Editorial: Does Romans 14 Include Matters of Sin?

By Mike Willis

This article proposes to examine the two arguments used to prove that Romans 14 includes sinful practices and then present positive material to demonstrate that the chapter is discussing only matters of authorized liberty.

1. Does Romans 14:4-5 Refer to Sinful Conduct?

Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every dayalike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.

The argument is made that observing days in Romans 14:4-5 is sinful conduct. Romans 14:4-5 is tied with Galatians 4:10-11 to reach the conclusion that the conduct under discussion in this passage is sinful conduct. Galatians 4:10-11 reads as follows: “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.” The point is made that “observing the day” was sinful conduct.

The options for understanding this verses include the following: (a) The individual may have kept the Jewish days as a matter of custom with or without regard to its having religious significance; (b) The individual may have kept the day as obedience to a divine command for all men to observe it.

The New Testament shows evidence of non-binding observance of days by those who were Pharisees. In Jesus’ parable about prayer, he referred to a Pharisee who fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12). This fasting “was in pursuance of the custom of some `more righteous than the rest,’ who, as previously explained, fasted on the second and fifth days of the week (Mondays and Thursdays)” (Edersheim, The Life of Christ II:291). The disciples of John fasted frequently (Luke 5:33). Jesus did not forbid the observance of these days of fasting as sinful (contrast this with the teaching of Matt. 15:3-9), but only taught those who chose to fast not to do their “righteousness” to be seen of men (Matt. 6:16). Here is an ex-ample of Jewish observance of days over and above what the Law of Moses mandated. The motive of the Pharisees was to be “more righteous than the rest.” This practice of the Pharisees fits the context of Romans 14 very well. This is the reason that the ones observing the days were setting at nought and condemning those who chose not to observe days. This understanding of the text certainly meets the circumstances required by the context under discussion.

Furthermore, early Jewish Christians continued to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath day; frequently, Paul went there to teach (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). Apparently, some of them attended Pentecost (Acts 20:16). In his commentary on Romans, F. Godet says, “The days are those of the Jewish feasts, which Judeo-Christians continued for the most part to observe: Sabbaths, new moons, etc. (Col. ii.15)” (456). Based on these Scriptures, we conclude that their conduct was not inherently sinful.

There is nothing in the reference to observing days that necessitates that sinful conduct is under consideration in this text. Whatever day is under consideration is one that a person can “regard to the Lord.” H.A.W. Meyer is certainly correct in saying, “For anything that is opposed to Christ the Christian cannot thank the Father of Christ” (512). Alford is correct in this observation: “He classes the observance or non-observance of particular days, with the eating and abstaining from particular meats. In both cases, he is concerned with things which he evidently treats as of absolute indifference in themselves” (II:452).

2. “He Stands or Falls”

Some brethren also think that there is evidence that sinful conduct is under consideration in the statement in Romans 14:4  “to his own master he standeth or falleth.” The argument is made that the reference to “falleth” is an indication that the person is guilty of sinful conduct.

Keep in mind that “standing or falling” is used with reference to eating meats, prior to the mention of observing days. If one is going to distinguish eating meats (a matter of indifference) from observing days (a sinful activity), he must tie “stand or fall” to observing days for it to have any relevance. But the reference to “standing and falling” has application to the conduct of eating meats, a matter of in-difference, as is admitted by all. Here are the verses: “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:3-4). What the verse is teaching is this: The meat eater should not judge his brother who chooses not to eat meat (and vice versa), because he answers to his own master. His master is the one who accepts or rejects him.

This general truth, “to his own master he standeth or falleth,” does not state that either the meat eater or the vegetarian stands or falls. Neither eating meats nor abstaining from meats is inherently sinful conduct. To read into this statement that one or the other conduct is sinful is to abuse the text. The next statement confirms that this is so, for it says, “Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.” That simply is not true about sinful conduct. God does not and shall not hold up a man involved in sinful conduct  not presently and not in eternity.

One can see how Calvinists who deny the possibility of apostasy would argue from this verse that, in the judgment, God will uphold Christians involved in sin. I do not see how one can avoid the Calvinist’s conclusion if he asserts that what is under discussion is sinful conduct. To avoid the Calvinist’s conclusion, one must insert, without any con-textual reason for so doing, the condition that the person must cease his sinful practice and repent of it in order “to stand.” This makes the passage teach that the man must quit observing his unlawful days in order to be received by Christ. If one can insert “if he repents of his sin” in order for the brother practicing his sin to be received by Christ, the same reasons would require that “if his repents of his sin” be inserted before he is received by his brethren. The text says “God has received him” and that we are to receive one another as “Christ has received us.” Both texts emphasize that the person is presently in the fellowship of Christ and, therefore, should be received into our fellowship. If the text is applied to sinful conduct, we have two logically tied conclusions: (a) We should receive the practicing sinner in our fellowship and (b) Christ receives him into his fellowship.

The Internal Evidence

There are a number of statements in Romans 14 that confirm that the context of this chapter is limited to matters not involving sin. Please consider each of the following:

1. God has received the one under consideration (14:3). This is not describing one whom God received when he was baptized and who now stands condemned before God be-cause of some sin in his life. Rather, it is talking about a person whom God presently receives while he continues in the practice of eating meats and observing days.

2. God will make this man stand (14:4). The man to be received by his brother is one that God will make to stand on judgment day. Does that fit the man who is committing sin?

3. The conduct is acceptable if it is done with a clean conscience (14:5). Could this be said about sinful practices?

4. The matter practiced can be done “to the Lord” (14:6). How can sinful conduct be offered “to the Lord”?

5. The matter under discussion is not unclean (14:14). The conduct is only unclean to the man who thinks it is unclean. Such cannot be said about things inherently sinful, such as adultery.

6. The conduct is described as “good” (14:16). “Let not your good be evil spoken of ” has application only to things not sinful. Things inherently sinful cannot be de-scribed as “good.”

7. The conduct can be done in service to Christ (14:18). The description of the brother as one who “in these things serveth Christ” cannot fit those practicing things inherently sinful.

8. The conduct is “acceptable to God” (14:18). Not only is this conduct done in service to Christ, but it also is “acceptable to God.” Could this be said about things inherently sinful?

9. The conduct is “pure” (14:20). The conduct under discussion in Romans 14 falls into that category of things called “pure.” Could sinful conduct ever be so described?

10. The conduct is acceptable so long as it is practiced with a clear conscience (14:22-23). Could this be said about things inherently sinful?

These contextual evidences lead us to the conclusion that Romans 14 is discussing matters of authorized liberty (indifference). This chapter applies to things that fit the description given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:8  “for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.”

The Commentaries

These same contextual reasons lead many commentators to the same conclusion: that the context of Romans 14 is limited to matters of indifference.

Lenski opens his discussion by saying, “Justification by faith enables the Christian to take the correct view of all adiaphora (indifference, mw)” (811). He repeatedly applies the text to the “overly scrupulous,” distinguishing them from the Judaizers who confused the law and gospel (812).

F. Godet limits this discussion to areas in which “no Christian principle was seriously compromised” (454), practices “in which the two opposite lines of conduct may also be followed with equal fidelity” (456), “two lines of con-duct are equally admissible” (456), and “the two different ways of acting with a seal of equal holiness” (457).

Sanday and Headlam (ICC): “The Apostle now passes on to a further point; the proper attitude to adopt toward matters in themselves indifferent, but concerning which some members of the community might have scruples” (384).

Alford: “He classes the observance or non-observance of particular days, with the eating and abstaining from particular meats. In both cases, he is concerned with things which he evidently treats as of absolute indifference in them-selves” (II:452).

In addition to these comments by denominational authors, consider the following from works prepared by brethren:

Whiteside: “In Paul’s discussion of these matters of opinion, the Lord’s appointments are not included. The Lord has set apart the Lord’s day for worship; its observance is therefore not a matter of opinion or indifference” (on 14:5-6, pp. 268-269).

Vinson: “To receive is to recognize one as a brother, embrace him as such, and therefore, to fully fellowship him as a brother. It allows no partial reception but enjoins a full recognition and acceptance of him. But in so receiving him, this is not to be extended with the object of disputing and reasoning on opinions, and thus implicitly to accept him on the grounds of his accepting the reasonings and opinions of the strong. He is to be accepted as he is with his scruples. Now, if it was a matter of faith and authorized duty, instead of being one of opinion and therefore a matter of indifference, such a qualification would not be proper” (261).

Grubbs: The title of this sub-division is this: “Inculcation of Christian Freedom and Fraternal Tolerance As to Matters of Opinion” (154).

Lard: “It is pre-eminently a chapter as to duties in regard to things indifferent in themselves” (412).

McGarvey: “This section is, as Lard remarks, ‘pre-eminently a chapter as to duties in regard to things indifferent in themselves.’ For things not indifferent there is another rule (Gal. 1:6-10; 2)” (523).


We are on solid exegetical ground in concluding that Romans 14 is limited in its application to matters of indifference. We have, therefore, defended the proposition that Romans 14 does not include things inherently sinful. We still have to list the various instructions given in Romans 14 which also confirm that this chapter is limited in application to matters indifferent.

Guardian of Truth XXXIX: No. 20, p. 2
October 19, 1995