What Does Our Conscience Owe to the Government?

What Does Our Conscience Owe to the Government?

What Does Our Conscience Owe to the Government?
John Brown of Wamphray (1610-1679) was the Church of Scotland minister of Wamphray near Dumfries. One of the great theological writers in the later period of the Second Reformation, he wrote a large number of books and also pastored the Scots Church at Rotterdam.
10 Jul, 2020

Usually, questions about the authority of civil government concerning the church or the individual believer are rather theoretical. In recent months, however, they have become intensely practical for Christians in many countries. We are thankful for the role of government in upholding the good of society. How far, however, does government authority concerning preserving health, security and order extend? How far can they restrict the church and its worship? Is there a way through such dilemmas that keeps our conscience clear? A spectrum of opinion exists, but we need to bring back such questions (intricate as they are) to biblical principle. Our reasoning should come from Scripture rather than the consequences that we anticipate from any particular course of action. We must respect the authority of civil government, but we cannot outsource our conscience to them blindly.

Romans 13:5 is a key verse dealing with conscience and civil government. Paul draws certain conclusions from the reasons given in the preceding verses. He argues that we must be subject to our lawful governing authorities, it is not something optional for us. It is necessary for two reasons: “for wrath” and “for conscience sake”. We must be subject otherwise we expose ourselves to “wrath”, i.e. just punishment by the government. But we must also be subject “for conscience sake” that is, out of conscience to the command of God. Otherwise, we will wound our conscience and expose ourselves to its just condemnation against us. John Brown of Wamphray shows how it is possible to maintain high respect for civil government while keeping our conscience clear.

1. Conscience Must Respect Civil Government

Being subject to civil government is not left up to private citizens as something indifferent. They must “be subject”. They must obey the lawful commands of authority. If the commands of authority are such that they cannot obey in conscience, they must then subject themselves to their censure and punishment.

2. Conscience Must Respect Justice

Civil government may use the sword of justice to lawfully punish those who rebel against them and refuse to be subject to their authority and lawful commands. They must be subject “for wrath’s sake”, to avoid their wrath and displeasure.

3. Conscience Must Distinguish God’s Law

When the laws of civil government are clearly God’s laws, the conscience is bound to obey them. Some laws of civil government have merely human authority because they are simply what they choose to require rather than being derived from God’s law. These do not bind the conscience in and of themselves. Otherwise, they would always bind the conscience even if the magistrate did not command them.

In other lawful things, conscience to the command of God should bind us seeing He has commanded us to obey civil government. We should do so out of respect for the public good and peace which God’s Word commands us to seek (Hebrews 13:14; Romans 12:18; Psalm 34:14).

When their commands are sinful nothing must be done to openly dishonour the government. The law of God binds us not to discredit or insult the government but rather honour and esteem them (1 Peter 2:17; Ecclesiastes 10:20). Even their man-made laws bind the conscience in this respect alone, not to obedience but in patiently suffering punishment.

4. Conscience Relates to Our Duty to Others

God has endowed everyone with a conscience, a beam of light or a delegated authority within the soul which takes notice of all of a person’s actions. This delegated authority has its eye not only on a person’s actions that relate directly to God but also those that relate to others, whether in authority or not. Conscience takes notice of whether people are subject to authority or not. We must be subject “for conscience sake” because conscience will bind this duty on us.

5. Conscience Directs and Condemns

Conscience (when it is not blinded or biased) can direct us to our duty. It has the power to bind a person to do their duty and to trouble them if they go against its directions. We must “be subject” to authority if we want to avoid the stings and condemnations of conscience.

6. Conscience Must Be Informed by God’s Word

We should give weight to the directions given by conscience, seeing it is put into the soul as God’s delegated authority. When it speaks according to God’s Word (which is our only rule) the very instructions of conscience should remind us to be subject.

Conclusion

These are some of the biblical principles that we need to apply concerning conscientious obedience or disobedience to civil government. We still have to do the hard work of applying them in difficult specific situations. We cannot give blind obedience to what the state requires simply because they require it. Only God is Lord of the conscience and our conscience is not bound unless an authority requires something that is required by God. God does require us, however, in the fifth commandment to give due respect to authority and what they command. We need much grace and wisdom to apply the principles of Scripture in every case of conscience.

Political Power and its Limitations

Our ideas of political power and its limitations were significantly shaped by Reformed writers like Samuel Rutherford and his book, Lex, Rex (The Law and the King) The book is a hammer blow against state claims for absolute power and so they had it publicly burned. We live in times when politics is polarising to an extraordinary degree. In many democratic countries there is a drift towards autocracy. On the other hand some want to take us into an anarchy where valued liberties and principles are discarded. What are the lessons we can learn today?

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How to Live Without Regrets

How to Live Without Regrets

How to Live Without Regrets
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
4 Jan, 2019

“No regrets” is probably the most popular life motto currently. Almost everyone seems to be claiming it for themselves. It means living in the moment without thinking before or after about your actions. Get what you want out of life. Don’t admit that any decision you’ve taken was wrong. But such a philosophy is inevitably destructive. The person with no regrets whatsoever is the person with no conscience whatsoever. Can people really walk away from marriage breakdowns etc saying “no regrets”? Aren’t there words and actions we regret? Have we never wronged someone in some way? But there is a right way to live without regrets. One that takes conscience seriously.

The world’s idea of “no regrets” buries conscience and refuses to be impacted by guilt. In fact the only way to truly live without regrets is to take conscience as seriously as possible. It is to live a life with what James Durham calls “a serene and smiling conscience”. He calls it “Heaven upon earth”. Of course none of us are perfect, we will have some regrets. But here is how to live with as few regrets of conscience as possible.

1. What is it to Live Without Regrets?

This is what the apostle Paul set as his goal. He made it his earnest endeavour to strive to have his conscience clear towards God and men (Acts 24:16). Durham says is an excellent example to follow because it sums up the Christian life. He also say that it is the very soul and life of religion and where it is not present there is no true religion.

  • What was Paul’s great aim? To live so as never to offend his conscience or give it cause to make a bad report of him.
  • How far did this reach? Everyone: God and men, he would do duty to both, and be found without offence to either. Everything: in all actions, company, places and times. Not just special times, he aimed to be always constant and consistent in this.
  • How did he do this? It was a serious business. As a man who fighting for his life carefully handles his arms, so Paul behaved himself in all things as if his life depended on every action or word.

2. Why is this Important?

  • There are many sorts of offences both toward God and toward men that we are liable to commit.
  • Everyone has a conscience within that takes notice of every aspect of their conduct. It is influenced by this and influences us.
  • Whatever things are offences toward God or men are also offensive to the conscience, whatever sin strikes against God’s law wounds the conscience.
  • It is an excellent thing for a believer to live so as to keep a conscience always clear of offence toward God and toward men. It is a very bad thing at any time to have offence toward either of them on the conscience.
  • Everyone (especially believers) should live in this way so that they may always keep a conscience clear of offence. It is not only a duty but an excellent means for advancing holiness.
  • It is a demanding thing to honestly aim to keep our conscience always clear of offence.
  • Conscience is left to abound with offences where these demands are neglected and not seriously engaged in.

3. What Does it Involve?

(a) Do Not Commit Any Known Sin

There will be no good conscience if you do. Live in a way that is not contrary to what you know.

(b) Do Not Omit Any Known Duty

Every sin wrongs the conscience, but the sin we know and yet commit and the duty we know and yet omit, strikes against the conscience even more directly. You who know that the sabbath should be kept holy, that you should pray in secret, and in your families, that you should not make one another stumble etc. Beware of running into these dangers that are contrary to your knowledge.

(c) Do Nothing Doubtingly

Those who do something and yet doubt whether they should are sentenced and condemned at to that particular thing (see Romans 14:23).

(d) Do Duties in the Right Way

Strive to do duties in the right way and for the right purpose. It is not enough to pray or do any other commanded duty. That will not keep conscience quiet if you do not seek to do it in the right way and for the right purpose. The activity is lawful but conscience will still convict you because of the way in which you do it.

4. How Does it Help Us Spiritually?

  • It gives much boldness in approaching God (1 John 3:20).
  • It gives reason to expect our prayers to be heard (1 John 3:22).
  • It keeps us from much sin
  • It makes life cheerful (Proverbs 15:15) and the heart guarded with peace (Philippians 4:7).
  • It is sweet in affliction (2 Corinthians 1:12). 
  • It is sweet when death approaches (2 Kings 20:3).

5. How to Live Without Regrets

(a) Strive to be Clear

Strive to be clear in the matters of God and what concerns your own good. “Let every one be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). It is not possible for those who are ignorant of what God requires to keep a good conscience. They do not know when they sin or when they do duty aright. Many wise and rich men can speak well of the things of this world but are ignorant of the things of God.

(b) Take Heed to Conscience

Most follow what their own reason and will prefer and do it without ever ask what conscience rightly informed by God’s Word would say. This makes many say and do in haste things that they repent of afterwards. Consult seriously with your conscience and do not sin (Psalm 4:4). Do not let the advice of flesh and blood come between God and you and sway you. Of course we should not take everything from conscience without reasons, it is a lesser rule to follow. Listen to what the greater rule of God’s Word says. Test something by bringing it to conscience and then test your conscience by asking it to give a reason from the Word.

(c) Beware of Going Against Conscience

Beware of going against conscience in the least thing. Abstain from everything that seem to come in into conflict with it. Conscience is a very tender thing; if we do not respect conscience we may provoke God to give us up to do what we want.

(d) Listen to Conscience

Listen to what conscience says before you do anything. Consider also how you acted according to your knowledge of what is right afterwards.  Paul puts a good conscience and sincerity together (2 Corinthians 1:12). No matter how many good words we speak and how many good things we do, they will not be accepted if do not have a single eye to God’s honour in them. A good conscience will be lacking where this is not there or where conscience is made subordinate to our interests. Many resolve to do such and duties, as long as they fit in with their own interests.

(e) Go Often to the Blood of Christ

Be frequent and serious in making believing use of the blood of Christ, the blood of sprinkling. Thus, your consciences may be sprinkled and purged from dead works (Hebrews 9:14 and 10:22). The great basis of your peace is not how serious and sincere you are but how He has satisfied divine justice. Many of our works and duties are dead unless they are sprinkled with the power of His blood. They will be like many dead weights on the conscience. There can be no truly good conscience if this is neglected.

Conclusion

Nothing will make your life more truly cheerful and comfortable. But if it is neglected or slighted, all your knowledge, debates about religion, tasting the good Word of God, all your prayers, or whatever else you can name, will be of no purpose. We leave it on you before God and apply it direct to your conscience, to make it your endeavour to always have a good conscience clear of offence toward God and toward men.  

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Conscience is Fragile: Handle with Care

Conscience is Fragile: Handle with Care

Conscience is Fragile: Handle with Care
Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600 – 1661) was one of the foremost Scottish theologians and apologists for Presbyterianism in the seventeenth century, playing a major role in formulating the Westminster Standards at the Westminster Assembly. He is best known for his many devotional letters and Lex, Rex–his seminal work on political sovereignty.
7 Jul, 2017

The human mind is fragile as well as powerful and complex. The human spirit can be resilient but may also be frail in the face of countless intricate emotions, memories, doubts and fears. Conscience is an especially delicate part of who we are. God has given it to us as a witness to His righteous requirements. Sin has disordered it but further damages it. Our moral compass is easily warped by sin’s magnetic force. The Bible tells us that conscience can be defiled, wounded and seared. Through handling conscience carelessly we can do untold damage to ourselves. Grace, however, can heal and restore.

Samuel Rutherford adores the great wisdom of God in creating the world which is best seen in creating so rare a thing as the soul. He says that the most intricate part of the soul is the conscience which he describes as “that lump of divinity” because it is “like a beam of God”. “Conscience is the gold of the man”.

Conscience is placed in the soul as God’s own deputy and God’s notary [official recorder]. There is nothing passes in our life, good or evil, which conscience notes not down with an indelible character—conscience writes all men’s iniquities as the sin of Judah was written (Jeremiah 17:1) with a pen of iron and with the point of a diamond. Conscience…keeps a daily diary of everything that occurs in the whole course of our life, and then conscience is as a thousand witnesses: it’s an eye-witness and a pen-witness, bringing testimony from the authentic registers and records of the court of conscience.

Samuel Rutherford describes conscience in many memorable ways. It may be like a delicate glass object that is easily broken. Alternatively, it may be like a boat that has a leak below the water-line that is difficult to identify and mend. Perhaps they do not realise that the water on the bottom of their ship is from a leak rather than the spray. In one of his letters he gives the following caution:

keep the conscience whole without a crack! If there be a hole in it, so that it take in water at a leak, it will with difficulty mend again. It is a dainty, delicate creature, and a rare piece of the workmanship of your Maker; and therefore deal gently with it, and keep it entire

He speaks of a pure conscience as one that is good having been purged and washed (Hebrews 10:2). The great spot of guiltiness has been taken away, and it is clear, pure, terse, like a crystal glass (1 Timothy 1:5). It is also good and honest, or beautiful and fair. A good conscience is a comely, resplendent, lovely thing (Hebrews 13:18). Conscience when it is working properly is sensitive and easily broken. If we ignore it we can become unbreakably hardened.

some conscience…is made of glass and is easily broken, and some of iron and brass, lay hell on it, let Christ say to Judas in his face, he shall betray his master and he has a devil, yet his conscience does not crow before daylight to waken him.

The conscience is a tender thing, says Rutherford and it can either be our best friend or our worst enemy.   Who can bear a wounded spirit (Proverbs 18:4)?

Blessed is the man who follows the injunctions, dictates, prohibitions and determinations of a good and right-informed conscience, and hearkens to all its incitements. Oh that every man would remember how dangerous a thing it is to resist the checks of conscience, for in so doing we fight not only against our own light, but against the light of the Holy Spirit!

Rutherford wrote an extended account of one man whose conscience had been hardened but later became inflamed with guilt. Aged only 35, John Gordon must now come to terms with a terminal illness and a burden of guilt. This is the powerful account of a man with a troubled conscience being counselled in the face of death. In these conversations, Samuel Rutherford lovingly and faithfully administers the conviction and comfort the young nobleman needs. True peace and assurance are carefully distinguished from false hope. It is valuable for all of us but especially those nearing eternity and those who seek to give them spiritual help.

This book has now been reprinted as Conversations with a Dying Man. It is highly valuable and recommended. This was a man who wanted to have the best of this world but had to compromise in order to get worldly status. His backslidings became an unbearable burden on his conscience in the face of death, however.

John Gordon, Viscount of Kenmure speaks of “the fearful wrestlings of my conscience…when I seemed to be glad and joyful before men”. He had pretended to be ill in order to avoid standing out clearly in the interests of Christ’s cause. This would have involved opposing the king in Parliament. He later acknowledge with the most bitter sorrow, “I deserted the Parliament for fear of incurring the indignation of my prince, and the loss of further honour, which I certainly expected”. He confessed:

I have found the weight of the Lord’s hand upon me for not giving testimony for the Lord my God, when I had occasion once in my life at the last parliament. For this foul fault, how fierce have I felt the wrath of the Lord my God! My soul hath raged and roared: I have been ripped up [grieved] to the heart…Would to God I had such an occasion again to testify my love to the Lord! For all the earth should I not do as I have done, tell them…Woe, woe be to honours or any thing else bought with the loss of peace of conscience and God’s favour!

Rutherford must have many conversations with him in order to bring him to true repentance. Sometimes he must rebuke him as well as administer comfort. His faithful pastoral care brings the conscience of John Gordon from despair to joy unspeakable. He died “sweetly and holily, and his end was peace”. Rutherford concludes that the “way of impiety never had, nor shall have, good success…there is no delight [comparable to] the delight of a good conscience: let that bird in the breast be always kept singing”.

Rutherford believed it was necessary to record such “heavy pangs of conscience and torment of mind” to show what can happen when we go against conscience.  We can learn much and in particular “be warned by his example” not to forsake God’s cause when we have opportunity. We are especially “never to wrong their conscience, which is a tender piece [thing], and must not be touched”.

We take nothing to the grave with us, but a good or evil conscience.

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What is Conscience?

What is Conscience?

What is Conscience?
Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600 – 1661) was one of the foremost Scottish theologians and apologists for Presbyterianism in the seventeenth century, playing a major role in formulating the Westminster Standards at the Westminster Assembly. He is best known for his many devotional letters and Lex, Rex–his seminal work on political sovereignty.
8 Jul, 2016

It crops up in discussion about the decision to go to war in Iraq. You can hear of it in relation to voting for US presidential candidates. Conscience was also in the headlines announcing the death of holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. He has been hailed as “the conscience of the world”. In a culture without moral absolutes, conscience still has surprising currency. But what is conscience? Why does it vary so much?

Samuel Rutherford wrote a great deal about conscience. He notes that the word for conscience is used thirty-two times in the New Testament. Literally in Greek it means “knowledge with a witness”. God knows our ways and thoughts perfectly but “conscience is an under-witness and an observer with God, but a dim and blind beholder in comparison of God”.

It is a type of knowledge that is focussed on someone’s “actions, words, thoughts, the condition or state he is in, in Christ, or not in Christ”. It makes us pass judgement on ourselves: “our state and condition” all our “actions, inclinations, thoughts, and words”. Rutherford says that it is the most important faculty in the soul and the highest form of understanding.

There is more of reason and sound knowledge in the conscience than in the whole understanding soul. It is a crystal globe of reason, the beam, the sun, the candle of the soul. For to know God and the creatures in our relative obligation to God in Christ is the role, the blossom, the flower of knowledge (Job 17:3). To  see God and His beauty expressed in Christ, and the comeliness and incomparable glory of His amiable and lovely essence as held forth to us in Christ, is the highest reach of the conscience.  

The Source of Conscience

Conscience comes from God and is accountable to God. “We are to stand in awe of conscience”. We can measure “how much goodness and true fear of God” someone has in so far as he respects “conscience  within him”.

Conscience is something of God, a domestic little God, a keeper sent from heaven, a divine piece which is all eye, all feeling, and has the Word with it

It is to be honoured as an ambassador from God. Honour shown to an ambassadors manifests honour to those that have sent him.

The Operation of Conscience

Yet conscience must be rightly informed by God’s Word or it cannot perform its proper function. Otherwise it is as much use as a guard dog that is blind, deaf, dumb and toothless.

A conscience void of knowledge is void of goodness; silence and dumbness is not peace. An innocent toothless conscience that cannot see, hear or speak, cannot bark, far less can it bite before it has teeth. 

It is dangerous to say that we follow our conscience if that is without reference to God’s revealed will. “The Word of God must be the rule of conscience”. We cannot make conscience the rule of our actions if the Word is not the rule of our conscience.  “Conscience is a servant and only an under-judge”. It is not an absolute monarch decreeing the law to us. “Conscience is ruled by Scripture but it is not Scripture” itself.

Conscience either excuses or accuses as the conscience is right or wrong. It approves or condemns. When it approves there is joy, comfort, faith and hope. But when it condemns there is shame, grief, fear, despair, anger and vexation.

 

The Best Type of Conscience

The tender conscience is the best conscience (2 Kings 22:19). A hard heart is the worst conscience possible. “It cannot be denied but the more tenderness [there is], the more of God and the more of conscience”. Tenderness implies a fear of sin.

some conscience…is made of glass and is easily broken, and some of iron and brass, lay hell on it, let Christ say to Judas in his face, he shall betray his master and he has a devil, yet his conscience does not crow before daylight to waken him.

 

The Fragility of Conscience

Rutherford describes conscience in many memorable ways. It may be like a delicate glass object that is easily broken. Alternatively, it may be like a boat that has a leak below the water-line that is difficult to identify and mend. Perhaps they do not realise that the water on the bottom of their ship is from a leak rather than the spray. In one of his letters he gives the following caution:

 

keep the conscience whole without a crack! If there be a hole in it, so that it take in water at a leak, it will with difficulty mend again. It is a dainty, delicate creature, and a rare piece of the workmanship of your Maker; and therefore deal gently with it, and keep it entire

 

The Key Teaching on Conscience

The quotations above come from Rutherford’s book A Free Disputation on Liberty of Conscience which has never been reprinted. His teaching on conscience is well summarised in the Catechism that he composed for his congregation. He outlines the following questions and answers.

 

What is the principal part of the soul?

The conscience.

 

What is the conscience?

It is the judging part of the soul under God, teaching and counselling good and comforting us when we do it (1 John 3:20; Job 16:19-20; John 17:1) and forbidding evil and tormenting us after we have committed evil (Genesis 3:8; 4:13).

What are the lights that direct the conscience?

The law of nature in man’s heart and the light of the Word are the two candles that God has lit to let it see to walk.

What are the proper works of conscience?

It works either on the law as a little God, or on our deeds as a witness, or it applies the law to our deeds as a judge.

What are the works of conscience upon the law?

In so far as it knows the law, it binds us to obedience with a knot that neither king nor Church can loose (Romans 1:14; Romans 6:16; Acts 20:22; 1 Corinthians 9:16) and urges us to obey (Jeremiah 20:9).

What of the erring conscience?

It still binds so that he sins who does anything against conscience (even if conscience is in error). This is because conscience is God’s depute. Therefore, just as he who assaults a private man believing him to be the king is esteemed to be an attacker of the king, he who sins against an erring conscience does sin in practice if not in principle. [This is a rather complex point but it means that if our conscience tells us something is wrong even if it is in fact not wrong it is sinful for us (if we believe that what we are doing is wrong) to deliberately disobey the voice of conscience and dishonour it. This is supported by “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Whatever is done when we doubt whether it is right is sin. Lawful things may be done unlawfully.]

What are the works of conscience as a witness of our deeds?

It is like a guard dog in the soul that hears the noise of thieves’ feet and as the eye that sees what the hand does (Psalm 1:22; Psalm 119:59; Haggai 1:5; Jeremiah 5:24; 2 Corinthians 13:5).

What are the faults of conscience?

Often it is blind and dead (Isaiah 44:18; Ecclesiastes 4:8) through presumption (Revelation 3:17) and lack of the fear of God.

What are the works of conscience in so far as it applies the law to our actions?

It acquits and approves us when we do good (Romans 2:15; Job 16:19-20; Psalm 7:4-5; Job 29:13-14; Job 31) from which there is a feast of joy in the soul (Proverbs 15:15; 2 Corinthians 1:12) and boldness (Proverbs 10:9; Proverbs 28:1). It accuses and condemns when we do evil (2 Samuel 24:10; Matthew 27:3; Genesis 42:21-22) and from this comes despair (Hebrews 10:27), fear (Genesis 3:1; Proverbs 28:1; Revelation 6:16), shame (Genesis 5:7; Romans 6:21),  sadness (1 Samuel 25:31; Acts 2:37), and burning of mind (Isaiah 66:24).

What are the faults of the conscience as a judge?

Often it makes men think the way to hell is the right way (Proverbs  21:2; Psalm 1:21; Zechariah 11:5) and turns into a dumb dog that does not bark at the coming of the thief.

What causes those faults in conscience?

Ignorance of God (Psalm 14:1) and the loud crying of affections sent out to woo a wife to Satan make a strange sound in the ears and create mist in the eyes of conscience.

How many sorts of consciences are there?

Many and various: good or evil, weak or strong, dead or living, etc.

What is the practical benefit of teaching about conscience?

Seeing we carry our judge with us in our breast which we take either to heaven or hell with us and cannot put on or off our conscience as we do our garments, we should fear to sin before our conscience and reverence ourself.

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Giving up Liberty of Conscience for Lent?

Giving up Liberty of Conscience for Lent?

Giving up Liberty of Conscience for Lent?
George Gillespie (1613 – 1648) ministered in Fife and Edinburgh and was one of the main Scottish theologians at the Westminster Assembly. He wrote several important publications in support of Presbyterian church government.
19 Feb, 2016

There’s no doubt that Lent has become fashionable for many evangelicals. Churches and individuals with the label Reformed have also begun to observe Lent. They feel the need for something fresh in their liturgical calendar. Some look for a spiritual “detox”. Perhaps this satisfies conscience nagging them that self-denial and repentance are daily duties. They feel that it adds something of value. The truth is they are giving up far more than the tiny dimension of luxury they may choose to forego for a time. They are giving up true liberty of conscience by bowing to mere commandments of men. God alone is the Lord of the conscience. Thus, trading liberty of conscience for Lent is unconscionable.

Conscience is of course the issue. People will say that we should leave it up to individual consciences to determine whether they think it is right. But the only question that matters is whether God has revealed it to be right. Unless conscience is rightly informed by Scripture and obedient to God’s will in Scripture it will be in slavery to the commandments of men.

There is nothing new under the sun. Lent was also becoming increasingly popular in British Churches during the early seventeenth century. It accompanied other ceremonies and the church calendar. Much like people arguing for Lent today, different tacks were taken to justify them. It was claimed they were merely beneficial. Other people said that they were indifferent things: neither morally required nor morally wrong. Some sought to draw their reasons from Scripture. Others that it was essential to keep them on the basis of various general principles. George Gillespie examined these arguments and found them wanting.

 

Is Lent Necessary?

Gillespie observed that people often Scripture did not bind them to keep certain holy days or other ceremonies. Instead, they argued that it was necessary to keep uniformity by imposing such things. Even if it wasn’t Scriptural as such people had to obey once authority required it. Gillespie showed that church authority can only require us to obey what Scripture commands.  (See Deuteronomy 12:32; Matthew  15:9; Acts 17:25; Matthew 4:9-10; Deuteronomy 4:15-20).

People today acknowledge that Scripture never commands us to observe Lent. They do not want to claim with Roman Catholics that such penance earns us grace or is a necessary obedience to Church authority. They will say that it is a necessary prelude to observing Easter. This in turn begs the question of whether Scripture commands us to observe Easter as holy days. Conscientiously observing man-made ordinances takes away Christian liberty (Colossians 2:21). Gillespie argues that:

The celebration of set anniversary days is no necessary means for conserving the commemoration of the benefits of redemption, because we have occasion, not only every Sabbath day, but every other day, to call to mind these benefits, either in hearing, or reading, or meditating upon God’s word.

 

Is Lent Beneficial?

Frequently it is said that observing Lent is a beneficial if not necessarily Scriptural practice.  We are told that it is good for us to have such a season of self-denial and penitence. There is also devotional value in this type of focus, they say. The great question is whether God has appointed it for our edification. Surely Scripture is sufficient in teaching us how to be edified? Why should we add our own inventions? In fact “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). Obedience to God’s will is always better than worshipping and serving Him as we see fit.

Gillespie says that an emphasis on external things and physical disciplines can obscure the spiritual. This is not beneficial. Disciplines such as fasting are profitable but only for a little (1 Timothy 4:8).  Borrowing things from Roman Catholicism only tends to confirm Romanists in their own religion. They also become stumbling blocks that harm the edification and conscience of weak believers.

Gillespie uses a strong argument. Anything that has been abused for idolatry and superstition should be removed from the worship and service of God. This assumes that such things are not commanded by God or something without which God’s commandments cannot be fulfilled.

 

Is Lent Scriptural?

Gillespie addresses whether there was Scriptural authority for the man-made inventions being promoted.  It was said then and today also that Lent adopts the example of Christ. Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness.  This example does not provide a commandment.  Christ says we must keep and teach to observe His Commandments. Samuel Rutherford for instance, echoed John Knox’s argument against Lent. If we “in imitation of Christ’s forty days’ fast, will fast from flesh in Lent” then we must do everything Christ ever did. We “must walk on the sea and work miracles, if all Christ’s actions be our instructions”.  In other words, Christ’s fast was testimony to and preparation for His unique ministry and echoed Moses and Elijah. Few today fully fast for forty days and forty nights consecutively. We do not even know what time of the year it was when Christ fasted.

 

Is Lent Indifferent?

Another argument was that these things were indifferent.  They were neither morally required nor morally wrong. This is one of the arguments used in favour of Lent. They say that this is a grey area where we don’t have a clear black and white. People can choose whether they want to engage in such things. The question is whether such practice is truly indifferent.  Only Scripture can determine this. We have seen various reasons which prove that it is not.

Religious service and devotion to God are not things without moral significance. Fasting, prayer and such things are not indifferent. They are matters regulated by God’s Word, particularly Christ’s command. Obeying man-made ordinances is not something that is indifferent (Colossians 2:20-23). Christian liberty in things that are indifferent cannot ever mean that we can add to God’s moral precepts or prescribed worship. Biblical principles must also be applied to indifferent things. These include whether it might cause someone else to stumble (Romans 14:21).  It must not bind us (1 Corinthians 6:12). It must truly edify (1 Corinthians 10:23).  Even these principles are not satisfied in observing Lent as something indifferent.

 

Is Lent True Fasting?

David Calderwood showed how fasting is an extraordinary means of worship in response to extraordinary circumstances. It is not something triggered each year by Ash Wednesday.

The right manner of fasting is to fast when some judgment is imminent, some great work to be performed. And as for the private man, when he is greatly tempted to sin, and cannot overcome his temptation, then is it fittest time for him to fast. The Paschal fasts were also abused for the Paschal communion following, as if Easter communion required greater preparation than any other communion in the year.

This was the position adopted by the Westminster Assembly in their Directory of Public Worship.

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.

 

Conclusion

We must acknowledge that Lent does impose on the conscience. It adds required practices in areas of worship that God has regulated. Observing the man-made tradition of Lent does surrender true liberty of conscience. The Westminster Confession (20:2) reminds us that:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. (see Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29; 1 Corinthians 7:23; Matthew 23:8-10; 2 Corinthians 1:24; Matthew 15:9).

In all matters of faith, life and worship, the conscience is subject to the authority of God alone. We must be able to show that our practice is Scriptural (Isaiah 8:20).  Our faith must be in God’s commandment not human tradition when we engage in His worship and service. Without this, it is sin (Romans 14:23). As John Calvin put it.

The controversy is not about flesh or fish, or about a black or ashy color, or about Friday or Wednesday, but about the mad superstitions of men, who wish to appease God by such trifles…it is not an error of small importance, or one that ought to be concealed, when consciences are bound by the contrivances of men, and at the same time the worship of God is corrupted

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