Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Nomology: Lesson 2 – Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2000, 2010, 2013
The Idea of Liberty
That from which Christ sets us free
That to which Christ sets us free
There are New Testament Advantages
God alone is Lord of the Conscience
Westminster Confession of Faith XX
I. The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.
II. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
III. They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
IV. And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church.
The Idea of Liberty
Words often have areas of similar meaning. We refer to them as “synonyms.” They can be found in a Thesaurus to add variety and precision to our writings. They can add precision because words that have similar meanings also have unique flavors which more exactly communicate what you want to say. Often words are interchanged which should not be since their area of shared meaning is very narrow.
In discussing basic teachings of the Bible people often confuse the concepts of independence, liberty, and freedom. They see little difference in those words. It is often supposed that to be truly free a person must be at liberty to choose any option of which he is aware, and that he must be able to act independently of any external constraints upon that choice.
According to this humanistic definition, even God is not free. Though he is the only truly independent being (Revelation 4:11 Exodus 3:14 and Acts 17:25), and he is fully able to do all his holy will (Psalm 135:6, Job 42:2), yet he is not able to do all things of which he is aware. He is aware of sin and lies, but by definition and by direct statements in Scripture we know that God can do neither. There is obviously an element of which this common understanding is not aware.
We also must be careful not to imagine God progressing in his knowledge as if he first considers potential futures and options, then freely selects among them. There is never any change in the eternal knowledge or determinations of God, and no progress in his intentions as if they develop in some sequential manner. This rules out any hypothesis that would have God base his decrees upon the foreseen actions or intentions of beings he would create later in time. (See my syllabus on Theology Proper pages 61-71 on WCF V of God’s Providence.)
The obvious failure of the commonly accepted definitions of these terms indicates that they are insufficient and flawed.
There is another concept of freedom more in keeping with biblical principles. Personal freedom is the liberty of a person to act in accord with his own desires, choices and abilities. In this sense the will of man is always free, since he rebels and sins most willingly, and comes to Christ most willingly.
There is also at the same time a bondage of his will. A person’s human moral nature internally constrains his choices because it holds a grip upon his desires. In the fallen estate a person is in bondage to sin and error. He is not able morally to do what he is called by God to do (Romans 3:10-12). This means that in his rebellion at the deepest level of his being he will not choose to do what truly glorifies God, nor will he legitimately trust in Christ as his Savior until his spiritually dead nature is given life by the Holy Spirit. When that takes place the enlivened soul is set free from its bondage to sin and death as its master, and therefore most gladly comes to the same Christ it had once despised. Yet the redeemed soul comes most freely, most willingly. (See the syllabus on Subjective Soteriology pages 1-10 on the WCF IX of man’s Free Will.)
This personal freedom is not independence however. In his every breath he depends upon the sustaining power of his Creator. A person’s choices, though free, are always rendered certain by the unchangeable and eternal decrees of God.
At yet another level there is liberty to fulfill our creaturely duties in a manner that pleases God. This liberty is only possible to those who are regenerated by grace. This obedience is not meritorious. We are not forgiven because of it, nor are we sanctified by it. It is the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer that presents him as holy in the sight of God. Yet each believer is made able to honor God out of gratitude and as a testimony to his life-changing gospel.
This liberty is always imperfect while believers undergo the process of subjective sanctification in this life on earth. We are only completely set free morally after being brought into the presence of our resurrected Savior after our time here on earth is over. This liberty is defined by the moral boundaries explained in God’s law. Without these revealed moral absolutes it would be impossible for us to know what pleases our Creator. To be at liberty to live a sinful life, is to be in bondage to sin (Romans 6:20). To be at liberty to live righteously is to be in bondage to righteousness (Romans 6:18). There is no neutrality of the soul. No middle ground is possible given the facts revealed in God’s Word. These moral limits define moral liberty. There can be no liberty without such boundaries. We are at the most perfect level of liberty when one day we will be rendered able to honor God with perfect obedience and motive unhindered by any tendencies to sin.
The Confession therefore in detailing our liberty as Christians speaks both of those corrupt things from which we are set free, and those honorable things to which believers are inclined and enabled.
That from which Christ sets us free:
It is not accurate to think of freedom as a removal of restraints and duties. This is why many approach this subject in terms of what obligations and limits are lifted from us. But that is chaos, not freedom. It is not the proper place to begin.
The freedom we enjoy as believers in Christ is the liberation of our souls from bondage to sin and its consequences. This bondage which keeps us from honoring God as we ought in all things was inherited from Adam. It includes the corruption of our nature, the guilt of sin, the condemnation demanded by God’s justice according to the curses attached to his covenant, the dominion of sin in our lives, together with our evil desires, the sting of death, and the outpouring of the deserved wrath of God eternally.
That to which Christ sets us free:
In Christ we are set free from this bondage upon the grounds of his eternal decree to redeem us, and the now completed atonement. Being restored by the declaration of righteousness in Christ’s merit alone, his children have full access to God in prayer, and the ability gladly, lovingly and gratefully to obey his holy law. The condemnation is gone along with the fear it instills in the lost heart. In place of our bondage to sin we are brought into bondage to righteousness which is the true state of liberty. We are set free to be able to do what pleases our Creator and Savior.
John 8:36 “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”
Romans 6:22 “now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”
There are New Testament Advantages
Though the redeemed in all ages enjoy the liberty of reconciliation with God through the eternally planned work of the Messiah, there are special blessings of liberty afforded to those living in the New Testament era. They are set free from the obligations of the ceremonial law in its symbols, confinements, and sacrifices. They have a greater knowledge of the work of grace and the means by which God sets his people free. Due to a more informed conscience, greater glory is able to be given to God on behalf of the more complete revelation available concerning his redeeming work.
God alone is Lord of the Conscience
Though we are set free by Christ in these ways, there are areas of dispute among believers concerning matters not directly forbidden or required in God’s word, but which are considered morally binding by certain groups. Because of weaknesses in the flesh, or associations with sinful behaviors, some with pure intentions add prohibitions to those of the Scripture. Because of an honorable desire to show devotion to God, some presume obligations not imposed by divine revelation. These kinds of issues can become causes of contention or offense among believers. They can bring about divisions and strife where their ought to be union and peace.
Since God alone made us and redeems us, he alone is Lord of our conscience. The only perfect rule in matters of faith and practice is the word of God preserved for us in the inspired Scriptures. When dealing with issues not directly addressed in the Bible, we are left with determining what is necessarily derived from Scripture regarding the application of moral principles in the society and circumstances around us. We are driven to the Bible to make a diligent investigation of those boundaries and then to zealously guard the liberty afforded within those bounds. As the Apostles said in Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men.”
Moral issues not grounded in principles of Scripture are often called adiaphora. It is actually a Greek word (αδιαφορα) which means “indifferent things.” Though we may be free morally to engage in things not forbidden directly in the Bible, we are not at liberty to pursue them when they cause a brother to be offended or to be tempted to violate God’s law. Our conscience is not to be bound by man made moral principles.
While we may choose to avoid certain activities for the sake of peace and unity, a conviction not grounded in God’s revelation is not to be raised to the level of moral requirement. This applies not only to those who wrongly find offense in things God has not prohibited, but also to those who insist that men engage in a liberty but give no thought to the offense and weakness it may stir up in others.
A detailed study of Romans 14 reveals some good guidelines in such matters. True liberty of conscience must not be abandoned in order to require submission to rules not understood as coming from our Lord. Liberty of conscience ought not to be abused with disregard for the weak understanding of those not mature in their knowledge of God’s work as revealed in his word. Consider these statements from Romans 14 as such matters are evaluated in the communion of the saints:
14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
20 Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.
23 he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.
Then also consider the warnings and principles taught throughout Scripture, including these portions:
1 Peter 2:16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.
Galatians 5:13 you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Dr. G. I. Williamson writes, “It has been said, there is a Pope in every man’s heart. We are all tempted to think that we could improve our fellow Christians if we had charge of their conscience.” (The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes page 152)
Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.