I have been arguing for the importance of discernment in the life of a Christian. I define discernment as a biblically informed judgment whether certain extra-biblical moral actions are good or evil. As we have seen there are an impressive testimony of Scripture to the importance of this biblical discipline: Phil 1:9-11 (Part 1), Rom 12:1-2 (Part 2), Col 1:9-10 (Part 3), 1 Thess 5:19-24 (Part 4), Eph 5:7-11 (Part 5), and Hebrews 5:11-14 (Part 6).
The questions surrounding the interpretation of “Christian Liberty” in Romans 14 are manifold and complex, and outside the scope of this present discussion. And I’m not prepared to concede that the situation in the 1st century Roman church parallels that of ethical debates in the 21st century church on every level. But Paul soberly connects this matter of discernment to his appeal for unity amidst weak and strong Christian diversity, and that’s what most concerns us.
First, Paul mentions those who have differently approached the matter of what they eat (14:1-4). Then Paul speaks of the different approaches of “esteeming” (κρίνει) days. In both situations, the action is being performed “in honor of the Lord” (14:6). All are going to stand before God someday, and “then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (14:12). The crucial matter is that each of us is fully convinced [πληροφορείσθω] in his own mind (14:5). As Calvin comments:
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.
Now we should keep in mind while reading this passage the connection with Romans 12:1-2 (see part 2), where Paul explicitly told the Roman Christians not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, whereby they could by testing discern [δοκιμάζειν] the the will of God–what is good, acceptable, and perfect. In other words, he has already told them that having minds transformed by Christ (and his Word), we should be able to discern between good and evil.
Here in Romans 14 we see that we will give an account before Jesus Christ on how we did this. While Paul does instruct that we should refrain from judging our brother who discerns differently, this does not remove from us the responsibility of discerning between right and wrong.1 In other words, if our brother’s conscience has not approved something that we have approved, we ought to not influence him to act against his conscience (14:7, 10, 13, 15-16).
The point I want to emphasize from Romans 14 is that this passage further demonstrates that Paul expected early Christians to exercise Christ-the-Word-informed discernment concerning ethical matters. For Paul, while it was true that every meat was clean now that Christ had fulfilled the law, it was a sin to cause another believer to eat something when he had discerned that that act was a sin against God. So in verses 22-23:
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.
“The faith” mentioned in verse 22 is the faith that a “strong” believer had that what he did was approved by God. This was based on a doctrinal understanding of what Christ had done. Based on what he knew of the doctrines of Christ, he was able to eat anything with thanksgiving.2 But this faith he was to keep private, for if he were to announce that these foods were blessed by God, and a “weaker” believer, not so grounded in his knowledge of Christ to discern that all meats are approved of God, were to eat and violate his conscience, he would cause the other brother to sin.
This is why the brother is “blessed” “who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.”3 We must use discernment, and it is a “blessing” for us when we act in accordance with that discernment. If we discern wrongly, and sin against God, we will answer to God for it (cf. 14:12). If we act against discernment, it does not matter if our discernment is right or wrong, we are condemned for not acting in faith. “For whatever does not proceed faith is sin” (14:23). We must use our Christ-transformed minds to discern by testing the will of God (Rom 12:2). If we act against what we have discerned, we are sinning against our God and Savior. We dare not ever act in a way that violates our conscience.4
Discernment is a foundational part of how we live as Christians in the world. In fact, discernment is a crucial ingredient in how we stand before God. If we are not concerned enough about how we live before God that we never consider to judge an activity to be right or wrong, we are showing a kind of intellectual sloth unbecoming those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. Our justification and right standing before God should not lead us to an indifference to ethical questions. Our love for God and Christ ought to move us to be serious about discerning the world and what is done in it, so that we never do anything unbecoming of believers. Christians ought to be known for their discernment, and it is gravely lamentable that we are often known for the opposite. The New Testament teaches us that discernment is a crucial aspect of our Christian ethics, and will play a sobering role in our Judgment Seat of Christ “account” of how we lived our lives.
- I take this to mean that, in the context Paul addresses here, Paul does not want the Roman Christians to presume to hold the final answer as to whether a brother was sinning or not. This does not in any way prevent them from exercising discernment concerning good and evil, but merely admonishes them to exercise some humility in their conclusions, and, more importantly, to exercise judgment in how they walk with respect to that other brother. [↩]
- Calvin comments on the importance of thanksgiving in this passage (verse 6 in particular): “Observe also what he says, — that we then eat to the Lord, or abstain, when we give thanks. Hence, eating is impure, and abstinence is impure, without thanksgiving. It is only the name of God, when invoked, that sanctifies us and all we have.” [↩]
- In the original, μακάριος ὁ μὴ κρίνων ἑαυτὸν ἐν ᾧ δοκιμάζει· [↩]
- This does mean that those who are too lazy to use honest Christian discernment are justified in their ignorance. Calvin comments, “For it happens, that many commit the worst of crimes without any scruple of conscience; but this happens, because they rashly abandon themselves, with closed eyes, to any course to which the blind and violent intemperance of the flesh may lead them; for there is much difference between insensibility and a right judgment. He then who examines things is happy, provided he is not bitten by an accusing conscience, after having honestly considered and weighed matters; for this assurance alone can render our works pleasing to God. Thus is removed that vain excuse which many allege on the ground of ignorance; inasmuch as their error is connected with insensibility and sloth: for if what they call good intention is sufficient, their examination, according to which the Spirit of God estimates the deeds of men, is superfluous.” [↩]