Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at home one night when you hear a weird noise outside your door, see a bunch of flickering lights, and then moments later hear a knock on your door.
You answer it and there stands an alien family from outer space – there’s an alien mom, alien dad, and a couple of alien kids. You look at them for a moment, not being sure how to react, when one of them says, “Hi! We’re on vacation and got a little lost. We were on our way to our favourite spot but got turned around. Then we noticed your planet had its lights on so we decided to stop by. We’ve got a few days left in our vacation and think it would be great for the kids to see a planet like this. But before we head off, we have a question for you: What’s this planet like?”
How do you answer that? That’s a huge question, with a thousand answers. Do you talk about how we do food and water? How we communicate? Do you start with the national and political and religious situations they should consider? Do you start describing mountains and valleys and sunsets, or do you start with the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you should start with the history of the planet, it’s location in the solar system, how life came to be, and why it looks the way it does? But where should they go first? What must they definitely see on earth before they leave? What should they definitely avoid? What warning signs should they look out for and what is the best place to go to understand our global culture? If you’re a farmer you’ll probably have one answer, if you’re a geologist another. If you are a politician you’ll prioritize some things, if you’re an artist you’ll mention something completely different.
But the earth is finite, right? Technically, eventually, you could summarize and describe everything they would need to know so they had a basic understanding of planet earth and could set out on their way – but what if they asked you to describe our solar system, or our galaxy – from the atomic level all the way up to the largest formations of stars and everything in between. That would be hard, right?
But again, those things are tangible, physical, measurable. With a good enough microscope and telescope, you could theoretically take a good crack at it and eventually come up with a description of everything in the known universe.
But what about God? He is infinitely more difficult to describe? Why? Because He’s not finite, He’s infinite. He’s not bound by time, He’s eternal. He doesn’t have limits and boundaries that we can mark off because He is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing. He is literally unfathomable. And yet, it is our task as believers is to try to get to know Him. As I said before, from Christ’s words in John 17:3,
“…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Theology is the science of studying God. RC Sproul, in his book Everyone is a Theologian says this:
“Theology is inescapable. Not everybody is a professional Theologians with a capital-T, but we are all theologians with a lower-case-t because we all have some view of who God is. And so, fundamental to living and walking as a Christian is clear understanding of the truth of God.”
Regardless of what else we do in this world, our jobs, our family, our struggles and victories, it all revolves around the greatest mission in life: to know God and to know Jesus. All those things – our studies, our work, our relationships – not only teach us about ourselves and this world, but they all come back to teach us about the One who created it and for whom it was created (Col 1:15-17).
That’s what we’ve been getting at for the past couple weeks. In the catechism we are studying, we are trying to get a “clear understanding of the truth of God” so that we can wrap our minds around who He is, what He’s like, and what that means for us.
In truth, the last couple sermons and this one are the same – just broken up over the weeks. It would have been overwhelming to try to answer everything that Day 8 wants me to cover. In Day 8, which covers questions 24 and 25 of the catechism, it is traditional to explain not only the answers to the questions but to give an outline of how we know there is a God in the first place and then spend time describing His most obvious attributes.
Over the past couple weeks I gave a quick review, discussed the first attribute of God found in the doctrine of the Trinity, and then I told you that we would move into talking about more of those attributes. So that’s what I want to do today. As I said about trying to describe earth to those alien vacationers, it’s an impossible task to complete, but there are many things that we can do to get a good start.
God Wants to Be Known
And a good place to start is that God is a person who wants to be known.
Sometimes people say that God is unknowable, too mysterious, too impossible to understand, and therefore they either give up trying or construct a version of Him that is easier for them to comprehend. In fact, I just used the word “unfathomable” to describe Him. But to be “unfathomable” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing about Him, it means we cannot know everything about Him. And, in fact, because of the limited capacity of our language, even the words we use to describe Him will fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes, God is invisible and infinitely complicated, but on the other hand, God is a clearly a person who wants to be known, who has chosen to reveal Himself and has demonstrated a desire to be known in a lot of different ways. Today we’re going to talk about the most general ways.
General Revelation: Creation
First, He makes Himself known in Creation. Romans 1:19–20 when speaking of those who refuse to believe in God it says,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
The point here is that creation itself declares that there is a God. Theologians call this “General Revelation” as opposed to “Special Revelation” because it’s not specific. Examples of special revelation are things like the Bible, prophecies, miracles, the person of Jesus – but the world around us, the wonders and power of creation, is an example of “General Revelation”. No one can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through “General Revelation”, but through it, they can understand some of the big concepts like God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Meaning that everyone on earth, at some point in their life, looks at the world around them, the beauty, complexity, design, and usefulness and thinks, “Wow, there is something beyond me. Something self-existent that was before me, before everything, something beyond me that has the wisdom and power to create all of this.”
General Revelation: Conscience
But that isn’t the only source of General revelation. Coupled with the revelation of God in Creation is Him revealing Himself in our Conscience.
Let me read Romans 2:12-16 which speaks of how all mankind, not only those who have read the Bible, have fallen under the judgment of God. It says,
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
The second General Revelation of the existence of God is that everyone on earth has a human conscience. Yes, this conscience is flawed and imperfect, but it is also universal. Thomas Aquinas called this the Natural Law. What it is is an argument that if there is a universal, objective, moral law to which all humanity agrees, then there must be a Universal Law Giver. There can only be an up and a down, a right and a wrong, if there is some sort of reference point. And that reference point cannot be something we all coincidentally just came up with. We cannot have the belief that this world is all about the “survival of the fittest” alongside the internal, universal moral imperative not to murder. Yet everywhere, regardless of religion, history, or culture agrees that murder is wrong.
I heard a quote this week that said:
“For the atheist, humans are just accidents of nature; highly evolved animals. But animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. The cat is just being a cat. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behaviour in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong. But the problem is that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist. Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.’ You affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.” In other words, the person who says that murder, terrorism, and child abuse is morally right is just as mistaken as the person who says that 2+2=5. (The Theology Forum)
Everyone that has ever existed, if they have the capacity for self-examination and self-awareness, has a moment when they see a glimpse of God’s divinity in Creation. It’s universal. Also, every human being has a moment when they realize that their thoughts, actions, and motives are somehow conflicting with what they know is right. Their moral behaviour doesn’t line up with their moral understanding. They inherently know something is right or wrong, not because that thought was written in some book or because their parents said so, but because something greater, something within them has said it was right or wrong. Then they do the opposite, breaking their conscience, creating within themselves guilt and shame.
Every human being has to deal with those two general revelations – and then they must do something about it. They see the vastness of space, the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, the birth of a baby and it triggers something primal in their soul. At the same time, they realize that there is something in them that compels them and everyone else, every society on earth, towards and away from certain behaviours. Somehow, even in secret where no one can see them, in their heart of hearts, they feel pride when they do good and guilt when they do wrong.
At that moment they are faced with a choice to either explore those feelings, those revelations, those divine moments. They are given the invitation to seek after that power, try to discover more about it, to find that moral lawgiver – or repress that thought, ignore it ever happened, deny that guilty feeling and repress it until it goes away, to refuse to believe that there is any being above themselves or any morality that should stop them from achieving their own desires.
That is a universal, human experience, and it is what Romans 1 and 2 are all about. In the words of one commentary I have, it says,
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We just went through an election in Carleton Place and we were inundated with road signs with candidates’ names on them and pamphlets in the mail with pictures and slogans. Creation and Conscience are sort of like God’s signs, God’s calling cards, His invitations to know Him more. But what we cannot do is deny we have seen the invitation.
No human being will stand before God and say, “I never knew there was a being above me. I never knew the difference between right and wrong. I never felt that there was power or wisdom beyond myself.” Everyone will stand before God and say, “Yes, I knew in my heart that there was some kind of eternal power and divine nature beyond myself. I perceived it in creation. And I knew that throughout my life I was given the choice between right and wrong and I chose wrong time and again. I stand self-condemned. I chose to deny you, chose not to seek you, and chose to darken my heart so I could choose wrong, against my conscience, so I could have material things. I exchanged the pursuit of God for a lie of my own preference.”
Conclusion: The Virtuous Pagan
The bad news about General Revelation is that it only has the power to condemn humanity. Turn with me to Romans 1:18–25 and let’s read the expanded section of what we’ve been studying. It says,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
The question often comes to Christians: What about the person who has never heard Gospel, never read the Bible, never heard about Jesus? What about the innocent person who grew up in a far-flung country that has never been visited by missionaries or whose tribe wouldn’t let them in? Surely God wouldn’t hold that against them? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to Hell just because they’ve never heard of Him? That’s unfair! This is often called the problem of the “Virtuous Pagan”.
This argument has even been used to say that it is actually cruel of Christians to send missionaries because perhaps God would have saved that person if they had never heard of Jesus. What if the missionary bungled the presentation or the person couldn’t understand the story. We should just leave them alone so that they can find God their way, shouldn’t we?
The Doctrine of General Revelation, as presented in the Bible disagrees. First, God has not promised salvation to everyone and has no obligation to save everyone. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is because of His grace, not because He has to. The Bible doesn’t present humanity as good, moral, wonderful little creatures that God sends to Hell for no reason. Instead, the Bible presents humanity as fallen, sinful, evil beings that have rejected God, rejected objective morality, and have chosen sin instead, making themselves an enemy of God.
Everyone in that has ever existed, in every country, language, and nation, will stand before God and be self-condemned (they will admit their guilt before God) for what they have known through General Revelation. No one will be able to argue that they deserve Heaven because of their own merit or because of their ignorance. Some will be even more condemned because they not only rejected God’s General Revelation through Creation and Conscience, but have actually read the Word of God, seen the Law of God, heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rejected it too.
But the good news is that God has not left everyone condemned. He could have. But instead, God has revealed Himself and His plan of salvation to us and has invited us to be a part of spreading that message to others.
Next week we are going to move from talking about the General Revelations of God to the Special Revelations, and how we can know God better through them.
 Taken from ESV Study Bible note on Rom 1:19-20
 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (p. 86). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.
Handout / Small Group Questions:
Sin Ruins Everything
Culture presents to us a whole lot of options for things to do, but as Christians who want to do all things to the glory of God we often struggle to know what to do or not do, join or not join, buy or not buy, go or not go, befriend or avoid. In fact, it can become an all-encompassing problem for some believers as they try to enjoy the world that God has given them while avoiding the parts that are corrupted with sin.
And that’s the problem, right? This world is full of all sorts of awesome things, but it has also been corrupted by sin.
- God gave us healthy foods full of fat, sugar, and salt, and we stripped it of anything healthy and invented high fructose corn syrup, big macs, and potato chips.
- God gave us the gift of marriage and sexual intimacy, and we created rape culture, Tinder hook ups, divorce, high definition pornography and human trafficking.
- God gave us meaningful work and we invented slavery, workaholics, and corporate greed. God gave us a beautiful world to enjoy, and we invented industrial pollution, deforestation, fracking, landfills – and we’ve even sent so much stuff to space that space that it’s actually becoming a problem now.
Sin ruins everything.
- We want our kids to join a sports team, but then there’s price gouging, corruption, insanely competitive parents, and a life encompassing schedule.
- We want our kids to be educated, but public school boards have lost their minds, private schools are insanely expensive, and homeschooling is under attack.
- We want to get the internet for connecting with family, research, cat videos, and sports scores, but it’s an insane mess of gossip, misinformation, targeted advertising, and sexual sin.
And that’s not even addressing our inward struggle with sin and the demonic temptation that seems to be with us everywhere we go. Even if we were to sit by ourselves in a dark, empty room, we are capable of adulterous lust, unrighteous anger, pride, laziness, and more.
So, in this world full of sin, with flesh that wants to go wrong, how can we decide what a follower of Christ is supposed to do and not do?
A Million Options
This question is something we are presented with all the time.
- Do we celebrate birthdays or not?
- Do we have Santa Clause or not?
- Do we participate in Remembrance Day, or Earth Day, or Halloween?
- What school should I send my children to?
- Are there certain jobs that Christians can do, and others they shouldn’t?
- Can a Christian be a bartender, stock market broker, Hollywood actor or swimsuit model?
- What movies can we watch?
- Should we own a TV?
… it goes on, and on and on into every area of your life.
These questions can take over our lives and push us to despair. If we decide to err on the side of caution, we risk turning a passionate, growing, dynamic relationship with Jesus that flows into loving relationships with others, into a religious list of dos and don’ts.
You’ve probably met those Christians, right? They talk more about what they are against than about Jesus. Instead of focusing our lives on the wonderful gifts of worship, fellowship, discipleship and sharing the gospel with others, they end up paranoid that they are somehow messing up their lives, their faith, and everyone else’s lives every moment of every day. Or, if they think they’re doing a great job, they become prideful, self-righteous, religious Pharisees who think we are better than others.
“I don’t have a TV and I only listen to the Christian radio station, so that makes me a better Christian than you.”
“I’ve never had a beer, and I don’t go out dancing, so that makes me a better Christian than you.”
But there’s also the Christians who say, “I watch TV, drink beer, listen to rock music and still love Jesus, so that makes me better than you.”
It’s a big problem in the church because with all this mess the gospel of Jesus Christ rescuing poor souls from sin and hell by His amazing grace is almost totally lost.
And because of that, there are some who want to throw out the conversation altogether. You live how you want to live, I’ll live my own way, and we’ll just never speak to each other, ok? Let’s just split the church into people who do stuff and don’t do stuff, and then we can get on with the work of the church. After all, if having being saved by Jesus is really as simple as admitting we are sinners and believing Jesus died for our sins, then do we really need to worry so much about all of these other things? Actually, the answer is “yes, yes we do”. A lot of scripture is dedicated to teaching us to examine our lives, attitudes, and actions.
For example, Ephesians 5:15-17 says,
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
So how do we do that?
Problem, Illustration & Principle
As with most important questions, this one is addressed in scripture in a bunch of places. The most comprehensive places that I know of is in our book of 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. Let’s fast forward there and read how it shows the problem, gives an illustration, and then wraps it up with a general principle. This example is going to be about food, but don’t get hung up on that because the principle applies to all kinds of things we are faced with.
“’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
Let’s look at the first part together, and we’ll use the food example because it’s the one that scripture uses. This whole section here is talking about the problem that the early church faced with eating meat that was part of a pagan, religious service before it was sold. Was it ok to eat? And with who can we eat it? If a Christian is invited to community supper at a pagan temple, can they go? What if you go to a Christian’s house and they serve meat bought at a market where it was sacrificed to idols?
But this isn’t just about eating, the principle found within can be used for a lot of decisions. For the past couple chapters, Paul has been talking about how important it is that Christians live differently from the world and how we shouldn’t be putting ourselves into places where we can be tempted or fall into old habits. Right before the passage we’ve just read, he says in verse 21,
“You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
In other words, you can’t play both sides. You can’t call yourself a Christian but live as though you don’t know Him. You can’t worship Him on one day and then worship something else the next. You can’t drink the communion that represents your acceptance of Jesus death for your sins and then go out and get drunk and stupid with non-believers.
God is absolutely clear that the issue isn’t just about the wine or food –but the intentions of the heart of the one sitting at the table. He says, eat whatever you want because it’s not about the food, it’s about what’s going on in your heart and in the hearts of those around you.
What Are My Intentions?
Therein lies the first question we must ask ourselves when deciding whether to do something or not: What is the intention of my heart? Our motives and intentions are incredibly important to God, whether we’re doing something good or bad.
- Proverbs 21:2 says, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.”
- Jesus says this in Matthew 6:1 about people who do good things just so they can be seen by others: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
- When Paul’s motives are questioned by the Galatians he says, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10)
- To those who do things out of spite Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit…”
- “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:1-4)
You see, the issue isn’t really the food or drink, or holiday, or school, or sport, or TV… The whole issue is intentions and motives: why we do what we do, say what we say, go where we go…
I like to use a phrase I came up with a few years ago here: “Own your why’”. I came up to remind myself to make sure my motives are pure. What I mean is that when I do something I need to make sure that I own up to my reasons for doing it. Eventually, I will have to answer to God for why I did it, so I had better have a good reason now. I need to be able to defend for why it was ok with God. I need to think through the consequences. I need to “own” why I did what I did, because it’s mine forever.
So, let’s use the example of Halloween, which is the most current example of a decision we all had to make. How do you answer this first question? What was the “Why?” behind what you did or didn’t do? Did you do it as an act of worship towards another god? Perhaps the god of your stomach who desires the sacrifice of candy? Maybe it is the god of personal attention, which is why you put so much emphasis on being seen that day? Perhaps you struggle with sexual sin and the reason you went out was to see the indecent costumes.
Or, if you stayed home, why did you do it? Did you avoid everyone simply so that you could get a rush of pride and self-glorification when you looked down on others and said, “We don’t do anything for Halloween because we don’t believe in that sort of thing!” Did you know you can be more sinful sitting at home as a religious Pharisee than as one who goes out?
Or, maybe you don’t have a problem either way. For you it’s no big deal. It doesn’t strike your conscience one-way or the other. In fact, for you, going out is a good way to get to know and have fun with your neighbors and friends, and perhaps even build new relationships. Paul says, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” and that includes candy and fun costumes, so there’s no big deal!
The real, big deal is to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing.
How Does it Affect the Conscience?
Turning back to our passage in 1 Corinthians, we next see Paul painting a picture of a common situation that would happen which has some parallels for us today. “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” (vs 27) Lots of “ifs” there. If someone invites you, and if you decide to go, and if they serve you food that might have been sacrificed to idols… then just keep your mouth shut, eat it and enjoy it. This is what we like to call Christian Liberty. We are not like the Jews who were bound to hundreds of laws about what to eat, how to wash, when to pray, what to say, how far to walk, etc, etc. We are Christians, saved by grace, living in a world that is a gift from God and is full of wonderful things. The person who you are with is far more important than what is served. Knowing that says that there are lots of things we can do with no problem at all.
If someone invites you to a party, you don’t have to go, but you are certainly allowed. If you’ve checked your intentions and know you’re plan isn’t to go sin while you’re there, then go and enjoy your time. Now, if you know the whole focus of the party is to sin, then you likely shouldn’t be there because nothing good can happen. You can’t be a good witness to people there, and you’ll spend the whole time being tempted and frustrated. Can a Christian party? Sure! Jesus was widely known for going to parties with all kinds of people, and yet never sinned, so go ahead.
Now some of you older believers might think, “But what if someone sees me there! Won’t I be ruining my witness?! Won’t people think I’m a bad Christian if I’m at a party?” To that I remind you of what Jesus said in Luke 7:33-35,
“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
In other words, with some people you can’t win. If you abstain people will think you’re nuts, and if you go, others will think you’re a sinner. Jesus says, “wisdom is justified by all her children.” In other words, wise actions are only really seen after the results.
So, if someone invites you, and if you want to go (you don’t have to), and your intentions are clean, then go ahead and thank God for the time. But… let’s read verse 28.
For the Sake of Another
“But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it…” Ok, what’s going on here? Three things could be occurring:
- An unbeliever thinks that the Christian isn’t allowed to do something, and has put it in front of the Christian as a test of their faith to see if they will fall for it and sin along with them. This is the non-believer trying to publically embarrass or even corrupt the Christian by getting them to try something that could hurt their conscience.
- An unbeliever isn’t being devious, but their conscience is telling them that whatever it is might be morally questionable, but they’re not sure what your rules are. You go over there and they say, “I’m not sure if you’re allowed or not, but would you like… to play this game, watch this movie, drink this thing, go to this place, check out this website…” They are giving you a content warning, and it’s best avoid it rather than risk sinning or being a bad example.
- The person speaking is another Christian who isn’t as mature in the faith as you are, and still has a problem with such things. You know that it’s fine for you to do it, but your fellow Christian is freaking out a bit about it and doesn’t want to do it. Out of love for them, you need to back off and avoid it.
Paul qualifies why: “if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—” In other words, as Christians, we try not to go against someone else’s conscience. Conscience is a gift from God that gives us an internal gauge for what’s right and wrong. If someone’s conscience is twitching because of something, then don’t do it. We need to be careful to listen to our consciences, and we don’t want to teach anyone to stop listening to theirs.
If the unbeliever is feeling a conviction from God that whatever they are doing is a sin, then why on earth would we reinforce that it’s ok for them to do it? And if an immature brother or sister is just learning how to listen to God, then why would we ever teach them to ignore what their conscience is telling them?
Last week was the 499th anniversary of the kickoff of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther posting his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg door. He caused so much trouble that in 1521 he was brought before the Emperor and the Roman Catholic Church to recant his beliefs. He said this: “…my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
So there is our second question: How does it affect the consciences of those around me? As Christians we are allowed to do a lot of things because we are not bound by a bunch of religious rules and regulations. We don’t have to impress God by showing him how pious we are. But we must ask ourselves how our actions are affecting the spiritual journeys of those around us.
But… let me give you a word of encouragement. I know there are some believers who live a life of paranoia because of this question. They are always worried about everything they do – even when they’re not doing anything wrong. They invent all kinds of crazy scenarios about imaginary people they are harming.
- They can’t go bowling at 3pm on a Thursday when they have the day off because they’re worried that if someone sees them they’ll think they have skipped work… and then that person will think it’s ok to skip work… so they better stay home.
- They go out and have dinner and think about ordering wine or a dessert… but somewhere in the room there might someone who struggles with alcohol or overeating and their glass of wine or cheesecake might push them over the edge… so they only have a salad and drink water.
- An invitation comes to go somewhere, but they feel a burden for some person they’ve never even met who might possibly stumble if they go. They don’t actually know… but they always wonder if someone is watching them.
That, by definition, is paranoia.
Where does this come from? It comes from a misunderstanding of the Bible. To get clarity, let’s read Romans 14:14-17,
“…decide never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat [or drink, or watch, or buy, or drive, or own, or attend…], do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”. *[Added by me]
This isn’t telling you not to do anything, it’s saying that there’s nothing wrong with a whole lot of things. There are a lot of options in this world that are neither sinful nor wrong in and of themselves. But we need to know that some people do have a problem with some things. Therefore, because we consider the person more important than the thing we want to do, we love them by abstaining while around them. The key word in this passage is the word “put”.
We should never do something knowing it will cause another Christian to stumble. It is sin for us to flaunt our Christian liberties before those who are struggling. In doing so we become a tempter, like Satan. So out of love, we don’t do it because we know that someone’s walk with Jesus will be harmed.
But we shouldn’t invent imaginary people who might have a problem. We shouldn’t be bound by guilt, shame, and fear, right? And by the way — don’t let gossips and religious nit-picks ruin your Christian Liberty either. Just because brother or sister so-in-so is going to tattle on you, or is going to have a fit… that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Chances are that they aren’t going to cause you grief because you are causing them to stumble, but because they are petty people who want to hurt you, embarrass you, control you, and make you as miserable as they are by using a bunch of unnecessary guilt.
We can use the examples of Halloween, drinking a beer, taking a vacation, going to a movie, or posting on the internet. We must ask ourselves, “How does the way I’m going to do this affect the consciences of others? What do I know will happen — because I’ve already talked to them and have a relationship with them — not inventing a bunch of scenarios in my head involving people that may or may not exist – with the more spiritually immature brothers and sisters and unbelievers who are around me when I do this? Do I know if any of them will stumble in their walk with Jesus because of how I’m conducting myself? Remember, that could mean participating, or not participating. Maybe the issue is that you’re not going and it will cause people around you to stumble.
This is why we need to get to know people and do a lot of praying for wisdom about these kinds of things. We will be held accountable.
Is What I’m Doing Showing People Jesus and Giving Glory to God?
And our final question comes from the last part of our passage in 1 Corinthians 10,
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
There’s the bottom line.
Jesus said it like this in Matthew 5:13-16,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Last question: Is what I’m doing showing people Jesus and giving glory to God? Can you say that of your action or inaction? I can’t answer that for you. What makes you as salty and as bright as possible?
God doesn’t want you to lose your saltiness because of a bunch of ungodly religious rules. And he also don’t want your lamp to be hidden under a basket of sin. Your faith should add flavour to the places you work, live, worship and play. People who see you should see the light of Jesus reflecting through you, wherever you are. Your decisions should be not be based on your own preferences, not what brings you the most pleasure, but what brings God glory.
God has given us this world and allows us to do many wonderful things. It and the people in it are a gift. We need to treat them that way while at the same time recognizing that there will be temptations. We must be sensitive and wise in our actions because that pleases God.
So, when you are faced with your next decision? What will you do? What does God desire of you in your context, at this time, among the people that you are with? Seek God, ask Him, listen to Him, and have peace in the knowledge that if you believe in Jesus today, then you are loved as a son or daughter, forgiven by the blood of our Saviour, and blessed to be a blessing to others.