How does Paul define sin? (Romans 14:13-23)

How does Paul define sin? (Romans 14:13-23) May 4, 2013

The Daily Office reading for today was Romans 14:13-23. I was particularly struck by verses 22-23: “The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith;for whatever does not proceed from faithis sin.” So basically Paul defines sin as “whatever does not proceed from faith.” But what does this mean?

In this section of Romans, Paul is exhorting his readers not to judge each other for different opinions regarding their participation in the pagan world after having converted to Christianity. Could they celebrate pagan festivals? Could they eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols? The Jerusalem Council had decided in Acts 15:20 to ban sacrificial meat, so one awkward reality about Paul’s statement that he is “”persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:14) is that this represents a break with the apostolic authority of the Jerusalem Council.

If Peter is the first pope, then Paul is the first Protestant, claiming the mandate of the priesthood of the believer, basically recognizing that it would be a greater betrayal to disregard what God has revealed to him personally by submitting to the Council. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:2-4, “It is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”

We forget that when Paul wrote all of these words, his opinion wasn’t canonized as authoritative Biblical truth. The authority of his opinion was simply the force of his conviction. He took very seriously his role as a steward of what God had revealed to him, seriously enough to contradict the consensus apostolic decree of the Jerusalem council. At the same time, he exercises the utmost pastoral discretion by trying to frame his instructions for the readers of Romans in a way that really does “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).

Basically he says that if you agree with the Jerusalem Council that eating sacrificial meat amounts to worshiping idols, then don’t eat it. If you’re able to genuinely eat the meat without being condemned by your conscience, then “nothing is unclean in itself.” But most importantly, “do not [on account of your own untroubled conscience] let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (v. 15). If someone else is going to be scandalized by something you don’t see as a problem, then don’t scandalize them out of compassion for their sensibilities.

I’m most interested in the way that Paul defines sin at the end of the passage. It ought to disturb people who want clear-cut black and white certainty from the Bible. In verses 22-23, Paul essentially says that sin is whatever causes you to “have doubts,” or troubles your conscience. In other words, he gives sin a completely subjective, relativistic definition. The word used in the Greek for “having doubts” is diakrino (literally “judge through”) which can have the positive connotation of “discern,” but in this case takes the negative meaning of “hesitate” or “waver.”

Paul says that if you hesitate (diakrino) because of something you eat or do, that means you are condemned (katakrino, literally “judged against” which we shouldn’t take in any permanent final evaluative sense). But you are blessed if you have no reason to judge yourself (krino eauton) by what you have approved. And all of this is connected to faith. Paul says that the one who hesitates does not proceed from faith (ouk en pisteus), and sin is precisely whatever does not proceed from faith.

This leads me to see at least one answer to the question of why sin is a problem. Sin sabotages our faith. We should of course keep in mind that faith is way more than just “believing” something or even “believing in” somebody. It is the trust by which we are linked in relationship to an invisible God who is constantly competing with our false images of Him.

The more that we do things which go against our conscience, or the voice of the Holy Spirit within us, the more our conscience is “covered in wrath” and our spiritual ears are deafened to the Holy Spirit’s voice, which causes us to stuff our shame deep within our hearts and project a Santa Claus God for whom we say our prayers which become superficial, farcical banter as long as the toxicity of un-confessed sin is sabotaging our trust.

The trust must be restored if we are to talk to the real God and not a fake spiritual hologram of our own invention. Certainly if we bare our hearts before God and confess our sins, then “he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). But every time we sin, we risk making that tough conversation with God even more unbearably farcical. God’s grace is always sufficient, but there is a real cost to exploiting it.

God doesn’t want us to wallow around in guilt. He just wants us to grow in our ability to avoid doing things that turn us into fake, shallow people who are neurotic, shame-filled basket-cases on the inside. He wants us to pursue integrity so that we can be fully awake, alive people who delight in our Creator. Even though Paul’s definition of sin is relativistic and subjective (with condolences to the modern foundationalist minds who are scandalized by that), it’s actually very rigorous because it covers a lot more ground than merely what the Bible explicitly says not to do. It is whatever kills our trust with God, whatever makes us hesitate on the deepest level, which means that we need to learn how to listen very deeply to what God reveals to our consciences.


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