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God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. —Westminster Confession of Faith 20.2

This is no ivory-tower statement. Many of the delegates to the Westminster Assembly were working pastors and all too familiar with “the real world.” In fact, as they were writing in the 1640s, the real world was caught up in a terrible civil war, behind which lay the very issues that chapter 20 of the confession was written to address: liberty of conscience. A glance at my “seventeenth century” bookshelves reveals such learned works as A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty; William Haller, Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution; and Christopher Hill, Liberty against the Law. The titles say it all. Like the issue of law and love, the topic of Christian liberty, its nature and its implications, its extent and its limitations, is perennially significant. In seventeenth-century England, it was critical.

The Westminster divines faced both legalism and antinomianism, a false binding of the conscience on the one hand and libertinism on the other. In addition, this was an era of fear: fear of the return of Roman Catholicism and an opposite fear (one that at times seemed equal), the fear of anarchy represented by such quaintly named groups as Quakers, Levellers, Diggers, Mechanic Preachers, and Muggletonians. How freedom and responsibility are balanced in the Christian life was a matter of major concern. Hence, here in chapter 20, section 2, the exposition of Christian liberty in general (section 1) becomes narrowly focused on the issue of liberty of conscience in particular. During the first two years or so of the assembly’s work, the divines labored long and often to compose for their own time a chapter of biblical balance. For that reason, they produced a statement of lasting value. In these brief reflections on their teaching, it may be helpful for us to consider (1) its biblical foundations, (2) its historical relevance, and (3) some aspects of its practical application.

biblical foundations

What do we mean when we say, “God alone is Lord of the conscience”? What is “conscience,” and in what sense is God “Lord” of it?

The word conscience (Greek syneidsis) appears around thirty times in the New Testament, with the Apostle Paul using it twice as often as all the other authors combined. In his world, the conscience was seen as a function of human nature in which the self becomes aware of a moral assessment being made on its behavior based on some internally operative standard of judgment. The conscience is thus experienced as an approving or condemning voice that functions both to assess past and to guide present and future behavior.

Paul’s use of conscience, however, needs to be set within a biblical framework. Man (male and female) was created as the image of God in righteousness and holiness (Gen. 1:26; Eph. 4:24). Adam and Eve’s consciences were informed by and aligned with the revealed will of God and functioned to assess and to guide their behavior (Gen. 2:15–17). The result? In their original created condition, to borrow Paul’s expression (Rom. 2:15), their consciences bore witness to their integrity. They experienced an appropriate conscience approval, the evidence of which lay in that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). God’s will for them and their faithfulness to it aligned. They enjoyed a “good conscience” and the experience of unclouded friendship. But that did not last long. Soon, in the aftermath of their disobedience to God’s Word (3:1–6), their Word-informed consciences were accusing and condemning them.

Genesis 3:7–8 opens the next stage in the human drama: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Thus act 2 began: “And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths . . . , and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord.” They tried unsuccessfully to hide their sense of shame from each other (their sense of guilt emerges in the blame game in which they engage in 3:11–13). Nor could they hide from God. Their consciences had declared them to be guilty even before He asked them where they were (vv. 9–11).

The confession was issuing a rallying cry: Conscience cannot be required to conform to that which God does not require.

Adam and Eve refused to allow “God alone” to be “Lord of the conscience.” In this context, it is easy to sense that the confession’s words sound like an eerie echo of the history of Eden. Adam and Eve were truly free when they lived according to God’s Word. They were in fact “free from the doctrines and commandments . . . which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.” Their tragic mistake was “to believe such doctrines . . . [and] obey such commands. . . .” But they foolishly listened to the serpent and exercised “implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience.” That process was calculated “to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (WCF 20.2).

From where we stand at the other end of the Bible story, we see that the conscience is now no longer perfectly aligned with God’s Word. It is instead an aspect of people whose minds do not and whose wills cannot submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7). Our regeneration needs to be accompanied by the recalibration of our consciences according to the Word of God. And if that process is to progress, we need to be on our guard against the same pattern of entrapment to which our first parents succumbed in Eden.

Here, then, is the distinctive biblical background to Paul’s understanding of conscience. It helps explain why the Westminster divines believed that so much was at stake in their statement.

historical relevance

When the Westminster Assembly convened, the original plan was to revise the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. That changed as the English Civil War progressed, and the grander vision of a new confession soon emerged. But the shadow of the Thirty-Nine Articles lingered on. The wording of chapter 20.2 reflects this. The Thirty-Nine Articles had affirmed:

The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. (Article 20)

Granting “power to decree rites and ceremonies” so long as they were not “contrary” to Scripture was a less rigorous regulative principle than had been adopted by John Calvin in Geneva or John Knox in Scotland or was favored by the Puritan-minded Anglicans. The distance between “only what is mandated by Scripture” and “so long as it is not contrary to Scripture” could in practice be little more than a few inches, but it could also be a mile wide. And it had increasingly become the latter during Archbishop William Laud’s reign, in the decreeing of “rites or ceremonies” and other additions to the simplicity of worship. Enshrined in these additions was a theology that was Arminian in character and Roman Catholicizing in forms of worship. Thus, consciences that sought to submit to the lordship of God in His Word with respect to doctrine and practice were being subjected to regulations and demands that were “beside” God’s Word, and in some instances by implication “contrary to” it (despite the protestations of article 20). When the primate of the Church of England exercised power to decree rites and ceremonies of this kind, true liberty of conscience was betrayed. To require Christians to accept such decrees by “absolute and blind” obedience or believe the doctrines enshrined in them by “implicit faith”—that is, to obey or believe simply “because this is what the church teaches”—was destructive of the liberty of conscience given to us in the gospel of Christ and of God’s lordship over conscience mediated by His Word.

The confession was issuing a rallying cry: Conscience cannot be required to conform to that which God does not require.

practical application

God’s lordship over our conscience is exercised through His Word. As chapter 1 of the confession had made clear, Scripture is of divine origin and is characterized by both perfection and sufficiency. It is “the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4, quoting Deut. 8:3).

Herein lies the gulf between the secular and the biblical views of conscience. Secular counsel may advise us to “act according to conscience” or to “trust your own conscience.” But this expresses only human autonomy, or the triumph of individualism, or the influence of social norms. In sharp contrast, the biblical view is that the created function of conscience is to represent the Word of God. That it does not is an expression of our sinful distortion. Conscience shares our waywardness. Our need is for personal regeneration and then the recalibration of conscience to be informed by the gospel and yield to the Lord in His Word. We live not by eating the bread of autonomous conscience but by conscience’s listening to, absorbing, and applying every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Living according to conscience, then, is not a matter of “being faithful to my best self” or “following conscience per se.” It is a matter of conscience’s being informed, shaped, and trained by God’s Word and becoming increasingly sensitive to its assessments. To say that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” is to affirm that God’s Word is paramount in shaping this dimension of our self-consciousness.

My Christian responsibility, therefore, is to immerse myself in the doctrines, patterns, and precepts of the Word of God. As my mind, heart, and will are increasingly exposed to, saturated with, and made pliable by Scripture, conscience will be increasingly aligned with and sensitive to the character and will of God; it will be cleansed and recalibrated according to the truth. God’s lordship with respect to conscience will thus once more be exercised through the medium of His Word.

The confession states very clearly the ways that the church may not compel our conscience. But what are we to say about the power of the church to direct us in matters that Scripture does not directly address? How do we respond to the Christian who insists that we give him “chapter and verse” for everything that we do in church? After all, there is probably a great deal about the life of our church that is not specifically commanded in Scripture. A random sample might include the time that worship begins on Sunday, the order of service, whether we sit or stand to pray, how long the sermon should be, and a multitude of other matters. To ask for “chapter and verse” in these instances would paralyze our church life. Does this not raise questions about the principles enunciated by the Westminster divines, or at least about their workability?

But in fact, this is not the position. Our consciences are ruled by God’s Word. But as the divines underline in their opening chapter, while we avoid “new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men,” it is also true that

there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (WCF 1.6)

Thus, for example, in a properly ordered church, we are to respond in good conscience to decisions made by our church leaders when there is no “chapter and verse” because they seek to wisely apply the general principles of Scripture for the edification of the whole church family, and as they do so they take into consideration principles of biblical wisdom that help them order their decisions in relation to the light of nature. What the Lord of my conscience binds me to in such circumstances (and there are many of them) is to exercise a willingness to obey my leaders (Heb. 13:17) and to seek the peace and unity of the church fellowship to which I belong and not my own preferences in the ordering of the worship and government of the church. These considerations imply that the outworking of this regulative principle of conscience may lead to the development of different patterns in different places. There are trivial examples (one church meets at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., while another meets at 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.). But there are also more significant illustrations already within the pages of the New Testament.

Gentile believers are not required to be circumcised. Paul vigorously taught so. Anyone who insisted on the submission of gentile consciences to the necessity of circumcision was exposed to his anathema (Gal. 1:8). He rejoiced that Titus was not required to be circumcised (2:1–3). But the same Paul arranged for Timothy to be circumcised (Acts 16:3). The explanation? There is a difference between conscience-binding and wise acting.

Similarly, for Paul all foods were clean. Yet he not only agreed with but promulgated the “decisions” (Greek dogmata; Acts 16:4) of the council of Jerusalem (15:1–16:5) to “lay on you no greater burden than these requirements” (15:28). How could he when these “requirements” included Old Testament law that Paul said no longer bound believers? Were the divines in the Westminster Assembly critiquing the decision of the Apostles and elders in the Jerusalem assembly for falsely binding the consciences of gentile believers? Indeed not. The matter of conscience was not the conviction about eating meat with blood in it. In that respect, their consciences were free indeed. But Paul understood that the proof of genuine freedom of conscience in this context was that the person who in conscience was free to eat was also willing to abstain from eating. Indeed, if he must eat, he had lost his freedom. His need to eat had become his bondage. And worse, if he flaunted his freedom, he had abandoned that to which God’s Word had already bound his conscience—love for his fellow believers.

That kind of love is a beautiful expression of God’s lordship over us and over our conscience (see Rom. 14:1–15:13). In the end, liberty of conscience is meant to lead us back to the beauty of the fellowship of Eden. When God is Lord of our conscience and we yield it unreservedly to His Word, then surely the fruit of our freedom will be the beginning of the restoration of that beauty.

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