Liberty of Conscience

Chapter 40

Though Luther had been moved by the Spirit of God to begin his work, he was not to carry it forward without severe conflicts. The criticism of his enemies, their misrepresentation of his purposes, and their unjust and malicious reflections upon his character and motives came in upon him like an overwhelming flood; and they were not without effect. He had felt confident that the leaders of the people, both in the church and in the schools, would gladly unite with him in efforts for reform. Words of encouragement from those in high position had inspired him with joy and hope. Already, in anticipation, he had seen a brighter day dawning for the church. But encouragement had changed to disapproval and condemnation. Many dignitaries, of both church and state, were convicted of the truthfulness of his theses; but they soon saw that the acceptance of these truths would involve great changes. To enlighten and reform the people would be virtually to undermine the authority of Rome, to stop thousands of streams now flowing into her treasury, and thus greatly to curtail the extravagance and luxury of the papal leaders. Furthermore, to teach the people to think and act as responsible beings, looking to Christ alone for salvation, would overthrow the pontiff's throne and eventually destroy their own authority. For this reason, they refused the knowledge tendered them of God and arrayed themselves against Christ and the truth by their opposition to the man whom He had sent to enlighten them.

Luther's teachings attracted the attention of thoughtful minds throughout all Germany. From his sermons and writings issued beams of light which awakened and illuminated thousands. A living faith was taking the place of the dead formalism in which the church had so long been held. The people were daily losing confidence in the superstitions of Romanism. The barriers of prejudice were giving way. The Word of God, by which Luther tested every doctrine and every claim, was like a two-edged sword, cutting its way to the hearts of the people. Everywhere there was awakening a desire for spiritual progress. Everywhere was such a hungering and thirsting after righteousness as had not been known for ages. The eyes of the people, so long directed to human rights and earthly mediators, were now turning in penitence and faith to Christ and Him crucified.

Luther was as yet but partially converted from the errors of Romanism. But as he compared the Holy Oracles with the papal decrees and constitutions, he was filled with wonder. "I am reading," he wrote, "the decrees of the pontiffs, and . . . I do not know whether the pope is Antichrist himself, or his apostle, so greatly is Christ misrepresented and crucified in them." D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 5, chapter 1. Yet at this time, Luther was still a supporter of the Roman Church and had no thought that he would ever separate from her communion.

The Reformer's writings and his doctrine were extending to every nation in Christendom. The work spread to Switzerland and Holland. Copies of his writings found their way to France and Spain. In England, his teachings were received as the word of life. To Belgium and Italy also the truth had extended. Thousands were awakening from their deathlike stupor to the joy and hope of a life of faith.

Luther's attack on the practice of indulgences and his teaching of the free grace of Christ, was attracting a favorable and widespread attention. The pope had threatened Luther with excommunication if he did not recant, and the threat was now fulfilled. A bull appeared, declaring the Reformer's final separation from the Roman Church, denouncing him as accursed of Heaven, and including in the same condemnation all who should receive his doctrines. The great contest had been fully entered upon.

Said Jesus to His disciples: "If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also." John 15:19–20. On the other hand, our Lord declared plainly: "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets." Luke 6:26. The spirit of the world is no more in harmony with the spirit of Christ today than in earlier times, and those who preach the Word of God in its purity will be received with no greater favor now than then. The forms of opposition to the truth may change, the enmity may be less open because it is more subtle; but the same antagonism still exists and will be manifested to the end of time.

Luther undertook a translation of the New Testament, and the gospel was soon after given to the people of Germany in their own language. This translation was received with great joy by all who loved the truth, but it was scornfully rejected by those who chose human traditions and the commandments of men.

Seeing the favor with which the New Testament was received, Luther immediately began the translation of the Old and published it in parts as fast as completed.

As the Romish clergy saw their congregations diminishing, they invoked the aid of the magistrates and by every means in their power endeavored to bring back their hearers. But the people had found in the new teachings that which supplied the wants of their souls, and they turned away from those who had so long fed them with the worthless husks of superstitious rites and human traditions.

While Luther was opening a closed Bible to the people of Germany, Tyndale was impelled by the Spirit of God to do the same for England. Wycliffe's earlier Bible had been translated from the Latin text, which contained many errors. It had never been printed, and the cost of manuscript copies was so great that few but wealthy men or nobles could purchase it. Furthermore, being strictly forbidden by the church, very few were circulated. In 1516, a year before Luther wrote his theses, Erasmus had published his Greek and Latin version of the New Testament. Now, for the first, time the Word of God was printed in the original language. In this work, many errors of former versions were correct­ed; and the meaning was more clearly given. It led many among the educated classes to a better knowledge of the truth and added a new driving force to the work of reform. But the common people were still, to a great extent, cut off from God's Word. Tyndale was able to complete the work Wycliffe had begun in giving the Bible to England.

Later, Tyndale was betrayed into the hands of his enemies and suffered imprisonment for many months. He finally witnessed for his faith by a martyr's death, but the weapons which he prepared allowed others to carry the light of truth. This light has shone through all the centuries even to our time.

In England, the establishment of Protestantism as the national religion greatly reduced but did not completely end persecution. While many of the doctrines of Rome had been given up, not a few of its forms were still practiced. The supremacy of the pope was rejected; but in his place, the monarch was enthroned as the head of the church. The church service still lacked the purity and simplicity of the gospel. The great principle of religious liberty was not yet understood. Though the horrible cruelties which Rome practiced against those who disagreed with her were rarely used by Protestant rulers, yet the right of every man to worship God according to his own conscience was not acknowledged. All were required to accept the doctrines and observe the forms of worship decreed by the established church. Those who disagreed suffered persecution, to a greater or lesser extent, for hundreds of years.

In the seventeenth century, thousands of pastors were dismissed from their positions. The people were forbidden, on pain of heavy fines, imprisonment, and banishment, to attend any religious meetings except such as were sanctioned by the church. Those faithful souls who could not refrain from gathering to worship God were compelled to meet in dark alleys, in obscure garrets, and at some seasons in the woods at midnight. In the sheltering depths of the forest, a temple of God's own building, those scattered and persecuted children of the Lord assembled to pour out their souls in prayer and praise. But despite all their precautions, many suffered for their faith. The jails were crowded. Families were broken up. Many were banished to foreign lands. Yet God was with His people, and persecution could not prevail to silence their testimony. Many were driven across the ocean to America and there laid the foundations of civil and religious liberty which have been the bulwark and glory of the United States.

It was the desire for liberty of conscience that inspired the Pilgrims to brave the perils of the long journey across the sea, to endure the hardships and dangers of the wilderness, and with God's blessing to lay, on the shores of America, the foundation of a mighty nation. Yet honest and God-fearing as they were, the Pilgrims did not yet understand the great principle of religious liberty. The freedom which they sacrificed so much to gain for themselves, they were not ready to grant to others. The doctrine that God has committed to the church the right to control the conscience and to define and punish error is one of the most deeply rooted of papal errors. While the Reformers rejected the doctrine of Rome, they were not entirely free from her spirit of intolerance. The dense darkness in which, through the long ages of her rule, popery had enveloped all Christendom had not yet fully disappeared.

In Massachusetts, a kind of state church was formed, all of the people being required to contribute to the support of the clergy and the magistrates being authorized to suppress heresy. Thus the secular power was in the hands of the church. It was not long before these measures led to the inevitable result—persecution.

Eleven years after the first colony was started, Roger Williams came to the New World. Like the early Pilgrims, he came to enjoy religious freedom; but, unlike them, he saw what so few in his time had yet seen-that this freedom was the inalienable right of all, whatever might be their creed. He was an earnest seeker for truth, holding it impossible that all the light from God's Word had yet been received. He was the first person in modem Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of the liberty of conscience, the equality of opinions before the law. He declared it to be the duty of the judge to restrain crime, but never to control the conscience.

His little state, Rhode Island, became the haven of the oppressed and it increased and prospered until its foundation principles—civil and religious liberty—became the cornerstones of the American Republic.

In the Bill of Rights, the founders of the American republic declared: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And the Constitution guarantees, in the most explicit terms, the inviolability of conscience: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States." "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The wide circulation of the Bible in the early part of the nineteenth century, and the great light thus shed upon the world, was not followed by a similar advance in knowledge of truth. Satan could not, as in former ages, keep God's Word from the people; it had been placed within the reach of all; but in order still to accomplish his purpose, he led many to value it but lightly. Men neglected to search the Scriptures, and thus they continued to accept false interpretations and to cherish doctrines which had no foundation in the Bible.

Seeing the failure of his efforts to crush out the truth by persecution, Satan had again resorted to the plan of compromise which led to the great apostasy and the formation of the Church of Rome. Just as he had led Christians to join themselves with pagans, he now led the church to turn its attention to the things of this world. The results of this union were no less damaging now than in former ages; through pride and extravagance, the churches became corrupted. Satan continued to pervert the doctrines of the Bible, and the church, instead of contending for "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints," lost its spiritual warmth. Thus, principles for which the Reformers had done and suffered so much were treated as of little value.

Such is the sure result of neglect to appreciate and improve the light and privileges which God bestows. Unless the church will follow on to accept every ray of light, performing every duty which God is pleased to reveal, religion will inevitably degenerate into the observance of forms; and the spirit of vital godliness will disappear. This truth has been repeatedly illustrated in the history of the church. God requires of His people works of faith and obedience corresponding to the blessings and privileges He gives. Obedience requires a sacrifice and involves a cross; and this is why so many of the professed followers of Christ refuse to receive the light from heaven, and like the Jews of old, know not the time of their visitation.