Romans 14:23: ‘For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’
When I say the words ‘living by faith’ what comes to mind? What immediately comes to my mind is George Muller. He was a Calvinistic Baptist who lived in the 1800s who is most famous for supporting orphanages through nothing but prayer. At the time he began his orphanage work only 3600 orphans were accommodated in all England, in his life time he supported just over 10000 orphans. He never asked anyone directly for money to support the orphans. On top of that he was convinced that he should not be supported by the church he was pastoring and so turned down the church stipend and looked to the Lord to provide for the last 68 years of his pastoral ministry. He never took out a loan or went into debt, and he and his orphans were always provided for. His life is a tremendous testimony to the faithfulness of God to those who look to Him in trusting prayer.
So many who have a similar understanding of living by faith come to the verse we want to consider this morning Romans 14:23, and it leaves a certain impression, ‘For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.’ The impression is this: if I am not imitating George Muller in the same way I am sinning. Is this what this verse means? No! Romans 14 is Paul addressing a divided church where people who are called strong have informed consciences and are able to eat certain meats, drink wine and not observe days which the OT Jew would have, because Christ has come and fulfilled the law. But by their eating, drinking and not observing they were being a stumbling block to the weak Jewish Christian who still thought these things ought to be observed. The Jewish converts emboldened by the example of the strong were going against their consciences, imitating the strong and sinning.
Our verse about faith comes in verse 23 where Paul is telling the church that the uninformed conscience can be a sin factory, it can create sins out of things that are not sin. When we think God has said something is a command, even if He has not, we sin when we go against that perceived command. In our present context Paul brings in the word faith to speak of those who have an informed conscience, and act in light of the truth, they have a confident assurance of what is required of them and they do it. In this context the words doubt and faith are opposites and help us to understand what it meant by faith. To doubt, is to be unsure, and this on account of not being fully informed by the authoritative word of God. Faith is to be sure of somethings rightness or wrongness on the basis of a biblically informed conscience. Confidence, a biblically informed confidence which is one of the aspects of faith is the thing that is in the foreground and the meaning of faith in this verse .
How does this square with the view that those who don’t live like George Muller are sinning, because everything that does not come from faith is sin? We have to push back and say that those who use the verse in that way have not used it in the way Paul did. This highlights one of the great problems for Christians who love the word of God and want to study it and know its truth. If your walk is anything like mine this was the advice you were given as a young Christian. You don’t need bible college or a theologian to help you misunderstand the bible, all you need is the word of God, a Strong’s concordance and a Vine’s dictionary. So as a young Christian when I wanted to understand the word faith, what would I do? I would pull out my concordance and look up every reference to faith. And instead of recognising that each context will stress different aspects of the word faith, I would have a uniform meaning and begin to insert it in wherever the word faith was found. This is a very unnatural use of language. For example imagine we used the word love and made it to mean the same thing whenever we used it. I love my dog; l love my wife, this would be an insult to my wife if the word meant the exact same thing. But we all recognise that a words meaning is defined primarily by its context. The first rule of all good bible interpretation is to understand a thing in its context. If you do not you will impose what you think it means instead of understanding what it actually says.
As a result of this I would like to deal with a number of issues that have arisen due to a false conception of faith.