Summary: Five ways to use our spiritual liberty in Christ to pursue love in our relationships.
On Wednesday our nation celebrates its national independence. As you well know, the fourth of July commemorates the day when representatives of the thirteen colonies signed The Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. By signing that Declaration, those thirteen colonies were announcing their independence from England. The Declaration of Independence affirms that certain truths are self-evident, namely "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." So for the past 225 years, Americans have gathered on the fourth of July to celebrate these God given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Whether you celebrate by watching fireworks, having a BBQ, going to the beach, or working on your home, this is a time for us to reflect with gratitude on our nation’s freedom.
However, in recent years our celebration of individual rights has gotten a little out of control in American culture. Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter has observed that our emphasis on personal freedom has gotten out of control (Carter 219). As an example, Dr. Carter cites a legal case about a California university student who decided to attend all his classes naked. When challenged on his conduct, the student claimed his right to attend classes in the nude was protected by his right to freedom of speech. For that student, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness meant attending classes without clothing, even though his behavior was illegal and offensive to those around him. He claimed that forcing him to wear clothes to his classes was an infringement on this inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our culture has become so bound by radical individualism that our rights have eclipsed any sense of responsibility for the common good.
We’ve been in a series through the New Testament book of Romans called Good News For Our Times. And when I think about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I think the words "life" and "liberty" are a pretty good summary of what we’ve looked at in Romans so far. We’ve learned from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians living in the city of Rome that although the human race has joined in a mass rebellion against the creator, that by believing in the good news about Jesus Christ, we can experience new life. According to Rom 6:11, when we trust in the good news, we become dead to sin and alive to God. We receive new life as we’re made right with God through our faith in Jesus.
And the word "liberty" sums up our condition after we’re received this new life through Jesus. Back in chapter 6 of Romans, Paul said, "You have been liberated from sin" (6:18). Our condition is described in chapter 8 as "the glorious liberty of the children of God" (8:21). So life and liberty are key themes in Romans.
But is it happiness that this life and liberty frees us up to pursue? This is where the theme of Romans parts company with the vision of our Declaration of Independence. You see, it’s not the pursuit of happiness that’s to characterize the follower of Jesus, but the pursuit of love.
The last few weeks we’ve been looking at "The Good News About God’s Community" in chapters 12-16 of Romans. These five chapters show us how the good news of Jesus becomes embodied in a community of Christians, as we seek to live as Jesus Christ’s Church. The key to embodying the good news of Jesus has been love, love for one another, love for our enemies, and love for those in our government. Our faith in Jesus will bind us together in such a way that our faith in Jesus works itself out in love toward each other.
But sometimes we’re tempted to think that this spiritual life and liberty from sin was given to us so we could pursue our own happiness. We’re tempted to think it’s all about us, our preferences, our needs, our ideas, our values. We’re tempted to make ourselves the center of our Christian devotion, rather than realizing that genuine faith in Jesus leads us to pursue a life of love.
Today we’re going to look at five ways we can use our liberty to pursue love from Romans 14:13-23.
1. Contributing To People’s Spiritual Growth (Romans 14:13-15)
Now the specific issue Paul is addressing in chapter 14 of Romans is how Christians should relate to each other when they disagree about "disputable matters." There are certain topics that followers of Jesus have honest differences of opinion about how to best apply biblical principles. I’m not talking about differences in areas of essential Christian doctrine or clear moral absolutes, but I’m talking about differences in how to best apply a biblical principle. The issue back in Rome was over food and days, over whether Christians should only eat kosher food as defined by the Old Testament law of Moses and whether Christians should continue to observe the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish festivals like Passover. You see, some Christians from a Jewish background couldn’t imagine pleasing God unless they continued to follow these practices, so their spiritual liberty was narrow because it excluded things they were perfectly free to do. However, the majority of non-Jewish Christians in Rome had no problem eating all kinds of foods and worshipping on any day of the week, and they felt no need to celebrate Passover or any other Jewish holidays. Last week I gave some other examples of disputable matters, things like debate over drinking alcohol socially, debate about contemporary or traditional worship style, and debate about whether to homeschool, public school, or private school your kids.