CHRISTIAN LIBERTY AND LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE
1 The liberty which Christ has purchased for believers under the Gospel consists of their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, and the severity and curse of the [moral] law.1
Chapter 9 of this confession dealt with man’s free will, that natural liberty God has given us that means we are not forced by necessity of nature to do either good or evil. Even in his fallen state man has the freedom to do good (God does not force him to do evil), he just does not have the desire to do so. The liberty we speak of here is that spoken of by Jesus who said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36). It is the freedom granted to believers who know the truth that is found in Jesus Christ and the grace that comes through him that sets them free (Jn 8:32).
This liberty is described first in terms of freedom from the law. Guilt implies an obligation to make restitution for transgression of the law. The one who stands in Christ has no such obligation for Jesus made restitution for all the wrongs of those who believe in him on the cross. The impossible demand of perfect obedience for salvation and the sense of foreboding that it brought to those who knew they could not live up to that standard was eliminated at the cross. It is not just a guilty conscience that has been removed, but real guilt that deserves condemnation and punishment. All the curses that were threatened for disobedience to the strict demands of the law were nailed to the cross so that those who believe in Jesus are freed forever from the possibility of enduring them. Christ suffered the curse of the law in our behalf so that we need never fear having to face it.
It also includes their deliverance from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, the dominion of sin,2 the distress of afflictions, the fear and sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation.3
3 Ro 8:28, 1 Co 15:54-57, 1 Th 1:9-10, Heb 2:14-15
Secondly, this liberty is described as freedom from the power of sin. We have not just escaped the punishment due to the sin in our lives, we have been freed from the condition in which sin dominated our thoughts and actions so that we can choose nothing other than sin. We now live as aliens, as pilgrims in this evil world with our hearts set on another kingdom to which we belong and are headed. Our minds are being transformed so that we are no longer conformed to the thinking of this world. Even the effects of sin are denied power over us, either immediately or eventually, partly or wholly. Afflictions are not removed, but their hurtfulness is for we now know them to be the work of our Father for our good and his glory. Death is not banished from the universe yet, but the fear and sting of death is gone. Death is no longer the terrible great unknown, for One who died and has come back to tell us that he knows what waits on the other side and that he has prepared a place for us to which he will take us himself.
Furthermore, it includes their free access to God, and their ability to yield obedience to him, not out of slavish fear, but with childlike love, and willing minds.4
Freedom from the power of sin means freedom to approach God. The curtain that once barred the way to the Holy of Holies has been torn in two so that we may “approach the throne of grace with confidence to receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb 4:16). It also means freedom to serve God. Because we serve as those who have been set free, we do not obey with the mindset of a slave who serves his master only out of fear that he will be punished if he does not. Rather, we serve because we have experienced the tender care and love of our heavenly Father and desire to show our love for him. Far from leading to license in which Christian liberty is used as a cover-up for evil (1 Pt 2:16) and an excuse to indulge the sinful nature (Gal 5:13), true liberty brings an inner desire and ability to reach for fulfillment of God’s law. License is Satan’s cheap substitute for true Christian liberty.
All these blessings were also shared in essence by believers under the [Old Testament] law;5 but, under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged
There are some who emphasize the differences between the life under the Old Testament and life under the New Testament to the extent that they deny any liberty to those who lived under the Law. We cannot ignore the fact that the coming of Christ did make a profound difference, but the saints of the Old Testament age nevertheless enjoyed the same freedom from the law and sin’s power as we do. If the truth makes people free (Jn 8:32) then the saints before Christ were free for they had the same truth that we do. They knew salvation was of God through the seed of woman, the son of David, and that it came by God’s grace. The difference is that our knowledge of that truth has greatly increased since the coming of God’s final revelation of himself in Jesus. Because our apprehension of the truth is greater, our freedom is greater.
in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law to which the Jews were subjected. We also have greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and fuller provision of the free Spirit of God than believers under the law normally experienced.6
Our greater freedom means we are no longer subject to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. Just as the rules imposed on children are not necessarily applicable to adults (bedtimes), so the rules imposed on the people of God in their early stages are no longer ours. The imperfect types that were a part of the ceremonial system, the priests and sacrifices, served to give the people confidence that they would find forgiveness of sin and be found acceptable to God. With the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ who was also the fulfillment of the types found in the OT priests our confidence is even greater that our Father loves us (Heb 10:19-21). The saints of the Old Testament were guided, directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, but the very language of the New Testament concerning the Spirit—outpouring, baptism, river—indicates an increase, an abundance that was not formerly present. Our experience of the indwelling Spirit is not something absolutely new to the people of God, it is just that we experience it to a much fuller degree.
2 God alone is Lord of the conscience,7 and he has left it free from [obligations to] human doctrines and commandments which are in any way contrary to his Word or not contained in it.8 So to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience.9 To require an implicit faith, or absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason.10
8 Ac 4:19, Ac 5:29, 1 Co 7:23, Mt 15:9
9 Col 2:20-23, Ga 1:10, Ga 2:3-5, Ga 5:1
10 Ro 10:17, Ro 14:23, Ac 17:11, Jn 4:22, 1 Co 3:5, 2 Co 1:24
The foundational principle on which liberty of conscience must be built is that God alone is the Lord of the conscience. This means that no authority other than God can bind us so that we are obligated at all times in every situation to do what is commanded. Conscience springs from the law written on our hearts that does not require a legal statute to recognize a thing as right or wrong. Having Christ as Lord means that we are freed for the sake of conscience from every manmade obligation or demand. We not only have a right, we have an obligation to reject the authority of those who would demand our ultimate, absolute obedience. Neither the state nor the family nor even a religious authority has the right to expect this kind of allegiance. The Bible counsels people to be subject to their governing authorities (Rom 13:1), wives to be subject to their husbands (Eph 5:22), and church members to obey and submit to their leaders (Heb 13:17). However, we do not render obedience to any of these purely for the sake of conscience, that is, we do not submit to their wills without question or thought.
The nature of the conscience brings us primarily to the realm of morality and religion. (The conscience is not useful to the student for evaluating whether a teacher’s method of factoring polynomials is the best nor to the soldier for determining whether his drill sergeant really knows the best way to handle his men.) It is in this realm that liberty of the conscience is most evident. In the spiritual realm to obey teachings that are contrary to or not contained in the Word is not only unnecessary, it is sinful. One of the most common kinds of demands that stand in opposition to the Word are those that demand abstinence from material things. Roman Catholics insist that their priests abstain from marital relations, some Baptists forbid the drinking of any alcohol and there are Pentecostal groups who will not allow their women to use makeup. Blanket prohibitions against movies, the eating of meat or dancing may all be well intentioned, but they find no support in Scripture and therefore should not be adhered to as a matter of conscience.
Some things that have been taught in the church are not contrary to Scripture, but neither are they mandated by the Word. Such teachings are merely additions. The Reformers stood solidly on the principle of sola Scriptura at this point and insisted that the duties added by the Catholic Church to those contained in the Bible were unlawful. These practices included required attendance at Mass on Sundays and holy days, fasting on appointed days, receiving Communion at Easter and observing the laws of the church concerning marriage.
In the realm of the individual, we ought to remember that liberty of conscience means that we are free from the tyranny of misguided, overly scrupulous believers. We are not duty bound to avoid all things that might upset a Christian brother. What Paul warns us against is doing something that will cause a brother to fall or stumble in his faith by following our example in doing something he considers wrong, and thus sinning. The man who has never drank in his life might be upset with you for drinking, but it is not likely he will take it up just because he saw you doing so. We are called on to avoid doing those things that will weaken a brother’s faith, not those things that he finds distasteful or embarrassing.
3 Those who practice any sin or harbor any sinful desires on pretence of Christian liberty, pervert the main purpose of the grace of the Gospel to their own destruction.11 They completely destroy the purpose of Christian liberty, which is that we (having been delivered from all our [spiritual] enemies) might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our lives.12
This doctrine of Christian liberty sets us free to worship God as he intended. Unencumbered by the regulations established by men, rules that only serve only to burden us, we are free to enjoy God and service to him once again. Only when it is corrupted by those who make freedom the ultimate good does it provide a rationale for doing whatever our sinful, lazy, selfish, unregenerate nature desires. We are free to ignore man’s rules for serving God, but we are not free to ignore God’s. Far from leading to license, the proper understanding of this doctrine leads to greater holiness. We must seek to avoid adding our rules to God’s Word not because they make the way of righteous living too hard, but because they make it too easy. The demands made on believers in Scripture are far more demanding than those man can make. The difference though is that God has freed us from sin’s power so that we are enabled to do what he has commanded. He has not enabled us to do what men command.