The Liberty and Limitations of Conscience

Liberty of conscience has been twisted by individualism, autonomy, and licentiousness – as though crying “Liberty of conscience!” is a license that frees one from all limitations.

To begin with, the liberty of conscience is limited by the law of God. Paul wrote: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:13). Likewise, Peter warned: “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). There is no true liberty and freedom apart from what God has revealed in the Bible. Rather, sin — which is lawlessness — is pictured as a cruel master and we its willing slave. To this, Samuel Rutherford said, “The Word of God must be the rule of Conscience, and conscience is a servant; and an under-judge only, not a Lord, nor an Absolute and independent sovereign…Conscience is ruled by Scripture” (A Free Disputation, 10).

 

In a wood shop in Italy a little cricket emerged and seated himself on a box of matches. As firelight danced on the walls the cricket drew near to a wooden puppet and asked if he wanted to be a real boy. Eager to learn, he and the cricket had a heart-to-heart, and singing a little ditty that is chiseled on the memories of many, the would-be boy is taught a simple motto: “Always let your conscience be your guide.” While that isn’t perhaps a perfect piece of advice to live by – mostly because of a lack of qualifications – it does have a nugget of truth: the importance of one’s own conscience.

The conscience is given a significant place in Christianity as a capacity that God himself has given to us. Simply defined and to paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, the conscience is the capacity to judge one’s self according to God’s own judgment. You might say that the conscience is an internal witness that compares our thoughts, words, and deeds to God’s standard. As it does it either accuses or approves what we think, say, and do. To live in harmony with that judgment – approving what God approves and disapproving what God disapproves – is to have a “clear conscience” (Acts 24:16), to be living for “the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5), and to be of “a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19). The Bible tells us that a clear conscience is a blessing: “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (Romans 14:22).

In fact, the conscience is so significant that God lays claim to it for himself. James wrote, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12). Likewise, Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4). To bind the conscience with the commandments or traditions of men is to take what rightly belongs to God. It’s why Peter challenged his accusers saying “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This is why Paul says, “Do not become bondservants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23). Jesus himself emancipated the conscience from men when he taught “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). The faith we have is lived coram Deo –before the face of God.

This is a pivotal point for Reformed Christianity. Against the ceremonies, traditions, and commandments of men, Reformed theology asserts the liberty of conscience. For instance, John Calvin said “Our consciences do not have to do with men but with God alone” (Institutes 4.10.5). The Puritan David Clarkson wrote: “Conscience is God’s deputy, and must in the exercise of this office confine itself to the orders and instructions of the sovereign Lord” (Works, 2:475). The Presbyterian churchman James Bannerman said, “[The conscience is] a sanctuary where God alone may enter, and where none but God may rule” (Church of Christ, 1:160). In one of the greatest statements penned to this effect, the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly teaches: “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” This isn’t some abstract point because to say otherwise is actually to deny the precious blood that has purchased us (1 Peter 1:18-19) and to make of no effect the death of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 2:21).

But this biblical teaching of the liberty of conscience has often been abused. It has been twisted by individualism, autonomy, and licentiousness – as though crying “Liberty of conscience!” is a license that frees one from all limitations. Calvin cautioned against this very thing when he wrote: “For immediately a word is uttered concerning the abrogating of human constitutions, huge troubles are stirred up, partly by the seditious, partly by slanderers –as if all human obedience were at the same time removed and cast down” (Institutes, 3.19.14). Against this, Reformed theology has recognized that the liberty of conscience has its limitations. Princeton theologian AA Hodge insisted “It is of the highest importance, on the other hand, clearly to understand that Christian liberty is not an absolute liberty” (Westminster Confession of Faith: A Commentary, 267). What are those limitations?

To begin with, the liberty of conscience is limited by the law of God. Paul wrote: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:13). Likewise, Peter warned: “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). There is no true liberty and freedom apart from what God has revealed in the Bible. Rather, sin — which is lawlessness — is pictured as a cruel master and we its willing slave. To this, Samuel Rutherford said, “The Word of God must be the rule of Conscience, and conscience is a servant; and a under-judge only, not a Lord, nor an Absolute and independent sovereign…Conscience is ruled by Scripture” (A Free Disputation, 10).

The liberty of conscience is also limited by the rule of love.

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