What Does It Mean That “Whatever Does Not Proceed From Faith Is Sin”?

This question was recently submitted via the page on this site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic:

Hi, a question coming from your recent sermon on May 2 about belief and doubt. You were talking about how doubt is held in a sort of middle ground, not to be vilified or esteemed too highly. Today I came across these verses in Romans regarding eating by conscience:

The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:22‭-‬23 ESV)

That last sentence feels very strong in that ANYTHING not from faith is sin. How does this relate to the topic on Sunday?

Additionally, where do we draw a line to keep from absurd conclusions about this? When I go on a bike ride for health, I’m not doing it in faith – I just want to keep fit. What about choosing the right date for traveling on vacation? This verse could easily cause a person to stop making decisions due to fear of sin.

The sermon mentioned in this question is from the series The Risen Life, in which we looked at the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels for the season of Eastertide. The sermon was from John 20:19-30 and was called “From Doubt to Belief.”

In John 20:24-29, in the story of "doubting Thomas," we see that moving from doubt to belief involves hearing testimony, seeing the evidence, and responding in faith. — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/whitefieldschurch/support

Doubt and Faith in Romans 14:23

In Romans 14:23, Paul is talking about “gray areas” or “disputable matters” in the Christian life. At that time, some people said that it was acceptable for Christians to eat meat which had been sacrificed to idols, whereas others said that it was not acceptable. Each side had their reasons.

Similar discussions exist today: Is it acceptable for Christians to drink alcohol? To participate in Halloween festivities? To do yoga or martial arts?

In some of these cases, it may be that something may not be categorically wrong, but it may be wrong for a particular person because of their particular propensities. Furthermore, that person may have a strong conviction that they ought not to do something, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be a sin for anyone to do that thing.

Paul is saying that if you have a sincere conviction before God that you should not do something, then you should act on that conviction in faith, and do so as unto the Lord. This, Paul says, honors God. However, if you do something in contradiction to your conviction that you should not do it; i.e. if you have doubts about whether that thing is acceptable or permissible for you to do – then for you to do it anyway would be sin.

Thus, the way doubt and faith is used here is different than in the sense in which we talked about doubt and faith in the above mentioned sermon, where our focus was rather on doubting versus believing in God’s existence, God’s goodness, the validity of God’s Word, or the reliability of God’s promises.

Is Everything that Does Not Proceed from Faith Really Sin?

I believe the answer is: Yes. Let me explain, and I’ll explain how this applies to situations such riding your bike and choosing dates for vacation:

In Hebrews 11:6 we are told that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In Romans 4:20, faith is correlated with giving glory to God. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we are told, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

The point therefore, is that acting in faith is all about giving glory to God in our actions. If you doubt whether a particular action brings glory to God, then for you to do it anyway would be a sin. It is in this way that anything that does not proceed from faith is sin.

The Question We Often Ask, & the Question We Ought to Ask

I find that too often, we tend to ask the question: “Is it permissible to _________” or “Am I allowed to _________.” What this passage (and others) teach us is that the question we ought to be asking instead is: “Will this action glorify God?” or “Will God be honored, pleased, and glorified through this action?”

If you can do that action in faith so that your motive is to glorify God, then good. If you have doubts about that, then to do it anyway would be sin – at least for you.

This is why Augustine argues that for those who act apart from faith in God, even their virtues can be sinful: because if you do something good – apart from faith in God – your motive in doing so is not to glorify God, but must be either to glorify yourself, or to justify yourself. Thus, even virtuous actions, apart from faith in God, can be sinful. Tim Keller often speaks, quoting the Puritans, of how it is important therefore that we repent not only of our evil actions, but of our good actions done for self-justifying or self-glorifying motives.

May we be those who endeavor to do everything for the glory of God!

Reader Questions: Evidence of Faith

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question was recently sent in:

Hi Pastor Nick,
Regarding James 2:14: is “works” or “deeds” limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience? Can you expand what an actual “works” is? Based on what I have researched in Strong’s [Greek & Hebrew Lexicon], this word “works” can be likened to evidence. If “works” is limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience, wouldn’t the Pharisee’s have been in the pocket when in comes to saving faith? Can a work, or evidence of saving faith be something like forgiveness, patience, or trusting belief? (John 6:28) I have been listening to you for quite some time online, and so I am thinking it could be “both”. lol. I believe that obedience and spiritual disciplines are VERY important, but they have been an overflow from my friendship with Jesus. They come very naturally to me the more time Jesus and I spend together. I have friends that tend to throw around this verse when they are not witnessing the type of obedience THEY feel should be demonstrated within the church. I tend to be very tolerable when it comes to most topics, but on this issue I get very agitated. I am not sure if it’s because I am denial, or because my friends are, in my opinion, using Scripture to justify moralism. I want to enjoy the book of James, come along side of it, not have any bitterness towards it.

Good question! It seems that James understands “works” to be outward expressions of faith. Clearly this includes acts of obedience, as James describes in chapter 2, using Abraham as an example, but it James also says that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

As Jesus explained, sin includes not just outward actions, but thoughts of the mind and attitudes of the heart. He also taught that to not forgive is a sin. Therefore, to keep oneself unstained from the world includes forgiveness and other attitudes that pertain to holiness. As you rightly mentioned, Jesus stated that the “work” of God is to believe in Jesus whom He sent (John 6:29).

It is possible to do good works apart from faith, but, as John Calvin stated, the motivation for good works in that case will be self-justification or self-glorification. This is what the Pharisees were guilty of, and why Jesus claimed that they were lost in spite of their good works. Calvin argued for “Total Depravity,” which he understood as meaning that apart from Christ, our motives for doing good deeds are skewed, and it is only once the love of God has been poured out in our hearts that we are capable of doing good for truly pure motives.

In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther compared works to the heat and light that are exuded by fire. You can have light apart from fire, and you can have heat apart from fire, but if you have fire, it will naturally result in heat and light. In the same way, you can have works apart from faith, but faith naturally produces works.

So, the answer to your question is: Both 🙂

An Antinomy, Not a Contradiction

In our study of Paul’s Letter to the Romans at White Fields, we have recently been looking at chapters 8, 9 and 10 which talk about divine election, predestination and how those relate to human responsibility. What these chapters teach is that God is sovereign over all things, and yet we are responsible for our actions.

In theological terms, this is called an “antinomy.” As opposed to a contradiction, antinomy refers to the tension between two things which seem at odds, but are yet both true at the same time. Antinomy is not to be confused with antinomianism (a rejection of, and even antagonism towards the moral commandments, rules and obligations which the Bible lays out. For more on antinomianism read: “Oh, How I Love Your Law” – the Role of the Law in the Life of a Believer)

John Stott writes that “few preachers have maintained this antinomy better than Charles Simeon of Cambridge, who said:

‘When I come to a text which speaks of election, I delight myself in the doctrine of election. When the apostles exhort me to repentance and obedience, I give myself up to that.’ “

To illustrate this antinomy, Simeon borrowed an illustration from the Industrial Revolution:

‘As wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve a common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other, and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man’s salvation.’

Here is a short video we recorded in follow-up to a sermon which touched on the topics of predestination and election: