Commentary on Romans 14:13-23

Notes (NET Translation)

13 Therefore we must not pass judgment on one another, but rather determine never to place an obstacle or a trap before a brother or sister.

Judging each other summarizes vv. 1-12. The “strong” should stop judging the “weak” and the “weak” should stop judging the “strong”.

Nowhere in this passage does Paul tell us the exact manner in which the “strong” may harm the “weak”. Following Thomas Schreiner’s argument, I shall attempt to shed some light on how the “strong” might harm the “weak”.

The following words describe the effects the “weak” might suffer:

  • “obstacle” (proskomma, v. 13)
  • “trap”/”stumbling block” (skandalon, v. 13)
  • “distress”/”grief” (lypeitai, v. 15)
  • “destroy” (apollye, vv. 15, 20)
  • “building up”/”edification” (oikodomes, v. 19)
  • “stumble” (proskoptei, vv. 20, 21)
  • “condemned” (katakekritai, v. 23)

Paul usually uses the term “to destroy” (apollynai) of eschatological destruction (Rom 2:12; 1 Cor 1:18-19; 10:9-10; 15:18; 2 Cor 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thess 2:10). By itself “distress” (lypeitai) is vague but, since it is closely linked with “destroy” in v. 15, it should be understood to mean distress that causes one to go astray in the faith and experience ruin. The “stumbling block” (skandalon) word group is often used in contexts where salvation is at stake (Matt 13:20-21; 18:6-7; Luke 17:1; Rom 9:32-33; 11:9; 16:17; 1 Cor 1:23; Gal 5:11; 1 Pet 2:8; 1 John 2:10) and should be understood in the same way in this passage. The “stumble” (proskoptei) word group has the same basic meaning and eschatological falling is in view in some texts (Rom 9:32-33; 1 Cor 8:9-11; 1 Pet 2:8). Since “edification” (oikodomes, v. 19) is contrasted with destruction (v. 20) we should understand the edification in question to be that which leads to salvation. The term “condemned” (katakekritai) often denotes eschatological condemnation (Rom 2:1; 5:6, 18; 8:1, 34; 1 Cor 11:32; 2 Pet 2:6). With all this in mind, we can conclude that the harm the “weak” may suffer is eschatological destruction.

Schreiner suggests that the “weak” are “distressed” or “grieved” (v. 15) when they imitate the behavior of the “strong” without having the same faith as the strong. If a “weak” Christian were to eat meat he would be engaging in behavior contrary to his faith and conscience. The hypocrisy between his convictions and his actions injures his conscience and may plunge him toward ruin. He would be deciding to do what he believes God does not want him to do and, in that way, living like an unbeliever. This is perhaps why Paul says “whatever is not from faith is sin” (v. 23). To do what you think God forbids you to do is a sin. Furthermore, once you act in a way you believe is sinful you may choose to act in other ways you believe are sinful.

14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself; still, it is unclean to the one who considers it unclean.

The word “unclean” refers back to the OT purity laws. Paul does not think the OT food laws apply to Christians, even Jewish Christians (v. 20). He sides with the “strong” theologically.

It is not clear what role “the Lord Jesus” has in this emphatic declaration of Paul’s. Three possibilities deserve consideration: (1) “I know through my fellowship with the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean”; (2) “I know through my understanding of the truth revealed in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean”; (3) “I know through the teaching of the Lord Jesus on earth that nothing is unclean.” Good evidence can be marshaled for this last interpretation. Jesus’ teaching about true defilement was so important that Mark (writing in Rome at about this time?) added his own editorial comment to make the point clear to his readers: “And so he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19b). Paul’s “in the Lord Jesus” rather than his usual “in Christ [Jesus]” might also point to the historical Jesus. And a reference to this teaching of Christ’s would fit with Paul’s propensity to allude to the teaching of Jesus in this part of Romans. In the last analysis, however, this interpretation reads quite a bit into the phrase “in the Lord Jesus.” Perhaps, then, view 1 or 2, or a combination of them, is preferable.1

15 For if your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy by your food someone for whom Christ died.

Paul’s point is that the ‘strong’ should not insist on eating (unclean) food in the presence of the ‘weak’ lest they embolden them to do the same against their consciences, and so bring about their destruction by encouraging them to contravene the dictates of their consciences. In similar teaching in 1   Corinthians 8 Paul asserts that when the ‘strong’ act in this way, they ‘sin against Christ’ (1 Cor 8:12).2

“Destroy” might refer to the spiritual grief and self-condemnation that the “weak” incur by following the practices of the “strong” against their consciences. But Pauline usage suggests rather that Paul is warning the “strong” that their behavior has the potential to bring the “weak” to ultimate spiritual ruin–failure to attain final salvation. If Paul is not simply exaggerating for effect, perhaps he thinks that the “weak” in faith might be led by the scorn of the “strong” to turn away entirely from their faith.3

If, Paul implies, Christ has already paid the supreme price for that “weak” Christian, how can the “strong” refuse to pay the quite insignificant price of a minor and occasional restriction in their diet?4

16 Therefore do not let what you consider good be spoken of as evil.

The meaning of this verse is somewhat unclear. The “you” in question are the “strong” and what is “good” is either freedom from the dietary laws or the gospel. Who would speak evil of this freedom?

Douglas Moo thinks the “weak” might speak this way. He states:

Paul is warning the “strong” Christians that their insistence on exercising their freedom in ceremonial matters in the name of Christ can lead those who are spiritually harmed by their behavior to revile the legitimate freedom that Christ has won for them.5

It may also be that outsiders would revile the gospel because it appears to cause division between the “strong” and the “weak”.

17 For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

This is the first time in the passage that Paul has said anything about “drinking.” He may add the word here simply because it is a natural complement to “eating.” But it is also possible, in light of the reference in v. 21, that drinking wine was another issue that separated the “strong” and the “weak.” We would therefore assume that it was the “weak” who abstained from drinking wine, while the “strong” insisted on using their liberty to do so. But it is important to note that, supposing this to be the case, the “weak” would have abstained not because they were afraid of the intoxicating or enslaving potential of alcohol, but because they were afraid that the wine had been contaminated by association with pagan religious practices.6

[O]ne’s righteous standing before God must express itself in righteous behavior towards one’s fellow believers; the peace the believer enjoys with God must express itself in peaceful relations with other believers; and joy in the Holy Spirit should promote joyful interaction between believers. Paul’s depiction of the kingdom of God in these terms serves to highlight the absurdity of ‘the strong Christian’s readiness to bring about his weak brother’s spiritual ruin for the sake of such a triviality as the use of a particular food’.7

18 For the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people.

“In this way” appears to refer to the “strong” abstaining from some foods for the sake of the “weak”. In doing this the “strong” will be approved/esteemed by people too, meaning either the “weak” or unbelievers (one’s understanding of v. 16 informs one’s interpretation of this verse).

19 So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another.

20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. For although all things are clean, it is wrong to cause anyone to stumble by what you eat.

This verse is addressed to the “strong” individual (the second person singular is used). The “work of God” may refer to the church as a whole, not an individual. In this context, to say that “all things are clean” is meant only in reference to food or drink.

21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

Paul is speaking of specific occasions of eating and drinking. If on any particular occasion eating meat or drinking wine would cause a fellow Christian to stumble then it should be avoided. The “strong” could still eat and drink anything they wanted when they were not around the “weak”.

22 The faith you have, keep to yourself before God. Blessed is the one who does not judge himself by what he approves.

The “faith” in question refers to convictions about the things that divide the “strong” and the “weak”, not to Christian faith in general. The first half of the verse may mean that the “strong” should not brag about or flaunt their freedom because it might cause distress in the “weak”.

The text underlying the NIV’s ‘So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God’, when rendered literally, reads: ‘Have the faith that you have in accordance with yourself in the presence of God’. Jewett argues: ‘The issue is integrity, not privacy or discreet silence, as in the ordinary translation, “keep your faith to yourself”‘. The apostle’s exhortation may then be understood to mean that both the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ should act with integrity before God in accordance with their faith, that is, in accordance with their understanding of the faith and its implications for behavior. In the case of the ‘strong’ this would mean that they do not need to be secretive about their faith, but act with integrity in the way they express it, whether that means enjoying their Christian freedom or limiting it for the sake of the ‘weak’. In the case of the ‘weak’ it would mean that they too should act with integrity and abstain from doing things they believe are wrong and, we might add, to do so without adopting a judgmental attitude towards those who think differently.8

The second half of the verse is probably a commendation of the the “strong” who do not have reservations about eating all foods. The “strong” should be content with God’s blessing and not injure the “weak”.

23 But the man who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin.

The interpretation of this verse has been the subject of debate.

Ben Witherington III writes:

In v. 23, Paul turns around and speaks to the “weak,” indicating that they should not eat or drink anything they cannot do in good faith, because, though such eating or drinking may not be a sin in itself, it will be a sin for the weak because they thus violate their consciences and so are unable to offer the act up as an act of thanksgiving to God. Indeed, they will see themselves as condemned by God for doing it.9

Colin Kruse says:

It is sin because in doing so believers act contrary to what they believe God requires of them, and in that sense they sin against God. Ambrosiaster puts it this way: ‘It is true that if someone thinks it wrong to eat but does so anyway, he is condemned. For he makes himself guilty when he does what he thinks he ought not to. If someone acts against his better judgment in a matter of conscience, then Paul says that is a sin’.

Paul’s statement, ‘everything that does not come from faith is sin’, is his clinching argument to emphasize that any eating of food that one has scruples about, and, therefore, acting in a way that is not based upon faith, is sin. The general nature of Paul’s statement that ‘everything that does not come from faith is sin’ suggests that it could apply to other matters in which believers might act contrary to what they believe is true.10

Douglas Moo opines:

Paul here asserts a general theological principle. But it is necessary to describe accurately just what that principle is. Most important is to realize that “faith” here almost certainly has the same meaning that it has elsewhere in this chapter (vv. 1, 22): “conviction” stemming from one’s faith in Christ. Paul is not, then, claiming that any act that does not arise out of a basic trust and dependency on Christ is sinful, true as that may be. What he here labels “sin,” rather, is any act that does not match our sincerely held convictions about what our Christian faith allows us to do and prohibits us from doing. “For a Christian not a single decision and action can be good which he does not think he can justify on the ground of his Christian conviction and his liberty before God in Christ.” Violation of the dictates of the conscience, even when the conscience does not conform perfectly with God’s will, is sinful. And we must remember that Paul cites this theological point to buttress his exhortation of the “strong.” The “strong,” he is suggesting, should not force the “weak” to eat meat, or drink wine, or ignore the Sabbath, when the “weak” are not yet convinced that their faith in Christ allows them to do so. For to do so would be to force them into sin, to put a “stumbling” block in their way (cf. vv. 13, 20-21). First, their faith must be strengthened, their consciences enlightened; and then they can follow the “strong” in exercising Christian liberty together.11

Thomas Schreiner argues:

Some have maintained that the term πίστις (pistis) does not refer to trust and reliance on God, as is usually the case in Paul. Assigning a different definition for πίστις is unconvincing, as I have argued several times in this section. I noted above that this text is remarkably parallel to 4:19-21, which represents the classic Pauline understanding of faith. No compelling reason exists to depart from the usual Pauline meaning of trust or reliance on God.

How universal is the maxim concluding the verse? Many scholars contend that the aphorism must be restricted to the matter at hand, eating foods that are thought to be tainted. According to this interpretation, Paul does not say that all actions apart from faith are sin. He merely says that if one eats or drinks without faith, then sin exists. But if Paul had merely wanted to restrict himself to the situation at hand without providing a universal principle, he could have easily ended his discussion with the ὅτι clause (i.e., eating is wrong if one doubts, “because it is not of faith”). The last statement (“Everything that is not of faith is sin”) has a maxim-like quality, and the word πᾶν (pan, everything) is most naturally interpreted in a universal way. Indeed, introducing a maxim at this juncture makes good sense in context, for Paul desires to explain that eating apart from faith is serious because faith is fundamental to living the Christian life. Anything done apart from faith is sin. The “strong” can abstain from eating in faith because they do not need to demonstrate their faith in God in front of people.12

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 852-853 
  2. Kruse 2014, 521 
  3. Moo 1996, 854-855 
  4. Moo 1996, 855 
  5. Moo 1996, 856 
  6. Moo 1996, 856 
  7. Kruse 2014, 523 
  8. Kruse 2014, 525-526 
  9. Witherington III 2004, 341 
  10. Kruse 2014, 526 
  11. Moo 1996, 863-864 
  12. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 14279ff. 
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