The GOSPEL TRUTH
DOUBTFUL ACTIONS ARE SINFUL
by Charles G. Finney
"He that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin" --Romans 14:23.
It was a custom among the idolatrous heathen to offer the bodies of beasts in sacrifice. A part of every beast that was offered belonged to the priest. The priests used to sell their portion at the market as any other meat. The scattered Christian Jews were particular about what meats they ate. They wouldn't run the least danger of violating the Mosaic law, and they raised doubts and created disputes and difficulties among the churches because of their belief. This was one of the subjects that divided the church of Corinth, until they finally wrote to the apostle Paul for directions.
A part of the first epistle to the Corinthians was doubtless written as a reply to such inquiries. Some carried their scruples so far that they thought it improper to eat any meat, for they were continually in danger of buying meat that was offered to idols. Others thought it made no difference. They had a right to eat meat, and they would buy it in the market as they found it.
To quell the dispute, they wrote to Paul. In the eighth chapter, he discusses the subject in full. "Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of him. As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) but to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled" (1 Corinthians 8:1-7).
The believer's conscience "is defiled"--that is, he regards it as meat offered to an idol, and he is really practicing idolatry. The eating of meat is a matter of total indifference, in itself.
"But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, is we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?" (1 Corinthians 8:8-11).
Some Christian's might know that an idol is nothing and cannot make any change in the meat itself. Yet if they should be seen eating meat that was known to have been offered to an idol, those who are weak might be encouraged to eat the sacrifices as such or as an act of worship to the idol. And the whole time they think they are only following the example of their more enlightened brethren.
"But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend" (1 Corinthians 8:12-13).
This is Paul's benevolent conclusion. He would rather forego eating meat altogether than be the occasion of drawing a weak brother into idolatry. For, in fact, to sin so against a weak brother is to sin against Christ.
UNDERSTAND YOUR MOTIVES
In writing to the Romans, Paul takes up the same subject--the same dispute had existed there. After laying down some general principles, he gives this rule: "Him that is weak in faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs" (Romans 14:1-2).
Among the Romans, some chose to live entirely on vegetables rather than run the risk of buying flesh that had been offered to idols. Others are as usual, asking no questions for conscience' sake. Those who lived on vegetables charges the others with idolatry. Those who ate flesh accused the others of superstition and weakness. This was wrong.
"Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not, judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who are thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:3-4).
A controversy also arose about observing the Jewish festival days and holy days. Some supposed that God required this, and therefore they observed them. The others neglected them because they supposed God did not require the observance.
"One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and not man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living. But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For as it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way" (Romans 14:5-13).
Now mark what Paul says:
"But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably: Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died" (Romans 14:15)
The distinction of meats into clean and unclean is not binding under Christ. But to him that believes in the distinction, it is a crime to eat indiscriminately because he does what he believes to be contrary to the commands of God. "All things indeed are pure; but it is evil to him that eateth with offense" (Romans 14:20). Every man should be fully persuaded in his own mind that what he is doing is right. If a man ate unclean meat, not being clear in his mind that it was right, he offended God.
"It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:21-23).
The word rendered damned means condemned, or judged guilty of breaking the law of God. If a man doubts whether it is lawful to do a thing, and while in that state of doubt he does it, he displeases God, breaks the law, and is condemned whether the thing is right or wrong. I have been careful to explain the text in its context because I want to satisfy your minds of the correctness of the principle.
If a man does what he doubts to be lawful, he sins and is condemned for it in the sight of God. Whether it is lawful itself is not the question. If he doubts its lawfulness, it is wrong in him.
One exception ought to be noted here. If a man honestly and fully doubts the lawfulness of omitting to do something as much as he does the lawfulness of doing it, he must act according to the best light he can get. But where he doubts the lawfulness of the act and has no cause to doubt the lawfulness of the omission, yet does it, he sins and is condemned before God.
RESPONSIBILITY AND ACTION
An individual is condemned if he does what he doubts because if God makes him doubt the lawfulness of an act, he is bound to stop, examine the question, and settle it to his satisfaction.
Suppose your child is invited by his companions to go somewhere, and he doubts whether you would let him go. Do you not see that it is his duty to ask you? If one of his schoolmates invites him home, and he doubts whether you would like it, yet he goes, is this not wrong?
Or suppose a castaway on a desolate island takes up his abode in a cave, considering himself alone and destitute of friends, relief, and hope. But every morning he finds a supply of nutritious and wholesome food prepared for him by the mouth of his cave. What is his duty? Does not gratitude require him to find his unseen friend and thank him for his kindness? He cannot say, "I doubt whether anyone is here; therefore, I will do nothing but eat my allowance and relax." His refusal to search for his benefactor would convict him of wickedness, as if he knew who it was and refused to return thanks for favors received.
Or imagine an atheist opens his eyes on the blessed light of heaven and breathes air that sends health and vigor through his frame. Such a vision is enough evidence to set him on the search for that great Being who provides all these means of life and happiness. If he does not seek after God, he shows that he has the heart as well as the intellect of an atheist. He has, to say the least, evidence that there may be a God. What then is his business? Plainly, it is to honestly, with a childlike spirit, search the Scriptures and pay God reverence. If he still acts as if there were no God, he shows that his heart is wrong; it says, "Let there be no God."
It is the same with the Unitarian. He is bound to search the Scriptures humbly and satisfy himself. No intelligent and honest man can say that the Scriptures afford no evidence of the divinity of Christ. They do afford evidence that has convinced and fully satisfied thousands of the most acute minds, who have been before opposed to the doctrine. No man can reject the doctrine, with a doubt, because there is evidence that is may be true.
Let us also consider the Universalist. Where is one who can say he knows there is not a hell where sinners go after death into endless torment. He is bound to search the Scriptures. It is not enough for him to say he does not believe in hell. There may be one, and if he rejects it and goes on reckless of the truth whether there is or not, that itself makes him a rebel against God. He doesn't know whether there is a hell which he ought to avoid, yet he acts as if he was certain and had no doubts. He is condemned.
I once knew a physician who was a Universalist. He has entered eternity to try the reality of his speculations. Before he died, he told me that he had strong doubts of the truth of Universalism. He had mentioned his doubts to his minister, who confessed that he, too, doubted its truth; and he did not believe there was a Universalist in the world who did not doubt.
For a man to do a thing when he doubts whether it is lawful show that he is selfish and has other objects besides doing the will of God. It shows that he wants to do it to gratify himself. He doubts whether God will approve of it, yet he does it. Is he not a rebel? If he honestly wished to serve God, he would stop, inquire, and examine until he was satisfied. But to go forward while he is in doubt shows that he is selfish and wicked. He is willing to do it whether God is pleased or not, and he wants to do it whether it is right or wrong. He does it because he wants to do it and not because it is right.
The man who ignores his doubts manifests a reckless spirit. This shows a lack of conscience, an indifference to right, a setting aside of the authority of God, and a disposition not to do God's will. He does not care whether God is pleased or displeased, and desperate recklessness and headlong temper is the height of wickedness.
The principle, then, which is clearly laid down in the text and context, and also in the chapter which I quoted from Corinthians, is fully sustained by examination. For a man to do a thing, when he doubts the lawfulness of it, is sin for which he is condemned before God.
In some cases, a person may be equally in doubt about the lawfulness of a thing and whether he is bound to do it or not.
Take the subject of wine at the communion table. Some strongly believe that wine is an essential part of the ordinance and that we ought to use the best wine we can get. Others say that we ought not to use alcoholic or intoxicating wine at all. As wine is not in their view essential to the ordinance, they think it is better to use some other drink. Both these classes are undoubtedly equally conscientious and desirous to do what they have most reason to believe is agreeable to the will of God.
Each man must decide, according to the best light he can get, what is most pleasing to God. He must pray over the matter, search the Scriptures, obtain the best understanding he can, and then act. When he does this, he is by no means to be judged or censured by others for the course he takes. "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant?" No man is authorized to make his own conscience the rule of his neighbor's conduct.
In these cases the design is to honor God, and the sole ground of doubt is which course will really honor Him. Paul says, in reference to all laws of this kind, "He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it." The design is to do right, and the doubt is as to the means of doing it in the best manner.
EXAMINING SELFISH DESIRES
In some cases the design is wrong. The object is to gratify self, and the individual has doubts whether he may do it lawfully.
Take, for instance, the making or vending of strong alcoholic drinks. After all the light has been thrown upon the question, is there a man living in this land who can say he sees no reason to doubt the lawfulness of this business. But take the most charitable supposition possible for the distiller or the vender, and suppose he is not fully convinced of its unlawfulness. He must at least doubt its lawfulness.
What is he to do then? Is he to shut his eyes to the light, regardless of truth as long as he can keep from seeing it? No. He may raise objections, but he knows that he has doubts about the lawfulness of his business. And if he doubts and persists in doing it without taking the trouble to examine and see what is right, he is just as sure to be damned as if he went on in the face of knowledge.
Men say, "Why, I don't know that the Bible forbids making or selling liquor." Well, suppose you are not fully convinced, and all your possible and conceivable objections are not removed--what then? You know you have doubts about its lawfulness. It is not necessary to take such ground to convict you of doing wrong. If you doubt its lawfulness, yet persist in doing it, you are on the way to hell.
The same remarks apply to all sorts of lottery and casino gambling. Men have doubts.
Take the case of controversial indulgences of appetite. Consider the drinking of wine, beer, and other fermented intoxicating liquors. Is it not questionable, at least, whether using these drinks is not transgressing the rule laid down by the apostle: "It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, not any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak"? No man can make me believe he has no doubts of the lawfulness of doing it. No certain proof exists of its lawfulness, but there is strong proof of its unlawfulness. Every man who does it while he doubts is condemned.
Can any man pretend that he has no doubt about the will of God for him to use tobacco? No man can pretend that he doubts the lawfulness of his omission of these things. Does any man think that he is bound to make use of wine, strong beer, or tobacco as a luxury? No. The doubt is all on one side. What shall we say, then, of that man who doubts the lawfulness of it and still fills his face with the poisonous weed? He is condemned.
Consider parties where they eat and drink to excess. Is there no reason to doubt whether this is a practical use of time and money as God requires? Look at the starving and the poor, consider the effect of this extravagance, and see if you will ever go to another such party, or have one, without doubting its lawfulness. Where can you find a man or woman who will say they have no doubt? And if you doubt, and still do it, you are condemned.
This principle touches a whole class of controversial things where people attempt to excuse themselves by saying it is not worse than to do this or that. Thus, they get away from the condemning sentence of God's law. But, in fact, if there is a doubt, it is their duty to abstain.
Take the case of dances, novel reading, and other methods of wasting time. Is this God's way to spend your lives? Can you say you have no doubt of it?
People say we should have holidays. This is very well. But when they are abused and produce so much evil, I ask every Christian if you can help doubting their lawfulness? And if it is doubtful, it comes under the rule: "If meat makes by brother to offend." If keeping holidays leads to gluttony, drunkenness, and wickedness, does it not bring the lawfulness of them into doubt? Yes, that is the least that can be said, and they who doubt yet do it sin against God.
Intermarriages of Christians with impenitent sinners must also be considered. This answer always comes up: "But it is not certain that these marriages are unlawful." Does not the Bible and the nature of the case make it doubtful whether they are right? It can be demonstrated, indeed, to be unlawful. But suppose it could not be. What Christian ever married an unbeliever and did not doubt whether it was lawful? He that doubts is condemned.
NO DOUBT ABOUT IT
This principle will stand by you when you attempt to rebuke sin and the power of society attempts to put you on the defensive to prove the sinfulness of a cherished practice. Remember, the burden of proof does not lie on you. If you can show sufficient reason to question its lawfulness and create a valid doubt whether it is according to the will of God, you shift the burden of proof to the other side. Unless they can remove the doubt and show that there is no room for doubt, they have no right to continue. If they do, they sin against God.
The knowledge of duty is not indispensable to moral obligation, but the possession of the means of knowledge is sufficient to make a person responsible. If a man has the means of knowing whether something is right or wrong, he is bound to use the means, inquire, and get the facts.
If men who do what they doubt the lawfulness of are condemned, what will we say of the multitudes who continually do what they know and confess to be wrong? Woe to that man who practices what he condemns. And "happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth."
Hypocrites often attempt to shelter themselves behind their doubts to get clear of their duty. The hypocrite is unwilling to be enlightened and doesn't want to know the truth. He doesn't want to obey the Lord, and he hides behind his doubts and turns his eye from the light. But God will drag him out from behind this refuge of lies by the principle laid down in the text--their very doubts condemn them.
It is obvious that very little conscience exists in the Church. Multitudes continue to strongly doubt the lawfulness of many of their actions.
And less love to God exists than conscience. It cannot be pretended that love to God is the cause of all this following of fashions, practicing indulgences, and other things of which people doubt the lawfulness. They do not persist in these things because they love God. They persist because they wish to gratify themselves, and they would rather run the risk of doing wrong than to have their doubts cleared up.
Do not say in your prayers, "O Lord, if I have sinned in this thing, forgive me the sin." If you have done what you believed was wrong, you have sinned, whether the thing itself is right or wrong. You must repent and ask forgiveness.
Are you convinced that to do what you doubt the lawfulness of is sin? If you are, I have one more question to ask you. Will you from this time relinquish everything of which you doubt the lawfulness--every amusement, indulgence, practice, and pursuit? Or will you stand condemned before the solemn judgment seat of Jesus Christ? If you will not relinquish these things, you show that you are an impenitent sinner and do not intend to obey God. If you do not repent, you bring God's condemnation and wrath down upon your head forever.
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