Children grow up from infancy, to childhood, to adolescence and then to adulthood. At the beginning they are totally dependent on their parents and are not held accountable for their behavior. But as they grow up, they are trained to be responsible and accountable. The Bible teaches that everyone is answerable to God (Mt. 12:36-37; Rom. 3:19; Heb. 9:27). But when are children accountable to God?
The Bible says that both Christians and non-Christians are accountable to God. At the end of their lives, Christians “must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10NIV) when “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Rom. 14:12). This is used to determine their rewards in heaven (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Non-Christians are “judged according to what they had done” at the “great white throne” (Rev. 20:11-15). This is used to determine their punishment in hell.
Is this fair? God has revealed Himself to everyone in at least two ways. First the natural world demands a Creator – complicated things, like animals and plants and people, don’t make themselves (Rom. 1:19-20). Second, we all have a conscience and so can know instinctively what is right and wrong and feel guilty when we do wrong (Rom. 2:14-15). If someone hasn’t heard about how God revealed Himself in history (in the Bible), then they are judged according to their response to these more general revelations of God. So God is fair and “people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
The Bible teaches that we are sinful from birth (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 51:5; 58:3). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death leads to eternal separation from God (Jn. 3:16; Rom 6:23).
The Bible also teaches that because they do not yet know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil, infants are not accountable for their sin (Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:31; Isa. 7:14-16; Jon. 4:11). They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.
So very young children are not accountable for their sin. Their minds are not developed well enough to understand that things don’t make themselves or to feel guilty when they do wrong. But what about when they grow past this stage of life?
The Bible makes two types of statements about the sins of parents and children. First, with regard to the commandment given to the Israelites against idolatry, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Dt. 5:9). As they lived in households that extended to three or four generations, this means that the temporal judgment for their rebellion against God was on themselves and their households. The Bible gives examples of households that experienced the consequence of God’s judgment of the sins of their patriarch (Num. 16:31-35; Josh. 7:24-25). Likewise, today the consequences of a parent’s behavior can impact others in their household.
When the Jews used this statement to say that they were suffering for their ancestors’ sins, Ezekiel corrected them writing “The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek. 18:4, 20). This is an example of the second type of statement, which relates to the death penalty. “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (Dt. 24:16; 2 Ki. 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4). So in the Israelite legal system, a penalty was to be imposed only on those who committed the crime, and not on those who were innocent. This meant that after children reached the age when they knew the difference between right and wrong, they were accountable for their behavior. Likewise, today when children are old enough to respond to their conscience they are responsible to God for their own behavior.
So the statement that everyone is accountable to God doesn’t apply to young children or those whose minds are not developed well enough to understand that things don’t make themselves or to feel guilty when they do wrong.
But those who have grown past this stage of life and can understand these things are accountable to God. They have no excuse. That’s why it’s important to know that our sinful ways separate us from God, but Jesus died to take the punishment that we deserve (which is hell) and reconcile us to God. We need to take responsibility for our behavior and confess our sins, because God cannot forgive our sin until it is confessed.
Written, May 2014
As there will be people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” in heaven, it seems that some of these would not have heard about Jesus before they died (Rev. 5:9-10). I believe that infants go to heaven when they die because they are not accountable for their sin. We will look at other people in two categories, those who lived before and after Christ.
The Bible says that those who trusted God in Old Testament times go to heaven. Although most of the promises they were given were physical, they also had a heavenly hope. They realised that this earth was not their final home: “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Heb. 11:13NIV). Instead they were looking towards heaven: “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16a). We are told that God “has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16b). In particular, Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
These people are commended in Hebrews as those who lived by faith. The Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). The Jews were told, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). This faith was based on a revelation from God.
“Enoch walked faithfully with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24). So did Noah (Gen. 6:9). This means they obeyed God. “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Job repented after God revealed His power through nature (Job 38-41; 42:6).
So those who trusted in God’s revelation to them before the formation of the Israelite nation go to heaven. In their case, God usually spoke directly to them.
God spoke to the Israelites “at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). It is stated that Moses accepted “disgrace for the sake of Christ” (Heb. 11:26). But as Moses lived about 1,450 years before Christ, this seems to be a figure of speech. It means that Moses choose to be loyal to God and to associate with his fellow Israelites. The reason given is that “he was looking ahead to his reward”. As Hebrews was probably written about 65AD, the writer knew that the Messiah was the one through whom God guaranteed their promised future.
So the Israelites who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. In their case, the revelation was usually miracles and the law given through Moses.
We know God revealed Himself to the Israelites as they were His people during this period of time. But what about the Gentiles? The Israelites were told to follow the laws that God gave them through Moses so that other nations would come to know God: “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Dt. 4:6-8).
Rahab is a Gentile who trusted God (Heb. 11:31). She told the Israelite spies, “I know that the Lord has given you this land … for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:9-11). Because of what she had heard of the Exodus and the defeat of the Amorites, she realised that the God of the Israelites was greater than the Canaanite gods. So she rejected the Canaanite gods to follow the God of the Israelites.
Also Ruth the Moabite told her Israelite mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Likewise, she rejected the gods of the Moabites to follow the God of the Israelites. God’s interest in the Gentiles is shown in the book of Jonah where Jonah was sent to Nineveh with a message of God’s judgment and the people repented of their sin (Jon. 3:1-10).
So the Gentiles who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. God revealed Himself to them through the Israelites when they heard about their law and the miraculous preservation of their nation.
All the above are examples of people who go to heaven without hearing about Jesus. But the Bible says the following about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12NLT). And Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). This means that the only way to get into heaven is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Before Christ’s death people were saved according to their acceptance of God’s revelation to them. It was based on the future work of Christ. So those who trusted in God’s revelation in Old Testament times go to heaven because their faith in God was equivalent to faith in Jesus Christ. They were saved on credit. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). In this way God overlooked the sins of those who trusted in Him before Christ’s death and resurrection.
In Romans, God reveals that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23) and we can only get to heaven through trusting in Christ’s sacrifice for us (Rom. 3:22-26). But it also says that people are judged according to God’s revelation to them: “All who sin apart from the law (Gentiles) will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law (Jews) will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12). The two main ways that God reveals himself to people who haven’t heard about Jesus are creation and conscience.
Firstly, the physical world demands a Creator. Its design requires a Designer. The laws of nature require a Lawmaker. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a creator God. “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20NLT). Enough of God is revealed in His creation that there is no excuse for not believing in Him. Those who reject this revelation follow idols and practice sinful behavior and suffer God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18-32).
Nature is a testimony of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4). Also, Paul said “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17).
So if people haven’t heard about Jesus, they can be judged according to their response to the revelation of God in creation. If they turn from idolatry and seek the true God, then God may give them additional revelation. For example, Cornelius was a Gentile who sought God. So God sent Peter to tell him about Jesus and salvation (Acts 11:14). God can appear to people in many ways throughout their lives. He can send people to inform them (Rom. 10:14-15). Because God doesn’t want anyone to perish in hell and wants everyone to repent of their sin, we must trust that He has made a way for those people (2 Pt. 3:9).
Secondly, everyone is born with a conscience. We all have an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, and commit adultery and murder. The Bible gives God’s standards for humanity. But for those who are ignorant of this it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15NLT). Anyone who has not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. God will say, “What did you think was right and wrong?” The next question is, “Did you always do the right and not the wrong?” By that standard, of course, everyone fails. The conscience proves that we are sinners like the law does for the Jew.
The issue is their response to a guilty conscience. If they were sorry for their behavior and would repent then they would probably go to heaven. This reasoning is based on the fact that God is just and wants all to be saved. He has made a way for all, but few accept it.
Like those who lived before Christ, the issue is whether they responded to God’s revelation to them. So through the creation and our conscience, God gives everyone the opportunity to turn to Him and be saved from the penalty of their sinfulness and go to heaven.
Lessons for us
Like the Israelites, a Christian’s behavior can influence an unbeliever to repent and follow God and go to heaven. “Live such good lives among the pagans (your unbelieving neighbors, NLT) that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pt. 2:12).
Although people can to be saved without hearing about Jesus, it isn’t likely to occur in very many instances. The usual way to go to heaven is to respond to hearing about Jesus. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14). That’s why it’s important to tell people about Jesus as much as possible and support others in this work.
The wisest man of ancient times wrote, “He (God) has planted eternity in the human heart, but … people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11NLT). What is eternity? It’s an endless period of time. This suggests that there is more to life than what we see. Our world is big, yet its satisfactions are small. We don’t understand what’s going on. Solomon summarised it from a human viewpoint; “everything is meaningless” (Eccl. 3:19NIV).
Since we were made for eternity, the things of time cannot fully and permanently satisfy. After the ipod, the iphone and the ipad, we look for the next technology.
We live in an amazingly complex world which has much beauty that scientists are still exploring. It is loaded with information and design. Design demands a designer and creation demands a Creator. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a creator God. Creation shows that He is a clever and powerful God. The Bible’s message to those who reject this knowledge is “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20NLT). The eternal God is the source of our eternal future.
But there is more information in our world than the atoms and molecules of our physical world. Everyone is born with a conscience, which is part of our eternal soul. We all have an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. It is like an inbuilt alarm. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, and commit adultery and murder. But in this world where people often reject God’s revelation it can be programmed wrongly.
The Bible gives God’s standards for humanity. But for those who are ignorant of this it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15). Anyone who has not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. So the Creator made us with a mind that is able to make choices, not one that is driven by instinct. Unfortunately, we often choose to disobey our conscience. Then we have a guilty conscience which we may try to ignore. But the Creator has provided an answer to our selfish and rebellious ways.
Eternity is a continual reality in the Bible, which is God’s special message for mankind. It tells us all we need to know about history and about humanity. About the moral choices made throughout history from the times of our original parents Adam and Eve. About how we have all rebelled against God and gone our own way. How we all have a guilty conscience, whether we acknowledge it or not. How this selfish and rebellious (sinful) attitude has lead to suffering, disease, decay, death and eternal punishment. How God’s solution to our problems was to send Jesus to take the punishment that we deserve. He was executed and then resurrected back to life, which we remember at Easter time. He offers each of us the opportunity to be reconciled back to God and have our conscience fixed: “Sin pays off with death. But God’s gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23CEV).
Firstly we need to realise our hopeless situation and then we need to accept the gift of forgiveness. Jesus shows that He is a compassionate and loving God. He is waiting for people to accept His offer to give them a new life and an inheritance with Him in the life to come.
Lessons for us
As we all live on the edge of eternity, keep eternity in mind (Lk. 12:16-20). God has revealed Himself to us all through His creation and our conscience. But the clearest revelation is through Jesus Christ who is made known through the Bible. This is why the Bible is the most important book ever written. It is life changing. Through it we can be part of God’s eternity. His new eternal creation; His eternal life.
Written, June 2009
Does God exist? Some people say yes, others say no, and some just don’t know. Let’s look at some of the evidence that should help all of us.
We live in an amazingly complex world. The universe is so vast that scientists use light-years to measure distances in space. The distance that light travels in one year is 9.5 trillion kilometers. That’s 9.5 followed by 12 zeros! Starting with us, size increases: the earth, the sun, the solar system, and our galaxy – the Milky Way – which is approximately 100,000 light-years across.
Not only is it very large, but the universe is also made up of very small constituents. Consider us; then consider the ant, the amoeba, the molecule, the atom, the proton, neutron and electron, and subnuclear particles called quarks.
Most digital cameras have a zoom lens that can change the image size by up to three times, and camcorders have 10 times optical zoom. But if we went on a cosmic zoom extending from the galaxy down to quarks, we would change size by 1×1042 times, which is “1” with 42 zeros after it!
This amazingly complex universe is loaded with information and evidence of design. On earth we also have a living world which reproduces itself. The information for living creatures is coded in DNA molecules. But information is the product of intelligence, not chance. We know from the world around us that life always comes from something else which is living. Life does not come from nothing, it comes from something, and that something is always something which is alive. A living God created the world and all life that exists came from Him. God is the origin of life.
According to the law of cause and effect, creation demands a creator and design demands a designer. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a Creator God. Creation shows that God is intelligent and powerful. The Bible’s message to those who reject this knowledge is: “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20 NLT).
But there is another kind of information in our world. Every person is born with a conscience. Each of us has an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, commit adultery and murder. The conscience is like a built-in alarm. If we liken our body to computer hardware, then our conscience is like the software program that issues instructions to the hardware. But in this sinful world it is often programmed wrongly.
The Bible gives God’s standards for right and wrong (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But for those who are ignorant of these moral laws it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written within them, for their consciences either accuse them or tell them they are doing what is right” (Rom. 2:15).
Those who have not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. So the Creator made us with a mind that is able to make choices, not one that is driven by instinct. The conscience shows that God is concerned with our decisions and our behavior. Unfortunately, we often choose to disobey our conscience. Then we have a guilty conscience. But the Creator has provided the solution to our sinful ways.
The Bible is God’s special message for mankind. It tells us all we need to know: about history and mankind; about the moral choices made throughout history from the time of our original parents Adam and Eve; about how we have all rebelled against God and gone our own way; about how we all have a guilty conscience, whether we acknowledge it or not; about how this sinful attitude has led to suffering, disease, decay, death and eternal punishment; about how God’s solution to our problems was to send His Son Jesus Christ to take the punishment that we deserve. Christ was crucified and then resurrected back to life, which is particularly remembered at Easter time. His suffering and death were dramatized last year in the Mel Gibson film, “The Passion of the Christ.”
The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23 NIV). Christ offers each of us the opportunity to be reconciled to God and have our conscience cleansed (Heb. 9:14; 10:22). First, we need to realize our hopeless situation, and then we need to accept God’s gift of forgiveness. Jesus Christ shows that God is compassionate and loving. He is waiting for people to accept His offer to give them a new life and an inheritance with Him in the life to come.
Life Changing Evidence!
God has revealed Himself in three ways: in creation, through our conscience and by His Son, Jesus Christ. Based on this evidence it is foolish to say there is no God (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). Creation and conscience are available to every person, while the clearest revelation is through Jesus Christ, who is made known through the Bible. This is why the Bible is the most important book ever written.
If you come to a different conclusion, then there is a faulty assumption in your reasoning. Have you excluded the correct conclusion before examining the evidence?
How to develop your sense of good and evil
The conscience is like a monitor or an alarm that God uses to remind us when something is wrong. Everybody has a conscience, but when it comes to registering what is right and wrong, different consciences may come up with different readings. Sometimes the alarm does not ring when it should; at other times there is a false alarm.
God made us with a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong. Remember, Adam and Eve felt guilty and hid from God after they sinned. The conscience is like a law written in the human heart, an inner voice that accuses us if it thinks we are wrong; or defends us if it thinks we are right (Rom. 2:15). If we heed these promptings we have a clear conscience; if we disregard them we should have a guilty conscience (1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 10:22).
However, the conscience is linked with the mind. What is fed into the mind concerning right and wrong will eventually influence how the conscience works. It is like a computer in that it only comes up with the right answers if it is fed the right information. If our conscience is working right we will be aware of our sinfulness as Adam and Eve were.
Since the conscience can fail to operate when it should and can give a false alarm, it is not a perfect guide of right and wrong. We need to allow for the fact that our conscience can be wrong and we need to recognize that God is the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong (1 Cor. 4:4). The Bible refers to three kinds of conscience: guilty, corrupt and clear.
A Guilty Conscience
Since we have all sinned and fall short of God’s standard, we all should experience a guilty conscience from time to time (Rom. 3:23). Consider these three examples from the Bible. First, when Jesus asked the accusers of the woman caught in adultery if any of them was “without sin” (Jn. 8:7), He exposed their guilt and they departed.
Second, after Peter denied knowing Jesus for the third time, he broke down and cried because he remembered Jesus’ words: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown Me three times” (Mk. 14:72 NIV). Convicted of his failure, he confessed, was restored and then was used mightily by God in the early Church.
Third, after Judas betrayed Jesus, he was seized with guilt, returned the money he had been paid, and then committed suicide. (Mt. 27:3-5). In each of these cases the alarm sounded when it should, showing us that people can respond to a guilty conscience in a positive or negative way. They either deal correctly with the alarm or try to escape it.
A Corrupt Conscience
If we set our alarm at night but ignore it in the morning, the time will come when we will sleep right through it. In the same way, if we keep ignoring our conscience, it will become ineffective. Because of this, many people have little sense of sin. Their consciences are described as being either “seared as with a hot iron” or “corrupted” (1 Tim. 4:2; Ti. 1:15). These two illustrations involve being burned and injured, or polluted and contaminated. These consciences are insensitive to sin; they do not work properly. This is one reason why evangelism of adults can be difficult.
A Clear Conscience
The Bible says that Christ’s death can change a guilty conscience to a clear one (Heb. 9:14). This kind of conscience is also called a good or clean conscience. In this case, the alarm is set and ready to sound at the right time, and we respond to it. The first step to a clear conscience is to become a Christian.
The Holy Spirit can use our consciences to make us feel guilty of sin (Jn. 16:8). The truth of the gospel enlightens our conscience and brings about conviction of sin, which is the first stage of repentance. For example, when Peter spoke at Pentecost, the people “were cut to the heart” and asked, “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent … for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:37-38). Believers are cleansed from a guilty conscience in order to serve the living God (Heb. 9:14; 10:22).
Salvation sets us free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1). But if we do not keep our conscience clear, this will show in our daily life by affecting our fellowship with God and our prayer life. We won’t enjoy God’s presence if we have a guilty conscience – just like we do not feel comfortable around our parents when we have a guilty conscience. A guilty conscience will also affect our faith and love. As a good conscience is linked with strong faith, a guilty conscience leads to weak faith (1 Tim. 1:5,19). As love is an outcome of a good conscience, it is diminished by a guilty conscience. A guilty conscience affects our desire to read the Bible. As a troubled conscience can decrease our appetite for natural food, it can also decrease our appetite for spiritual food.
Caring For Our Conscience
Just as alarms need power, maintenance and correct settings to operate properly, we need to care for our conscience to keep it operating correctly. One thing we must do to keep our conscience empowered and calibrated is confess sin: “If we confess our sins He … will forgive us” (1 Jn. 1:9). He promised through Christ’s death to “cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death” (Heb. 9:14). But it’s not enough just to confess; we must also change our behavior (Jas. 1:22). We must also stop doing what we shouldn’t do. This is called repentance. We must begin to live by our convictions (Rom. 14:5,14,23).
We must train our conscience to be strong. This takes time just like it takes time to train children for adulthood. Those who are mature have trained their senses “to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). A conscience marred by a sinful nature needs to be transformed (Rom. 12:2).
Paul said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and mankind” (Acts 24:16). Confessing to and praying for each other are effective ways to keep a clear conscience between each other (Jas. 5:16). Maintaining a clear conscience in our marriage, family and local church, and with neighbors, friends and business associates is important.
As we grasp more and more truth about God’s will, our conscience becomes more enlightened. This does not necessarily mean we should feel guilty about more and more things, because sometimes we feel guilty when we should not. Remember the false alarm. Paul referred to believers who felt guilty for no good reason as having a “weak” conscience (1 Cor. 8:7,8). He referred to those free from this false guilt as having a “strong” conscience. They were more mature, like deacons who “must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9). How important it is to be filled “with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9). We have the Bible and the Holy Spirit to guide us towards this maturity (Jn. 16:13).
How do we act toward other believers when their behavior doesn’t meet our standard? What do we do when we see a believer engaging in what we consider a questionable activity? How do we react when people try to force us to follow their convictions?
The Bible distinguishes between essentials and non-essentials in the Christian faith. The essentials or fundamentals are things which all believers should agree on. They are the tests the Bible sets forth for recognizing false teachers and false ideas about such things as: the person and work of Christ; the good news of salvation “by grace … through faith … not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9); and the inspiration and authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to us.
Apart from such foundational truths, there are many other things in the Bible that are not as clear, and not as easily understood. In these matters we must allow for differing opinions. This includes “disputable (debateable) matters” (Rom. 14:1), where the Bible allows for differences of opinion. This is illustrated in Romans 14 by two examples.
The first concerns eating meat: “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables” (Rom. 14:2). When the book of Romans was written, the situation among Gentile believers (those with no Jewish ancestry) was an interesting one. Most had participated in pagan worship which included animal sacrifices to pagan gods, or idolatry. The animals that were sacrificed were usually sold as meat on the open market.
So for those who had been saved out of this lifestyle the question became whether they should eat the meat sacrificed to these idols. By eating that meat, were they participating in the idolatry of pagans? This was a hard question for many. And desiring not to participate in idolatrous practices, many of these Gentile Christians became vegetarians. Only in that way could they assure themselves that they were not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul said that the weak believer ate only vegetables, whereas the strong believer’s faith allowed him to eat this meat because he understood that the idols to which the meat had been offered were not gods at all – only pieces of wood, stone or metal. Therefore, if they ate the meat with that understanding, they were not participating in idolatry.
The second example has to do with observing special days as holy days: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike” (Rom. 14:5). Those who had been saved out of the Jewish tradition of Sabbath days and festivals were apt to make a great deal out of those observances. However, others not coming from that background felt that every day was the Lord’s day, and none were more special than others. This created problems in the early church. How were believers to live together who did not agree in every detail? How are we, today, to deal with other believers whose opinions differ from ours?
Instructions For Living Together
Those scriptural principles which instruct us to live together in harmony and love with other believers often involve the conscience. It is clear that they are important because of the numerous references to them in the New Testament.
One such principle is that we accept one another: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable (debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). The Christian is to accept other believers without passing judgment on every opinion they hold. We are to allow for differing opinions, because they do not necessarily mean a differing faith, but a faith that is weak.
Another principle is that we respect another’s conscience – regardless of whether it is more strict and scrupulous or more tolerant and easy-going than ours (Rom. 14:3). In other words, we are to allow for the differing conclusions of honest believers who are seeking the mind of Christ. And further, we are to allow for them without criticism, contempt, and judgment (Rom. 14:10). We should not put others down (Rom. 14:13). We should respond with love rather than criticism. Remember, God has accepted them and so should we. He is judge in these matters, not us.
A third principle is that we don’t allow another’s conscience to override ours (Rom. 14:16), and that we don’t force our conscience on others (Rom. 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.
A final principle is that we be careful that our behavior does not stumble others and cause them to sin by not following their conscience (Rom. 14:20-21; 1 Cor. 8:13). Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul stated, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the Church of God – even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33).
Repairing The Alarm
Let’s be like Paul and always strive to keep our conscience clear before God and one another, so that it sounds an alarm at the right time and is silent at the right time. If our conscience is guilty, let’s respond to the alarm like Peter who confessed his sin and was restored to God. If it is corrupt, let’s get our alarm repaired so it can recognize our sin.
Also, let’s endeavor to become more mature by training our conscience to be strong. Those with legalistic viewpoints have consciences that are stricter than the Bible; those with liberal viewpoints have consciences that are more lax than the Bible. Both are weak. Are we allowing the Holy Spirit to constantly use the Bible to develop, exercise and strengthen our conscience so we can readily distinguish good from evil — and live accordingly?