced, not matters of biblical command. We are not speaking of lying, murder, specific sexual sins like adultery, lust, and homosexual practice. The New Testament includes clear commands to avoid all those. In the situation of Romans 14, Paul speaks of things which we will come upon in life and to which we must apply our biblical principles. He uses the examples of eating meat (offered to idols) and continuing to set aside a Sabbath day. There is no clear biblical command on these points. And Paul does not mean to clear it up. Rather, he uses the ambiguity to teach a lesson about making sure you spend the time to renew your mind and making sure you act in love. With both of these emphases in your life, you will do well.
The second major issue in this chapter takes a step back to examine a larger question. Normally, we argue against setting ourselves up as guide for right living. Philosophically, we claim that an external reference point is necessary to keep to the correct course. And so, we lift up the Bible as our sole authority for faith and practice. Is Paul in Romans 14 advocating setting the Bible aside and living based on personal conscience? Well, yes and no. We’ll talk about the “no” first. The Bible is our sole authority for faith and practice. That is why God gave us His Word. So we can never violate anything in the Bible without sinning. But as mentioned before, the Bible does contain certain commands, but not commands about every action under the sun. The Bible contains principles, and God has designed our earthly Christian lives so as to concentrate on searching the Scriptures to know His mind (principles and propositions) so that we may act in that light. (This, by the way, is what is so deathly dangerous about the emergent church movement. The total disregard for propositional principle leads away from God, not toward Him.) The focus on searching the Scriptures and knowing God’s principles is what we defined as the prong of renewing the mind. You cannot simply say that the Bible contains no direct command so we may live as we please. We who are Christians are under obligation by our Lord to search the Scriptures and become fully persuaded based on Christ and the principles we find to move in whatever direction we find coalesces with God’s intent. Therefore, Paul is not advocating tossing the Bible aside, in Romans 14, to follow your own choices of capricious emotion. We must act in love with Christ and in love with others.
By this activity in love, we join together in unity as Romans 15 tells us. Vital doctrines define Christianity. By vital doctrines I mean those upon which eternal life and death depend—such things as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, His virgin birth, the penal substitution, the redemption accomplished through the cross, the resurrection, and others. Those are doctrines which we must defend and from people opposed to them we must separate (spiritual separation for worship and service). But the non-vital doctrines over which Christians differ should not be roadblocks to our unity in the Spirit. As Paul prays in 15:5-6, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”