I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 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.
Romans 14 is a call to all Christians, but especially the “strong,” to love each other. Verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” In that sense it is a continuation of Romans 12 and 13, which were also practical instruction on what Christian love looks like in this world. The issue in chapter 14, as it says in verse 2, is that “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.” In other words, some Christians believe it is wrong for them to eat certain things and others believe it is right for them to eat those things. And the question is: how do you love each other in that situation?
Paul has answered that several times already in verses 1-13, and we ended last time on the answer in verse 13, “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” Don’t put a stumbling block or a hindrance in the way of anyone on their way to heaven. It sounds ominous. Serious. And indeed it is. The issue of how to relate to each other over non-serious foods and days and drink is very serious.
All Foods Are Clean
So what Paul does in verse 14 is state an assumption that helps explain how this can be such a big issue. He says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” So you see what he is explaining. He is answering the question: How can eating and drinking be such a weighty matter when you yourself believe that all foods are clean? If all foods are clean, then nothing is really at stake when you eat them or don’t eat them. Right?
How Clean Can Become Unclean
No. Paul’s response to that is to agree that all foods are clean but then to explain how clean can become unclean. “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself”—that much he agrees with. He agrees with that because “the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof”—that’s what he says in 1 Corinthians 10:26 to defend eating meat sold in the marketplace that might have been sacrificed to idols. He could have also quoted Jesus in Mark 7:15, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him.” And he could have quoted Mark when he interpreted Jesus with the statement in Mark 7:19, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” So, yes, “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15)—speaking of foods, not stealing or adultery.
Yes, in themselves, all foods are clean. Agreed. But he does not agree that nothing is at stake in how you eat what is clean. Why not? He answers (in v. 14b): “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” The clean food becomes unclean for me if I think it is unclean when I eat it.
What does he mean by that? He tell us in verses 22-23. He says in essence that the issue is not merely food and cleanness, but faith and sin. Verse 22: “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.” In other words, don’t flaunt the faith that makes you free to eat all foods. Enjoy that freedom between you and God. You don’t need to show it off or push others toward eating what you eat.
Then he continues in verse 22b: “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.” This is the goal: let no one be pressed into eating things that his conscience condemns. This is what it means to put a stumbling block in someone’s way: enticing them to do what their conscience condemns. The goal is the opposite: the joy of never doing what you believe is wrong.
Then in verse 23 Paul shows that the realities of conscience and faith move the issue from non-serious things like food and drink to something very serious, namely, sin. “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.”
Uncleanness Resides in the Conscience and Motive, Not the Food
Now we get the whole picture of what Paul meant back in verse 14. We can see why he said, “[The clean] is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” It’s because “uncleanness” doesn’t reside in the food but in the conscience and motive. The only thing that could make eating clean things wrong would be that one is not acting in faith—that is, not acting out of the overflow of contentment in God—out of trust, satisfaction, joy, restfulness in God. If we were acting out of the overflow of contentment in God, then there wouldn’t be any overpowering desire to do something we feel is probably wrong. We would relax in God’s sufficiency. We would say: “I don’t to do that. I don’t believe it’s right for me to do that. And I feel no compelling pressure to do it because God is my portion.”
But if we feel pressured to do what we think is wrong, and we yield to the temptation, we are saying in effect: I need someone’s approval, or I need this physical pleasure so much that I will risk defiling my conscience and doing what I believe to be wrong. This is not the kind of acting that comes from faith, and therefore it is not pure or clean. It is “unclean.” It is an act of unbelief. It is a form of covetousness. We are desiring something so much it signals that our contentment in God is faltering. God is not enough to satisfy us. We are not resting in him. Instead we are craving what we believe to be wrong.
Are You Acting in Faith?
This is very illuminating for the morality of Christian behavior. It shows us that what matters in Christian behavior is not just doing certain things or not doing certain things—like eating meat or not eating meat. What matters is whether we act from faith. What does our behavior say about our hearts? Our faith? Does it say that our hearts are resting in God as our portion, our satisfaction, our sufficiency, our treasure? Or do our actions betray a loss of trust and satisfaction? Do our actions show we are now treasuring a behavior we disapprove of more than we treasure God? That’s what sin is.
And now we are ready to hear the full force of what Paul thinks is at stake in Romans 14. What is at stake is the destruction of the weaker brother, and maybe ourselves in the process. Twice he warns us not to “destroy” our brother by tempting him to eat what his conscience condemns him for eating. Verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy (apollue) the one for whom Christ died.” Verse 20a: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy (katalue) the work of God.” These are strong words and refer most naturally to final, eternal destruction in hell.
In other words, if we play fast and loose with another person’s conscience (or our own), and encourage them to act against their conscience (which, we now see, means not acting from faith) then we are nurturing a hardness of heart and faithlessness that can, if it is not checked with repentance, lead to ruin and destruction. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:19 that Timothy should “hold faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith.” In other words, by rejecting a good conscience and acting against what you know to be right, which is to act in unbelief, you can destroy yourself.
So Paul is saying, don’t do this to each other. Don’t judge and despise, and don’t put a stumbling block in anyone’s way on their journey to heaven. Instead, as Hebrews 3:13 says, “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Love each other like that. Help each other get to heaven. Help each other act from faith, not against faith.
Remember That Christ Died for the Weak Brother
To increase the incentive of this love Paul reminds us that Christ died for the weak brother. Verse 15: “If your brother is grieved by what you eat”—in other words, if he is made miserable with a tormented conscience because you have enticed him to do what he believes is wrong—“you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.”
How does the death of Christ for our brother or sister increase our passion to love them and help them get to heaven rather than destroy them? I think it goes something like this: Christ gave up his life to save your brother; can you not give up a little freedom to eat meat to join Christ in saving him instead of destroying him? Christ sacrificed his blood to bring him to God; will you not sacrifice a little food to join Christ in bringing him to God? Christ surrendered infinite freedoms and infinite rights to die for your brother, and will you not surrender your little freedom with food and your little right with drink in order to join Christ in bringing your brother to God?
In other words, I’m suggesting that the way Paul is motivating us with the death of Christ is not by drawing attention to the fact that the death of Christ secures the brother so we are not needed to get him to heaven and couldn’t destroy him if we wanted to. That’s not the function of the death of Christ in this argument. I’m suggesting that Paul wants us to think this way: Getting to heaven demands the use of means, and Christ has died to make these means effective for your brothers and sisters. The means include persevering in faith (“The one who endures to the end will be saved,” Mark 13:13), and fighting sin (“If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” Romans 8:13), and being exhorted by brothers not to lapse into patterns of sin and unbelief (“Exhort one another every day . . . that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” Hebrews 3:13).
Christ died to purchase these means and make them effective, and you, the strong brother, are the means he is focusing on in this text. Christ died to make your love effective in helping the weak brother persevere. The cross not only purchases the faith of the weak, it purchases the faithfulness of the strong. Christ died for your brother. Your love in his life is blood-bought. Your sacrifice of freedom for his conscience is blood-bought. Love him and so work out the effectiveness of the cross in saving him. Prove that by your extension of love from Christ, that Christ did indeed die for him.
The Elect Cannot Be Destroyed
The reason I say it that way is that Romans 8 makes it unthinkable that a genuine brother—one of the elect—for whom Christ died, could ever be destroyed. In Romans 8:32-34 Paul says,
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? [Meaning: If he died for us, he will most certainly give us all things—everything that pertains to salvation. No one these elect for whom Christ died will be destroyed!] 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? [that is, those for whom he did not spare his Son. Answer: No one! Why not?] It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? [Answer: No one. Why not?] Christ Jesus is the one who died [in other words, this death makes condemnation for the elect impossible] . . .
So when Paul says, “Do not destroy the one for whom Christ died,” I think he means, “You regard him as a brother in Christ. And so you believe that Christ died for him. So don’t destroy him—this one who (in your view) was purchased by Christ. Instead prove by your love that he is indeed a true brother and not a false brother by becoming one of the means of his salvation purchased by the blood of Christ. For if you live so lovelessly toward him—putting your liberty above his life—you may prove that both of you perhaps—the strong and the weak—were never in the faith, never in Christ, so that his death never counted for you and the brother you destroy.
Rather, perhaps it will be said over you both, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
But God will keep his own. Remember verse 4: “And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” If God decrees that the weak brother stand, he will stand. The strong brother will love as he ought, and the death of Christ will have its trophies. May that be the story at Bethlehem. Love your brothers and sisters more than you love your liberty with food and drink and days. Join the crucified Christ in helping your brothers and sisters get to heaven.