Freedom of Conscience

Posted on 26 Jun 2016, Pastor: Rev Hans Vaatstra

Manuscript of this sermon is available for reading services.

Readings: Mark 7:1-23 WCF 20.2,3,4
Text: Mark 7:1-8

Sermon: Freedom of Conscience

Sermon Outline

Mark 7 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Followers of Tradition

7 The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they [a]carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they [b]cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the [c]washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 The Pharisees and the scribes *asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
7 ‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’
8 Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

9 He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to [d]be put to death’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, [e]given to God),’ 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”

The Heart of Man
14 After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. 16 [[f]If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”]

17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He *said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and [g]is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, [h]fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, [i]envy, slander, [j]pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

The Syrophoenician Woman
24 Jesus got up and went away from there to the region of Tyre[k]. And when He had entered a house, He wanted no one to know of it; [l]yet He could not escape notice. 25 But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. 26 Now the woman was a [m]Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And He was saying to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not [n]good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered and *said to Him, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” 29 And He said to her, “Because of this [o]answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” 30 And going back to her home, she found the child [p]lying on the bed, the demon having left.

31 Again He went out from the region of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, within the region of Decapolis. 32 They *brought to Him one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty, and they *implored Him to lay His hand on him. 33 Jesus took him aside from the crowd, by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; 34 and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He *said to him, “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!” 35 And his ears were opened, and the [q]impediment of his tongue [r]was removed, and he began speaking plainly. 36 And He gave them orders not to tell anyone; but the more He ordered them, the more widely they continued to proclaim it. 37 They were utterly astonished, saying, “He has done all things well; He makes even the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Freedom of Conscience

Reading Mark 7:1-13 WCF 20:2,3,4

Text Mark 7:1-8

1. A sinful binding of conscience

2. The Perfect rule of faith

Let begin by asking the question what is freedom. A good answer can be found in Colossians 1:13 where it says we’ve been freed from the “domain of darkness and into the kingdom of God’s son.” That freedom was won for us by Christ. We’ve been granted forgiveness of sins and the freedom to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. According to one of Jesus kingdom parables this citizenship is our most precious possession, it affords us great blessing and it stretches into eternity. It is ours through faith in Christ.
However there are those who would diminish that freedom; who would bind the Christian conscience with error or rules and regulations which go beyond the law of God. This is the subject we are dealing with in the Westminster confession today. This subject is well illustrated by our text here in Mark 7 thus the title of this sermon freedom of conscience and the purpose of this sermon is to encourage you all to stay free!
But first what is the conscience? The Bible tells us that all people have a conscience. For example in Romans 2:15 it says “when the Gentile who does not have the law does what is right he shows that he has a law written heart, his conscience bearing witness to that.” So having a conscience is part of being an image bearer of God who gave us that ability to know right from wrong.
But then there was the fall and since the fall sin has damaged the image of God in us with the result that our consciences have also been affected. Thus a conscience can be bound sinfully, made to feel guilty, or even seared. But by the grace of God that is thankfully not the last word.
God sent the savior and in Christ the Christian conscience has a new sensitivity to the word of God. The Christians conscience is informed by the Bible, guided by the Holy Spirit and cleansed by Christ’s blood shed on the cross.
Even so the Christian conscience can be seared according to 1 Timothy 4:2 when men depart from the faith. According to 1 Corinthians 8 it can be weak or strong depending on one’s understanding of the truth. And according to 1 Timothy 1:5 and a good conscience is linked to a sincere faith.
So that’s an overview of the conscience. How can we we have freedom of conscience and stay free?
We’ll begin by considering the sinful binding the conscience and then in the second place we’ll consider the rule of faith and freedom of conscience.
1. The sinful binding the conscience.
At this point in Marks Gospel Jesus was well into his Galilean ministry. Never before had the people seen anyone like Jesus Christ. Everyone was amazed and enthralled by Him; by His tenderness, his willingness and his miracles of healing. Jesus teaching fascinated and enthralled masses of people. On at least one occasion they even tried to force him to be their king.
However, Jesus instant popularity concerned the religious leaders in Israel. They saw him heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and accused him of being a Sabbath breaker! Jesus called twelve men to be his disciples and they followed instantly. The religious leaders were alarmed when they heard about that and so they came down from Jerusalem and accused Jesus of performing miracles by the power of Beelzebub. When Jesus went into the synagogues in the region of Galilee some of the synagogue leaders recognised him as the son of Mary and brother of James Joses, Judas and Simon. They saw Jesus sisters sitting there, as well so they took offence at him and dishonoured him in front of his sisters and the rest of the congregation.
We come to the end of Mark chapter 6. Jesus had just fed the 5,000 and had gone up on to a hill to pray while his disciples began their journey across the Sea of Galilee to Genessaret. Jesus said he’d meet them there later. When he’d finished praying in the middle of the night he started out taking a short cut across the water to their agreed meeting place. He came alongside his disciples straining at the oars with the wind against them. They thought he was a ghost and screamed in fear. Jesus calmed them down and got into the boat. The wind died down and they continued on their journey together eventually reaching their destination at Genesaret.
No sooner had they stepped out of the boat when crowds of people came rushing to see Jesus. They came carrying their sick and he healed them all. Even if they touched the hem of his cloak they were healed. Well its not hard to imagine that after only a few weeks of ministry there were probably hardly any sick or demon possessed folk left in the entire region. What a blessing to have Jesus in their midst! How happy the people must have been! And how wonderful it will be when we are with him in the new creation Jesus is preparing for us.
But not everyone was happy.
The leaders of the Jews hated him and were constantly on the lookout for ways to discredit him. Again they levelled the charge of “law breaker” against Jesus. They noticed that the disciples didn’t always wash their hands before eating and so they challenged Jesus about this. “Why don’t your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders? They eat bread with impure hands!”
The Jewish washing rituals were handed down via Moses as purification rites. For example when an Israelite touched a dead body there were elaborate purification rituals in order to remove the contamination. There were cleansing rituals necessary consecrate the people prior to a feast day or prior to entering the tabernacle. However these rites were elaborated on over the years and morphed in an extensive and well developed system of purity regulations.
Not that there’s anything wrong with purification rituals per-se. We all have health and cleanliness regulations of one kind or another. We wash our hands before meals. Doctors and nurses need to scrub up before going into the operating theatre. Restaurant or delicatessen owners can only operate under a strict code of hygiene.
So what’s the problem you might ask?
Well Jesus exposed it. The religious leaders were neglecting the commandments of God while making much of their traditions. What’s more, they were attempting to bind other people’s consciences with these traditions. In Matthew 23:13ff Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because they shut off the kingdom of heaven from men. They travelled about on sea and land to make just one proselyte and when he became one Jesus said that they made him twice as much a son of hell as themselves. How? By binding the conscience over matters of tradition and ignoring the commandments of God.
Further on in Mark 7 there is an example of that where by the Pharisees would tell men that they could get away from having to support their aged parents by making some kind of statutory declaration that the money which would otherwise have gone to the support of aged parents was devoted to God. That’s like a cunning tax accountant finding a loophole for a client in order to avoid paying tax!
This is what Jesus objected to in these Pharisees. They looked good on the outside, always washing their hands. They were sticklers when it came to outward traditions. But they ignored and misinterpreted the law of God. As Jesus pointed out in Matt 23:26 “they clean the outside of the cup and dish but are full of robbery and self-indulgence in the inside.
Now as I said there is nothing wrong with tradition providing it is good tradition or even if it’s not so good. For example debates in the church are often over tradition, such as, whether to have a more traditional or contemporary worship service; a piono or an organm to accompany singing. Or whether to use the new green hymn book or stick with the old blue one. However to impose one’s peculiar conscience position on others is to place tradition on par with the law of God and that is wrong.
Why would anyone do that? Some use their careful adherence to tradition as a cover for a sinful life. They want to look good on the outside so they can hide the rottenness within.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of that. This is also what happened at the time of the Reformation. Tradition and church regulations overshadowed the commandments of God. Veneration of Mary, the Saints, papal infallibility were all man made ideas which contradicted the world of God. Furthermore they bound the consciences of the worshippers to these heresies. The fact that they excommunicated Martin Luther for not upholding their heretical traditions bears this out.
So the point here is that we need to be careful not to bind one another’s or even our own conscience over tradition which goes beyond scripture or over ideas which contradict the Bible.
There maybe some in our churches who object to feast days such as Easter and Christmas. Others see these days as significant events in the life of Christ and ought to be observed. Well our church synods have wisely agreed that it is not wrong to celebrate these days voluntarily,… however we may not bind people consciences over the matter.
Another example is that some if not all Baptists churches insist on full immersion Baptism even though the mode of baptism is not specified in the Bible and even though a good case can be made from the scriptures for sprinkling as a mode of baptism. Well it is not wrong to baptise by full immersion but it would be wrong to bind someone’s conscience over it!
Someone once said (I think it was John Calvin that “there is a pope in every man’s heart.” In other words we all like to think that we could help each other if only we could control each other’s conscience. How do you think that might look? I think, according to our popish inclinations we would be easy on ourselves and hard on others.
Praise God that the Bible encourages the opposite. God’s word encourages us in the practice of charity towards others and self-denial in ourselves.
I like the way the confession puts it. “God alone is the lord of the conscience.” You and I enjoy the greatest freedom of conscience when our consciences are informed and guided by the Word of God alone.
2. That brings me to the second thing the perfect rule of faith and the freedom of conscience.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of neglecting the law of God and teaching the commandments of men. Well God has given us that perfect rule of faith and practice in his inspired word. In doing so he has also set us free from any obligation to believe or obey any teachings which contradict His word.
Again as we consider the teaching here in Mark 7, the fifth commandment is in view. The Pharisees tried to use man made tradition to annul it and to bind other men’s consciences to their traditions thereby causing them to dishonour their parents and break the fifth commandment. True liberty of conscience on the other hand is to honour your father and mother. Whoever does that can have a clear conscience. So it’s clear then that whoever obeys the law can have a clear conscience.
But we all know that obedience is harder than you think, at least according to the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 114 which says we only have the merest beginnings of true obedience. For example in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus revealed that there is a bottom line and best practice or to put it another way, a floor and a ceiling. Take the 6th commandment “”Do not murder.” The floor or bottom line amounts to not physically murdering someone. The ceiling is going the extra mile in loving your neighbour and even loving your enemies. With respect to the 5th commandment and honouring your father and mother, the floor might amount to refraining from outright disobedience and rebellion. . The ceiling or best practice would be to regard them highly, show them the spirit of respect and consideration, even to look after them in their old age if necessary and so on.
So do you have a good conscience re the 5tth commandment and the way you’ve treated your parents? It’s true isn’t it? In order to preserve liberty of conscience one must obey the law of God.
And of course to obey it you have to know it. I see it time and time again that atheistic or agnostic teachers attempt to bind their student’s consciences with the humanistic doctrines of evolution or a psychology which puts the individual at the centre rather than God.
An example of one consequence of such thinking is the opinion that people who have turned 18 must now be allowed to make all their own decision independent of their parents and woe betide any parent who tries to impose his or her will on them! Those parents who go with the secular humanist flow weakly relinquish any meaningful oversight over their older teenagers often with disastrous results. Why? Because consciences have been influenced by false doctrine rather than liberated by the word of God.
And so an aid to a free conscience is to get to know the word of God. Search the Scripture so that you can always give a treason for your faith. Know your Bibles so you can resist the influence and assertions of those who oppose the truth. As you do make sure you see Christ in every page. If only the Pharisees could see what Jesus disciples saw. That Jesus is our only hope for a truly free conscience. You and I both know the sins we’ve committed which would remain as a black mark against us for eternity. But Hebrews 9:14 says that “the blood of Christ through the eternal Spirit was offered without blemish to God and has the power to cleanse our consciences from dead works to serve the living God.”
In Him we are free.
So stay free remain in Christ and care for each other. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul wrote about the eating of meat offered to idols.. He thought it was really an indifferent thing as far as the Christian is concerned because idols are really non entities. However Paul commanded the Christians in Corinth to be careful! Do not to become stumbling blocks to others over the matter especially to those whose consciences were weaker. Liberty is no longer a liberty but becomes a sin when it transgresses the law of God and does harm to another believer.
So in conclusion freedom of conscience is a wonderful thing and in Christ everyone enjoys this freedom because our consciences have been cleansed by the blood of Christ from dead works to serve the living God.
In Christ alone we have true and lasting freedom. So let us not let human tradition, disobedience or a lack of love diminish that freedom. God alone is the Lord of the conscience. Remain free in Him! Amen.