Judging ConductErwin W. Lutzer | February 17, 2002
Selected highlights from this sermon
Have you ever gotten into a disagreement about a practice that the Bible doesn’t directly address?
Differences of opinion exist concerning many topics in Christian circles, and Paul helps us navigate these disputable matters. We should refrain from passing judgment on others or exercising personal freedom that may cause another Christian to stumble. Most of all, our behavior must be guided by the glory of God, not our personal pleasure.
All of us know that we as Christians have disagreements when it comes to matters of conduct. Now, of course, we all agree that there are some things that are always wrong. It is always wrong to break one of the commandments. It is always wrong to be conformed to this world. It is always wrong to have unwholesome words come out of our mouths. The list could go on and on.
There are some things that are always right. It is always right to love one another, to set our affection on things above, to be honest, and to respect one another. But in between those two categories there are some matters that are called matters of conscience, matters of debate, matters over which there can be legitimate proper disagreement.
Now, I have to begin by talking to those of you who are listening to this who are not members of God’s family. You are not a member of the family of Christ because you’ve never been saved and brought in as a member of the family, and I need to say a word to you. First of all, I’m so glad that you are listening, but secondly I want you to know that we’re going to be talking about things, which in your mind may be thought of as trivial. And you say to yourself, “Why do these Christians get all hot and bothered about such silly trivial issues?” And so I need to explain to you that we are concerned about trivial issues because as Christians, we are even concerned about trivial sins. And so that’s why some of the matters we talk about here will be trivial, but they are matters that instruct the Body of Christ. And so if you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior, we invite you to become a member of the Body, but today what you’re doing is you’re kind of listening in on some family business.
What I mean by differences of opinion is this, that if you go to Europe, you find that Christians very freely drink wine, and other things along that line. That even rhymes: wine and other things along that line. We here who live in America, we say to ourselves, “You know, in light of the fact that there is so much alcoholism, it might be best for us to abstain completely,” so those of us who abstain completely, except perhaps for a sip at a wedding, we say to our friends in Europe, “Now, why do you do this? Don’t you see the danger?” And they look at us and they say, “We just can’t figure these Americans out. God has given us all good things to enjoy. Why are they hung up on this issue?” And so you have a difference because of culture.
Let me say that there was a time when Christians did not go to movies, and there was a good reason for that, even as there are some good reasons for that today, because in the twenties you had a lot of sexuality in movies. And later on it perhaps straightened out a little bit, and then you have times where movies were censored, and so the Christian church by and large simply said, “Let’s not go. You’re supporting Hollywood, and so forth.” And then movies such as The Sound of Music came along, and Christians said, “Now, these are really good movies to attend.” As a matter of fact, Sound of Music has a lot to say about how to raise children, and so Christians began to attend movies, and today I am sure that most Christians do at some time or another. So you have differences, not only culturally, but you have differences in terms of the time era.
Now, you already have guessed, I am sure, that today I’m trying to tiptoe through a minefield, and one of the reasons you have mines is because the unwary sometimes step on explosives which are there for the protection of other people, so this is kind of dangerous business, but we’re on a journey here, and I want you to hear me all the way to the end. As I frequently say, it is my responsibility to speak. It is your responsibility to listen, and I hope to God we end at the same time.
There are problems that immediately we confront. First of all, we as individuals want to universalize our own personal convictions. I suppose this is very clearly seen in the styles of worship that we adopt. People say to themselves, “We have the right kind of music.” And by the way, here at The Moody Church I think we have the right kind of music. (applause) But if we were to go to other cultures we’d find that there are some people who would say, “You know, it’s too wild for me. (chuckles) You know, we believe in the holiness of God. We just come and meditate and we don’t want anything that’s a little upbeat.” And you go to other cultures and they say, “Hey, we enjoy the joy of the Lord,” and so you get a lot of people who are clapping and using creative movement, and they are really into it. And we want to say to ourselves, “Well, that’s not us.” Yeah, that’s not us, but it may be a cultural matter. There may not be one right way and one wrong way, and our tendency is to always universalize the way we do it.
There’s a second danger, and that is we want to relativize sin. There are some people who say, “Well, you know, if they can do one thing in this culture and they are getting by, then we can do it in this culture,” and we want to lower the standards. That also is a danger.
There’s a third problem, and that is that sometimes we define Christianity in terms of lists. You and I know that. We grew up with saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do that,” and some of those lists had real value. There is value in a list if you understand it. You know it’s usually epitomized by that saying, “Don’t drink, dance of chew, or go around with girls who do.” Some of you were reared with that, weren’t you? Well, if you understand these lists, they have value because they keep you from certain select sins. The problem is they don’t necessarily generate life.
Here in Chicago when I was the pastor of Edgewater Baptist Church, which is about eight or ten miles north of here, I phoned up one day to the proprietor of this certain section of Chicago, and I asked him about how many inhabitants he had, and he said, “About 160,000.” By now, I suppose, it’s around 200,000. Here is an area of the city where you have that many inhabitants. Not a single one smokes. Can you believe that? Would you like to move there? Not a single one drinks. Not a single one dances. Not a single one goes to movies. What a place to be! One-hundred sixty thousand inhabitants!
Now some of you are looking at me a little bit unbelieving here, but believe me it is. It’s just south of Peterson Avenue. It’s called Rosehill Cemetery. (laughter) You’ve got all those inhabitants who don’t do any of that, but the problem is they lack one thing and that is life. And rules have benefits, but one of the things that rules cannot do is give life. You say, “Does somebody who really lives up to rules, who’s really into rules, are they legalistic?” You know that word legalistic is a bad term, you know, when we call somebody a legalist. Listen, my friend, that may be, but not necessarily. Legalism is not living according to rules. Legalism is the wrong use of rules. When you define the Christian life from A to Z as somehow keeping these rules, that is legalism. But if you look at these rules as a way to keep you, and particularly young people, from certain sins, they may have value. And so don’t think that because somebody is really devoted and highly structured that they are necessarily legalistic. That actually would be a separate message.
Now, what we’re going to do today, as we always do, is to turn to the Scriptures, because the Apostle Paul lays out for us four timeless principles that apply to any culture, any era, and any time of the Christian church. And he says, “Live by these principles when you have these kinds of disagreements. So take your Bible and open it to Romans 14 where you can see here the Apostle Paul is dealing with a problem, a dispute, that arose in the church at Rome.
Specifically, what you had was some people who were still holding on to the old Jewish laws (dietary laws) and then you had some people who said, “You know, in order to make sure we do not eat meat that is sacrificed to idols, or for some other reasons (they were into vegetarianism)…” And so what you had was a dispute as to what they should eat and which was right.
Notice what Paul said in Romans 14:1: “Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.”
Let’s stop there. Paul was saying, “You know, the person who sees freedom in this regard, that he can eat meat or not eat meat, he is the strong Christian. But this weak Christian who thinks that there is some scruple that needs to be obeyed,” Paul says, “look, just let him be. Neither should judge the other.” Don’t judge in a matter that is (What shall we say?) one of these neutral issues where you can have difference of opinion. Just accept them.
We can say, “Well, the person who goes to the theater should not judge him who does not. And the person who does not should not judge him who goes.” You say, “Yeah but!” Hang on to your “yeah buts.” The point is that a theater itself is neutral. It’s neutral. Paul uses an illustration here in verse 4 regarding various servants. He says, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? If you are in a household and you are a servant among many others, it’s not for you to judge. Let the master do it,” he says. “Before his own master he stands or falls and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
Paul uses the illustration of keeping days—the Sabbath. He says in verse 5, “One man considers one day more sacred than another. Another considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special does so to the Lord. He who eats meat eats to the Lord. He gives thanks to God. He who abstains does so to the Lord. He gives thanks (and so forth) for nobody lives unto himself. Nobody dies unto himself.” And Paul says, “We shall all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Wow!
Does this have something to do with Sunday sports? Could I ask you the sensitive question? Whether you give me permission or not I’m going to. Is it sin to watch a sporting event on television on Sunday? All that I can say is I hope not because, if so, we’ve got a lot of sinners that I’m preaching to today, especially if the Cubs were to get into the World Series. (laughter) Now, no great danger! Just commenting! Just commenting! You know that here we can buy a t-shirt that says that anyone could have a bad century—a Cubs t-shirt.
Well, if it’s not wrong to watch on television, is it a sin to go? If we say yes, we’re going to be into all kinds of hair splitting distinctions. You say, “But yeah, Pastor Lutzer, aren’t you concerned about the fact that Sunday is being misused? You’ve got all these sporting events. You’ve got people shopping on Sunday, and the Lord’s Day is no longer sacred, and people are doing whatever they want to do. The answer is, “Yes, I am concerned.” I am very concerned, but the answer isn’t to come up with a new rule. The answer is to teach people to love God more than they do sports. That’s the answer. (applause)
You know, when I have a witness out there I like it better. Just keep it coming because there may come a time when it’s very silent in here. (laughter)
We have to teach people to love one another more than they love sports. I believe that for many people sports is an idol that needs to be repented of. But the real answer is not for us to come up with a brand new rule that covers all situations. What we need to do is to understand we have to accept one another because it is a means and is an issue by which we can have latitude.
So Paul says, number one, “Don’t judge one another, you super-duper (And I want to say here Pharisees), Pharisees because sometimes it’s possible to be a Pharisee about these things. It’s much easier to develop a Pharisee than it is a true disciple, let me say. Number one then, don’t judge one another.
Number two, don’t cause a brother or sister to stumble. Paul says in verse 13, “Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” He picks it up again in verse 19, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.” He says all food is clean but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. He says it’s better not to eat if it’s going to cause your brother to fall.
What does it mean to be a stumbling block to somebody? Does it mean simply that we should never do anything that some Christian somewhere doesn’t like? Not at all! Not at all! That’s not a stumbling block. Could you imagine Jesus going by that principle? He was always doing things that the Pharisees didn’t like. He was eating with Republicans and sinners. It’s a joke, folks! (laughter) He was healing the sick on the Sabbath. He was always irritating people. That’s not what it means. Imagine the bondage we’d be under if we said we can never do anything that some believer somewhere does not like.
When I was in seminary there was a seminary professor… Now, this is a godly man. You just have to put this together. He used to drive sports cars. I think he was probably normal in other ways. He was actually a good guy, but there was a student who said, “Professor, your sports car is a stumbling block to me.” Give me a break. What the student probably did is wish he had one.
The way that we can understand this business of stumbling blocks the best is to realize that in 1 Corinthians 8 (and you can turn there for just a moment), Paul is confronting much the same issue. And it’s interesting to see how he deals with it. Specifically, here was the problem. You had meat being offered to idols, and some of the Christians said, “Meat is meat. We can eat it after it’s been offered to idols because we don’t regard this idol as anything.” And others were saying, “Wait a moment. That meat was given to an idol,” and we can already hear the arguments. “You mean you’re eating meat that was offered to Zeus?” Well, the other Christian says, “Zeus is no god.” “What do you mean, Zeus is no god? Behind these idols there are demons.” “Yes, I know behind these idols there are demons, but the point is I don’t regard these demons, and Jesus is sovereign over the demons, and if Jesus owns the meat because He owns everything, I can eat it.” Can’t you just hear the discussion?
And so what Paul says is this in verse 9. And sometime when you have a moment you should read the whole eighth chapter, but it says in verse 9, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul says, “Man, if you feel that you can eat that meat, go ahead and eat it, but don’t let it be a stumbling block, for if anyone with a weak conscience sees that you have this knowledge (namely that you can eat it), and he’s seeing you eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?” Paul says, “To be a stumbling block means that you may be the cause of leading this person back to his former way of life.” And that’s very serious.
Forgive the trivia. I’ve already warned you, but I remember in Canada a man who was converted out of a life of gambling and booze, and he always used to go to the local pool hall. And that’s where he would shoot pool, drink and gamble. When he was converted he realized, you know, that his lifestyle had to go because “I just can’t handle it. It is sin. I’ve got to change.” Okay? So he comes into the home of a Christian, and I remember being there. It was on a Sunday after the evening service. We were invited by some friends. So he goes into the basement and there was a pool table. This new Christian was really surprised. Christians play pool?
What would Paul say? Well, that pool table is nothing. It’s like a ping pong table that I have more acquaintance with. I’d like to take anyone on who wants to challenge me on that, by the way. (laughter) You have to schedule it about four years ahead of time, but give me time to practice. I mean it’s nothing. The pool table is nothing.
But listen! If that person were to insist that this man begin to play again, it could be the bridge to lead him back to his former way of life, just as when the people in Paul’s time would have Christians over for dinner and insist that they eat meat offered to idols. You’ll notice what Paul said. He said, “This person is violating his conscience, and it could be the means by which he is drawn back to idol worship again, so don’t do that. That is serious.”
In fact, Paul even uses a very strong word. He says in Romans, “This destroys your brother.” Paul says, “Curb your liberty.” And he says, “Keep your own convictions to yourself if you think that there is going to be this kind of controversy.” He says in verse 22 (I’m back in Romans 14 now—Romans 14:22: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” And don’t go out there and try to bring people into some activity that could lead them back into some former snare. That’s what it means not to be a stumbling block. So Paul says, “Curb your liberty. Don’t be a stumbling block. Be willing to say, ‘Hey, I’m willing to give up this activity,’ or ‘I’m not going to eat meat.’” Paul says, “If eating meat causes a brother to stumble, I won’t eat any of it if it’s going to lead him back to his idolatrous lifestyle.”
What are the timeless principles? Number one, don’t judge one another. Number two, don’t put a stumbling block in one another’s way. Number three, don’t violate your conscience. You notice what Paul says now in verse 23. “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves, but the man who doubts is condemned if he eats because his eating is not from faith, and everything that does not come about from faith is sin.” Wow! Paul is saying, “Can you do it with a clear conscience, or when you do it would you be condemning yourself?”
Now, you see, the conscience is something that is based on… It’s given to us by God but if it isn’t trained right sometimes people have a bad conscience about something that they should be able to participate in. But until God gives them knowledge and gives them freedom, they had better not participate in it so that they can do it in faith and say, “I know that God looks down from heaven and sees this, and He enjoys my doing it because it’s right for me to do.” If you can’t say that don’t do it even if other Christians can.
For the last time I’m going to ask you to forgive the trivia, but I’m going to talk about myself. I guess that is trivia, most assuredly. I was brought up with the idea that card games are really, in some sense, occultic. I’ve never played any card games at all, except about twenty years ago with our daughters. I think I’ve played a couple of games of Uno. Do you remember Uno? Is there anybody here who remembers Uno? So apart from that I have no desire to play. I’m not signing up for any lessons on how to play. And so I go into a Christian retirement center with all these believers who have walked with God for 30 or 40 years or longer, and people who are more godly, I’m sure, than I. And after dinner, you know they are playing every card game… You know there is Canasta, and Poker, and all kinds of stuff going on there, and I’m looking at that and saying… I’ll just confess to you what I was thinking, being a little more honest than I should be, but you clapped a few minutes ago, so… (laughter)
My first thought was, “You know, I don’t think this is a good way to go. It’s probably not the best way to prepare for eternity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these people all got together and began to write letters to missionaries and began to get involved in other people’s lives?” But that was a judgmental thought so I’ll put that on the shelf.
The second thing I thought was, “Playing these games! Look at those ugly things on those cards. I wonder what they represent.” (chuckles) You see, for me (Don’t miss my point, and some of you may.) to play that might be a violation of conscience. I couldn’t do it in good faith so I shouldn’t. But I also can’t judge those who have the faith and who believe that’s okay. I have to back off and say, “Before his own master he stands or falls. It’s not for me to judge.” Paul says, “Don’t violate your conscience.” Now, it’s not that these people were in any way a stumbling block to me. I found no compelling temptation to go back to some former hidden way of life, but it’s a conscience matter.
Number four, you serve God and His glory, and not yourself. Look at what He says in Romans 15:1: “We who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” Wow! So as I was working on this message the question that I have to ask (and I’m asking those of you in the balcony as well as those of you on the lower floor, and those of you who are listening in others ways), “How much time do we give to please ourselves?” We’re not supposed to, because notice this. Verse 3: “Even Christ did not please himself. As it is written, ‘The insults of those insult you have fallen on me.’” Jesus did not please Himself. Now, there was one sense in which He came, and He delighted to do the Father’s will, but the Father’s will was not very cushy. The Father’s will did not have a lot of perks. The Father’s will involved the cross, and because it involved the cross, you know, Jesus said, “I’m not going to please myself. I’m going to please the Father, and I’m going to die for others.” Now, there’s our example.
Could you even imagine what that would do to Christian conduct if we applied that verse to ourselves? But now notice what he goes on to say in verse 5: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Jesus Christ, so that with one heart and mouth you say (Here’s the phrase now and it’s actually the phrase of our worship theme today.)… “With one heart and one mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What that means is something deeper than any possible rules could ever be. We’re talking now about something that transcends all of the judgments that we make sometimes externally, so superficially. Now suddenly we have to ask, “Does this activity glorify God?” And that’s transcultural, and everyone in every situation has to ask that question.
So you tell me that you have the freedom to go to the theater. Is that what you’re telling me? It’s what some of you are telling me? Are you doing this for the glory of God? Do you sit there and say, “Through this God is glorified?” I think that would cut out quite a few movies.
You say, “Oh yes, I have the freedom to watch television.” Do you have the freedom to watch television, to take the risk with all of that impurity? Okay, fine! Are you doing it for the glory of God, and would you shut it off when it no longer glorifies God? Will you do that? You say, “Oh, I have the right to be on the Internet. I have the right to be addicted.” (chuckles) Like some people are, hour after hour, playing these trivial (I’m sorry. I’m being trivial but it’s coming out.) games that will amount to nothing in the day of judgment. And you have the right to do that? Are you glorifying God by what you are doing on the Internet? You know is that… You know, if suddenly you are on the Internet and the phrase comes out, “the glory of God,” does it fit?
Let’s talk about the Bears. We mentioned the Cubs. Let’s mention their parents, the Bears. You’re telling me that you have the freedom to skip church to go to watch the Bears? That’s what you are telling me? Okay! Before your own master you stand or fall. Does that bring glory to God? And I’m not judging here. Maybe it may. Maybe there’s a friend you need to go with who needs to know Christ as Savior. I’m really not asking these questions prejudging what the answer is. I’m saying the basis upon which we make those decisions should be, “I want to glorify God in my body, and in my spirit, and with all that I am.” Therefore, I have one fundamental question. How do I live the few days that God has given to me on planet earth?” That’s the question! Wow!
So, my friends, how are we going to go? You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what is the bottom line?” I’m getting there. I can see the runway. The plane is already hitting. The bottom line is this, folks, and this is not only for you as a Christian, but for you who have been listening in who are not a part of the Christian family, thought we certainly wish you were. Listen. Christianity is not a matter of rules. It is a matter of relationship. It is intimacy and joy (applause) in the fellowship and the service of Christ, and that’s what it’s about. Certainly the rules have their place. Absolutely! But rules themselves cannot grant life. They cannot bring you to God. And it’s the relationship that matters.
“Oh,” you say, “but Christianity has so many restrictions.” Just like Eve when she was there in the garden, you know, had so many trees from which she could eat. And what does Satan do? He highlights one tree and says, “You can’t eat of that tree, can you?” And he blinded her eyes to the hundreds of trees in the garden from which she could eat, and he does the same to us today. He says, “Well, you know, Christians don’t do this; Christians don’t do that. Look at how narrow they are.” That’s not the point, my dear friend. Christians long to know God, and to please Him.
Do you remember that story of a kite? It’s only a fable, of course, but the kite said to itself as it was being held down, “You know, if I could just get rid of that man who has the string, that man who is holding me, if I could just get rid of him then I could fly real high, and I could even go as high as the stars. That guy is restricting me. Look at those rules that hold me back.” Well, one day the string broke and the kite said to itself, “Now, at last I can fly as high as I like, and I can kiss the stars if I like.” But you already know what happened. The kite came crashing down to the ground because there is a law of physics that basically says that the string that holds a kite down is actually the string that holds it up.
And the God who gives us restrictions, and the God who gives us principles, and the God who gives us rules, if we want to touch the stars in our lives, if we want to really soar, the best thing is to put God in control, and say, “Father, cut out of my life all the things that do not bring glory to your holy name.” For that reason, we were created, and it is for that reason that we must live.
Our Father, today we want to thank You for Your word, for its relevance. Thank You today, Father, for believers. We pray that You will deliver us from a judgmental spirit, for those who are critical of this and critical of that, and they don’t understand that their own personal agendas are all wrapped up in what they are saying. Oh, Father, we pray, help us to cut through it all, and at the end of the day to cultivate our relationship and love for You. Grant us a passion for God that is greater than our passion to sin. And we pray that, Father, as I pray for myself and the staff, and the leadership, and for everyone who has heard this message.
In light of what we’ve said today, what is it you need to say to God? Whatever it is, you talk to Him.
Father, we are needy. Guide us according to Your holy will and purpose, we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.