Monday, January 26, 2009

Burdening Consciences

For my conscience is ensnared and misled just as much when it must refrain from doing something, which it is not necessary to refrain from doing, as when it must do something, which it is not necessary to do. When men must refrain from doing that from which they need not refrain and are compelled to do what they need not do, Christian freedom perishes in either case.
Luther's Works (vol 40, p 128)

Lutherans are quick to say that someone is "burdening consciences" when a person calls something a sin that is not [necessarily] a sin. For example, we might say that it "burdens consciences" to tell someone that trick-or-treating is wrong or that they shouldn't drink liquor or eat shrimp.

However, sometimes a person knows his own sinful motivation behind an activity that is not sinful in and of itself. I am inclined to think it would not be "burdening consciences" to talk about the sin which is admittedly there.

When I look at the Confessions, I see a couple of different ways the phrase is used. Sometimes a "burdened conscience" is one that is burdened by the true demands of the Law which we can in no way fulfill apart from Christ. The relief from the burden is the word of Christ's forgiveness.

But usually when the Confessions speak of "burdening consciences," it's about putting demands on a person and requiring him to fix whatever wrong he was doing. In the examples above, to burden the conscience would be to say, "Well, trick-or-treating is wrong, so don't let your kids dress up on October 31st and ask the neighbors for candy." Or "Because the Bible says shrimp are unclean, you've got to give up your scampi."

Let's say a sinful, selfish motivation nudges a person toward a behavior which isn't inherently sinful. What happens when sin is acknowledged by someone else? Does that "burden consciences"? It may, if the solution is for the person to eliminate the sin. But what if the solution is to [gasp] go ahead with the behavior, living in the freedom of the Gospel, rejoicing that the sinful motivation is covered by Christ's blood, thankful that He never had any sinful motivations with regard to saving us? Is it still a burden to the conscience to be told that something is sin or weakness if it is not incumbent upon the sinner to resolve the problem?

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