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Matters of Conscience - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Articles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology

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A topic of grace importance on how the Christian is to exercise his Liberty in Christ. How does the Word of God affect this? How does he respond to given advice on a topic?

The Christian conscience is a complex topic to study and think through. For the purposes of this brief inquiry my desire is to set forth the question, “What binds the Christian conscience to service before Christ?” This is an exceedingly important question for the practical life and walk of the Christian. If the Christian is unaware of what is binding upon his conscience, he may, in all likelihood, be blown by every wind of doctrine that arises, or even by old wives tales told at the local gossip house. This topic is of such import, that the Westminster Confession of Faith dedicated an entire chapter to explaining “Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience.”[1]

Martin Luther, the 16th century Reformer who “officially” sparked the Reformation by nailing his theses on the door of the Wittenberg church against Roman Catholic Indulgences, gave this testimony when the Church called him to the city of Worms to stand trial for his beliefs, as is documented by D’Aubigne, “Upon this Luther replied without much hesitation: “Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, — unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, — and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.” And then, looking round on this assembly before which he stood, and which held his life in its hands, he said: “HERE I STAND, I CAN DO NO OTHER; MAY GOD HELP ME? AMEN!” Luther, constrained to obey his faith, led by his conscience to death, impelled by the noblest necessity, the slave of his belief, and under this slavery still supremely free, like the ship tossed by a violent tempest, and which, to save that which is more precious than itself, runs and is dashed upon the rocks, thus uttered these sublime words which still thrill our hearts at an interval of four centuries: thus spoke a monk before the emperor and the mighty ones of the nation; and this feeble and despised man, alone, but relying on the grace of the Most High, appeared greater and mightier than them all. His words contain a power against which all these mighty rulers can do nothing. This is the weakness of God, which is stronger than man. The empire and the Church on the one hand, this obscure man on the other, had met. God had brought together these kings and these prelates publicly to confound their wisdom. The battle is lost, and the consequences of this defeat of the great ones of the earth will be felt among every nation and in every age to the end of time.”[2] It is important here to stress Luther’s conviction and the manner in which he set forth his conviction. It was twofold: first, the testimony of truth rests on the Scriptures, and second, his conscience was bound by what he understood the Scriptures to say. It is interesting to me that Luther said that to go against conscience is neither right nor safe for a Christian. What did he mean by this? First, he meant that his conscience was molded and shaped by the testimony of the Bible and not by men’s opinions. It was that which bound his conscience, and by that binding he could not, in good conscience, simply rest upon the opinions of men; and certainly in his day the “opinions of men” were the “infallible” dictums of the Roman Catholic popes. He even mentions them in his denial to recant when he says that popes and councils have often contradicted one another. At this point, it is simply important for the Christian to understand that the Reformation was sparked by Scripture alone, and not the dictates or opinion of men, councils , popes or anyone else – not even Luther’s opinions. Conscience stands bound to the Word of God, and the Word of God alone.

It may be helpful for us to first define what we mean by “conscience.” The word “conscience” derives from Middle English, from Old French, and from the Latin conscientia. It refers to the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good. Secondly, it is the faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts. It is the mind’s reflexive act upon knowledge to the good of the self. If that is a little technical, then may we say that the conscience is the little voice God has given us in our heart (or head) to determine, based on what we know or have studied about he facts of a given situation, what is right and what is wrong. That is why Jonathan Edwards believed that conscience gave way to convictions. And biblically speaking “convictions are human operations to the working of the divine Spirit, who “doth the finishing strokes” on Christ’s salvation.”[3] It is the furtherance or continuance of salvation in the mode or manner of sanctification. When we make right choices based on the Bible we become more fully sanctified. If we make wrong choices based on the opinions of men, our sanctification is hindered, and our conscience begins to eat at us because the Spirit of God is there to convict us of our misapprehension or misunderstandings. It may be, though, in some cases, that we have a convoluted understanding of a particular situation and then make a judgment based on bad information. Yet, as far as we can tell, we made a “good” choice. Sometimes the inner working of the Spirit at that point is overshadowed by our incorrect assumption or bad theology. For instance, if a young lady is recently converted and her minister tells her that God does not approve of lipstick, and she is convicted of this by forceful persuasion, then she might, based on incorrect knowledge, stop wearing lipstick. In the long run, that is a hindrance to her, not a help; even though she has appeased her conscience by doing what she thought ought to be done. That is why Luther’s statement about not going against conscience, is vital to understand in light of his first statement about being persuaded by the Word of God.

When we are dealing with the binding of the conscience, we are talking about the manner in which a Christian’s conscience becomes a slave to a given truth. I do not, at this point, want to make a distinction between binding the conscience with the Bible and binding the conscience with the authority of opinions. Let us just say that the conscience can be bound in both instances, where someone or something may, with some form of knowledge, influence it. Let us use another example, or two perhaps to demonstrate this clearly. The conscience can be bound, or a slave to, a particular idea. For instance, a man may think that eating bacon cooked in a stick of butter, along with a 5 eggs and three slices of cheese in an omelet every morning, is healthy. Another person with medical facts, may approach this man and say that he has lost his mind, and that eating such things would dramatically raise his cholesterol and possibly, over time, cause heart failure. Now, I ask you reader, who is right? I would imagine you would say that such a breakfast every morning would be bad for you. It may be that with the information you have from life experience, and this medical report stated by this other man, that your conscience would never allow you to eat breakfast like that everyday. What if I were to inform you that on the Atkins’ diet, eating this way was completely acceptable, and actually lowers your cholesterol, medical speaking? You may deny it. Studies, though, show that the Atkins’ diet plan, followed faithfully for breakfast, lunch and dinner, actually lowers cholesterol and improves energy, weight loss and the like. Now without all the facts, this still may see outlandish. But let us enter conjecture for a moment. If we have all the facts, and the facts conclusively demonstrate that Atkins improves health by eating fats and proteins without eating carbohydrates and sugar (something you would have to give up to eat this way), then your conscience had been bound by a medical report without all the facts. It may be that your knowledge on the subject was simply a result of what you believed “common sense” dictated, and what the medical practitioners have said for so long. Well, with this new information your knowledge improves, and your conscience on such matters may free you to eat bacon cooked in butter with 5 eggs in a cheese omelet with no problem.

Let’s use another example; let us say that a minister of the Gospel in a solid biblical church, preached on the necessity of praying in a kneeling position in order to exemplify humility before God. Now, his desire in this sermon is to convince the hearers to what his heart is fully convinced is right and good. What determines what is right and good? Biblically speaking, the Bible alone determines what is right and good. If the minister preaches a sermon about kneeling during prayer, he had better have an airtight case to bind the conscience of the Christian. Why must his case be airtight? Well, first we must ask, “Who is the Lord of the church?” The answer to this is “Jesus Christ.” Next we ask, “Who has authority to dispense laws for Christian conduct to the people of God?” The answer is “Jesus Christ.” (We will prove this out in a moment.) Are ministers messengers of Jesus Christ? Yes, they certainly are. The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” The word here is “presbeuow” which means, “to act on behalf of, an ambassador.” When ministers preach the Gospel, they are acting as voice boxes for what Christ has said in His Word. There is nothing outside His Word that lawfully binds our conscience in this way. Even the laws of a country or land are to be subject to the Word of God. If America was to create a law that says “murdering your next-door neighbor is OK,” then every Christian would protest that law because the Bible says that murder is sin. Now, in getting back to our minister and his sermon on kneeling while in prayer, he would have to come up with a text to defend this. Let us say he uses Psalm 95:6, “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the LORD our maker.” See, when we come before God we are to kneel down. This seems biblical enough. When we pray, we should kneel before the Lord our Maker. “See,” says the minister, “this proves kneeling has been the position to pray in for thousands of years.” And then the minister goes on to prove that Christians should do the same. He is attempting to bind the conscience of the Christian to action with the Bible. Christians, from hence forth, should kneel while praying. Now, I ask you reader, is this right? Should you kneel, and only kneel, in prayer? The answer to this is not an opinionated “yes” or “no.” The answer to this, and every action that the minister would attempt to bind the conscience by, should be lifted out of a careful exegetical contemplation of the Word of God. We might ask, is there any other place in the Bible that talks about praying and the posture of praying? Why, yes there is! For instance in 2 Kings 20:2, Hezekiah, in bed, ill, and upon death, did the following, “Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the LORD, saying…” It seems Hezekiah prayed while laying on his side. Should this be the model? God, as a matter of fact, answered Hezekiah’s prayer and gave him an additional 15 years of life. Well, praying on one’s side seems to enact extraordinary blessing! Or what of Abraham’s servant? Genesis 24:11-12, “And he made his camels to kneel down without the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water. And he said, O LORD God of my master Abraham, I pray thee, send me good speed this day, and shew kindness unto my master Abraham.” The servant of Abraham had him camel kneel down and then prayed while sitting on him (possibly?). Or what shall we say of this prayer: “Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly…” in Jonah 2:1? This would be difficult indeed to find a giant fish, crawl into his belly, and pray every morning in such a manner. Or shall we follow the Lord of glory and pray as He did? Matthew 26:39 says, “And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Jesus prayed prostrate. That means he was laying on the ground face down and prayed. Is this the proper position? What of the publican and the Pharisee? In Luke 18:11-13 it says, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” The publican praying “standing”. Maybe this is the position to pray in? Now I think at this point you have come to see the light. If the minister of the Gospel was to attempt to preach a sermon on the posture of prayer, he should then take into account all this information and come to a conclusion that the posture can vary. Kneeling in prayer is not the only option. But, it would be exceedingly wrong, it would be sin, to bind the conscience of a Christian with a sermon that says kneeling is the only way to pray. I hope you see this point clearly.

In what I have said so far, I hope you are becoming aware of the intricacies involved in Christian liberty and the manner of conscience before God. We are to possess good, clean consciences before God in all we do. Acts 23:1 says, “And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” 1 Peter 3:16 says, “Having a good conscience…” Paul also said in Acts 24:16, “And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.” This is a very important verse. Our conscience should be void of any amount of offence towards God and towards men. That means all we do is based on a kind of faith that is clean and pure before God. For “whatever is not of faith is sin,” (Romans 14:23); in other words, whatever is not of the faith (or body of sound doctrine found in the Bible) and from the understanding we possess before God, the light that we have by the Bible, if we act without it knowing otherwise, it is sin to us.

How are our consciences to be bound? The Word of God, and our understanding of the Word of God bind them. No one, at any time, should impose anything upon any Christian unless it can be incontrovertibly proven out of the Bible. The Bible alone, God’s Word, dictates to us the laws and duties we are to follow. In other words, Jesus Christ alone is able to bind our consciences through His commands and precepts found in the Word of God. James 4:12 says, “There is one lawgiver…” That Lawgiver is Jesus Christ. Barnes says, “There is but one who has a right to give law. The reference here is undoubtedly to the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Legislator of the church. This, too, is a most important and vital principle, though one that has been most imperfectly understood and acted on. The tendency everywhere has been to enact other laws than those appointed by Christ — the laws of synods and councils — and to claim that Christians are bound to observe them, and should be punished if they do not. But it is a fundamental principle in Christianity that no laws are binding on the conscience, but those which Christ has ordained; and that all attempts to make other laws pertaining to religion binding on the conscience is a usurpation of his prerogatives. The church is safe while it adheres to this as a settled principle; it is not safe when it submits to any legislation in religious matters as binding the conscience.”[4] He also says, “All addition to the law of God is evil, Matthew 15:3. All ceremonies in religion which are not authorized by the New Testament are wrong. Man has no right to ordain rites to bind the conscience where God has commanded none, Colossians 2:23. People come the nearest to that which is right when they live nearest to just what God has commanded in the Bible.”[5] This seems to be quite simple, but sometimes it can become very confusing to new Christians because they have an inadequate understanding to a systematic approach to the Bible. They do not have all their facts, and simply trust the word of a friend or minister instead of taking the needful time to study and understand what a given topic may comprehend. In such instances, their consciences may be bound to things that are unneedful. Such was the case in Colossae and in Rome.

In dealing with weaker brethren, Paul, in both the letters to the Colossians and the Romans, dealt with those who were weak in the faith and their desire to keep more of the law, and bind their consciences to actions surrounding keeping the law, in order to prove they were true Christians. Let me first quote Romans at length: Romans 14:1-23, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: “As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.”[6]

In this passage we have a very interesting problem. Weak Jewish Christians in the church at Rome believed that by keeping certain aspects of the ceremonial law, they assured their own salvation, i.e. dietary laws (even some that were not stated in the law at all – like being vegetarians) certain festivals and days held in regard by the nation state of Israel when it was theocratic. They demonstrated they were keeping in step with patriotism (something left over from the Maccabaean Revolt), that they were externally pure by ritual, and completely devoted to God and His people. Not that by doing such things were they justified – this never enters into the conversation. God accepts these brethren, as Paul states, but simply ignorant of the fuller reality of life by faith in Christ. The Pauline exhortation was social, surrounding the need to judge correctly, or rather, allow Christ to judge at the last day, instead of judging by external matters now – something we all have a habit of doing. These weak brothers criticized those who did not do the same rituals as they did and looked down on other enlightened Jewish Christians and Gentile converts (those Paul recognizes as strong). These weaker brothers were not lost, but simply misinformed and ignorant about the complete body of doctrine that the stronger had accepted. Yet (and this is most amazing) either group (strong or weak) was not to judge one another, for God had accepted them both. Their consciences were both bound by their personal understanding and this called for love, not judgment. Sandley says, ““weakness in faith” means an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ; the consequence of which will be an anxious desire to make this salvation more certain by the scrupulous fulfillment of formal rules.”[7] Douglas Moo comments, “The weak were mainly Jewish Christians who refrained from certain kinds of food and observed certain days out of continuing loyalty to the Mosaic ceremonial law. (Scholarship agrees: Calvin, Wilckens, Cranfield, Dunn, Segal, Tomson, Watson, Bartsch.) In verse 2, “eats only vegetables” – they decided to avoid eating meat altogether out of a concern to maintain Old Testament laws of purity in a pagan context where “kosher” meat was not easily obtained.”[8] Conscience then dictates the manner of eating here, not the Bible. There were no biblical directives one way or another pertaining to being a vegetarian if one so desired. That was up to the personal conscience and not the minister of the Gospel or a friend to dictate. Gordon makes the point well, “If there is no distinction between what is lawful for an individual and what is lawful for the church to require of everyone, then Paul’s discussions in 1 Corinthians 7–9 and Romans 14 make no sense. Such texts presuppose, and in fact positively teach, that there are things an individual may freely do which cannot be required of others.”[9]

These weaker Christians, though they have a conscience bound by their own convictions, are still acknowledged to be “weaker.” Black says, “Both 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 refer to the weak in the church who lack the full knowledge of faith, expressed in ascetic and legalistic behavior. While Paul’s sympathies very clearly lie with the weak, he admits that they are still immature and need to grow in knowledge and faith.”[10] This does not mean they have been excluded by Christ or that they are lesser Christians – not at all. It simply means that at the point they were at on non-essential “virtues” they were weak in their understanding of what Christ had fully accomplished on their behalf. They thought they had more to do in order to “prove themselves” as Christians. These weaker Christians missed the important concept that the kingdom is not about “eating and drinking” but fullness of joy in Christ. Toussaint says, “Several passages are used from Paul’s epistles to argue for a present form of the kingdom. Romans 14:17 is one such passage, “… for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Ladd states, “The Word of God does say that the kingdom of God is a present spiritual reality,” and then he quotes Romans 14:17 to prove his point. He goes on to say, “Righteousness and peace and joy are fruits of the Spirit which God bestows now upon those who yield their lives to the rule of the Spirit.” This interpretation is fortified by the present tense “is” (εστιν, “estin”).”[11] This is the reality of the Kingdom, but some are attempting to impinge the liberty that the Christian has in Christ by adding extra things to bind the conscience. Freedom is lost when this happens. Calvin says, “But liberty is not only attacked, but entirely overthrown, when a spiritual law to bind the conscience is imposed upon us.”[12] As Bushnell also says, “The weak man should be accepted as the Christian brother he claims to be. One should not judge the thoughts which underlie his conduct. This is for God alone to do.”[13]

Harrison also makes a noteworthy comment in explaining the reaction of the stronger to the weaker brother. He says, “Another, weak in his faith, confines his diet to vegetables. No reason is advanced for this self-limitation. It could have been due to ascetic zeal. Some modern vegetarians believe they are healthier for not eating meat. Others have scruples about eating anything that has been consciously alive (perhaps unaware of research tending to establish that plants also have sensation). But the motive is a personal matter, and for that reason Paul does not make it an issue. He is solely concerned with specific practice and the reaction of the strong to this practice. The omnivorous man is apt to “look down” on the weak brother, an attitude that is not conducive to full fellowship. The weak brother may retaliate by condemning the one who has no inhibitions about his food. If so, the latter needs to reflect on the fact that God has accepted (same word as in v. 1) this man (v. 3).[14]

In summarizing the tensions here and applying them to our own life as a result of this passage, Calvin brilliantly says of the weak Christians, “That they were imbued with these notions, was an evidence of their weakness; they would have thought otherwise, had they possessed a certain and a clear knowledge of Christian liberty. But in abstaining from what they thought to be unlawful, they evidenced piety, as it would have been a proof of presumption and contempt, had they done anything contrary to the dictates of conscience. Here then the Apostle applies the best rule, when he bids every one to be fully assured as to his own mind; by which he intimates that there ought to be in Christians such a care for obedience, that they do nothing, except what they think, or rather feel assured, is pleasing to God. And this ought to be thoroughly borne in mind, that it is the first principle of a right conduct, that men should be dependent on the will of God, and never allow themselves to move even a finger, while the mind is doubtful and vacillating; for it cannot be otherwise, but that rashness will soon pass over into obstinacy when we dare to proceed further than what we are persuaded is lawful for us. If any object and say, that infirmity is ever perplexing, and that hence such certainty as Paul requires cannot exist in the weak: to this the plain answer is, — That such are to be pardoned, if they keep themselves within their own limits. For Paul’s purpose was none other than to restrain undue liberty, by which it happens, that many thrust themselves, as it were, at random, into matters which are doubtful and undetermined. Hence Paul requires this to be adopted, — that the will of God is to preside over all our actions.”[15] This should be something all Christians meditate upon frequently.

After having briefly looked at the Romans passage, I would like to turn our attention to a similar problem at Colossae. I do not desire to give an in-depth analysis of this passage, but simply state the obvious. Colossians 2:16-17 states, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” We know, as with Romans, that this has nothing to do with the moral law (the Ten Commandments) which is binding on all men for all time. In verse 16 we find that there was an essentially Jewish faction in Colossae who were deeply critical of Gentile Christian failure to observe the Jewish food laws. The Christian Gentiles must have wholly thought of themselves as saved Christians due to the criticism of the Jewish faction. Christian Jews would not live in mutual respect for these Gentiles unless they did keep these dietary laws. Paul is affirming to Gentiles that they are not to be judged in these matters (“you know who they are” is the Greek tis (tis) of the phrase). The three terms Paul uses are “imprecise” and could be a reference to a variety of “days” celebrated. Eorth (eortay) “Festival” is unspecific; such festivals or feasts are common in every society. The term is not used anywhere in the New Testament to refer to a “Jewish” feast. The second term, “neomania” (neomhnia) is equally unclear. Most ancient societies celebrated “new moons.” However, the third word “sabbath” puts this beyond doubt. Covenant belonging was distinct between Gentiles and Jews. To keep various ceremonial sabbaths was part of the Jewish identity covenant. It refers not to the days, but the covenant status of the Jews as an identifier. The Jews in Colossae, then, were not taking the Gentiles seriously since they were disregarding “covenant” status (an already misinformed idea in the Jewish mindset).

In verse 17 we find the response Paul gives to this Jewish ranting; it is quick and brief. Such practices are “shadows of the things to come, but the reality is with Christ.” “Things to come” is a participle pointing to the age to come; i.e. the reality surrounding Jesus Christ and His kingdom’s consummation. The definite article here adds a great amount of weight to the argument – “of Christ, or belongs to Christ.” Christ is the fulfillment of the Jewish eschatological hope. Christ embodies the heavenly reality that lies beyond and sustains the perceptible cosmos. But also, Christ is the substance to the shadows of Jewish food laws and feasts; he is the reality that casts its shadow back in time; they are inferior provisional copies whose inadequacy is now evident in the light of the real. The claim is bold and should be noted, only makes sense as a response to and fulfillment of Jewish eschatological expectation. The word “soma” or body, (soma) is used throughout the epistle as a play on words; a play on the body (1:18, 2:10 – “head of every rule and authority.”) As Christ embodies the ultimate reality, the divine wisdom and rationality which holds the cosmos together, so he is the reality reflected imperfectly in the rules and festivals by which Jewish social life and times were structured. The church should embody the same reality – not the shadows. Thus, Colossae is to move forward not back into that which is fulfilled and realized in the eschatological Christ.

The point in Colossians 2:16-17 is the same as Romans: the personal conviction of extra-biblical non-essentials is not binding on Christian Liberty. Each should, by his own conviction partake or not partake of the food. Neither the weak nor strong, however, should judge one another.

In looking at these two passages, we see that Christian liberty and the binding of our consciences has direct implications on our actions and the manner in which we understand the Word. Non-essentials are not binding, and ultimately detract from the full reality one has in freedom with Christ. But there is no cause for the stronger brothers in a given church, even a pastor, to dominate the Christian’s thinking with something that would hinder their conscience if it is not directly spoken about in the Word of God. Otherwise, Christians become dictators, and ministers could take up the role of popery very easily.

Now that we have some foundation in the Word of God for understanding the role of conscience, we should be very clear on the manner in which a conscience can be bound. Simply, the conscience can only be bound to action before Jesus Christ by truths in the Bible. I think it would be helpful to look at what the Westminster Confession of Faith outlines as an acceptable doctrine of Christian Liberty. It summarizes the doctrine in a few paragraphs. Here is the first, “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 childlike 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.”[16] What is expressly mentioned here is the freedom we have from the Law Covenant to work out our own salvation – our sanctification in particular – something we can never do on our own. Rather, we are free in the power of Christ to serve Him and love Him forever. We have access to Him, and are freed from the acts of the ceremonial law (like the dietary laws in Romans 14 and Colossians 2).

In the next paragraph, the WCF says, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.” This is a key paragraph for our own study. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He alone has the right to command anything of it to be believed. Calvin is in agreement with this notion as stated in his Institutes. “Since by means of this privilege of liberty which we have described, believers have derived authority from Christ not to entangle themselves by the observance of things in which he wished them to be free, we conclude that their consciences are exempted from all human authority.” It is a waste of time for the Christian to consider being bound by anything other than the Word. If a pastor or friend cannot turn to a passage to glean a command or precept from it for your benefit, you have no biblical warrant to believe them, even if they believe it is good and wise advice. 1 Corinthians 10:29 says, “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience?” Paul’s rhetoric is pointing to the fact that his conscience should not be bound by another’s opinion, but by the Word. A. A. Hodge says about this paragraph, “God alone is the Lord of human conscience, which is responsible only to his authority. God has authoritatively addressed the human conscience only in his law, the only perfect revelation of which in this world is the inspired Scriptures. Hence God himself has set the human conscience free from all obligation to believe or obey any such doctrines or commandments of men as are either contrary to or aside from the teachings of that Word. Hence, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments as a matter of conscience, is to be guilty of the sin of betraying the liberty of conscience and its loyalty to its only Lord; and to require such obedience of others is to be guilty of the sin of usurping the prerogative of God and attempting to destroy the most precious liberties of men.”[17] This is poignant, but he continues with a more explicit statement, “That it is a great sin, involving at the same time sacrilege and treason to the human race, for any man or set of men to arrogate the prerogative of God and to attempt to bind the consciences of their fellow man by any obligation not certainly imposed by God and revealed in his Word. At the same time it is a sin of disloyalty to God, and a violation of our own nature as moral and rational beings, to yield to any such imposition, and to accept as a matter truly binding the conscience anything not authoritatively taught and imposed in the Scriptures.”[18] An example may suit us. For those who are familiar with Jonathan Edwards, he wore a wig while preaching – one of those white judicial sorts, powdered and all. Solomon Stoddard, his grandfather preached on the need to get rid of wigs, and that they are unlawful especially to wear while preaching. Edwards was sitting in the front row while this sermon was given. It was his custom to wear those wigs. What did he do the next week? Did he listen to his grandfather? Next week, Edwards had on his wig and preached a fine sermon. If he had given it up, he would have violated his conscience. Hopefully you did not miss the point here.

Gordon Clark rightly comments on this section of the WCF saying, “The [21st] century church in America seems to have fallen into a curious self-contradiction. The lust for power and control over men and organizations has produced an almost papal claim to authority on the part of bureaucratic ecclesiastical officials [he is referring to pastors]. When the majority speaks (and the officials manipulate the ma­jority) it is the voice of God. Yet with all this unscriptural claim to authority, the officials and their obedient servants are horrified at the thought of censuring or excommunicating a minister who denies the virgin birth or the resurrection. No doubt such a thought strikes too close to home. Some years ago a young man presented himself to a presby­tery for ordination. As he was known to believe that the boards and agencies of that church were infiltrated with modernism, he was asked whether he would support the boards and agencies. He replied that he would support them insofar as they were true to the Bible. This answer did not please presbytery, and he was asked if he would support the boards regardless of what they did. When the young man declined to make any such blind promise, the presbytery refused to ordain him.”[19] It may be good to make an evaluation about your own church in this way. This is the road to legalism. He continues, “There are also Christian colleges which forbid their students to go to the movies. If the argument were that the students ought to spend twenty hours reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, instead of seeing it in three, the prohibition might have a certain literary justification. But I am afraid this regulation did not originate in any alert English department. Of course, there is a lot of filth in the movies, and a lot of silly nonsense too. But there are also filthy books, yet the reading of books is not prohibited. Such is the inconsistency one falls into when one decides to improve on the Bible. These people are in general afraid of Christian liberty. They think it leads to sin. Dominoes is supposed to tempt people to gamble. Of course, such is not the case. Many families with their children have played dominoes without giving a thought to gam­bling. Nor does Christian liberty lead to sin. The activities objected to are not sins—they are not forbidden by Scripture. Further, the Confession states plainly that Christian liberty must not be used as an excuse for sin, for the purpose of this liberty is “that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies (who would glory in our flesh) we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.”[20]

Let us become a bit more practical for a moment. The cults today bind people’s consciences by what they say because it sounds good to the weak minded who are listening. When cults have a corner on truth, they lord it over people to bind their conscience with what they need for manipulative purposes. One cult leader (Jim Jones) said, “Unless you obey me, you are not doing the will of “God.” Obedience, though, is not at the hand of the man, but in the Word of God. For instance, the role of elder is very important to the church. Elders are those men who are gifted in exegetical work, and in pastoral care, to watch over the flock of Christ until Christ returns. What authority do they have to bind the conscience? Before you answer, let me ask it with reference to the Apostle Paul. If the Apostle Paul says something, or preaches something, on his missionary journeys, should the hearers simply lay down before him and accept his teaching at face value? Absolutely not!! Let me give you an example of this in Acts 17:11, “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” The Bereans were born with silver spoons in their mouths. The word “noble” does not refer to their state after studying the Bible, but before. They were those educated who had the tools, those of “nobility”, to properly exegete the Bible, or Old Testament Scriptures at the time. They studied to see if what Paul said was true. They did not accept the apostle’s word at face value, and neither should any Christian. When the pastor says “you should listen to the Word of God on such and such a matter,” that is completely acceptable, and it is the duty of the Christian to check to see if what the pastor said is true. Hopefully, by their diligent study they have given you the meaning of the text, or the principles from the text correctly. Pastors are fallible, sinful, imperfect men who make mistakes. Certainly they are respected (not revered or venerated) for their office. But they are not perfect, not by a long shot. And they would be the first to admit that! So, the Christian’s conscience cannot be bound by a pastor unless he is faithfully teaching them what God is saying in His word. Now, if the pastor were to say “You need to obey us because we are in the position of authority and Christ has put us here,” my answer to that is a theological term I like to use “hogwash!” Such statements from pastors are nonsense, to say the least. Are they wise? Not with that kind of a statement! But generally speaking, are Pastors wise? Maybe. Hopefully! That all depends on how you define “wisdom.” Wisdom is the right application of knowledge. If pastors are going to apply the knowledge of the Bible correctly, they will use wisdom, and consequently they will be wise for applying the Biblical text to a given situation. If they are not applying the Bible, then what they say is simply “advice.” It can be taken or left depending upon your own conscience and how you understand a given situation. Let me use an example. 11 years ago I knew two young people who were Christians for about 4 years. They met, knew they were meant for each other, and desired to be married in the same day. They were utterly persuaded that God had placed them together. They were engaged 3 three weeks later, and married after 6 months. They are still together today happily married and without the least sign of trouble in their marriage by way of divorce. They have an uncommon union, and are wholly devoted to the Gospel and to Christ, and to one another. They give all glory to Christ for the success of their marriage. Now, let us imagine these two young born-again Christians, a week after they met, received counsel by 30 friends and one pastor. Let us say these 30 friends asked “Are you both out of your mind?” Suffice it to say, the friends disapproved of their “lack of wisdom” in the matter. Then, in counseling with a pastor, the pastor said they should not get married. It is simply too soon. I mean, from the story, even you, the reader, are aghast at the short length of time these “unwise” Christians took to become engage, or even think about being engaged! They met one week ago! However, we must not let our emotions overrule our good judgment. Now, what is binding on their conscience? Both the friends and the pastor said they should not be married. Is this a biblical command? Not at all. A case could even be made from using 1 Cor. 7:9 against their advice, “but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” The two that just met who have fallen madly in “love” could be hot with passion, chaste, but burning. What do they do? Paul says marry. The Bible says marry. The friends and pastor say, “Don’t do it!” Where does Christian conscience lie? Well, besides making that argument, let’s simply stick with conscience. The two are sitting before the pastor. The young man take sup his role as the representative on behalf of himself and his girl. Here is their conversation:

Pastor: You cannot be serious. How could you want to marry so quickly?

Young Man: Do you believe God could have providentially put us together?

P: Well, possibly. But equally true, God could simply be testing your wisdom.

YM: How do you mean?

P: You should be wise in your actions before God. Proverbs talks about wisdom over and over. It is an important theme in the Bible.

YM: How do you know that our being married is not wise?

P: It is just too fast.

YM: Where does the Bible say it is too fast?

P: Well, there is no Scripture to say it is to fast or too slow. It is simply wise to wait until you know one another better.

YM: Says who?

P: Well, let me ask you, what did your friends say?

YM: They said we are crazy.

P: What do I say?

YM: You also think we are crazy, but did not really use those words. You said we should wait until we know one another better, whatever “better” means.

P: So should you?

YM: No.

P: Why not?!

YM: Because there is nothing in the Bible to bind my conscience to this one way or the other. It certainly may be that I should wait, but I do not think so. We do not think so. We have spent night and day together for the last week talking on the phone. That is more time than I spend with good friends in six months. I know her well and she knows me well. I have listened to the counsel of 30 friends and your counsel as well, our pastor. But none of you have given us anything but “good” advice. And might I ask, what makes advice “good” or “bad”?

P: Well, advice is a tricky thing. Since we do not have any Scriptures to really rest on, we simply have life experience.

YM: Ok, how “good” is your life experience in this matter? What does life experience tell you?

P: I have seen people married quickly that both failed and worked.

YM: What about those who dated or courted for a long time, did they all work out?

P: No, the same went for them; some are married some are not.

YM: Why then is my life experience bad and your good?

P: Let me give you an example of the way I went about finding my wife.


P: In looking for a wife, I watched my “to be” wife from afar off in church for about 1 year. I wanted to see her interaction with people, with God, etc. in the congregation. Then, after I knew her walk as a Christian, and whether she would be a good wife, I asked her to marry me, and so she did.

YM: Well, we both know we are Christians, and our friends attest to that. So we have that going for us. But let me ask you, how did you know your current wife would be a good wife by simply watching her – was she someone else’s wife first?

P: Oh no, not at all.

YM: Well then, if she had not been anyone’s wife, how did you know she would be a good wife until you were married and found out by experience?

P: She knew the Bible on what being a wife is all about.

YM: Well, if my fiancé knows, and I know, the roles of husband and wife biblically stated, what does the time difference matter?

P: It matters. And I, as your pastor, am against it.

YM: I am not sure what you mean.

P: I am the authority in this church, one placed here by Christ. You should listen to my advice and take it, and call this off for a while.

YM: I must ask, where in the Bible does it say that your advice should be heeded without the Word of God? Isn’t that a violation of Sola Scriptura? That seems cultic to me. It seems we are still resting on “advice” and our own views on life experience. I even know of a couple of Bible passages where people had not even met, and the next day they were married – and that’s rushing it for us!

P: I suppose you would be meaning Isaac and Rebecca, for one.

YM: Yes, that would be one of them. They were married the next day and Isaac is said to have gone in and “loved her.” I am not saying I want to be married tomorrow, but by what measuring stick will we judge the allotted amount of time?

P: Well, there really is no formal measuring stick, but we want to be wise in our judgment and that means we should gather enough knowledge to be sure in our conscience that we are doing what is good and acceptable before God.

YM: You have not answered the question. Is there a time limit that is acceptable?

P: It is different for everyone.

YM: OK, then, what if men have different opinions about our conclusions that we have drawn? Should we follow our consciences or men’s advice?

P: You should follow your conscience as it is bound by the Word of God. Even if men differ.

YM: Then, pastor, thank you so much for your time. You have helped greatly. We will keep our plans the same, and marry in six months.[21]

Some of you reading this may not like that very much (especially some pastors who counsel often). Truly, some young couples have made bad choices in marriage. But at the same time, this young couple made a choice that has lasted them 11 years, going strong. Did they make an imprudent decision? In keeping in step with the pastors good advice, the answer is no; no matter what others believe, they are bound wither by conscience or the Word of God dictating conscience. But no one reading this could possibly say that their decision was against or contrary to the Word of God. Wisdom, in this instance, is relative to what the couple knew and understood about marriage, about themselves, about prudence, and the like. They have more of a warrant to be married by Biblical command and example, than by waiting. That is a hard pill for many to swallow, but I think this illustration really hits home to press the point that only the Word of God can bind the conscience and laws made by men, or authority pressed on men is illegitimately given if not captivated by Christ’s commands. Calvin says, “we do not simply say, that everything which men have delivered to us ought to be rejected; but we deny that we ought to obey the laws of men, when they bind the conscience without any necessity.”[22] John Gill says, “Hence nothing can bind the conscience but the law and will of God; it is God’s vicegerent, acts for and under him, and receives its authority and instructions from him, and is accountable to him, and to no other; it is a debtor to him, and owes obedience to his will; it is constrained by it, laid under a necessity to observe it, and cannot do otherwise: let men say what they will to the contrary, or be clothed with what authority they may, parents, masters, magistrates, have no power over children, servants, and subjects to oblige them to what is contrary to the dictates of conscience, according to the will of God; no laws of men are binding on conscience, which are not according to, or are contrary to the law and will of God; “We ought to obey God, rather than men”, is the determination of the apostles of Christ, Acts 4:19,20 5:29.”[23]

Why are men or ministers not allowed to bind the conscience of a Christian without the Word? George Downname, in a book devoted to Christian Liberty, say this, “Now that the laws of men do not bind the conscience, it may further appear by these reasons: first, because our freedom from the laws judicial and ceremonial, which in the Scriptures is extolled for so great a benefit, if we should in like manner be bound to the ecclesiastical and civil laws of men. Again, if they did bind the conscience, there would be no difference between God’s laws and man’s laws (in respect of outward actions) and the one sort would require simple obedience as well as the other, yea unlawful commandments would also bind the conscience…to the laws of men we are not bound…now the laws of men easily appeareth with this distinction: for either they command such things as God forbiddeth, and forbid such things as he commandeth…or lastly, they command such things that God hath not forbidden, and forbid such things as God hath not commanded.”[24] If we were simply to grasp this point, Christian Liberty would ring for every believer as loudly as the Liberty Bell. Ministers are to humbly serve, not lord over the flock. Jonathan Edwards says, “It is to be wondered at, that such a church, at this time of day, after the cause of liberty in matters of conscience has been so abundantly defended’ should arrogate to herself such a kind of authority over the consciences of both ministers and people, and use it in such a manner, by such severity, to establish that, which is not only contrary to the liberty of Christians, wherewith Christ has made them free; but so directly contrary to her own professed principles, acts, and resolutions, entered on public record.”[25] John Gerstner says about Edwards view on this, “The question of ecclesiastical organization and authority interested Edwards from his youth. In a number of early Miscellanies he wrestled with this theme. In one of the very first, written probably before he was twenty, Edwards says: Ministers are not properly “governors” but only “leaders.” They do not make laws. If they made laws they would be dethroning Christ.”[26] He goes on to say, “ministers only administer the laws of Christ and cannot bind the conscience itself.” How clear may this be? Even Charles Hodge clearly says, “There is a strong tendency in men to treat, as matters of conscience, things which God has never enjoined. Wherever this disposition has been indulged or submitted to, it has resulted in bringing one class of men under the most degrading bondage to another; and in the still more serious evil of leading them to disregard the authority of God.”[27] Ministers should be exceedingly careful in counseling, preaching and giving advice. They should be exceedingly forthwith stating that their advice is only that, and nothing more, if it is not bound to the Word of God, or principles in the Word of God, lest they become “gods” over us and dethrone the Lord Jesus in the process. This can be a very hurtful time for weak brothers receiving poor counsel. That is why the Puritans and Reformers belabored this and exclamated its importance in understanding Christian liberty. Calvin makes this poignant, “Men cannot bind the conscience under pain of mortal sin for not in vain does God insist on being regarded as the only lawgiver, saying, (James 4:12,) that it is for him to condemn and acquit, nor in vain does he so often reiterate, that we are not to add to his ordinances.”[28]

To touch briefly upon government and liberty in relation to the laws of mankind, Calvin says, “but that no law of practice is to be brought in, which may bind the conscience in its snares; for that Christ is the only legislator to whom we: owe obedience.”[29] The civil magistrate has no lawful authority to bind the conscience unless it is by willful consent and/or Biblically sound. To create a law against biblically based faith and conscience is not binding. The electors in penning the Augsburg confession (consenting with Melancthon’s work on the document) said this, “Let us reject this decree,” said the princes. “In matters of conscience the majority has no power.”[30] They did not listen to the king, but listened to the Bible. For anyone to impinge a law upon the Christian’s conscience is to overthrow the Gospel. As John Owen says, “But these things stand not in the relation imagined. Liberty of conscience is of natural right, Christian liberty is a gospel privilege, though both may be pleaded in unwarrantable impositions on conscience.”[31] My Liberty is a Gospel privilege which Christ died for!

Before I end, I must give a warning. Christian Liberty is never given a license to sin, or to act foolishly. In sin, it would be to violate any prescribed law or Scriptures treating the subject. That must never be violated lest we sin against God and Christ. In acting foolishly, we ought never to disregard the advice of others, as wise or foolish as it may be, as steward before God. But we may, and should, consider all advice and then by way of conscience we should make a decision as closely associated with the Biblical principles of godliness as we know how. This should be done so that our consciences are those unfeigned before God in every area. We should be free from guilt before Christ, before men and before our better judgment.

I end this brief inquiry by quoting the WCF 20:4, where they speak to the sinful destruction of Christian Liberty. May we come to understand the manner of our liberty and the matters of conscience that surround us daily in Christ and for the Kingdom. “And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. [and by the power of the civil magistrate.][32]




[1] Chapter 20, WCF.

[2] D’Aubigne, Merle, History of the Reformation, Page 631. Emphasis Mine.

[3] Gerstner, John, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 3. Page 22.

[4] Barnes, Albert, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Volume 17, Page 126.

[5] Ibid, Volume 12, Page 324.

[6] James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, Romans 9-16, Vol. 38b. For a more technical discussion of this passage read the following which are of note: Following the initial statement of the problem (vv 1–2), the main thrust of the first paragraph (vv 3–12) is directed chiefly to “the weak in faith” and against the tendency to judge the less scrupulous brother (krivnw [vv 3–5, 10]). The parallel with the sequence of thought in chap. 2 is striking and probably deliberate (cf. Meeks, “Judgment,” 296)—rebuke against judging (krivnein) others (2:1–3; 14:3–4, 10), followed by a reminder that all must face the judgment of God (2:16; 14:10–12); see also on 14:4. The implication is thus strengthened that what is in view is a typically Jewish perspective of the believer who wants to stay firmly within the law as traditionally understood. “the one who is weak in faith,” is of course a somewhat pejorative description—a nickname given by others, rather than by the individuals in view. In this case the weakness is trust in God plus dietary and festival laws, trust in God dependent on observance of such practices, a trust in God which leans on the crutches of particular customs and not on God alone, as though they were an integral part of that trust. So also 1 Cor 8:7, 9–10 and 9:22. Kirk suggests the best rendering of the contrast is “adaptable” and “rigid” (on 15:1). “but the weak eats (only) vegetables.” It is significant that Paul does not repeat the pisteuvein in this clause: whereas “eating everything” is an expression of faith (unconditional trust in God), to eat only vegetables Paul does not regard as an expression of faith as such. lavcanon, mostly in the plural, refers to “garden herbs,” in distinction from wild plants, and so “vegetables” (LSJ, MM). In the OT—Gen 9:3; 1 Kgs 21 [LXX 20]:2; Ps 37 [LXX 36]:2; and Prov 15:17; in the NT—Mark 4:32 par. and Luke 11:42. The practice of vegetarianism for religious or philosophic reasons was quite well known in the ancient world; e.g., the (neo-)Pythagoreans as attested by Diogenes Laertius 8.38 and Philostratus, Vita Apol. 1.8 (see material collected in TDNT 2:690; Lietzmann; Rauer, 138–64; Michel, 419–20; Cranfield, 693 n.5; Wilckens, 3:112). On the basis of these data a specifically Jew-Gentile controversy is disputed (e.g., by Gaugler; Kümmel, Introduction, 310–11; and Vielhauer, Geschichte, 180–81), and Rauer, 164–69, argues that “the weak” are gentile Christians still influenced by their previous background in Gnostic, Hellenistic mystery religions. But here Paul must have at least the dietary rules of Jews and Jewish Christians in view, whatever other practices can be included within its sweep. The whole letter is oriented to the issue of Jew and Gentile, and how they stand in relation to the gospel and to each other (see Introduction §4.2) The terms of the discussion itself (14:1–15:6) are most clearly applicable to particularly Jewish concerns. The talk of “clean” (kaqarov”—v 20) and especially “unclean” (koinov”—v 14) is characteristically and in the latter case distinctively Jewish (see on 14:14 and 14:20; with regard to abstinence from wine see on 14:21). And the concern about festivals is equally characteristic of Judaism (see on 14:5). Set alongside these characteristic emphases of “covenantal nomism,” Paul’s counteremphasis on faith (14:1, 2, 22–23) is not at all surprising and fits into the overall argument of the letter far more closely than has usually been perceived. Too little appreciated in discussions of the passage is the considerable importance of dietary laws for Jews of this period. It was not simply that the laws of clean and unclean food were so clearly stated in the Torah (Lev 11:1–23; Deut 14:3–21). Also and even more important was the fact that the Maccabean crisis had made observance of these laws a test of Jewishness, a badge of loyalty to covenant and nation (1 Macc 1:62–63; cf. 2 Macc 5:27; and with reference to an earlier period Josephus, Ant. 11.346). This was reinforced by the accounts of heroes of the faith popular in the diaspora. Their success was in large measure dependent on their faithfulness in the matter of the food laws, their loyalty to God as expressed in their refusal to eat the food of Gentiles (Dan 1:3–16; 10:3; Tob 1:10–12; Jud 12:2, 19; Add Esth 14:17; Jos. As. 7.1; 8.5); for other references see, e.g., Schlier and Wilckens. Jewish scruples on these matters were well known in the ancient world, with Jewish refusal to eat pork quite frequently commented on (e.g., Diodorus 34–35.1.4; Philo, Leg. 361; Erotianus, frag.; Plutarch, Quaest. Conviv. 4.5; Tacitus, Hist. 4.2; Juvenal, Sat. 14.98; texts apart from Philo in GLAJJ §§63, 196, 258, 281, 301). That is to say, dietary rules constituted one of the clearest boundary markers which distinguished Jews from Gentiles and which were recognized as such; Paul, however, is probably thinking of the whole complex of food laws together, and so expresses the issue in terms which would cover them all (see also 14:21). The one who does not eat evidently regards not eating as of crucial importance in maintaining the relationship with God, so that eating becomes an act unacceptable to God, an act, that is to say, which merits divine condemnation. This is fully equivalent to the attitude of “the righteous” within the various sects of Judaism at the time, who regarded the nonobservers of such customs as “sinners” (see Dunn, “Sinners”; and on 1:17 and 9:6) and confirms the probability that what was in view here was an understanding of covenant loyalty among the Jewish Christians in Rome which still counted observance of dietary traditions as of fundamental importance in maintaining the distinctiveness of the people of God’s favor. Their list of essential marks of the people of God included items which others regarded as matters of indifference (cf. v 5). The temptation facing them was that they would actually regard the nonobservers as non-Christians (cf. particularly Nababan, 39–40). This seems to be the situation to which Paul turns at this point. In other words, he is not simply drawing together a few apposite lessons of general reference from his experience elsewhere; in which case he would hardly have given the issue the climactic and inordinately lengthy treatment which he devotes to it (four times as long as any other single subject in these chapters). On the contrary, he recognizes a crisis confronting the congregations in Rome of some magnitude: the danger of a split which could have Jewish believers so alarmed by the abandonment of the old yardsticks of covenant loyalty that they lost their faith in Christ; the danger that a law-free Christianity might cut itself off from its Jewish roots and influence by crass insensitivity. The advice Paul gives is marked by great pastoral sensitivity and is of much wider relevance than to this issue alone—of relevance wherever concerns to maintain old traditions come into conflict with concerns for a less traditional expression of the gospel. In verses 1-2 Paul’s initial advice sets the tone. The more dominant group, who already sit light to food laws and sabbaths, should not attempt to impose their views on “the weak in faith.” To be noted at once is the characterization of those who feel the traditional Jewish customs to be too important to give up, as “weak.” They might well feel somewhat insulted by the label. Were they not rather demonstrating the strength of their principles?—the same strength of devotion as had been shown by Daniel and the Maccabees. But Paul is quite clear that the position they hold to is one characterized by a deficiency in faith. By implication they are putting too much weight on the outward form of the covenant people (2:17–29); too much weight on their physical (fleshly) membership of Israel (13:14); they are not living out of complete dependence on God like father Abraham (4:19–21). Paul is in no doubt: the attitude thus expressed is deficient, “weak.” In verses 10-12 The conclusion is clear. Neither of the different groups in Rome have any right to pass judgment on the other, any right to make slighting or condemnatory remarks about those who disagree with them within the circle of believers. Each must answer for himself or herself and not for any other. And each will answer for herself or himself in the final judgment; the citation of one of the most powerful monotheistic passages in the scriptures (Isa 45:23) would have a powerful effect particularly on those seeking to be loyal to Jewish traditional beliefs. And one of the things each will have to give account of is precisely such condemnatory or slighting attitudes to those whom God had already accepted. Thus ends the first part of Paul’s charter of Christian liberty and mutual tolerance.

[7] Sandly and Headlam, International Critical Commentary on Romans

[8] Douglas Moo, Epistle to the Romans, NICNT

[9] T. David Gordon, Westminster Theological Journal 55:2 (Fall 1993). Page 324.

[10] David Alan Black, Paulus Infirmus: The Pauline Concept of Weakness, Grace Theological Journal 5:1 (Spr 84) Page 78.

[11] Stanley Toussaint, CTJ 2:7 (December 1998) Page 368.

[12] John Calvin, Select Works, Volume 3, Page 301. Ages Software.

[13] Kittel, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 3, Page 950. F. Buchsel Notes.

[14] Everett F. Harrison, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Romans.

[15] John Calvin, Commentary on Romans

[16] WCF 20:1; Scripture references for this section are as follows: Titus 2:14; I Thess. 1:10; Gal. 3:13; Gal. 1:4; Col. 1:13; Acts 26:18; Rom. 6:14; Rom. 8:28; Psa. 119:71; II Cor. 4:15-18; I Cor. 15:54-57; Rom. 5:9; 8:1; I Thess. 1:10; Rom. 5:1-2; Rom. 8:14-15; Gal. 4:6; I John 4:18; Gal. 3:8-9, 14; Rom. 4:6-8; I Cor. 10:3-4; Heb. 11:1-40; Gal. 4:1-7; 5:1; Acts 15:10-11; Heb. 4:14-16; 10:19-22; John 7:38-39; Acts 2:17-18; II Cor. 3:8, 13, 17-18; Jer. 31:31-34

[17] Hodge, A.A. The Confession of Faith, Page 265.

[18] Ibid, Page 267.

[19] Clark, Gordon, What Do Presbyterians Believe?, Page 191.

[20] Ibid, Page 193.

[21] Yes, this little story is about my wife and I. The conversation is a bit embellished for the sake of clarity.

[22] John Calvin, Commentary on Jeremiah, Volume 2. Page 516.

[23] John Gill, A Body of Practical Divinity, Pages 1684-85

[24] George Downname, The Christian’s Freedom, Page 113-114.

[25] Jonathan Edwards, Works, Volume 1. Page 428.

[26] John Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 3, Page 405.

[27] Charles Hodge, Commentary on Romans. Page 666.

[28] John Calvin, Select Works, Volume 2. Page 141.

[29] John Calvin, Select Works, Volume 4. Page 178

[30] Merele D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, Page 1248.

[31] John Owen, Works, Volume 13. Page 566.

[32] I Peter 2:13-14, 16; Rom. 13:1-8; Heb. 13:17; I Thess. 5:12-13; Rom. 1:32; 16:17; I Cor. 5:1, 5, 11-13; II John 1:10-11; II Thess. 3:6, 14; I Tim. 1:19-20; 6:3-4; Titus 1:10-11, 13-14; 3:10; Matt. 18:15-17; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20

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