A Captive Conscience
Is error in doctrine always sin? It’s a question I’ve reflected on in the past and one that I think is well worth considering, even if just for a few moments. While this may seem like a petty issue, a petty question, I believe it is an issue of some consequence since it will necessarily impact how I relate to fellow Christians who differ from me on secondary issues. If I feel that my friend is being sinful by teaching that we should baptize infants, I will want to go to great lengths to show him that he is sinning and to see him repent and correct his error. But if I believe that his belief in infant baptism is something less than sin, I can appreciate his conviction while not feeling the need to emphasize repentance and correction. Do you see the difference there? One understanding compels me to emphasize correction while the other allows me to find unity.
Now it is obvious that there are times when differences in doctrine reflect sin. A person who preaches that Jesus Christ is something other than divine is teaching an awful and divisive heresy and that error is sinful, pure and simple. A person who teaches that homosexuality is a legitimate lifestyle that the Bible condones is likewise teaching grievous error and error that can be easily proven so from the Bible. But what happens when the error deals with issues of lesser consequence? What happens when one teacher preaches a sermon defending the baptism of believers while another preaches a sermon defending the baptism of children? Obviously one of the two men must be wrong. But is one of them being sinful in teaching what is wrong? Or think of an issue like eschatology where two very fine and godly men may have completely different understandings of the end times. When they teach their differing conclusions, is one of them actually being sinful?
Here are three principles I’ve found useful and relevant while thinking about this issue.
First, it is clear to me that, regardless of whether or not error in doctrine is always sin, error in doctrine is always a consequence of sin. When the Lord returns and we join him in heaven, there will no longer be disagreements about doctrine. Disagreements about baptism, eschatology and other issues will be put away once and for all. And we all look forward to that day.
Second, there are certain consequences of sin for which we are not judged. For example, an illness that incapacitates for a day or a lifetime is a consequence of sin but God does not hold us responsible for such illnesses or hold us morally culpable for them. If there was no sin in the world there would be no illness. The boy who is born with a mental disability suffers a lifelong consequence of sin, but not one for which God holds him culpable. So we can suffer consequences of sin without being punished for them.
Third, God has given each of us a conscience and it seems that a conscience is only necessary if there exist such things as times where we need to make a judgment call rather than relying on what we know to be perfectly clear from Scripture. While I am convinced that the Bible is just as clear as it needs to be for us to understand it, human reasoning has been so incapacitated by our fall into sin that we are prone to make a mess of things, bringing confusion where there ought to be clarity. And it is here, on the issue of conscience, that I have paused the longest. The Bible tells us that we are to heed the conscience and that to violate it is to commit sin.
Of course the conscience is developed as we grow in godliness and as we learn to heed the Word of God. John MacArthur says “When we live in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, and obey the Spirit, we can trust our conscience because it is under divine control. The Spirit’s perfect prompting will either commend or condemn what we are doing or are planning to do.” But still, two men who have dedicated a lifetime to humbly studying the Scripture can arrive at radically different conclusions. And God tells both of these men to heed conscience. It seems to me that God, in his sovereignty, has decreed here that some of the consequences of sin must be settled by conscience and that he will not hold people accountable (or as accountable) for what they do based on a conscience that is informed by Scripture. One of Martin Luther’s more famous sayings is “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” That is something we are all to strive for and something the Bible commands. Is this not God’s admission that there will be times that we disagree, where we find the Word unclear, and times that we will have to heed conscience?
And really this is as far as I’ve been able to go with this question. I am encouraged to see Christians uniting across lines that were once considered too wide to cross. Together for the Gospel is an excellent example of Christian leaders being willing and eager to put aside secondary differences for the sake of the gospel. While they disagree on many fine points of doctrine and even many very important points of doctrine, they all hold tightly to what matters most—the gospel message. This is one line that would be too great to cross but one, within which, there is opportunity to practice humility and fraternity. They join together not to condemn, not to argue, but to affirm the common bond of gospel unity. Though never downplaying differences, neither do they seek to bind one another’s conscience. And this, I think, is how God wants us to be as just a foretaste of that greater, more complete, perfect unity to come.