Fundamental to the liberties of man is that faculty of the soul termed “conscience.” Today that term connotes for most people only a moral monitor—a twinge of mind that indicates a moral judgment of right or wrong. But to the mid-seventeenth-century British Presbyterians and Independents who drew up the Westminster Confession (which was to become the definitive statement of Presbyterian doctrine throughout the English-speaking world and strongly influence other Protestant bodies as well), the concept of conscience went far deeper. These men were in the midst of a battle for religious liberty, and they wrestled with the concept in order to determine its real and biblical meaning. They realized that conscience had a major role in determining the liberty of man. Their estimation of the value of this faculty is reflected in such statements as these:
There cannot be imagined a higher contempt of God than for a man to despise the power of his own conscience which is the highest sovereignty under heaven, as being God’s most immediate deputy for the ordering of his life and ways [Robert Saunderson, Twelve Sermons, 1621].
God hath given it more force and power to work upon men, than all other agents [Samuel Ward, Balm from Gilead to Recover Conscience, 1616].
To the Westminster divines the conscience was more than a moral monitor; it was a spring of action. Conscience was a man’s persuasion of what he was to believe and practice, especially concerning things known only by divine revelation. They spoke of “doing one’s conscience,” by which they meant to act according to one’s sense of right. Their evaluation of the term is seen from definitions they gave:
Conscience is considered … as a principle of our acting in order to do what God commanded us in the law and the Gospel [Samuel Rutherford, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience, 1640].
Conscience is a faculty or habit of the practical understanding, which enables the mind of man, by the use of reason and argument, to apply the light which it has to particular moral actions.… The object of a man’s Conscience is a moral act; that is, something actually done, or to be done, or actually omitted, or to be left undone [Robert Saunderson, Lectures on Conscience and Human Law].
The Westminster divines considered conscience a faculty of the human soul implanted by God to rule one’s actions. It was inherent and was not to be considered a habit that might be acquired. It was one of the endowments natural to man and universal with the race. Thus Samuel Ward asserted:
Conscience is a noble and divine power planted of God in the soul, working upon itself by reflection.… A faculty I call it, because it produceth acts, and is not got and lost as habits are, but is inseparable from the soul, immovable from the subject [Samuel Ward, Balm from Gilead to Recover Conscience, 1616].
The divines recognized that the human conscience was subject to earthly influences, but they sought to free it from the authority of man. It may seem commonplace to some that the human conscience is not subject to man’s authority, but this was a revolutionary concept at the time of the Reformation. In the Middle Ages either the church or the state dictated a man’s beliefs, worship, and actions. His social, economic, political, and religious life was under the control of state and church. In their fight to establish the liberty of conscience regarding faith and worship, the Reformers laid a foundation for all liberties.
Even in the seventeenth century it was still the accepted principle: cuius regio eius religio—“whose is the government, his is the religion.” The English king or parliament, for example, considered it a rightful power to rule over both church and state and to determine the religion of the people. It was therefore revolutionary for the Westminster Assembly of Divines to determine in the session of March 30, 1645: “They who require absolute and blind obedience unto superiors for conscience’ sake, do destroy liberty of conscience and reason.”
The divines articulated this position in articles and sermons. Consider, for example, this statement:
To do God and ourselves right, it is necessary we should with our utmost strength maintain the doctrine and power of that liberty wherewith Christ hath endowed his church, without usurping the mastery over others, or subjecting ourselves to their servitude: so, as to surrender neither our judgments or consciences to be wholly disposed according to the opinion or wills of men, though of never excellent piety or parts [Thomas Taylor, Concerning the Right Use of Liberty, 1634].
Although members of the Westminster Assembly saw clearly that conscience must be liberated from ecclesiastical dictatorship and the absolute state, they placed a definite limitation to liberty of conscience. There are modern theologians who would free the conscience from some of the laws enunciated by Christ in the Gospels; but these divines stated clearly that the rights of liberty of conscience are limited by the divine law. Christ did not release the Christian from all laws, nor did he give his followers the right to believe whatever doctrines they pleased; for then assent could be given to falsehood and error, instead of that truth which alone can “make us free.” God of course requires men to believe the truth, as well as to obey his commands. He has given us a rule of faith, as well as of practice, and requires us to think and act according to it. Therefore, it is only at our peril that we allow ourselves the contrary. Limitation of liberty by God’s authority is clearly reflected in the writings of the divines:
The Word of God, and God in his Word, the Scripture, and God in Scripture, is the only infallible, supreme, authoritative Rule and judge of matters of doctrines and worship, of things to be believed, and things to be done [Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, 1645].
God alone has a proper and direct power of command over the Consciences of men; so that none but He alone has a power to impose a law upon the Conscience of any man which it is bound to obey.… He who alone knows the inward motions of the Conscience, He only has a power of prescribing a law to it, but God only, the Searcher of hearts, can discover the inward motions of the Mind and Conscience.… The proximate and immediate Rule of the Conscience is the light of the mind, and the principle and supreme rule is the written Word of God.… The man who designs the Glory of God to be the end, must propose likewise the Law of God to be the rule, of his actions (Isaiah 8:20) [Robert Saunderson, Lectures on Conscience and Human Law].
Because men have ignored the proper limitation of liberty by the authority of God, they have deified conscience. They rebel against the authority of God and refuse any limitation of the freedom of conscience. The Triune God is not considered Lord of the conscience. The individual’s reason, emotion, or habit controls his life, and this he justifies under the authority of freedom of conscience. The divines warned against deification of conscience:
Conscience is hereby made every man’s rule, umpire, judge, Bible, and his God, which if he follow, he is but at the worst, a godly, pious, holy heretic, who feareth his conscience more than his Creator.… Hence, conscience being deified, all rebuking, exhorting, counter-arguing, yea all the ministry of the Gospel must be laid aside [Samuel Rutherford, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience, 1640].
Even though a perverted use of liberty of conscience is to be abhorred, true Christian liberty must be preserved at all costs. Samuel Bolton warns that one of the ways liberty may be lost is by the pressure of a controlling hierarchy. Policies formulated by a few are forced upon an acquiescent majority who little realize that they are forfeiting a heritage of liberty. Ministers have been known to shy away from following their true convictions for fear of giving offense. Some accept without question “policies” formulated by leaders of the Church. They seem not to realize that in so doing they are surrendering a liberty of conscience for which the servants of Christ suffered dearly in the past. Bolton pleads:
Give not up yourselves to the opinions of other men, though never so learned, never so holy, because it is their opinion (1 Thess. 5:21). It often falls out that a high esteem of others for their learning and piety, make men to take up all upon trust from such, and to subject their judgments to their opinions, and their consciences to their precepts [Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, 1645].
Each minister has a responsibility before God to determine His will as revealed in Scripture. Every decision in a church assembly must be confronted by the individual’s own conscience as enlightened by the Spirit of God through the Word. Yielding to ecclesiastical pressure is a betrayal of liberty. This is a lesson too often overlooked by large segments of twentieth-century Protestantism that have enjoyed liberty long enough to have forgotten the high price past generations paid for it.
Civil liberty is very much to the forefront in today’s news. The freedom to vote and deliverance from civil bondage have been purchased with the blood of patriots. But an even greater liberty is that which has been purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus established truth when he entered into the world and was crucified. No sacrifice can be too great to maintain the truth by which Christ set the human spirit free. As Bolton emphasizes, it is worth far more than civil liberty, precious though that may be:
You esteem your civil freedoms the better, in that they cost so much of the blood of your ancestors to compass them. It is baseness to be careless of that which they endured the loss of so much blood to compass. How much more should we esteem our freedom, which was purchased by the blood of Christ? You are redeemed not by silver and gold, but by the blood of Christ, saith the Apostle. So that it is a freedom dearly purchased; yea, and freely bestowed; and mercifully revealed; fully conveyed unto us by the Spirit of Christ; and therefore how should we endeavor the maintenance of it? “To stand fast in the liberty wherein Christ hath set us free, and be not entangled again with yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1) [Samuel Bolton, ibid.].
The Apostle Paul was here contending for the precious truth of justification by faith alone. He feared that the Galatian Christians might be entangled with human traditions and human wisdom. For the precious truth of justification through which men are set free, all Christians should be willing to strive as sacrificially as have patriots for civil freedom. Christ shed his precious blood for this freedom, and that is of itself more than ample motivation for Christians to safeguard the truth by which Christ sets men free.
For the Westminster divines, conscience was more than a mere moral monitor; it was a faculty implanted by God in the human soul that enables man’s mind to apply the light that it has to particular moral actions. The divines claimed freedom for this conscience—freedom from the dictates and authority of man; freedom toward fulfilling God’s commands in Scripture. Liberty of conscience is not an end in itself; it is a means to glorify God by a life of obedience.
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