People from the time of John Chrysostom (347–407) have tried to limit the meaning of Paul’s words in Romans 14:23, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Chrysostom cautions, “Now all these things have been spoken by Paul of the subject in hand, not of everything.”
Leon Morris follows this limitation and says,
Whatever be the truth of actions done before one becomes a believer, Paul is not discussing them here. His concern is with the believer who sometimes does things that are not motivated by faith. (The Epistle to the Romans, 493)
But Richard Lenski says, No!
Is this to be restricted to the Christian alone and to the matter of the adiaphora alone, namely to faith in this domain? No; it covers this domain only because it is a part of one that is much larger. (The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 854)
What do you think?
Here’s the context to help you get oriented (Romans 14:21–23):
It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Augustine, in his Lectures on the Gospel according to St. John, cites Romans 14:23 as a universal statement covering all human conditions:
“This is why Augustine said that even the virtues of unbelievers are sin.”
Not that you may say, “Before I believed I was already doing good works, and therefore was I chosen.” For what good work can be prior to faith, when the apostle says, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin”? (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, 353)
Thomas Schreiner sides with Augustine and points out that Paul easily could have made a more limited point by stopping with the first part of verse 23 (“But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith”). Point made. End of argument. But no. Now he adds the unqualified maxim, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans, 739).
Universal Support for a Specific Point
It’s true, of course, as Morris says, that Paul is not discussing the actions of unbelievers in Romans 14. But that’s not a compelling argument. We regularly support specific points with general points.
For example, we might say, “The long hands of the grandfather clocks in this shop sweep 360 degrees every hour. For the long hands of all clocks that have circular faces sweep 360 degrees every hour.” Nobody would think us reasonable if we said, “From these two sentences all we can learn is that the only clocks whose long hands sweep 360 degrees each hour are the grandfather clocks in this shop, because those are the ones we are talking about.” No. We brought in a universal point to support the specific one.
That’s what Paul has done. “Whatever is not from faith is sin” is a universal point. There are numerous supports for this outside Romans 14:23. For example:
Paul’s point in Romans 4:20 is that faith glorifies God: “Abraham grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” The reason faithless acts are sin is that they don’t glorify God as trustworthy.
In 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul said, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” But you can’t glorify God if you are dishonoring him by not trusting him. So where there is no faith, 1 Corinthians 10:31 is being disobeyed in every action (no matter how neutral in itself).
Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him.” Therefore, where there is no faith, all acts displease God.
When Virtue Is Sin
This is why Augustine said that even the virtues of unbelievers are sin. An example might make this radical indictment of faithless human “goodness” clearer.
Suppose you’re the father of a teenage son. You remind him to wash the car before he uses it to take his friends to the basketball game tonight. He had earlier agreed to do that.
“Our depravity is a condition in relation to God primarily, and only secondarily in relation to man.”
He gets angry and says he doesn’t want to. You gently but firmly remind him of his promise, and say that’s what you expect. He resists. You say, “Well, if you are going to use the car tonight, that’s what you agreed to do.” He storms out of the room angry. Later you see him washing the car.
But he is not doing it out of love for you or out of a Christ-honoring desire to obey Scripture. He wants to go to the game with his friends. That is what compels his “obedience.” I put “obedience” in quotes because it is only external. His heart is wrong. This is what I mean when I say that all human “virtue” is depraved if it is not from a heart of love to the heavenly Father — even if the behavior conforms to biblical norms.
Primarily unto God
The terrible condition of man’s heart will never be recognized by people who assess it only in relation to other people. Your son will drive his friends to the ballgame. That is a “kindness.” They will receive it as a “benefit.” So the evil of our actions can never be measured merely by the good or the harm they do to other humans.
Romans 14:23 makes plain that our depravity is a condition in relation to God primarily, and only secondarily in relation to man. This is the great awakening that needs to happen for people to see the extent of their sin and the greatness of the Savior.