Faith and Acting Against Conscience

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 14:23

The blessing that Paul pronounces on those who understand their freedom in Christ (Rom. 14:22) is not the last word that he has on the subject of Christian liberty. He has one more thing to say to the weaker brother, and it is important for clearing up any potential misunderstanding that the immature believer might have. Having heard that those who are free of misplaced scruples are blessed indeed, the immature believer might immediately discount all of his scruples even though he remains personally convinced that certain things are unclean for him. He might then engage in something he is actually free in Christ to do and yet all the while doubt his actions. That would be a serious error indeed, for in so doing the immature believer would actually be sinning, as the Apostle tells us in today’s passage.

Paul’s statement that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v. 23) constitutes a principle that clarifies his earlier assertion that an action or item that is not unclean in itself “is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (v. 14) It also provides us with guidance when we are unsure whether a particular action is a sin. Paul is saying that the attitude of the heart can make an action that is not objectively evil into a sin for those who are convinced that it is wrong. We are to be motivated by faith, which in the context of Romans 14 refers primarily to a desire to please God in all things. Yet as we have seen, it is possible to be misinformed about what pleasing the Lord looks like in particular situations. That is not a good thing. Much worse, however, is to do what we perceive to be a sin even if the act itself is morally indifferent. That which is not inherently wrong can become an occasion for sin, but not because the act or thing itself becomes evil. Instead, it is wrong because in doing it, we show that we do not care about pleasing God. We have acted against what we thought God approved of even though our initial conviction about the lawfulness of an act was mistaken. We have shown contempt for the law of the Lord even though we have misunderstood it.

We may not impose on others our scruples about issues where the Lord is silent. At the same time, however, we should not do something or partake of something that we believe is unclean for us personally. Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans: “If we believe something is a sin, even if it is not, yet we participate in it, then we have committed a sin because we have done something we believe to be wrong, whether or not it actually is wrong. The sin is not [inherent to the act] … the sin is doing something that we think is evil.”

Coram Deo

John Calvin comments, “Every work, however splendid and excellent in appearance, is counted as sin, except it be founded on a right conscience; for God regards not the outward display, but the inward obedience of the heart.” If we are unsure whether a particular act is lawful for us personally, we must not do it. Otherwise, we act not in faith and show no concern about obeying our Creator. To put it simply, we are sinning.

Passages for Further Study

2 Corinthians 1:12
Hebrews 9:11-14

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