Does Every Person Have a Right to His Own Belief ?

By Cecil Willis

Of course, we are concerned only with the religious implications of this question. We know that it is our lot to live in a generation that finds the masses sadly divided in religious matters. It seems that many people are ready to take this state of religious division all too lightly. We seem to forget that religious division is the very antithesis of Christ’s prayer. Jesus prayed to the Father, “Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me” (John 17:20, 21). Later we find the apostle Paul commanding one of the first century churches like this. “Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). We readily can see the Lord’s attitude toward religious division. He hates it. Yet men are ready to dismiss this sad state of religious affairs with a casual, “well, we all have a right to our own belief.” So I want us to attempt to answer the question, “Does every person have a right to his own belief.?”

Religious Liberty

First, let us answer this question by saying, “Yes, in one sense every person does have a right to his own belief.” By that answer, I simply mean that legally, according to our constitution, every person does have a right to believe what he will religiously. And so long as I have my present attitude, I will be no party to restricting any person or party’s right of religious liberty. We ought to be thankful that our country does not try to compel us to be any particular thing religiously. One can enjoy this same freedom as an atheist if he chooses to be one. In the preamble to the constitution our forefathers stated that one of their purposes in founding this country was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” In the Bill of Rights we are guaranteed religious freedom. Article I says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The religion of Christ cannot be based on coercion, and no true disciple of His will ever try to found it upon such. So does one have a right to his own belief? Legally, and constitutionally he does have. In the eye of man he is granted this privilege.

But the thing with which we are concerned at the moment, is this: “Does one have the right to believe what he wants to, and to do as he chooses, before God?” Man tells us one can believe as he will, and join the church of his choice and yet have God’s approval. Has God no right to decide what man is to believe, and has God no choice as to what church I should become a member of?

Men seem to think it matters little whether one believes the truth or a lie. Jesus said: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Error cannot be substituted for truth in God’s plan for man’s redemption. It takes truth to save men’s souls. Paul says there are some who love not the truth, and for this cause God sends them a strong delusion that they might believe a lie that they might be condemned (2 Thess. 2:10-12). It is true that God will not compel a man to obey His commands, but it is likewise true that God will punish a man for not obeying His command while in the body when he reaches the world to come. With God there is a difference between the truth and a lie. With man, truth and error in religion, seem of equal importance, or perhaps we should say, equal unimportance.

Does a man have a right to his own belief in mathematics? Suppose I owed you five dollars, and when I came to repay the five dollars, it was my very firm conviction that two and two make five. Would the fact that I am conscientious in this belief satisfy you? Does a druggist have a right to his own belief when it comes to filling a prescription? Is it all right for him to substitute an ingredient of his own choosing for that prescribed by the doctor? Does the citizen of a kingdom have a right to obey or disobey a decree of the king? You see, it is only in a religious realm that we maintain that a man has a right to believe what he will. Let us turn to our Bibles to see if God approves a man believing and doing what he will. If so, then we should be content to let one go on doing as he chooses. If not, we should become more concerned with turning men from the ways of error to the ways of God.

Example of Cain

Cain did not have a right to his own belief. Back in the Old Testament we have the account of God’s dealings with two brothers. God commanded that the two sons of Adam offer a sacrifice. One did as God commanded; the other did not. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to Jehovah. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And Jehovah had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect” (Gen. 4:2-5). Now let us notice what happened. These two brothers offered sacrifices. With one of them God was well pleased; the other’s sacrifice God rejected. Why? Was it because God had a particular dislike for Cain’? I think not, for Paul on several occasions declares that “God is no respecter of persons.” What made the difference? Paul says God was pleased with Abel’s offering because it was offered “by faith.” He says, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness in respect of his gifts: and through it he being dead. yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4). Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable because it was offered “by faith.” Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted because it was obviously not offered “by faith.” But does this mean that Cain did not offer what man would consider a good sacrifice, or that he was insincere in his offering? Not at all. Well, what was wrong? He did not offer the sacrifice “by faith.” What does one do when he does something “by faith”? Paul says “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). When one does something “by faith,” he does so because the word of God commanded him to do so. These passages indicate that God had told these brothers what kind of sacrifice to offer. There would have been no fairness to these brothers, Cain would have been done an injustice, if God had not told them what kind of sacrifice to offer, and yet have rejected the sacrifice that Cain brought. So the difference between what Cain did, and what Abel did was that Abel obeyed the Lord, and Cain did not. Cain presumed that some other kind of sacrifice would do as well as the kind that God had commanded. But the lesson that we want to learn at the moment is that in the matter of worshiping God, Cain did not have a right to his own belief. Had his sacrifice been offered “by faith,” as was Abel’s, certainly it would have likewise been accepted. Cain had the right to do what God commanded, but Cain did not have the right to change what God had said.

Example of Naaman

Naaman did not have a right to his own belief. Naaman, you will remember, was captain of the host of the king of Syria, a great and honorable man, but the Bible says he was a leper. There was a prophet of God who could tell Naaman what to do to be healed of his leprosy. “And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee,, and thou shalt be clean. But Naaman was wroth, and went away and said, Behold` I thought, he will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of Jehovah his God, and wave his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great things, wouldst thou not have done it? How much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash and be clean? Then went he down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God, and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 Kgs. 5:10-14). Naaman did not like the way the prophet of God treated him in telling him what to do to be healed. He had thought that since he was a great man, certainly the prophet would do some great thing in telling him how to be cured. But the prophet did not even so much as go out to the chariot of Naaman. Rather, Elisha sent a servant out to command him to dip in the Jordan. And when Elisha commanded Naaman to dip in the Jordan river seven times, the Bible says Naaman “was wroth.” He became angry. Why? He thought, “the very idea of me, a great man of Syria, having to dip seven times in that dirty little Israelitish Jordan river to be healed.” As soon as he heard what the prophet commanded him to do, it was then that he decided not to do it. He did not like the commandment of God through the prophet. He decided he would rather do his dipping in the rivers of Syria. But, Naaman did not have a right to his own belief. He thought the rivers of Syria would do just as well, but nothing will do so well as what God has commanded. But when he did precisely as God had instructed, Naaman was made clean from his leprosy.

The Lesson Today

You do not have a right to your own belief. All of us have a right to share in the “one faith” we find mentioned in the Bible. Very often we hear someone say, “Well, you have a right to your belief and I have a right to mine.” They mean by that you can believe what you want to believe, whether it is in the Bible or not. But Paul says, in Eph. 4:5, that there is Aone faith.” I cannot harmonize Paul’s statement that there is but one faith with that of my contemporaries when they tell me you can have your faith and I can have mine. Remember, we have emphasized that our nation rightly has given us the privilege of believing what we want to. In fact, it grants us the right to believe nothing if we so desire. But before God, you do not have a right to your belief. You do have a right to share the “one faith.” This faith, Jude says was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). But it just so happens that God is sovereign. He alone has the right to decree what man shall do in religious matters. It therefore becomes the solemn duty of the citizens in the kingdom of God to acquiesce to what the King has said.

The Lord Jesus has given us certain commandments to obey that are as repulsive to some people as Elisha’s command to Naaman was to him. In fact, many have turned away in the same frame of mind as did Naaman. He was wroth. Many have been angered by the simple commands of Christ. Jesus said “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” But today millions throughout the world obstinately refuse to do His will. They cannot see what being baptized has to do with being saved, and they say we have a right to our own belief, and if we do not want to be baptized, we will not. Baptism is not a commandment from man. It is God’s command. If you are going to be cleaned of your sins, you are going to have to obey all of God’s commands, just as Naaman had to, to be cured of his leprosy. Indeed, in religious matters and before God, you do not have a right to your own belief. But you do have the right to share in the “one faith,” with no civil government forbidding.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:47, p. 3-5
October 3, 1974