Whatever is not from faith is sin
But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)
Whatever is not from faith is sin. Wow. That's quite a statement isn't it? We have this idea of sin as doing or not doing a particular thing. So how is that Paul can say that sin is things done not of faith? What about all those do-this-don't-do-that commandments in the Bible? Isn't that what sin is all about? This needs some serious thought.
In my experience, this passage of Romans is not preached on very much except to take a verse here and there out of context and misrepresent it. One reason for this is because it is very easy to misunderstand the point here. If taken out of context, it can seem that Paul is preaching some type of situational ethic where there is no absolute right and wrong. But the whole passage from chapter twelve down halfway into chapter fifteen really needs to be studied all as one thought. Paul is dealing with a particular problem that asserts itself over and over in the history of Christianity. Namely, what is the proper behavior for a follower of Jesus and how do we fellowship with those that have different views? It's comforting in a way to know that the earliest followers of Jesus had to deal with some of the same issues and arguments that are very much at issue today.
In chapter fourteen of Romans, it's the question of what food is right to eat. Paul makes several important points in this passage using the disagreement over food as a means of teaching a vitally important spiritual lesson. First, there must be no judgmental attitudes about what others eat and drink (verses 1-6). Second, we are to be aware of the weaknesses of others and not do things to intentionally cause a problem for others (verses 14-16, 19-21). Both of these statements are an inevitable conclusion from the principle Paul expressed back in verse 10 of chapter 13: Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. For those concerned with keeping the Torah, there is your answer. Love always and you have kept the law of God.
Each of us will come to certain conclusions as to what is proper behavior and lifestyle for a follower of Christ. It is very easy to fall into the trap of comparing our behavior and beliefs with those of others. As Paul makes clear, that is not love. All too often a person's beliefs will cause them to become fanatical about getting everybody else to come into alignment with them. Religious wars and hunting down heretics are the end result of that attitude. In my opinion, this is mostly a matter of fear. It is a fear that if they can't convince everybody else to be the same way, then they may be wrong. Also, it is a matter of ego and pride. It is the attitude that "our gang" is absolutely right and thus everybody else must be absolutely wrong. They fail to take into consideration that they only see in part and that there may be a deeper and fuller understanding than they yet realize. They also fail to consider that spiritual development occurs over time, and different people are at different stages of spiritual discernment. Whatever the cause, Paul rebuts the false concept and sets down the spiritual principal perfectly: for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Taken to an abstract level, this is to say that the outward signs and actions of the flesh are not the real issue. As Jesus taught repeatedly, the real issue is the condition of the heart of the person. All uncleanness comes from the heart. Thus Paul can say that nothing is unclean in and of itself. We must make a distinction between the thing (food, clothing, worship practice, etc.) and the condition of the heart that determines how those things affect us. As Paul says elsewhere, All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not (1 Corinthians 10:23). It is never a question of whether or not a thing is clean or unclean. It is always a question of whether or not my actions edify the Lord and build His kingdom.
The righteousness or unrighteousness is not located in the thing itself. It is a matter of our own heart. If there were no lust in the heart, there would be no adultery. If there were no envy and jealousy in the heart, there would be no theft. If there were no hatred in the heart, there would be no murder. All of these acts are a failure in love towards another person, and all start with evil in the heart. Thus, it is the heart that must repent, be cleansed, changed, and regenerated. It must be cleansed by the blood of Jesus and filled with His spirit into regenerated life. The love for one another that is the fulfillment of the law flows out of that spirit of regeneration. The means by which this cleansing and regeneration takes place is the life of faith. The just by faith shall live. It is by faith working through love that righteousness, peace and joy comes.
Well OK, you say, but beyond faith, you still have to do the right thing! This is where Paul's concluding statement comes in. Whatever is not from faith is sin. It is unfortunate that the English word "faith" has taken on the connotation of a belief of the mind only. In the sense that Paul uses the word, faith is not simply a belief of the mind but is rather an expression of the heart, or inner man of spirit, that produces correct action. As stated above, all actions are a result of the heart's content. When the heart is right, the action will follow. The proper heart of faith can be summed up as one in total agreement and trusting in God's word made manifest through Jesus Christ. We live by faith when our actions are a result of standing in agreement and unity with God, not separated by our own self-centered fear and desire.
Verse 23 sets up a dichotomy between doubt and faith. The connotation of the Greek word translated doubt (diakrino) is to have a dis-unity, contention, or judgmental division. That is the exact opposite of faith. The doubt that is in view in this verse is really the attitude of the heart that judges something to be wrong, but, in rebellion to the heart, does the thing anyway. That is un-faith in the clearest sense possible. As Paul stated in verse 5, each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. This is key to faith. There must be a total conviction of the truth of God's revelation and a will to act in accordance with that knowledge rather than our own limited knowledge. To do the opposite is to eat again of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If there is a conviction of the mind and a person acts contrary to that conviction, the act itself is rebellion. If the heart and mind are in agreement with God (faith-ing) then the action that flows out of that agreement is never sinful. Ultimately, sin is simply the end result of rebellion against God, and thus any act not of faith, is inherently sin.
When we act by faith, in accordance with the conviction of the mind, it removes the conflict and doubt and we gain a state of peace and joy in His spirit. Out of that peace comes the ability to pour out the unconditional love of the Father into the world.