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
Because God alone is the Lord of the conscience (in accordance with his Word), the Christian’s conscience is free from the doctrines and commandments of men, if they are at all contrary to the Word, or beside it, in matters of faith and worship. The conscience is not trustworthy by itself. It is not infallible, but must be guided. Therefore, Scripture as the only infallible rule for faith and life, must bind the conscience. No conscience has “liberty” from Scripture. Rather, liberty is within the parameters of God’s Word.
No person on earth can have authority to dictate to conscience; for this would be to assume a prerogative which belongs to none but the supreme Lord and Legislator. “There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy.”–James 4:12. Such a power was prohibited by Jesus Christ among his followers: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, but ye shall not be so.”–Luke 22:25. It was disclaimed by the inspired apostles: “Not that we have dominion over your faith,” said the Apostle of the Gentiles, “but are helpers of your joy.”–2 Cor. 1:24.
—Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith pg. 170
Perhaps the defining idea in the Westminster Standards is liberty of conscience, according to Derek Thomas, who also says that chapter 20 is the most important chapter of the Confession. Listen to his address: Overly Regulated? Westminster’s View of Worship, or read here: The Regulative Principle of Worship, where he says:
What is sometimes forgotten in these discussions is the important role of conscience. Without the regulative principle, we are at the mercy of “worship leaders” and bullying pastors who charge noncompliant worshipers with displeasing God unless they participate according to a certain pattern and manner. To the victims of such bullies, the sweetest sentences ever penned by men are, [WCF 20:2]. To obey when it is a matter of God’s express prescription is true liberty; anything else is bondage and legalism.
I remember hearing something to the effect of, “if you don’t attend the midweek service at church, you’re not a dedicated Christian.” “Bondage and legalism” are exactly the proper charge against those who invent their own religious ceremonies, superstitious practices, and require that you participate. Or, create initiatives in the church that are good, if done voluntarily, but then make them mandatory. Notice the scope of what the Confession says. Any and all extra-biblical (or anti-biblical) religious ceremony, practice, service, ritual is what’s being talked about. Likewise, any and all teaching that contradicts Scripture or is added to Scripture. That’s huge, and will require much reflection.
Despite WCF 20.2 being true, this principle is frequently violated. It’s not only possible to betray conscience by those overlording, but by those who submit to such. Notice what the Confession said: “to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience.” It is clear that responsibility is on both sides. Not only are people not to bind the believer’s conscience with human doctrines and commandments, but they are also not to submit to them. If you believe the doctrines or obey commands that are contrary to or beside Scripture (regarding faith and worship), then you have betrayed true freedom of conscience. Rather, Scripture alone binds the conscience.
The only Lord of the conscience is God, and he guides by his Word. Our conscience cannot be bound by anything not in the Scriptures. This is directly against the binding of the conscience in Roman Catholicism.
Well then, do not the Papists err, who contradict this, both in doctrine (because they teach, that the Pope of Rome, and Bishops in their own Diocesses, may by their own authority, praeter Scripturam, beside the Word, make Laws, which oblige and bind the Conscience, under the pain of everlasting death) and in practise (because, they have obtruded, and do obtrude, many Ecclesiastical Rites and Ceremonies, as necessary in worship, without any foundation in Scripture.) Yes. . . Because ceremonies are superstitious, being a vice opposite to religion in the excess, commanding more in the worship of God than he requires in his worship.
Well then, do not the Papists err, who require, an Implicit Faith, to all the Decrees and Ordinances of their Church and Pope: and a blind obedience to their commands without a previous judgement of discretion? Yes.
—David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error pg. 128-129, 130
“Implicit faith” even includes anything Rome will teach in the future. And so you are doubly unable to think and consider what you are commanded to believe, and unable entirely to judge it according to Scripture.
Not only does the Church of Rome do this, but all the rest of the cults bind the conscience as well with their doctrines and commands. Far be it from a true church to do such a thing!
Contrary to the Word
But, lest we think we are better, or immune from this, Protestants also are guilty of betraying liberty of conscience. Evangelical churches have been guilty of making up commands that are contrary to Scripture, and disciplining those who will not obey. Believe it or not, even churches who claim to subscribe to this very Westminster Confession of Faith violate it at this very point! Here’s a real-life example: a favorite commandment of men is forbidding alcohol consumption, while the Bible allows (and even encourages!) the use of it. This is often (but not necessarily) based on the doctrine of men that even a drop of alcohol will defile you. Unbiblical! Indeed, churches telling people what not to eat, drink, wear, etc. should sound familiar. Paul talked about that in the Bible: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch” (Colossians 2:20-23). And he says those commands and doctrines of men are of no value.
Examples of rules which are contrary to the Word of God are prohibitions requiring total abstinence from the use of certain material things. The Mormon religion forbids the use of coffee. Other sects forbid the use of meat. And truly, time would fail to mention all such forbidden things for the number is legion. However, in not one case is it possible to show that such abstinence is required by God. This is impossible because “there is nothing unclean of itself” (Rom. 14: 14). “All things indeed are pure” (14: 20). If nothing is unclean, then no such rule forbidding the use of something can be legitimate. If all things indeed are pure, then all things may indeed be used by men without fear of conscience.
—G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes pg. 195-196
Another commandment of men, contrary to the Word of God, is regarding marriage. Some pastors have presumed to tell people whom they may and may not marry. The effectively forbid marriage that is in fact lawful, according to the Word of God. The Bible says to marry in the Lord. It is in fact a duty to marry, if you cannot remain single (hence, WCF 22.7 denounces vows of celibacy). The Confession 24.3 says “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent.” And yet, the leadership of some churches presume to forbid marriage, when God does not. Are both the man and woman Christians? Yes, but not enough. If one of them doesn’t meet the church’s preferences, they will attempt to forbid the marriage. That is also sinful, forbidding what God in his Word says is lawful. Interestingly enough, Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 139 says “prohibiting of lawful marriages” and “undue delay of marriage” are violations of the seventh commandment.
They raise their particular preferences to the level of Scripture, and if you don’t get in line, your whole salvation will be questioned. And if you ever decide to leave, because of conscience, they won’t let you go quietly. Cult-like, indeed. Protestants love to have their “popes”, too.
So what should you do, when the church, denomination, or the pastor, put their doctrines and practices on the same level of Scripture? Well, to believe or obey them would be sin, denying God as the only Lord of your conscience. So, clearly, you must refuse their doctrines and commands. Obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29). No church can forbid what Scripture allows, nor command what Scripture does not. You must not submit to that violation of conscience, and consequent violation of God’s lordship.
But even if a person faithfully obeys his conscience and scrupulously observes a rule forbidding the use of a material thing, he is still guilty of sin. He is guilty of the sin of allowing someone other than God to impose a rule upon his conscience.
—Williamson, Westminster Confession pg. 196
Now, I realize that’s easier said than done. Emotionally, it’s difficult. But that doesn’t change anything. Perhaps it’s the church that you’ve invested years in. Or the minister that has invested so much in you. Or the denomination that gave you your position (and could take it away!). Even though that may be the situation, if any of them place their teaching or practices, which contradict or add to Scripture regarding faith and worship, you must reject them. The question it comes down to is this: who is your Lord?
“I will not be obedient to you, the denomination, to Caesar, but only to my Lord Jesus.”
“But it will be utter chaos and debauchery!” cries the legalist. “If we don’t make rules, then people will do whatever they want!” It’s typical, if conscience-binding is already going on, that those leaders believe that unless they control their people, all hell will break loose in that church. Sin will abound. Everyone will descend into licentiousness. Therefore, they must create and enforce all kinds of regulations to keep everyone behaving. That’s the justification.
We shall say here only that it is extremely dishonoring to the Holy Spirit of God to maintain such an objection. For this objection is tantamount to saying that a man-made rule will keep a Christian from sin better than will the Holy Spirit who dwells in him. To say that the Holy Spirit cannot guide the Christian in the free use of material things which he has not forbidden is to charge God foolishly.
—Williamson, Confession of Faith pg. 196-197
Beside the Word
Williamson observes the second class of rules mentioned by the Confession: “commandments of men, which are . . . beside it.” Meaning, rules that are additional to the Bible. A quick example from the Church of Rome is their commanding everyone to receive Holy Communion on “Easter” Sunday. Now, is it right to receive the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, the Lord’s Day? Yes, provided it is rightly administered, of course. That the Church of Rome has decided to call a particular Sunday “Easter” doesn’t change that. However, what is wrong is letting your conscience be bound by Rome’s authority and receiving communion when and how Rome says.
Let us cite another example: the Baptist churches insist upon immersion as the form of baptism. It is not contrary to the Word of God to baptize by immersion [WCF 28.3]. But it is an addition to the Word of God to require that baptism be by immersion only. And to permit the conscience to be bound by such a rule is wrong even though immersion itself is not.
—Williamson, Westminster Confession pg. 197
Notice the distinction: it may be right and proper to do voluntarily. But what is wrong is allowing your conscience to be bound by a manmade rule. Examples abound. Churches attempting to legislate “spiritual disciplines” would certainly fall under this category. “Pray every day,” the pastor says. Certainly that’s biblical. “Pray on your knees!” Really? “Pray on your knees, every morning, at 4 AM!” We must pray [WCF 21.3] because God in the Scriptures has commanded it. But we will not pray how and when any man (or church) attempts to command. It’s not wrong for any believer to voluntarily pray on their knees at 4 AM. But it is absolutely sin to do it because a man/church has commanded it. You have allowed your conscience to bow to a command of men beside the Word of God.
That evangelical ritual known as the “altar call” is also a commandment of men added to the Word of God. Think about it: Scripture says repent and believe. Believe in your heart, and confess with your mouth. That’s all! But what happens at an “altar call”? Some man, or church, tells people to get up from their seat and come to the front of the room to do the believing and confessing in that way. That’s as clear an addition to the condition of faith as there can be. How is it often announced? “If you want to accept Jesus, come down to the front.” Woah! Scripture nowhere says that is a condition to receiving and resting on Christ.
A true church simply declares the Word of God. It is not a legislative body. It does not make laws which bind the consciences of the subjects of Jesus Christ the king. It merely states the king’s laws so clearly that they who fail to heed will be without excuse. (But the Roman Church claims precisely this legislative power to make laws for the subjects of Christ.)
—Williamson, Confession of Faith pg. 26-27
The worst thing is when churches who subscribe to the Westminster Standards violate the conscience. It’s still sin, but understandable for churches without creeds (or very narrow ones) to do this. They haven’t written down exactly what they believe Scripture teaches (doctrines and commands) or exactly what they will require you to believe and do. Especially, they don’t have a chapter in their “statement of faith” regarding liberty of the conscience. So at least we can see the violation of conscience coming.
But for those who claim to be Reformed and Presbyterian? No excuse. It is written and public, right here in our Westminster Confession of Faith, and even substantiated by the Larger Catechism. And this idea didn’t come out nowhere, either. It was a defining principle of the Reformation and of Puritanism which followed.
When, as an alternative to God’s law, an elaborate man-made code is developed for believers to follow, covering every conceivable problem and tension in moral living, no freedom is left for believers to make personal decisions based on the principles of Scripture. In such a context, man-made law smothers the divine gospel, and legalistic sanctification swallows up gracious justification. The Christian is brought back into bondage akin to that of medieval Roman Catholic monasticism. . . when God’s law imposes no such limits, the Christian may enjoy freedom of conscience from the doctrines and commandments of men.
—Joel Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology loc. 21485-21507
It’s our heritage, because it’s biblical. God alone is Lord of the conscience. So, the conscience of the Christian is free from the doctrines and commandments of men that are either contrary or in addition to God’s Word, particularly in matters of faith and worship. A truly Reformed church will not even try to bind the conscience to anything other than the Word of God.