Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Liberty of a Christian's Conscience

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using) -- in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. Colossians 2:20-22

One of the things Luther and the other Reformers protested was the Roman invention of extra-biblical disciplines and “spiritual” acts. The reason for the protestation was that Rome was binding the consciences of Christians to things not commanded in Scripture. This is similar to Christ’s remark to the Pharisees that they were making traditions more binding than the commandments of God.

Examples of this man-made Romish righteousness would be the prohibition of meat on Fridays, Lenten self-denial, auricular confession, making the sign of the cross, the veneration of images, ad nauseum. It is sinful for the church make people feel that they have violated their consciences by neglected to do these things because Scripture commands none of them, and actually prohibits most of them. This is what our passage refers to when it mentions the man-made commands “do not handle; do not taste; do not touch.”

Included in this also would be the apparent commonsense behind acts like the Pharisaical hand-washing. Certainly, it is wise and healthful to wash one’s hands before eating, but turning this into some sort of moral obligation is merely another form of will-worship – binding a Christian’s conscience to something Scripture neither prescribes nor proscribes. There is also the Mormon abstention from caffeine and Adventist vegetarianism.

Many people have spent a lot of time studying the Old Testament Jewish dietary laws and millions of claims have been made as to the supposed heath benefits of following this diet. It is therefore, erroneously concluded that this is why God enforced this dietary code. This is dangerous for a couple of reasons. First it contradicts Mark 7:19. Secondly, it creates a serious conundrum: If God prohibited the eating of certain foods merely for health reasons (and it is actually not health to eat these foods) then isn’t it sinful to eat these things? Yet this runs directly counter to all that we have already seen. If Christ declared all food clean, then who are we to pretend to be smarter than God?

Thirdly, it misses the point of the dietary laws. The dietary code was part of a whole system of laws and restrictions, the purpose of which was to set Israel apart as holy. Israel was set apart, holy unto God. The way in which they were marked out as different from the other nations of the earth was through such practices.

For instance, when God commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath, this made them different from all the nations of the Gentiles. The Old Testament is replete with “holy” things, from oil to lamps to incense to bells and clothes… all of which were forbidden for personal use. By “holy,” these inanimate objects were strictly set apart for use in the worship of God. That is the point of the dietary law: it made Israel different from the nations, i.e., it distinguished between the holy and unholy (Lev. 10:10).

We can all laugh at such religious legalism as Popish restrictions about meat and marriage or Mormon abstention from coffee and pop. But many Evangelicals are as guilty of such behavior. I have interacted with “Holiness Pentecostal” people and have seen egregious examples of such behavior. I have heard sermons against shaving and sermons against not shaving (Jesus saves and Jesus shaves). I have heard sermons against women wearing pants. Many holiness Pentecostal preachers would preach the wedding ring off your finger. I once heard a preacher virtually declare roller-skating to be the unpardonable sin.

Then, of course, there is the ‘higher life’ teaching of the Keswick movement. By placing excessive emphasis on death to self and personal sanctification, an upside down version of the Christian life is created whereby one’s justification is judged by one’s attainments in holiness. Instead of justification by grace, it becomes justification by sanctification. The Wesleyan preachers who thought they had discovered some new truth about the Christian life were much mistaken because this is nothing more than medieval Catholic mysticism in Wesleyan and Pentecostal garb.

Let me reiterate: Scripture alone is the rule of Christian doctrine and practice. Wherever Scripture does not provide a clear prescription or proscription, we should tread lightly. A Christian should never be made to feel guilty for doing or not doing things not taught in Scripture.

Galatians 5:1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.

1 Corinthians 10:29b For why is my freedom judged by another's conscience?

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