A Warning to Wine-Drinkers
February 14, 2007
The title of this sermon is intentionally misleading. The title makes it sound as if this is a sermon about the dangers of drinking alcohol. I have such a sermon in my files, but this is not it.
In order to prove that point, I call your attention to Romans 14:21, which says, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Whatever else might be said about that verse, it can’t be read as being in favor of vegetarianism. We know that Paul believed in eating meat. When applied to the issue of wine drinking, we might summarize this text in a loose paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time to drink and there is a time not to drink wine.” This sermon is about those times when you should not drink wine.
But properly understood, I am not speaking about wine-drinking at all. That’s only an illustration of the larger principle. This passage explores the whole area of how to handle disagreements among believers. How do you get along when you can’t agree on everything? Since two people rarely agree on every decision, the four principles in this text must be clearly understood and put into practice. And since every local congregation contains a wide divergence of opinions on many secondary issues, we all need to listen to what the Spirit is saying to each of us.
I. The Principle of Liberty
Paul twice enunciates this principle very clearly in our passage: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (v. 14). Again in verse 20 he says, “Everything is indeed clean.” It is impossible to overstate how radical this sounds coming from a man raised as an Orthodox Jew. From the moment of his birth Paul had been taught the difference between clean and unclean foods. Leviticus 11 contains a long list of food that was either permitted or prohibited to the Jews. The “Do Not Eat” list included all pork products, camel meat, rabbit meat, birds such as ravens, owls and vultures, and most shellfish. The Jews were permitted to eat animals with a split hoof that chewed the cud, such as cows. Fish with fins and scales were permitted, as were certain insects, such as locusts and grasshoppers.
This tradition of “kosher” or permitted foods has lasted to this very day. Truly observant Jews still “keep kosher” and would not think of eating pork or serving it to others. As an observant Jew, Paul knew all about the kosher laws and had kept them rigorously until coming to Christ. But in Romans 14 he overturns the entire Levitical teaching with two phrases: “Everything is indeed clean” and “Nothing is unclean in itself.” Nothing could ever have been more revolutionary for the converted Jew than learning that the kosher laws no longer applied. This left men like Paul in a dilemma. Should they continue to keep the kosher laws out of habit? Should they change their diet to demonstrate their new freedom in Christ? Most importantly, what should they say to others wrestling with these questions?
Free At Last!
One part of the answer involves the doctrine of Christian liberty. Stated simply, redemption in Christ sets the believer free from trying to please God through a system of rules and regulations. Since salvation is wholly a work of God’s grace, nothing we do or don’t do could ever bring us closer to God. Neither eating pork or not eating pork could ever make us even one tiny bit more acceptable to the Lord. Salvation, forgiveness of sin, and a right standing with God have nothing to do with the food on your plate. That’s the doctrine of Christian liberty.
A necessary correlation must be this: You are now free to eat whatever you like. All foods are permissible. If for any reason you want to eat a katydid, go ahead. If you prefer raven soufflé, have at it. On the other hand, if you prefer to follow the kosher laws, that’s all right too.
This same principle applies in many areas of life:
You are free to marry or not, as you prefer.
You are free to take a new job or keep the one you have.
You are free to live wherever you wish.
You are free to observe a holiday or not.
You are free to drink wine or not.
You are free to eat meat or to remain a vegetarian.
You are free to choose a career that fits your personal gifts and talents.
You are free to attend the church of your choice.
You are free! Truly, absolutely, honestly free. Christ has liberated you from the terrible burden of having to prove your worth by keeping a set of rules. You are free from the law, free from rulekeeping, and free to make responsible choices.
The New Testament never leaves the matter at that point, however, because that teaching left by itself might somehow be confused with selfish hedonism–”Do whatever makes you happy.” In truth, God has set you free so that you can please him with the choices you make. You are completely free to love God, to serve him, to please him, to follow him, and to fulfill his will for your life.
Liberty and Sin
You are not free to sin. The commandments of the Bible still apply to the believer. No one ever has the “right” to lust, the “right” to hate, the “right” to steal, the “right” to covet, the “right” to lie, the “right” to commit adultery or the “right” to disobey God. In short, Christian liberty does not include the “right” to do wrong. No one has that right because no such “right” exists. It’s true that believers can and do sin, but sin is never a legitimate exercise of Christian liberty. You are free to make responsible choices, but you are never free to sin with impunity. Sin always brings its own punishment sooner or later.
With that parameter clearly in mind, we may then state the doctrine of Christian liberty. In those areas where the Bible does not give a specific command to obey or principle to follow, believers are free to make their own decisions, guided by God’s wisdom and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Since the Bible does not contain explicit directions covering every decision of life, we may conclude that many of the day-by-day choices we make fall into the category of Christian liberty.
That fact frightens many people because there is something in human nature that makes us gravitate to rules and regulations. If someone would just give us a complete list of DOs and DON’Ts, we could be perfectly happy. Instead, God gives us the Ten Commandments and a handful of basic life principles. He also gives us the Bible to study, the Holy Spirit as our guide, and the body of Christ to encourage us. The rest is up to us.
Three Famous Don’ts
In years past evangelicals were famous for “filling in the blanks” regarding Christian behavior. Perhaps you attended a church that taught the three big DON’Ts:
In many churches the list was quite a bit longer, but nearly every church included these three items at the top of the list. Before I say anything else, you need to know that I come from a branch of evangelical Christianity that stressed these important DON’Ts. If you were raised as a Catholic or a Lutheran or an Episcopalian, you may not be familiar with the “Don’ts” of the evangelical church. But many of us were raised in that atmosphere where we learned very early on that good Christians don’t drink wine or beer, they don’t smoke at all, and they don’t go to the high school prom. That approach has fallen into disfavor in recent years. These days we have a much more “live and let live” approach to these so-called “doubtful things.” I confess to being of two minds about this. On the one hand, I’m glad we’ve moved away from judging a person’s relationship with God on the basis of hair length or whether or not they attend the movies or drink wine. However, in many cases it seems that we’ve not challenged our people to lives of holiness. In our zeal to be free from legalism, some of us have fallen into the ditch of worldliness.
Movies? Forget It!
To be a little more personal about this, I attended a Christian college with a very strict set of rules. Drinking was out of the question. Movies? Don’t even think about it. TV? You couldn’t have one in your dorm room. Holding hands on campus? Don’t let anyone see you do it. Our rule book must have stretched to nearly twenty pages. The dating rules are indelibly etched on my memory. No single-dating. No double-dating for freshmen and sophomores. You had to take a chaperone (usually another student) with you whenever you went out on a date. Juniors and seniors could double-date without chaperones. There was, however, one exception to the no single-dating rule. If you were going to ask your date to marry you, the Dean of Women would give special permission for you to go on a date without a chaperone. And it’s a fact that the only single date I ever went on during my college days was the time I asked Marlene to marry me.
To many people all those rules may be restrictive, but we found it liberating. Rules aren’t bad in themselves. You can’t live without rules and procedures. Everyone lives with rules–on the job, in school and at home. Rules help establish a routine and preserve a sense of order and stability. Rule-keeping really has only one weakness: It can’t touch the heart. Rules aren’t bad or wrong, just insufficient. After all, you can be sitting in church on the outside, but in your heart you may be dancing or drinking or doing something much worse. That’s why we come back to the principle of Romans 14. Instead of laying down a long list of DOs and DON’Ts, Paul establishes the principle of liberty. In non-moral areas, believers are free to make their own choices, guided by their conscience and by the Holy Spirit.
That leads me to mention three fears people have about this principle:
Some people will abuse their Christian liberty.
It may lead people into sin.
Our exercise of liberty may cause us to hurt other believers.
All those concerns are quite valid, which is why Paul gives us a second vital principle.
II. The Principle of Conscience
Paul states this principle very clearly in two different places in our text: “But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean”(v. 14b NIV). “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.” (v. 23). Here is a shocking truth: Some things are wrong for you that are right for others. And some things are right for you that are wrong for others. That statement means that you can’t always know in advance what will be “right” or “wrong” for another Christian brother. It also means that any attempt to construct a set of universally-binding rules covering every aspect of life is doomed to failure. It won’t work because of the vagaries of human conscience.
Let me illustrate. Thirteen years ago I met an Israeli tour guide named Zvi. He was remarkable in many ways, but most of all because he is a born again Jewish Christian believer in Jesus Christ. One morning he told the amazing story of his conversion to Christ. Members of his family perished in the Holocaust, but others escaped and moved to Israel. Zvi showed us the neighborhood in Tel Aviv where he was raised. Regarding Christianity, he said it was “more than impossible” that he should become a believer. But through the grace of God and the witness of the woman who would become his wife, Zvi confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior. One day we asked if he still followed the Jewish dietary laws. He said yes he did, especially in terms of not eating pork. Now Zvi knows all about Christian liberty, but he and his family still follow the major kosher laws. Why? Partly out of personal preference and partly because he wants to win his Jewish neighbors for Jesus Christ. Eating pork would scandalize them and stigmatize him as a man who was embarrassed of his Jewish heritage. So he doesn’t eat pork. He doesn’t make an issue of is or try to convince anyone else. And he doesn’t think that eating pork is a sin. He just chooses not to do it.
That’s exactly what Paul is talking about. Sometimes your conscience will tell you, “Don’t do that. Don’t touch that. Don’t join that club. Don’t take that job. Don’t go to that movie. Don’t date that girl (or guy).” In those cases, the Bible says you should follow your conscience. In short, don’t do something you believe to be wrong even if others are doing it. I confess that in my rule-keeping days, I regarded this as a weak principle. But I now see that it is just the opposite. Only the strong can say “no” when everyone else is saying “yes.” It’s the weak who give in to pressure.
Here’s a good test of your character: Can you live up to your Christian convictions without A) violating your conscience or B) judging those who differ with you? Many people stumble at this point because they say, “If it’s wrong for me, it must be wrong for everyone around me.” That’s not necessarily true. For instance, the Twelve Step programs teach recovering alcoholics that they must never take a drink again. Not even one time. Not even to make their friends happy. No matter who else is in the room with them. For alcoholics this can be a matter of life and death. If you intend to stay sober, you have to come to the place where you can say, “For the rest of my life, I can never take another drink under any circumstances.” It doesn’t matter where you are or what others are doing. You can’t be successful until you can say that and mean it without also judging others around you.
Don’t Violate Your Conscience
Let’s draw out the logical conclusion of this principle. There are some places you just can’t go. There are some shows you shouldn’t watch on TV, and there are songs you shouldn’t listen to because they pull you down spiritually. There are some books you can’t read because they won’t do you any good. There are some people you shouldn’t hang around with and some jobs you shouldn’t take. Guys, there are some girls you shouldn’t date. Girls, there are some guys you shouldn’t date because they will lead you down the primrose path and leave you brokenhearted and embarrassed. (By the way, please don’t ask me for a list of names. I don’t know who those people are. But you know! Your Christian conscience warns you about certain people, certain places, certain habits, and certain activities.)
But someone says, “Is your conscience always reliable?” No, not always, because our conscience can become seared or dulled by sin. But when your conscience is informed by the Word of God, guided by the Holy Spirit of God, and submissive to the will of God, you may follow your conscience with confidence. The teaching is really quite simple: Don’t violate your conscience! Never do something you believe to be wrong. That’s what Paul means when he says “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v. 23). When you act against your Christian conscience, you have sinned even if the activity in itself is not sinful. You did what you believed to be wrong. That’s what sin is–violating the standard of right behavior. You set the standard … and then you violated it
That’s why two people can do the same thing at the same time. For one it is right; for the other it is wrong. You can’t always tell from the outside whose life is pleasing to the Lord and whose is not
These first two principles sometimes come into conflict. What do you do when your liberty crosses swords with another Christian’s conscience? That crucial question leads us to the third principle.
III. The Principle of Peace
This principle brings us to the heart of Romans 14. When liberty and conscience come into conflict, believers are to follow the path of peace, love and edification. In particular, the believer with liberty is to exercise special care lest his freedom somehow hurt another Christian. Verse 13 speaks of putting a “stumbling block” or an “obstacle” in the path of another person. A “stumbling block” is like a book you drop by accident that causes a person to trip. An “obstacle” is a rope you pull across the road because you hope to cause someone to fall. Whether by accident or design, we may hurt others by careless eating and thoughtless drinking. Listen to Paul’s warning:
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 (vv. 15-16).
Don’t flaunt your liberty at a brother who sees things differently. Furthermore, don’t entice him to change his standards. If they need to be changed, God can do that.
Paul then appeals to the higher principle of the kingdom of God: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (v. 17). God’s kingdom is not about DOs and DON’Ts even if those rules are wise and proper. Remember, rules aren’t always wrong. Sometimes they save us from making terrible mistakes. But rules don’t change the heart. We need righteousness from God, peace from God and joy in the Holy Spirit. Where these things are found, God’s kingdom is also present. Verse 19 sums things up very neatly: “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Why stir up trouble over eating pork or fishing on Sunday? Instead, focus on the things that build up the body of Christ. That’s why verse 21 says there is a time not to drink wine.
How Much Is Your Freedom Worth To You?
In fact, five bad things may happen because you misuse your liberty in Christ:
Your behavior may be a stumbling block to another Christian (13).
Your brother may be “grieved” (15).
Your behavior may cause him to fall away from God (21).
You may destroy his spiritual life altogether (15).
God’s work may be destroyed in his life (20).
Is your “freedom” worth all that to you? Must you demand your own way without caring for how you impact others? What will you say when you stand before God and he says, “Look at all the people you hurt by your careless lifestyle?” This principle may be summed up in just a few words: Be sensitive to the feelings of others. Show courtesy to those who differ. Be willing to set your own desires aside for the greater good of the kingdom of God.
Suppose my friend Zvi comes to visit us. Should I offer him pork chops? Suppose I tell him that Marlene makes the best pork chops in Tupelo. Since I know his personal practice, cooking pork chops would be an insensitive act that shows no concern for his feelings.
Or suppose you drink wine. Others do not. If you offer wine to a person when you know that person does not drink, you have violated the principle of peace.
Or suppose you attend a church with several different worship styles. If you begin to criticize the other service as “cheap” or “boring” or “without substance” or “not real worship,” you have sacrificed the unity of the church on the altar of your personal opinion. That’s sin–and it doesn’t matter which worship service you prefer.
These illustrations show how the principle of peace works in practice. If we will only be sensitive and courteous, we can avoid giving needless offense to other believers.
That leads us directly to the fourth and final principle in this passage.
IV. The Principle of Silence
Paul explains this principle in verse 22: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (NIV). God has given us tremendous freedom in the Christian life. We don’t all have to think the same on every point or act the same way. Inside the body of Christ you can find incredible diversity on such matters as whether or not to get married, where to work, the friends you choose, the places you go, the habits you acquire, the hobbies you pursue, the books you read, the music you prefer, the clothes you wear, and the food you eat and the things you drink. Your only limits are those imposed by the principles of the Bible. But those boundaries are wide, not narrow. That means we don’t all have to look alike, act alike or think alike on every possible point. It certainly guarantees that on lesser matter we will often come to differing–if not entirely opposite–conclusions. How will we all get along? The answer is not difficult if we take Paul’s words seriously:
Hold your convictions and . . Hold your tongue!
You don’t have to broadcast all your habits and preferences for general discussion. It certainly means that you shouldn’t waste time trying to convince others of the• superiority of your favorite Bible translation or the innate sinfulness of wearing too much make-up. Do you prefer natural child-birth? Well and good. Keep it to yourself. Do you think a vote for ____________ is a sin against God? Fine, but don’t make it a test of Christian fellowship. Do you have a hard time understanding why born again Christians stay in liberal churches? That’s a legitimate area for discussion, but let’s not elevate such matters to center stage in our thinking.
Paul is absolutely clear on this point. Keep your convictions between yourself and God. This is especially important if you find yourself around other Christians whose practice doesn’t match yours. Unless they are attempting to coerce you into their point of view, you don’t need to offer an opinion on the disputed point. Or if you do feel compelled to say something, you certainly don’t need to defend yourself or to condemn them. There is nothing wrong with an honest disagreement honestly stated, but you shouldn’t let that disagreement destroy your unity in Christ or provoke an angry confrontation.
In one of his books Robert Lightner tells of a custom Japanese parents use when their children can’t get along with their playmates. The offending child is instructed to place his hands on one side of a pillow and say, “I am right and my friend is wrong:’ He then moves to the next side and says, “My friend is right and I am wrong.” Going to a third side he says, “My friend is partly wrong and I am partly wrong.” Going to the fourth side of the pillow. the child repeats the final phrase with great thoughtfulness, “I am partly right and my friend is partly right”
When we stand before the Lord, we will say the same thing regarding those secondary issues that seem so important to us today: “I was partly right and my friend was partly right”
This passage contains a phrase that points us back to the central reality of the Christian faith. In verse 15 Paul warns against destroying your brother “for whom Christ died” Jesus Christ is the central issue of time and eternity. Nothing is more important than his death and resurrection. Everything else pales into insignificance compared to the mighty work he accomplished 2000 years ago.
When you stand before God. he’s not going to ask,
“Did you eat meat?”
“Did you drink wine?”
“Did you vote Democrat?”
“Did you go fishing on Sunday?”
Those questions won’t be on the agenda when we stand before the Lord. He will ask us one question–and one question only: “What did you do with my Son?”
On that great day the only thing that will matter is what we did with Jesus Christ. Did we love him? Did we serve him? Did we believe on him as Lord and Savior? Did we attempt to follow him to the best of our ability? Nothing else really matters. Jesus is the central issue–always has been, always will be. Let’s lift up Jesus Christ and all these secondary issues will take care of themselves.