I recently received a letter from a couple in our congregation who have been laboring for the sake of the gospel in the Congo for the better part of their lives. As I read, one line in particular stood out to me. “We pray,” they wrote, “that we all learn to love, forgive, and accept each other more in the time God gives us.”
This is one of the most important requests that any of us could ask of God. The Lord calls believers to love, forgive, and accept one another—precisely because He has loved, forgiven, and accepted us in Christ. This is one of the foremost truths that surfaces in almost every applicatory section of the New Testament letters. It is central to the teaching of the Apostle Paul—no less in Romans, perhaps his greatest epistle, than in Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. The Apostle charged the church in Rome with this truth when he wrote, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).
It should come as no surprise to us that we find this application in a letter so full of the truth about how God has justified and accepted, freely by His grace alone, those who believe in Christ. Since God has received us to Himself in Christ, we ought to receive one another. Nevertheless, the context shows that there can be a sinful deficiency of such receiving and welcoming of others within the context of a local church fellowship.
Interestingly—apart from the issue of self-righteousness—the Apostle only deals with one other pastoral problem regarding the church at Rome. It concerned the weaker and the stronger members’ refusing to accept each other. Those with strong, biblically informed consciences were despising the weak who had not had their consciences brought into accord with the scriptural teaching on their freedom to eat and drink. Those whose consciences were weak regarding food and drink were judging those whose consciences were strong. Paul summed up the problem when he wrote, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (14:3).
While disputes over food and drink may or may not be prominent in our fellowships today, the issue of despising and judging others in a fellowship is one of the perennial problems to which we are all susceptible. Too often we are only willing to show acceptance to a select few. In our flesh, we have the propensity of befriending only those in whom we think we see virtues that we believe are in ourselves or that we wish were true about ourselves. We convince ourselves that we only have to accept those with similar values or perceived virtues. This, however, is not acceptance—it’s affinity. While teaching His disciples this principle, our Savior asked, “If you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Even the tax collectors do so” (Matt. 5:47).
The gospel heals us of our sinful propensity to show preferential treatment to select believers (James 2:8–13). When we remember that we have been made the recipients of God’s grace by virtue of the sacrificial death of Jesus, we will want to extend grace to other believers. When we acknowledge that Jesus died for us when we were completely unlovely and unlike Him (Rom. 5:6–11) in order to reconcile us to God through His atoning and wrath-propitiating death for our sin, we will be eager to welcome all “for whom Christ died” (14:15). When we call to mind the fact that “Christ did not please himself” but rather took on Himself the reproaches with which we reproached God (15:3), we will be zealous to bear with the weaknesses and failings of others for their good.
The welcome that we have received from Christ is a welcome that loves, forgives, edifies, and builds up. May God give us grace to welcome all other believers, since He has welcomed us in fellowship with Himself by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.