In the previous installment of this series, I pointed out the bifurcation
in biblical teaching between sola Scriptura and “the tradition of men.”
Jesus was on one side of the issue and the ancient Rabbis (Pharisees
and Scribes) were on the other – and thus the wrong – side. Jesus explained
to the Rabbis that what they called “the tradition of the elders” ended
in their rejection of the commandments of God. Of course it would have
been possible for Jesus to undermine their practices based upon the
fact that the practices were ineffectual. But instead of pruning the
shrubbery, Jesus laid the axe to the root of it.
Yet there are some today who would maintain that such
of men falls under the heading of Christian liberty or liberty of
With a strange and inverted sort of logic, they claim that the doctrine
of Christian liberty means that they have the “liberty” to invent modern
“tradition” for the church. Thus it is that the modern-day counterpart
to the Rabbis who condemned Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel accounts
hide their newfangled tradition in the cloak of a supposed liberty to
Sadly, it is the case that few today have a biblical understanding of
the doctrine of Christian liberty and liberty of conscience. The Confession
of Faith has captured the true meaning of the doctrine however. There
we read, “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, in matters of faith or worship. So that to
believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience,
is to betray true liberty of conscience” (WCF 20.2).
Significantly, the Confession calls “true liberty of conscience” the
doctrine that allows Christians to say “no” to the doctrines and commandments
of men. It proceeds to maintain that if we believe doctrines that have
no proof God’s Word or obey such commandments from conscience that we
actually betray this doctrine. Can that be true? Would it be a betrayal?
Yes, it certainly would be. In the fourteenth chapter of the book of
Romans, the inspired apostle explained how to handle differences in
church over such matters as do not arise from a commandment of God.
The conclusion of Paul’s discourse at Romans 14:23 states, “And he that
doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever
is not of faith is sin.”
Many people mistakenly think that Paul is saying that if we think we
may do something, then we have a sort of “automatic permission” to do
it. But that is not how Paul has defined the term “faith” in the book
of Romans. Paul was claiming that whatever is not done with the conviction
that it is agreeable to the will of God is sin in the doer. Paul was
not maintaining that God has a different standard for every believer.
Instead he was claiming that it would be a betrayal of true liberty
of conscience, and thus a sin, to do anything based upon the commandments
and doctrines of men.
Earlier in the epistle Paul asserted, “So then faith cometh by hearing,
and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). In short, for the believer
to perform any act toward God and expect that act to be acceptable in
God’s sight, it must be an act arising from faith. But in order for
the act to arise from faith, it must be according to the Word of God.
Further, if it does not arise from faith, Paul claimed it would be a
Anytime someone claims he has the right to do something because of “liberty
of conscience,” then he must at the same time allow his brother the
same liberty to leave the act undone. But the very nature of church
government is such that a matter cannot be done by one and left undone
by another, else it is not an authoritative act of government at all.
As Paul said, “none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself”
(Romans 14:7). What then? When it comes to the rules of church government
– clearly a matter of life and godliness – it is good “neither to eat
flesh [meat], nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth,
or is offended, or is made weak” (Romans 14:21). In other words, if
a precept of church government cannot be demonstrated from Scripture
to be according to the mind of God, then we do not have the liberty to
impose it upon a believer’s conscience in the name of liberty of conscience.
Dr. Richard Bacon, Pastor
Faith Presbyterian Church Reformed