Question:Ever since I became a Christian again, I have always felt very uncertain about everything. For example, I would worry about whether a particular action was sinful. Consulting commentaries only provided me with conflicting information and made me feel less at ease. Some of these, such as using crass language, I found out WERE sinful, others not. Nevertheless, this personal conflict is a problem that overwhelms me even today, almost a year later. One of the major issues I run into is with Romans 14:23, "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." Whenever I try to use common sense in many of these questionable cases (for example, with "foolish talking"), I nevertheless feel guilty and unsure, and so I worry that I have sinned. Of course, the underlying problem is that I cannot know to a certainty what is a sin and what isn't. How do I know what Paul meant by this or that Greek word?
But throughout all this, I still felt sure of my salvation. However, I have recently begun to doubt even that. I read a web site (not a credible-looking one at that), for example, that told me that because I believe that, according to the Bible, one must live an obedient life and (in all but exceptional cases) be baptized, I am trusting in works and am thus going to hell, along with everyone else who believes similarly. On the other end of the spectrum, I more recently read from a web site that if I commit even one sin wilfully, I will be damned. To be sure, I believe that a disciple should avoid sin at all costs, but are we really damned for those moments of weakness we have? I don't excuse even these sins in myself, but it's a different matter altogether to accept that I am damned on their account!
"And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head -- Christ -- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 2:11-16).
Let's start with a fundamental truth: there are false teachers among Christians. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (I John 4:1). Not everything you read will necessarily be true. I know you understand this at some level, but in a way you are acting as a child who trusts everyone. Thus you are getting tossed about like a ship in a storm because you can always find people on all sides of any issue. This buffeting is undermining your faith.
A second fundamental fact is that truth is stable. That is why Jesus is referred to as the Rock. "For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ" (I Corinthians 10:4). Jesus is a rock because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). Instead of majoring in people's opinions, you, I, and all Christians need to seek out and learn truth. Such will take some time. It is a growing process which has no end in this life. But it is something each child of God must commit to doing.
"Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: "The Lord knows those who are His," and, "Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity"" (II Timothy 2:14-19).
I hope it is clear that growth means that you are going to have to make adjustments to your life along the way. You are going to learn things you didn't know before and sometimes that will mean you will have to make some changes to be better conformed to the life God intends for you.
So let's know put some of the teachings you learned to the test. One person states that if you believe you must be obedient, then one willful sin will send you to hell. This makes God out to be some monster just waiting for people to slip up so He can toss them out. But this conflicts with "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9). Therefore, I know this person's teaching is false.
What distinguishes a child of God from the rest of the world is not whether he sins, but his attitude toward sin. We know that in this world we are all going to slip up at times. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (I John 1:8-10). A child of God understands that he will sin at times, but he has no desire to stay in sin. When he becomes aware of his faults, he picks himself up, dusts himself off, prays to the Lord God to forgive his weakness, and then moves on trusting that God loves him.
"Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother" (I John 4:6-10).
This passage is in the same book we just quoted earlier. In English it almost appears that John is conflicting himself. But there is a tense in Greek that doesn't translate well into English, and it is here that the difficulty arises. John is stating that a Christian does not live or remain in sin, not that he never sins at all.
Pick the most wicked person you can imagine. Is that person perfectly wicked, or isn't it true that once in a while he does something good? Then why do we call him wicked? Because he doesn't stay in the good. He might do something nice once in a while, but he goes right back into his sins. His "goodness" is the exception to the rule.
The same is true for a child of God. He might once in a while do something wrong, but we call him good because he doesn't stay in his sin. His sins are an exception to the rule. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2).
What distinguishes a child of God and a child of Satan is that the child of God fights against sin. The implication of the false teacher that you found is that "Well, since everyone sins, why fight it?" He concludes that God doesn't care about obedience. He would argue as Sam Morris once did, "We take the position that a Christian's sins do not damn his soul! The way a Christian lives, what he says, his character, his conduct, or his attitude toward other people have nothing to do with the salvation of his soul. ... All the prayers a man may pray, all the Bibles he may read, all the churches he may belong to, all the services he may attend, all the sermons he may practice, all the debts he may pay, all the ordinances he may observe, all the laws he may keep, all the benevolent acts he may perform will not make his soul one whit safer; and all the sins he may commit from idolatry to murder will not make his soul in any more danger ... The way a man lives has nothing whatever to do with the salvation of his soul." Knowing what you do now, does this sound like the attitude of a Christian? This is a man who thinks sin no longer makes a difference! "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Romans 6:12-13).
So long as I continue the struggle against sin, I know I might slip, but I also know that Jesus is there by my side. "But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (I John 1:7). Notice the condition of first walking in the light, which leads to fellowship with Christ, and his aid in being cleansed from sin. God is asking for steadfast service from us, not absolute perfection. When I find sin in my life, I do something about it -- I have no tolerance for it being there -- and then I go on serving my Lord.
You are applying Romans 14 in ways it was never intended. The chapter is about variations in doing what is right. One person might avoid eating meat for fear of its association with idolatry. Another person might see idols as nothing and cannot taint food. Neither choice is wrong. Both positions are acceptable to God. "Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4). But this doesn't apply to things that God said are wrong. A person who is fully confident that he can live with a woman without being married to her, isn't justified by his confidence. That is why Paul warned, "Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves" (Romans 14:22). But when a person isn't certain something is right, then he ought not do it until he understands God's will. "But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23).
So let's apply this to profane language. There are plenty of people out there who think nothing of swearing, cussing, and using God's name in vain. Does their confidence make it right? NO! Ephesians 5:3-5, among other verses, show that this behavior is sinful. What if there is a word that I start to use, but I'm not certain it is a proper word for a Christian to use? The proper response is to not use it until I can figure out whether it is good or bad. And in the process of learning, I grow in maturity.
What about humor? Again,if you weren't certain, then it is time to study. Hopefully you saw from my last response that the context of Paul's remarks in Ephesians 5:3-5 deals with dirty humor. It would be improper to broaden it to all humor -- in fact, there are many examples of humor being used by God in the Bible. Thus we conclude that those who say all humor is evil are teaching contrary to God. What we've done is what God told us to do, we put their ideas to the test and found that came to a falsehood. Is it that we were uncertain? Perhaps for a moment, but going back to the truth showed us what was right and wrong. Now we know and can move on.
"Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 5:17).
Just to reassure you, I don't necessarily believe everything I read. For example, deep down, I knew that both of the people I discussed earlier were wrong about salvation. But I didn't want to say for sure because what if I was wrong? Out there, somebody, even a Christian, is convinced that everything I hold to be true from the Bible is some sort of false teaching. How do I know I'm right? This is why I have been looking at the opinions of others. I know it is a dangerous and deceptive practice, but sometimes I fear that I have missed something in the text, or that some Bible verse I haven't read or have forgotten will prove me wrong. Not that I'm overly self-confident, quite the opposite actually.
I ended my last note with "Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 5:17). The implication of this verse is that it is possible to understand God's will. If it wasn't,then God gave us an impossible to command to follow and that leads to all sorts of contradictions.
God also told us to test every spirit to see if it is from God (I John 4:1). Thus, the Bible is usable to determine what is right and want is wrong. In fact Paul stated, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (II Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible teaches us:
- What is right (doctrine)
- What isn't right (reproof)
- How to get right (correction)
- How to stay right (instruction in righteousness)
It does take practice to detect the difference between good and evil, but it isn't an impossible task. "For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews 5:13-14). It takes practice of living right to see both good and evil.
There is nothing wrong with looking at what other people say, but you need to also weigh those statements against what you know the Bible teaches. When you find it leads to a contradiction, then you know it isn't the truth. Don't blame yourself that someone else's teachings doesn't measure up to the standard of God.