Is “You May Not Use Your Conscience to Guide My Behavior” a Christian Way of Speaking?

Is “You May Not Use Your Conscience to Guide My Behavior” a Christian Way of Speaking? July 7, 2015

A popularized summation of Martin Luther's Antinomian Theses, also from Lutheran Press
A popularized summation of Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses, from Lutheran Press

Post by Nathan Rinne

“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” — I Timothy 1:5

Recently, I read the following quotation from a conservative Lutheran pastor: “You may use your conscience to guide your behavior. You may not use your conscience to guide my behavior.”

Needless to say, I found the quote rather jarring. It reminded me of a statement from another like-minded Lutheran pastor (though this one a [relatively] conservative one in the ELCA). This man had explained to me that he had taught his young children to cover their ears and scream whenever they heard a pastor try to tell them what they should be doing after hearing the message that Jesus had put away their sins.

In other words he had, using this memorable language, taught his children to reject what Christians in the Reformation tradition call “the third use of the law” (note that, for example, there are certainly differences as to how Calvinists, vis a vis Lutherans, would view this use of the law).

(to quickly review: the first use of the law acts as curb on the sin of general society, the second use reveals our sin like a mirror [we use mirrors to help us see our flaws], and the third use of the law helps guide the Christian in his behavior)

All of this reminded me of the book cover pictured above, which certainly caught my interest when I saw it. This excellent book, put out by Lutheran Press (full disclosure: my pastor is its co-founder) is a popularized version of Martin Luther’s “antinomian theses” (antinomian means “against the law [of God]”)

Needless to say, I find these kinds of statements to puzzling and intellectually incoherent in all kinds of ways.  For example:

-in the first statement I quoted above, does this not all depend on whether the conscience is aligned with God’s word? For example, if it is not, one should not even use it to guide one’s own behavior.

-the first statement appeared right around the time of the recent “gay marriage” decision by SCOTUS. In this case, perhaps it is simply saying “keep the government out of our, that is Christian’s, consciences!” Still, insofar as the government is upholding the law of God, should we not want them in our consciences? (I wrote more on this topic in a post titled, “Please Mr. CTCR – [do your part to] get the Word of God into our consciences”)

-if the statement is only saying that non-government officials should not try to force another human being (who is not our child, for example) to behave in a certain way – unlikely as this may be – the point is taken. And for the church, it is good and right to practice “forbearance” and to eschew all physical force.

-in the case of the pastor’s guidance (irony noted!) for his children, would not one also need to cover one’s ears during readings of Romans 12 ff., for example, where Paul attempts to urge Christians how to live as Christians “by the mercies of God”?

-those who reject the third use of the law nevertheless often claim that the law does indirectly guide Christians and all persons through the first and second uses.

-if Christians have children – particularly young children – they certainly try to guide them in their behavior, and at times may seek to do so (as they get older) by reminding them that they are Christians and called to reflect Christ.

Antinomianism made appealing for our age.
Antinomianism made appealing for our age.

So where did this kind of thinking come from?  In truth, this is what was taught by “Lutheranism’s brightest lights” in the 1970’s and 80’s as the Lutheran ethic. It is also the argument used by someone like ELCA professor Timothy Wengert to justify homosexual activity among Christians. His position, in sum, is the following: if a Christian’s conscience does not condemn him or her for what he or she is doing, we also cannot do so, for that would then be violating their conscience (for my critical review of Wengert’s recent book, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, see here)

These days, such thinking is often said to be critical to the church’s mission as well. For example, in her book, Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes:

“…I continually need the stranger, the foreigner, the “other” to show me water in the desert. I need to hear, “here is water in the desert, so what is to keep me, the eunuch, from being baptized?” Or me the queer or me the intersex or me the illiterate or me the neurotic or me the overeducated or me the founder of Focus on the Family.

Until I face the difficulty of that question and come up, as Philip did, with no good answer…. Until then, I can only look at the seemingly limited space under the tent and think either that it’s my job to change people so they fit or it’s my job to extend the roof so that they fit. Either way, it’s misguided because it’s not my tent. It’s God’s tent.” … (p. 94)

It is very clear to me that one may appreciate Bolz-Weber’s desire to be hospitable without embracing what amounts to her purported refusal to judge others by guiding their consciences (again, see my review of Wengert’s book)

So is the first statement about conscience (leading off this article) always totally wrong?  Well, no.  First of all, when there is a definite conflict, we must always obey God rather than men. Second, as I noted in a footnote in my own post about the deeper meaning of the SCOTUS decision, a principle like this might have some relevance when we talk about “adiaphora”, that is “disputable” and “indifferent” matters. Such things are found and described, for example, in Romans 14 and 15. That said, we should note that even hard feelings emerging over indifferent matters – often because love does not bridle freedom for the sake of the neighbor – can lead persons further apart! (think of what happens in divorce, or in the church, “schism”)

The deeper meaning, however, is that the law of God is the law of God whether or not our conscience functions according to it. In like fashion, the gospel of God is the gospel of God whether or not one’s conscience is soothed (correctly) by it. Preaching itself involves setting the conscience of the Christian “straight” concerning both law and gospel, and this is presumably the work of the Holy Spirit! (see John 16, for example)

Martin Luther: "This, then, is the thunderbolt of God by which He strikes in a heap [hurls to the ground] both manifest sinners and false saints [hypocrites], and suffers no one to be in the right [declares no one righteous], but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer..."
Martin Luther: “This, then, is the thunderbolt of God by which He strikes in a heap [hurls to the ground] both manifest sinners and false saints [hypocrites], and suffers no one to be in the right [declares no one righteous], but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer…”
As my pastor put it to me:

“Thus when the Christian, his conscience properly functioning according to the law and gospel, that is “with the mind of Christ,” judges a fellow Christian, or consoles a fellow Christian, it is not merely a function of his conscience as some sort of individualistic expression of what is perceived to be Christian piety. It is in fact the Holy Spirit using the “rock smashing” Word of God to crumble into pieces, then refine, then forge, then shape the conscience of the fellow Christian so it once again functions as it should.

It is, in other words, not the case of a (perhaps erring) Christian conscience trying to control the behavior of another Christian. It is the case of the Word of God being proclaimed to a fellow Christian and the Holy Spirit taking it from there…”

None of this is to say that doing this kind of work – “in step with God’s Spirit” – is easy. As Luther noted, it’s the most difficult and important work there is!  When I think about the consequences of mis-diagnosing someone and wrongly applying law and gospel I am reminded of the Eastern Orthodox prayer: “God… do not let them perish through me, a sinner….” (note that this was/is the critical matter of the Reformation).

But we must – and will – act. After all, truth be told, there is no such thing as an independent Christian or independent Christian church.

And, as I noted in my SCOTUS post,

“…the problem… is that all of us will inevitably use our conscience to not only determine how we should act, but how we should help others to act as well. Every human being has a certain range of acceptable behavior that they will accept and those who say otherwise are deluding themselves. We all have something to say, in one form or another, about how we think others should live.”

In other words, Christians – simply by virtue of being human beings! – cannot avoid this. Therefore, it is only sensible that they urge one another to live in accordance with the word of God. How can we who have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ – giving us peace with God – do otherwise?

This involves using the law of God in all three of its traditional Reformation uses. As Pastor Mark Surburg recently tweeted: “Paul couldn’t control how the Spirit used the law. That didn’t stop him from exhorting/admonishing Christians to live in a godly way.”


(For more on the third use of the law and its relation to “the simul”, see my post: “A Plea to Reformation Christians: Don’t Let Your “Simul” Become the One Ring to Rule Them All”)


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