“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity!” This quote is often attributed to the great theologian Augustine, of the fourth century, but it actually came from a lesser known German Lutheran theologian, Rupertus Meldenius, of the early seventeenth century. The phrase occurs in a tract on Christian unity written (circa 1627) during the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), a bloody time in European history that initially began over religious differences. Although this statement is a slogan, it captures the guiding principle of Romans 14 and 15.
However, some explanation of the slogan is needed for balance and clarity so that we can see that its principle is indeed scriptural and fits our text.
“In essentials, unity...” means that there are certain doctrines and convictions upon which there can be no disagreement among genuine Christians. Specifically, this applies to the Gospel and the saving work of Christ. There must be agreement on the exclusivity of the Gospel – that there is no other way for God to forgive sinners and remain just in the process except through faith in Jesus Christ – which means that God is not saving anyone any other way. There must be agreement on the work of Christ as all-sufficient for our salvation including His sinless life, sacrificial death, and supernatural resurrection so that nothing is either added to or taken away from the Gospel. There must be agreement on the power of the Gospel – that it changes everyone who believes into a new creature and that one cannot be saved and remain unchanged. Disagreement in the essentials is grounds for separation and commanded in Scripture (for examples see Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Galatians 1:6-8; Philippians 3:2; 2 Timothy 3:1-5). “In essentials, unity!”
“In nonessentials, liberty...” means that there are certain convictions genuine Christians have and disagree on but these are not essential for salvation. Genuine Christians can disagree on a variety of convictions that are nonessential for salvation and still be Christian; still love the Lord; and still love each other. When we say that a conviction is nonessential we are not saying that it is not important. What we are saying is that if a conviction is not essential for salvation then there is room for disagreement and liberty in those beliefs while we maintain unity over the essentials. For example, as long as someone believes in the exclusivity of the Gospel, the sufficiency of the Gospel, and the power of the Gospel, then I can disagree with him over what we believe about the end-times; which version of the Bible should be used; whether or not to eat meat; whether or not to drink wine; and whether or not one day is more important than another while still being in unity over the essentials and yet disagreeing on the nonessentials.
Disagreement over the nonessentials only means that there will be diversity among Christians in how the Lordship of Christ over their lives works itself out. We are not to play Lord in another’s life by demanding that their convictions be the same as ours in the nonessentials. There are two dangers we are to avoid: (1) we are not to make an essential into a nonessential or else we will have sinfully compromised the Gospel. (2) We are not to make a nonessential into an essential or else we will have sinfully corrupted the Gospel. Remember, in the essentials unity; in the nonessentials, liberty. We are to agree on the essentials but we are to allow disagreement in the nonessentials.
Notice how if you read Romans 14:1-12 with the principle, “In nonessentials, liberty” in mind, that the principle is crystal clear and captures the essence of the text. We are not to be divided or separated over nonessentials. Division or separation is only to occur from disagreement over the essentials. Therefore we must know the difference between essentials and nonessentials. In essentials, agreement is necessary; in nonessentials, disagreement is allowable.
“In all things, charity...” means that if we do not agree on the essentials we are not going to fellowship, partnership or be in harmony with infidels but neither are we going on a crusade to kill them. We will protest against reprobates but we will not persecute them. We will not give in to the spirit of our age which wants fellowship between light and darkness by attempting to reverse the principle and get us to give liberty in the essentials while we unite with lawlessness over the nonessentials. Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). We will not reverse the principle for to do so would be unloving by rejoicing in unrighteousness while not rejoicing with the truth.
Not only are we to not harm reprobates who do not agree on the essentials but we are not to hurt our brothers and sisters in Christ who do agree on the essentials but disagree on some of the nonessentials (Romans 14:15). We are to walk according to love (Romans 14:15) and build up our brothers and sisters in Christ by not only giving them liberty in the nonessentials but by setting aside our liberties for their good (Romans 15:1-2). “In all things, charity.”