Grace and Opinion

Bruce Terry

The Problem

When Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, they apparently had a problem with church unity. He devoted a chapter and a half (14:1-15:13) to the question of Christian brothers judging and despising one another. Other parts of the "practical section" (chapters 12 and following) of the book of Romans have a bearing on this question: the instruction for each to think of himself with sober judgment and to use the gifts God has given him (12:3-8) and the admonition to love one another (13:8-10). Some have thought that Paul was writing a treatise on Christian doctrine, with a practical section tacked on to the end. But it would seem rather that he was writing to admonish the Romans to get along together, and since he had never been there, found it necessary to lay the foundation teachings in the first eleven chapters.

The Roman Christians were having disputes among themselves as to whether or not it was right to eat meat, or to drink wine, or to observe special holy days. These arguments had led those who thought such things were wrong to judge those who thought they were permissible. On the other hand, those who thought such things were acceptable showed their scorn for those who said they were wrong. Paul counters these arguments by showing that the only way anyone will be saved is through Jesus Christ. The fact is that no one is perfect and no one is going to be saved because he does everything right. Perhaps your brother is wrong about some "issue." But he is not going to be saved by being right on the "issues." He is going to be saved by God forgiving his sins through the blood of Jesus. Because of this Paul can write, "the Lord is able to make him stand" (14:4), even though he may be wrong. In this time of trouble over the "issues," we need once again to hear the apostle's teaching.

The Foundation

Paul begins his line of reasoning by showing that all men, whether they believe in the one God or not--Jews or Gentiles, have sinned and are under God's wrath. Toward the end of this section (1:18- 3:20), he charges that "all men, both Jews or Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: 'None is righteous, no not one'" (3:9-10). No one has been able to keep God's law, so it cannot save anyone. Rather the law serves the purpose of letting us know we have sinned. But in this last age a way has been shown how to be right with God even if we can't keep God's law. That way is that God Himself declares us right with Him as a gift, based on the redemption that is found in Christ Jesus due to His atoning blood. This gift is offered to all men, since all men have sinned; but it must be received by faith. And so a person is declared righteous by faith, or, as we more usually say, justified by faith.

Justification by Faith

What does it mean to be justified by faith? Paul explains that idea in chapter 4. Now the reader needs to understand that "to be justified" and "righteousness" are similar words in Greek: dikaiothenai and dikaiosune. This is the language of the lawcourts, where a person is declared guilty or "righteous" (cf. Luke 23:47). How can I be declared "righteous" by God on the Day of Judgment, when I, like other men, have sinned? Paul's answer is that God counts my faith as righteousness. He takes the example of Abraham, whose faith, scripture says, was counted or "reckoned as righteousness." The Greek word logizomai, translated "counted," "reckoned", or "imputed," was used as an accounting term. Thus it is that the NIV correctly captures the sense when it translates that Abraham's faith was "credited" as righteousness. The picture is one of God keeping account books in heaven. Abraham's ledger sheet showed many good deeds to his credit, but on the debit side were sins also. How could he make up for them? The fact is that no man can make up for his own sins. So what God did was to take Abraham's faith and consider it to be righteousness. Faith is not a righteous act in itself to offset sin. It does so only because God credits it as righteousness. Of course, this whole idea is simply a way to describe God's grace. In regard to David, Paul says the same thing in a different way. He quotes David as saying, "Blessed is the man against whom the Lord shall not debit his sin." There is little difference in saying God credits faith as righteousness to offset sin and in saying He does not debit sin. The point is that the Lord is the One who removes sin.

Now when Paul talks about "the one who works" in Romans 4:4, he is not talking about just anyone who does good works, but about the person who is trying to earn his salvation by doing good works. If that person can live like God asks him to, the reward of heaven is not a gift from God but a debt that God owes him. But if a person realizes that he can never be that good, all hope is not lost. For Jesus Christ has died on the cross to provide a way that he can be righteous. If a person is not trying to earn his way to heaven by being good enough, but instead is putting his trust and faith in God to save him, then scripture promises that God will count his faith as righteousness also. Indeed, in Romans 4:23-24 Paul says that the fact that Abraham's faith was counted as righteousness was not written down just so we could know he was saved, but so that we could know that we can be saved in the same way.

This is not to say that faith has any real existence apart from works. True faith works through love (Gal. 5:6). The faith that does not show itself by its works is dead and barren (James 2:20, 26). But the scriptures are quite plain that no one can do enough good works to be saved (Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5). James speaks of being justified by works only because faith is made complete by works, for it is faith, not works, that is counted as righteousness (James 2:22-23).

When the scripture says that a person is justified by faith, what it means is that God counts his faith as righteousness. That these two statements are actually the same is much clearer in the Greek than in English. A literal translation of the Greek would be that a person is justified (i.e., declared righteous) "out of" faith and that God counts his faith "into" righteousness.

The Solution

What does all of this mean? First, as regards the individual, it means that I can be at peace with God (Romans 5:1). Instead of having to worry about whether I can be good enough to go to heaven, I can realize that it is not my goodness which makes me right with God, but my faith. When I sin and fall short of God's plan for my life and the devil discourages me by whispering that I am not good enough, I can say, "I know; my righteousness is not my own," and forgetting what is behind, press on in my work for God (Phil. 3:9, 13-14).

But it also has a meaning for the congregation, and this is Paul's point in the book of Romans. Even if my Christian brother is wrong in some of his ideas, he, like me, is not saved by being right, but by believing in Jesus. I can still accept him as a Christian, even if I disagree with him. After all, it is the Lord who will make him stand.

I do not have to like what my brother believes, but I am commanded to accept him and not to argue with him over opinions. Now the word translated "opinions" in Romans 14:1 may well be rendered "inferences." It is not referring to prejudiced ideas but to reasoned conclusions. The word dialogismos is translated "reasonings" in other places and the cognate verb dialogizomai is translated "reason" 15 out of 16 times in the ASV. This passage does not allow a Christian to bind his inferences on his fellow Christians. Church splits seldom happen over disobedience to direct commands in scripture. Rather the "issues" are almost always over matters where the teaching of scripture is not quite so plain and the application must be inferred from other scriptures. One person says that one scripture implies one thing while another says that another scripture implies something else. And so the argument begins, and soon the judging and despising set in. If not checked, a church split will result.

This is not to say that inferences are wrong. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. But it is wrong to bind your inferences on others or to refuse to accept them as Christians because they do not accept your line of reasoning. They must be accepted, because Christ has accepted you both (Rom. 15:7). After all, they, like you, are accepted by God, not because they are always right, but because they believe in Jesus.

--Bruce Terry     
February 1983

This article orginally was published as:

Terry, Bruce. 1983. Grace and Opinion. Firm Foundation 100 (May 31).

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