That’s Not Christian Liberty, That’s Immaturity!

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by [Naselli, Andrew David, Crowley, J. D.] Christian liberty is one of those great biblical truths the Protestant Reformers recovered.  The papacy had made all sorts of rules, regulations, doctrines, and so forth that were neither commanded nor taught by Scripture.  The Reformers, thinking of texts like Matthew 15:9, Acts 5:29, Galatians 5:1 (and so on), said that to believe man-made doctrines or to obey man-made religious laws destroys the freedom of the conscience (see WCF 20.2).

The Reformers also talked about Christian liberty in terms of the gospel, that our consciences are be free from the terrors of the law because Christ obeyed in our place and paid for all our sins.  Justification by faith alone is very closely related to Christian liberty!

John Calvin said the following:

“…Christian freedom is, in all its parts, a spiritual thing.  Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God – that are 1) perhaps disturbed and troubled over forgiveness of sins, or 2) anxious whether unfinished works, corrupted by the faults of our flesh, are pleasing to God, or 3) tormented about the use of things indifferent (Institutes, III.XIX.8)”

Of course, Christian liberty has a few angles to it.  It also means we should obey God and seek to be holy – Christ saved us to do good works! (Eph. 2:10).  I also appreciate how Naselli and Crowley explained Christian liberty as they reflect on 1 Corinthians 9:19 and the surrounding context:

“Christian liberty isn’t, ‘Cool! I finally get to do the stuff I’ve always wanted to but my strict upbringing wouldn’t let me.  Then you Facebook about it so that everyone knows you’re hip.  That’s not Christian liberty; that’s immaturity.  Christian liberty is the domain of the mature, not the immature.  When the immature get ahold of it, they make a mess of it, like some of the Corinthians did.

Christian liberty is not about you and your freedom to do what you want to do.  It’s about the freedom to discipline yourself to be flexible for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of weaker believers.”

In summary, Christian liberty 1) frees us from man-made laws and doctrines, 2) is based upon the gospel and justification by faith alone, and 3) isn’t about doing whatever you want to do, but in self-control being flexible for the sake of the gospel.  Here’s Calvin again:

“Nothing is plainer than this rule: that we should use our freedom if it results in the edification of our neighbor, but if it does not help our neighbor, then we should forego it.”

The above quote by Naselli and Crowley is found on page 132 of Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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“Conscience” by Naselli and Crowley (A Review)

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ A conscience that works well is a blessing from God.  Even though it is painful, to feel a prick deep inside when we do something wrong is a good thing.  The Bible does have a bit to say about the conscience.  Andrew Naselli and J.D. Crowley recently got together to write a short book called Conscience which gives readers a biblical understanding of it.  The book is not an exhaustive, lengthy, and scholarly survey of the conscience.  Instead, as the subtitle notes, this book talks about what the conscience is, how we can train it, and loving people whose consciences aren’t exactly like ours.

The book is pretty straightforward and well written.  First, the authors define conscience and discuss what the Bible says about it.  They go on to ask and answer the following questions: What should you do when your conscience condemns you?  How should you calibrate your conscience?  How should you relate to other Christians when your consciences differ?  How should you relate to people in other culture if your conscience is different from theirs?  I’ll come back to this book later and give some specific quotes, but for now I do want to note that parts of this book are very helpful when it comes to shaping our conscience according to Scripture.  This book helps steer away from legalism and judgmentalism for sure.

I wish the authors would have related justification to the conscience and Christian liberty.  Sadly, the doctrine of justification was not discussed in this book.  In reality, Christian liberty is an “appendage of justification,” as Calvin said; certainly justification has everything to do with our conscience and Christian liberty (see Gal. 5:1 & Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 20).  The Reformation had a lot to say about justification, liberty, and conscience!  This book would have been even better if it had a little more theological and historical depth.  (As a side, I’m thankful that in my Reformed background I was taught quite a bit about the conscience!)

Despite my one critique, this book is a great resource for learning more about the Christian conscience.  I do recommend it very much!  Perhaps if you read it you can check out the above mentioned WCF chapter (20) and Calvin’s Institutes (III.XIX.1ff) to see what justification has to do with liberty and conscience.  In fact, I’m hoping to do just that for a future adult Sunday School series – go through Naselli & Crowley’s book along with the doctrine of justification, and teach Christians what Scripture says about the conscience.  This book will be a good help in that area.  I’m thankful Naselli and Crowley took the time and energy to write it.

(As a side, another excellent resource on the conscience is Christopher Ash’s Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience).

Andrew Naselli and J. D. Crowley, Conscience (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Conscience, Love, and Submission

I’ve always been fascinated by the human conscience.  Maybe it started about 20 years ago when I first read Luther’s self-defense where he said his conscience was held captive by God’s Word.  Maybe my interest in the conscience started when I was learning about freedom of conscience in the context of the Reformation and sola Scriptura.  Or maybe my interest in the conscience started when I was very young and wrestled with a sensitive conscience myself.  Whatever the case, Christopher Ash’s book on the topic is wonderful.  I’ve mentioned it before, so I won’t go into details.  However, I do want to share two short sections I underlined in my copy:

“Love makes it easy for others to follow their conscience.  The individualistic and selfish insistence that I will do everything I am free in Christ to do, whether it be eating idol food (in Corinth) or eating bacon sandwiches (in Rome) is not motivated by love.  If I love someone and I understand just how important it is for them to maintain their integrity by doing only what their conscience allows, then I will do all I can to make it easy for them to do that.  ‘Knowledge puffs up’, makes me feel good about myself, ‘while love builds up’, that is, builds up the church (1 Corinthians 8:1).  If I cause their conscience distress by my actions then I am not acting out of love (Romans 14:15)….”

Our consciences need to be trained to submit to the Bible.  …Our unreliable consciences ought to be deliberately and consciously subject to the reliable Word of God.  There is such a thing as the tyranny of the weak conscience in a church.  This  is where people who are actually wrong cling so tenaciously to the preciousness of their (misguided) conscience that they will never learn anything else.  ‘Oh,’ they say in a prissy voice, ‘you musn’t trouble my conscience!  I am very protective of my precious conscience!’  And so they end up making an idol out of their conscience.

…[In Romans 14:5 Paul] does not want anyone to do something while convinced in their own mind that it is wrong.  That would be sinful.  But it is also sinful if I treat the conviction of my own mind as my ultimate authority.  …[Paul] wants our consciences to be in a constant process of recalibration, so that they get more and more closely aligned with the Word of God.”

Christopher Ash, Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience (p. 156-158)

Shane Lems

An Answer For All Your Sins

Christ Set Forth: As the Cause of Justification and as the Object of Justifying Faith I’m enjoying this new “Puritan Paperback”: Christ Set Forth by Thomas Goodwin.  Goodwin’s prose is a bit more difficult than other Puritans, but most of the time the depth is the beauty.  In one section of Christ Set Forth, Goodwin mentions the fact that Christ’s suffering atones for all of our sins – not just those big ones we recently committed, but even those we committed long ago (and try to forget about).  He also mentions that it is good for us not to just confess general sins and think that Christ died for those general sins, but confess specific ones and meditate on the fact that Jesus died for those specific ones as well.  If we consider this,

“Thus might we find out that in Christ’s suffering and satisfaction made, that would fitly answer to anything in our sins; and so thereby we should be more relieved.  And though the whole body of his sufferings do stand and answer for the whole bulk of our sinnings, yet the consideration of such particulars will much conduce to the satisfying of an humbled and dejected soul, about the particulars of its sinnings.”

“Therefore get your hearts and consciences directly and particularly satisfied in the all-sufficiency of worth and merit which is in the satisfaction that Christ hath made.  As it is a fault and defect in humiliation, that men content themselves with a general apprehension and notion that they are sinners, and so never become thoroughly humbled, so it is a defect in their faith that they content themselves with a superficial and general conceit, that Christ died for sinners, their hearts not being particularly satisfied about the transcendent all-sufficiency of his death.”

“And thence it is, that in time of temptation, when their abounding sinfulness comes distinctly to be discovered to them, and charged upon them, they are then amazed their faith nonplussed, as not seeing that in Christ which might answer to all their sinfulness.  But as God saw that in Christ’s death which satisfied him, so you should endeavor by faith to see that worth in it which may satisfy God, and then your faith will sit down as satisfied also. [You should aim to see] Christ’s righteousness, how in its fullness and perfection it answereth to all your sinfulness.”

Thomas Goodwin, Christ Set Forth, p. 50-51.

shane lems

Protesting Papal Snares

https://i0.wp.com/covers3.booksamillion.com/covers/bam/0/14/043/477/0140434771.jpgSometimes we Protestants forget our protest.  The Reformation came about because certain Christian men boldly protested the heinous abuses of the Roman Catholic Church.  These weren’t minor abuses; it wasn’t like the Reformers were simply upset about a few songs, candle arrangements, and the writings of one or two priests.  The Reformers protested against Rome because her official teaching contradicted the heart of Scriptural truth: salvation from sin by grace alone (not grace + merit) through faith alone (not faith + works) in Christ alone (not Mary’s or anyone else’s merits), which we are taught from Scripture alone (not ecclesiastical tradition) for God’s glory alone (not for the glory of the Pope or any man).

It’s important to keep this in mind when reading Reformed works that criticize the theology and practice of Rome.  Protestants have often used harsh language when writing against Rome.  Although these Protestant writers were not without sin, by in large Rome’s corruption and abuses deserve harsh language because Rome distorts the gospel, binds consciences, and takes the spotlight off of Christ, his promises, and his love.  Here’s an example from William Tyndale, one of the early English Reformers.

“Woe be to you lawyers! For ye lade [load] men with burdens which they are not able to bear, and ye yourselves touch not the packs with one of your fingers,” saith Christ, Luke 11, Our [spiritual] lawyers, verily, have laden us a thousand times more. What spiritual kindred have they made in baptism to let [hinder] matrimony!  Besides that they have added certain degrees unto the law natural for the same purpose. What an unbearable burden of chastity do they violently thrust on other men’s backs, and how easily bear they it themselves! How sore a burden, how cruel a hangman, how grievous a torment, yea, and how painful an hell, is this ear-confession unto men’s consciences! For the people are brought in belief, that without that they cannot be saved; insomuch that some fast certain days in the year, and pray certain superstitious prayers all their lives long, that they may not die without confession. In peril of death, if the priest be not [near]by, the shipmen shrive themselves [make confession] unto the mast [of the ship]. If any [person] be present, they run then every man into his ear [to confess]: but to God’s promises fly they not, for they know them not. If any man have a death’s wound, he crieth immediately for a priest. If a man die without shrift [confession], many take it for a sign of damnation. Many, by reason of that false belief, die in desperation. Many, for shame, keep back of their confession twenty, thirty years, and think all the while that they be damned.

I knew a poor woman with child, which longed, and, being overcome of her passion [hunger], ate flesh [meat] on a Friday; which thing she durst [dared] not confess in the space of eighteen years, and thought all that while that she had been damned, and yet sinned she not at all. Is not this a sore burden, that so weigheth down the soul unto the bottom of hell? What should I say? A great book were not sufficient to rehearse the snares which they have laid to rob men both of their goods, and also of the trust which they should have in God’s word.

This is why men like Tyndale protested against the heavy burdens of the papacy.  Rome was binding consciences far beyond the Word, propagating religious superstitions, messing with God’s law, removing free grace from the gospel, not pointing to God’s unfailing promises for solace, and driving people to spiritual despair.  These things were – and are! – certainly worth protesting with vigor!

The above quote is found on pages 101-102 of Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, first published in 1528.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

The Fundamental Principle of Protestantism

Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes One of the high notes of the gospel is that Jesus has set his people free from sin’s guilt and bondage, Satan’s tyranny, and the demands and curses of the law as a covenant of works.  Since he has set us free, we are to walk in that freedom (Gal. 5:1).  We obey his law out of gratitude, and submit willingly to him, but we do not allow human laws and traditions to bind our consciences.  Sola scriptura: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, for man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).  Charles Hodge explained this in a wonderful way (if you listen carefully, you can hear echoes of the Westminster Standards and Martin Luther in these words):

“It follows from the fundamental principle of Protestantism, that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice, that no work can be regarded as good or obligatory on the conscience which the Scriptures do not enjoin. Of course it is not meant that the Bible commands in detail everything which the people of God are bound to do, but it prescribes the principles by which their conduct is to be regulated, and specifies the kind of acts which those principles require or forbid.”

“It is enough that the Scriptures require children to obey their parents, citizens the magistrate, and believers to hear the Church, without enjoining every act which these injunctions render obligatory. In giving these general commands, the Bible gives all necessary limitations, so that neither parents, magistrates, nor Church can claim any authority not granted to them by God, nor impose anything on the conscience which He does not command.”

“As some churches have enjoined a multitude of doctrines as articles of faith, which are not taught in Scripture, so they have enjoined a multitude of acts, which the Bible neither directly, nor by just or necessary inference requires. They have thus imposed upon those who recognize their authority as infallible in teaching, a yoke of bondage which no one is able to bear. After the example of the ancient Pharisees, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, and claim divine authority for human institutions. From this bondage it was one great design of the Reformation to free the people of God. This deliverance was effected by proclaiming the principle that nothing is sin but what the Bible forbids and nothing is morally obligatory but what the Bible enjoins.”

“Such, however, is the disposition, on the one hand, to usurp authority, and, on the other, to yield to it, that it is only by the constant assertion and vindication of this principle, that the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free can be preserved.”

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, book 3 page 237 (III.XVII.4.3).

shane lems
hammond, wi

Turretin on Natural Law

Product Details Near the beginning of his 3-volume theological work, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin (d. 1687) argues from Scripture that all humans have a sense of the divine (sensus divinitatis).  One reference he uses to prove this point is Romans 2:14-15 (quoted below).  Here are his comments.

“We find in man a natural law written upon each one’s conscience excusing and accusing them in good and bad actions, which therefore necessarily implies the knowledge of God, the legislator, by whose authority it binds men to obedience and proposes rewards or punishments.”

“‘For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, (i.e. the law of Moses) by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them’ (Rom 2:14-15).  This could not be said if conscience did not dictate to each one that there is a deity who approves of good actions and disapproves and punishes evil deeds. 

…For the inscription (of the law) implies a natural revelation of that law to the conscience opposed to the external revelation made to the Jews by the writing upon stony tablets.  Hence it is expressed by the conscience which exerts itself both in observation and in consciousness (v. 15).

Francis Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1 p. 7.

shane lems

hammond, wi