Traditions, Conscience, and Law

One huge strand of Reformation theology that is woven into many other parts of it is our rejection of human traditions to bind the conscience apart from the written Word (i.e. Belgic Confession 32).  Today, Rome still has “evangelical counsels” which basically amount to church laws in addition to the laws in the Bible.  For example, in part 3, article 3.2 of the Roman Catholic Catechism you’ll find a section called “The Precepts of the Church.”  They include these: “You shall confess your sins at least once a year…You shall keep the holy days of obligation…You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.”  The Roman catechism says this:

“The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort….”

It may sound sweet and pious, but these laws of tradition are exactly the opposite.  Article 26 of the Augsburg Confession has an awesome response to this dangerous view of human laws and traditions: they greatly terrify people’s consciences and have caused the Church to suffer terribly.  How?

First, these traditions and laws “obscure” the “chief part of the gospel – the doctrine of grace and of the righteousness of faith.” 

“Christian righteousness is the faith that believes that sins are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake.  But this doctrine of Paul has been almost completely smothered by traditions, which have produced the opinion that we must merit grace and righteousness by making distinctions in meats and similar services.”

Second, “these traditions have hindered God’s commandments, because traditions were placed far above God’s commandments.”  When church traditions and laws take prominence, Christianity is “thought to stand wholly on the observance of certain holy days, rites, fasts, and vestments.”  This also caused regular Christian vocations (parenting, marriage, civil service, jobs, etc) to be denigrated.

Third, traditions bring “great danger to consciences.”  It is impossible to keep all traditions, and thinking that these are necessary acts of worship leads to despair and uncertainty.  “All the while, they had never heard about the consoling righteousness of faith and grace.”  The cross, faith, hope, and forgiveness are tucked away in the closet while consciences suffer, uncertain if solid peace with God can ever be attained.

This is a great section of the Augsburg Confession, and again, a huge part of the Reformation.  Raising human traditions to the level of Scripture clouds justification sola fide, Christian liberty, vocation, comfort, and assurance; it also is an affront to God’s Law (i.e. Mark 7.1ff).    A good thought to end on is found in article 28 of the Augsburg Confession.

“It is necessary for the chief article of the Gospel to be preserved, namely that we obtain grace freely by faith in Christ, and not by certain observances or acts of worship devised by people.”

These statements should also caution us from elevating our own church traditions and customs to the level of God’s Word.  Traditions are fine and helpful but only insofar as they keep their place as changeable practices which are subject always to God’s Word.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

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