Deciding the Doubtful
“Is it right for me as a Christian to do this, or go there?” is a question often asked, especially by young people, who at times are puzzled by the righteous or unrighteous character of some proposed course of action. The question, “Is it right for me to rob a bank (even if I give the ‘take’ to foreign missions)?” is clearly answered in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament (cf. Ex. 20:15; Eph. 4:28), but there are those problems of conduct which are questionable or doubtful and pose real problems that must be faced by all of us.
At the outset of our study we want to clarify four things:
1. The Bible has either the definite answer to, or the guiding principles for, every circumstance and problem in life.
2. While it is true that the Christian is “under grace” (Rom. 6:14), unquestionably the most exalted position of the ages, grace has its rules, the believer being “under…law to Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21).
Nine of the Ten Commandments are reiterated in the New Testament where they are greatly widened in their application. The letters of Paul contain many restrictions, taboos and prohibitions (e.g., Eph. 4:17 ff.; Col. 3:5-4:6), these being presented in either a positive or negative way. While Christianity is emphatically positive, the negative is by no means eliminated. Grace, or liberty in Christ, is not license, although some have twisted it in this way. Nevertheless, such a distorted view of grace in no way nullifies its motivating power.
Charles C. Ryrie has well said: “Grace not only provides the motive but also the standard for conduct today. God has given clear instruction in His Word concerning the daily walk of the believer, and these teachings of grace, entirely separate from any other rule of life in the Scriptures, stand complete in themselves. Furthermore, these standards are the very highest in all of God’s Word, and although most Christians will admit this fact, there is sometimes ignorance of the specific criteria which God has set forth for the daily life under grace” (Our Hope, Jan. ‘53, p. 494).
3. There must be a willingness to do God’s will (John 7:17).
“Perhaps ninety per cent of knowing the will of God is to be willing to do His will before you know what it is” (Donald Grey Barnhouse).
4. Prayerfully believe that the Lord will guide you (John 16:13; see also Psa. 25:9; 32:8; 48:14; Isa. 58:11). Now let us pursue two main themes in the development of our vital subject, the first being
Questions to Ask and Answer
1. Will it glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31)? If the doubtful matter is something on which the Lord’s blessing cannot be truly asked, then it is best forsaken. Some things may not be wrong in themselves, but because they are practised in ungodly places with ungodly people, participation in them would make us enemies of the cross of Christ. Such cannot be said to glorify God. The glory of God is the manifestation of any or all of His attributes, and to glorify Him is to manifest His holy character.
2. Is it Christ-like (Eph. 5:1 with John 1:18; 14:9; 1 Pet. 2:21)? Is it in accord with the pattern of our Lord Jesus Christ’s life (John 4:34)? This represents the how of glorifying God.
3. Is it a weight (Heb. 12:1-2)? G. Campbell Morgan has said that “the things which hinder are not necessarily low or vulgar. They may be in themselves noble things, intellectual things, beautiful things. But if our participation in any of these dims our vision of the ultimate goal in the purpose of God, holds us in our running, makes our going less determined and steady, they become weights and hinder.”
4. Does it tend to enslave (1 Cor. 6:12)? Here, it is not a matter of what harm it will do, but rather of what good it is. Things may be quite lawful in themselves (e.g., secular reading, sports, TV, hobbies), yet because they so occupy our time we neglect more important matters. Many habitually indulge in something yet claim they are not slaves to it. Why not give it up just to prove it?
5. Will it strengthen me against temptation? To frequent places or engage in practices that expose us to temptation are things to be shunned in the Christian life (Matt. 6:13; Jas. 1:13-15).
6. Is it expedient (1 Cor. 10:23)? Is it something profitable that will honor God and help my fellow-man?
7. Does it edify (1 Cor. 10:23; 2 Cor. 10:8)? Will it build up our Christian character, service and witness, andwill it enable us to build up the local church?
8. Is it characteristic of the world or of the Father (1 John 2:16)? If our purposed course of action is characteristic of the world, we have a clear-cut answer in 1 John 2:15. Let us not lose sight of the Bible’s warnings in such cases as Demas (2 Tim. 4:10), or fail to keep before us such exhortations as the words of Colossians 3:1-2.
We come now to the second main aspect of our study
Principles to Apprehend and Apply
In Romans 14 the Apostle Paul treats at length the subject of doubtful things, and in that important chapter there are several vital principles to apprehend and apply which we want to briefly consider in this second, and concluding, major division of our subject.
1. The liberty of judgment (Rom. 14:3). No Christian has the right to judge another Christian, or Christians, in matters wherein he holds opposed opinions. Simply because someone says a thing is wrong doesn’t mean that it is.
2. The Christian is accountable to God alone (Rom. 14:4, 12). The Lord Jesus Christ alone has sovereign right over our actions. Be he pope, archbishop, bishop, elder, or minister, in the final analysis of things we are accountable to no man but to God alone.
3. The right of personal conviction (Rom. 14:5). Do we really make our own decisions, or do we pattern ourselves after someone else’s opinions or actions?
4. The forbearance of other believers in doubtful matters (Rom. 14:4, 10, 13). We should so regard the actions of our brethren as we would want them to regard us in our actions. It is not our prerogative to criticize and judge the actions of our fellow-believers, unless the Word of God is clearly violated and discipline is required (e.g., 1 Cor. 5).
5. The right and responsibility to limit our liberty out of love (Rom. 14:13, 21; see also 13:10; 15:1; 1 Cor. 8:13). No man lives to himself (Rom. 14:7), and the believer has the right and responsibility, out of love, to relinquish his rights on behalf of a weaker brother. We are to order our lives in such a way that they will never be a hindrance or a snare to other believers (Rom. 14:13, 21), the same extending to unbelievers as well (cf. 1 Cor. 10:32; Col. 4:5).
We have a splendid example of this principle in the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 9:19-21), and in all our associations how much we need to appropriate the blessed promise of James 1:5 day by day.
6. “When in doubt, leave it out” (Rom. 14:22-23). During my high school days at the Stony Brook School for Boys, L.I., New York, I had an exceptionally fine English teacher, Mr. Pierson Curtis (a grandson, incidentally, of the noted author, editor and Bible teacher, Dr. A. T. Pierson). Well do I remember Mr. Curtis saying, when instructing us in the use of commas in our writing, “When in doubt, leave it out.” This is exactly the principle set forth here. Always give God, not Satan or yourself, the benefit of a doubt.
If, after asking all pertinent questions and applying all scriptural principles, we are still uncertain about a matter, then it remains for us to keep praying for the Lord’s guidance as to what He would have us do (cf, Psa. 84:11; Phil. 4:6-7; Jas. 1:5, 7).
Perhaps the nutshell secret of the whole subject is found in the words of F. W. Grant, who once said: “The only test of a thing is how it appears in the presence of Christ.”