Christianity, Conscience and Conviction

At the Imperial Diet of Worms the sixteenth-century German Reformer, Martin Luther, famously stood against calls to recant his writings. He had published a number of works criticising the Roman Catholic Church for its excesses, both moral and theological. Thinking himself a loyal son to the Church, the call to recant seriously affected him. We often think of Luther as a firebrand seeking to topple Rome from the outset, however history proves this is not the case. Evidence for this can be seen in the simple fact that when Luther was initially called to recant he requested a night to think about it. Off to his room, Luther spent the night in travail, his inner-most soul crying out to God for direction. As we know, Luther eventually came to the conclusion that he must not recant because Scripture, reason and conscience prevented him from doing so. The next day, before the Diet, Luther boldly uttered the commonly quoted phrase, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” While Luther scholars debate whether or not he actually said those specific words, the Weimar Edition of his works has the following words from his speech that indicate his positive stance: “Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason (for I believe neither in the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”

This story from probably one of the most significant events in human history offers us two lessons. First, Christianity is a faith built on conviction. Second, Christians often wobble.

That Christianity is a faith built on conviction is clear. Jesus Christ himself displayed perfect conviction in his ministry–ultimately facing the cross, willing to die for his church. Though he sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane, Jesus placed his will in the hands of the Father and fully submitted himself in humble obedience. Paul was also a man of conviction, clearly seen in his face-off with Peter over Jew/Gentile unity in the church. The early church was awash in the blood of martyrs, some known to us in history like Ignatius of Antioch, Perpetua and Felicitas, the Scyllitan Martyrs, and countless others known only to God and the saints in heaven.

Luther’s strength of conviction lies in the threefold appeal he makes to Scripture, reason and conscience–all lessons we can learn from. Scripture: the Reformed principle of sola scriptura binds the life of every Christian to the absolute authority of the Word of God. We submit ourselves to its teaching as the sole guide, trusting it for law and principle. To violate scripture is to violate the very purposes of God. Luther knew this and Christians every should know it too. Reason: Luther is also famous for his very earthy statement that “reason is a whore,” so we often think of Luther in fideistic terms. This is not the case, Luther surely rejected the wrong use of reason–positioning it above revelation–but Luther gloried in reason that subordinate to and squared with Scripture. When we are confronted with compromise, whether it is from without or within, we are being wholly unreasonable. All sin impacts the mind (called the noetic effects of sin) and skews the way we think. Unbelievers are ultimately retarded in their ability to think aright, and Christians who are free from the penalty of sin still struggle to align their reason with the Word. We delight in sin, we hold it close to our breasts, protecting it from holy hands. This is foundationally insane. Conscience: the two previous principles that Luther stood upon find their meeting place in the conscience. When a person’s inner voice is informed by the Bible and sanctified reason, the conscience becomes seed-bed for right or wrong belief and practice. Sin is a direct violation of conscience, and thus a direct violation of Scripture and reason. Yet the conscience is surmountable. If we love our sin we will hate our conscience and do everything to shut its mouth. But for the true Christian, conscience is never ultimately muted. Because the conscience is intimately related to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. My friend John often spoke of the Spirit’s work convicting us of sin by conjuring up the image of the Spirit being physically inside us with a poker, jabbing us when we willfully do what is in contradiction to the express will of God. To violate conscience is one of the worst acts a Christian can do. As Luther said, “it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience.”

Yet, as we have seen in the case of Luther, Christians can wobble. The strength of temptation is found in its subtlety, its feigned appeal to Scripture, its apparent reasonablness. It could be that Luther thought, “I can continue to work for reform from the inside if I recant.” But though he may have struggled, and we Christians regularly do, Luther prevailed by the grace of God. He stood his ground, feet planted firmly in Scripture and reason with a clear conscience. Though it was hard, though he had his dark night of the soul, Luther pleaded for God’s help and was answered. Whether he really said it or not, the words “Here I stand, I can do no other” sit well with Christians who applaud his courage and strength of character.

How often do we compromise? How often do we turn from what we know are solid convictions? We have voiced them loud and proud and now that temptation to violate conscience raises its ugly head, how often do we fall? We turn from those who speak Proverbs 27:6 to us. Rather we hide, clinging to our hollow sin, hoping to get what we want yet remain unscathed by the punishing force of temptation’s ultimate “gratification.” It can come in any form: your boss wants you to fudge numbers to make him look better; you find your identity in a title, your intellect, your life situation; you settle for second best against the plain teaching of Scripture.

But Christianity is built on conviction. It is a faith true and tested, hammered by trials into tempered steal that is unbreakable. It is not the faith of chaff blowing in the wind, though so many Christians are indeed that. And so Luther’s example is a call to all of us to stand firm, hold true to our convictions, be led by Scripture, reason and conscience. And in doing so, we will be an encouragement to our brothers and sisters who struggle, just as Luther is an encouragement to us.


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Filed under martin luther, sanctification

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