Blog 139: 3.19.8 - 3.19.12
Romans 14:14 is an initially perplexing but important verse. First, no external things are unclean/unholy in and of themselves. Second, if your conscience (even incorrectly) deems something unclean/unholy, then to violate one's conscience is a sin. Therefore, even if we have weak or ill-informed consciences, we must be careful not to violate our conscience.
Laughing, being filled with food, acquiring possessions, being delighted by music, drinking wine--none of these are scripturally forbidden, and all of them are gifts from God. But a legitimate use of these gifts requires that we partake with moderation. We must learn with Paul the secret of being content with where God has placed us and what God has given us.
So how do we think through the relationship between our liberty and giving offense to others? Calvin takes up the common distinction between "offense given" and "offense taken." In the former, the fault is with the person committing the act; in the latter, the fault lies with the one offended. Applied to Christian liberty, if one forgoes moderation and offends the conscience of the weak he is at fault for failing to love. On the other hand, you may act in moderation but still offend those who shouldn't be offended (think of Jesus and the Pharisees).
Calvin illustrates this by Paul circumcising Timothy, but refusing to circumcise Titus (Acts 16:3; Gal. 2:3). It's the same motivation but with different results. Paul properly modifies his liberty according to the circumstances--but he vindicates his liberty and refuses to accommodate those who would seek to bind the consciences of others.
Our goal, Calvin says, should be to come to the place where we can use God's gifts without scruples, in accordance with his purpose, experiencing piece and recognizing his generous grace. And in addition, being in peace, we should seek to live peaceably among men (insofar as it depends on us).
May God help us to use our freedom in Christ to love and edify our neighbor as ourselves.