At a previous point in our dialogue, we have already had reason to refer to the thoughts of great Baptist theologians of yesteryear such as John Dagg, B.H. Carroll, Andrew Fuller, and Benjamin Keach. In the present letter, I will be referring largely to the thoughts of John Gill, generally considered to be the first major writing Baptist theologian. I find it both interesting and gratifying, in the midst of our present discussion on differences of opinion between true believers on secondary matters, to be able to reference the words of the good Dr. Gill, who interestingly enough, served as pastor in the same church Keach had served earlier, and where years later, the venerable Charles Haddon Spurgeon would so effectively grace the pulpit. Throughout this letter, I will reference various of Gill’s comments on Romans chapter 14, and the first few verses of chapter 15, taken from his Exposition of the Entire Bible.
As I mentioned in my last letter, I believe that Romans 14 (including, as well, as part of the larger context, Romans 15:1-7) is the classic passage dealing with the questions currently before us. The general topic of this passage is what Paul calls "disputable matters" (v. 1). Although the specific examples given are those of "eating everything" vs. "eating only vegetables" (v. 2), and "considering one day more sacred than another" vs. "considering every day alike" (v. 5), it would appear these are merely representative of any number of potential "disputable matters" on which sincere believers may take different positions.
On certain matters, it is true that sincerity, in and of itself, is not sufficient. Our faith in Christ in not limited to a willing disposition, nothing more. There is an objective, empirical content behind our faith, which if denied, would actually invalidate our faith altogether.
However, when it comes to obedience of some commands of Jesus, at least from a certain perspective, it would appear the intent of the heart, despite the degree of correctness of our understanding, is indeed what really matters. As v. 6 states: "He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God."
Commenting on this verse, Gill observes:
The apostle strengthens the above advice with this reason, because what is done both by one and the other, is done unto the Lord. The weak brother that esteems one day above another, and regards the passover, pentecost, and feast of tabernacles, a new moon, or a seventh day sabbath, does it in obedience to the commands of the Lord, which he thinks are still binding, not knowing that they are disannulled by Christ; and the worship performed by him on any of those days is done in the name and strength of the Lord, with a view to his glory, and as believing it was pleasing in his sight; and whether he is right or wrong, it is to the Lord he does it, and to his own master he stands or falls (comment on Romans 14:6, emphasis mine).The point is, the hypothetical individuals in disagreement with each other are brothers (and/or sisters) in Christ (vv. 10, 13, 15, 21). As Gill states:
The emphasis lies upon the word "brother", in both branches of the expostulation; and the force of the apostle's reasoning is that they should not judge or despise one another, because they were brethren, stood in the same relation to God and Christ, belonged to the same family, were partakers of the same grace, and had no pre-eminence one over another; they had but one master, and all they were brethren (comment on Romans 14:10).
That is, neither party maintains a position of doctrine and/or practice that would preclude an authentic faith relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. We are not talking, for instance, about those who would deny the divinity of Jesus, or teach that salvation comes as a result of one’s adherence to the law.
As I alluded to in my last letter, if such were the case, our response would need to be different. There is an essential difference, both in the nature of the individual, as well as in the treatment that should be given, between "false prophets" and genuine believers who are sincerely mistaken in their beliefs and practice regarding certain points.
Nonetheless, although both parties have faith, the faith of one is relatively "weak" when compared to that of the other. The strength and weakness of faith alluded to here has to do, to a large extent, with one’s level of doctrinal understanding.
Commenting on this point, Gill refers to those "who are strong in the grace of faith, and are established and settled in the doctrine of it; and have a large and extensive knowledge of the several truths of the Gospel," (comment on Romans 15:1, emphasis mine) and also to "one that is weak in the doctrine of faith; has but little light and knowledge in the truths of the Gospel; is a child in understanding; has more affection than judgment; very little able to distinguish truth from error; cannot digest the greater and more sublime doctrines of grace; stands in need of milk, and cannot bear strong meat; is very fluctuating and unsettled in his principles, and like children tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine" (comment on Romans 14:1, emphasis mine).
Furthermore, the doctrines and practices involved, though legitimately referred to as "disputable," are not necessarily doctrines over which the respective parties might have a certain degree of uncertainty or misgivings with respect to their particular positions. As v. 5 states, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind," and v. 14, "As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself."
However, one’s degree of certainty regarding the correctness of his/her particular view is not the issue. Even though we may be fully convinced, without one iota of doubt, that our position is right, and our brother’s position wrong, that is not to come between our fellowship in the service of the Lord.
As Gill observes:
The advice the apostle gives, in reference to such a person, is to receive him; not only into their affections, and love him equally, being a believer in Christ, as one of the same sentiments with them, only in this matter, but also into church fellowship with them. The Syriac version reads it, (adya hyl wbh) , "give him the hand": in token of communion, a form used in admission of members. The Gentiles were apt to boast against, and look with some contempt upon the Jews, and were ready to object to their communion, because of their want of light and knowledge in these matters; but this was no bar of communion, nor ought a person to be rejected on account of his weakness, either in the grace, or in the doctrine of faith, when it appears he has the true grace of God (comment on Romans 14:1, emphasis mine).
…because God had received both the one and the other into his heart's love and affection, into the covenant of grace, and into his family by adoption: they were received by Christ, coming to him as perishing sinners, according to the will of God; whose will it likewise was, that they should be received into church fellowship, as being no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and God had also received them into his service, and they were made willing to serve him, as well as to be saved by him… (comment on Romans 14:3, emphasis mine).
…they are not to be despised for their weakness; and if in the church, are not to be excluded for their mistakes; and if not members, are not to be refused on account of them; since they arise from weakness, and are not subversive of the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel: they are not to be treated as wicked men, but as weak brethren; and their peevish tempers, morose dispositions and conduct, their hard speeches and censorious expressions, are patiently to be endured; they should be considered as from whence they arise, not from malice and ill will, from a malignant spirit, but from weakness and misguided zeal (comment on Romans 15:1, emphasis mine).
The crowning point, in Paul’s line of reasoning, however, seems to come in chapter 15, vv. 5-7, where he exclaims:
"May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God."Taken in the context of the discussion of chapter 14, it would seem that Paul is making the argument that, in the hierarchy of values in the kingdom of God, the "spirit of unity," which allows us "with one heart and mouth" to "glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," trumps the degree of our doctrinal correctness on "disputable matters." And, the way we put this unity into practice is by "accepting one another, just as Christ has accepted us," even though the other party may be sincerely mistaken about certain matters of doctrine and practice. And, when we do this, as a result, true, pure, authentic praise is brought to God.
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers